ANY stranger to a new place asks many questions. One of the first things he asks is about availability of food at destination – his favourite food.
A German intending to stay for some time in Sarawak would ask if sausages and sauerkraut are available; a French wonders if there are decent wines in town.
A Japanese asks if there is sushi; an American asks how large are the burgers. Who asks where to get ‘fish and chips’?
In the 1950s-1970s, there were a number of foreigners in Kuching – a few colonial officers, managers of foreign firms, banks, and, of course, personnel of the Commonwealth Armed Forces. After Malaysia, many teachers and civil servants from the peninsula were working in Kuching. Whenever they bought their provisions from the supermarkets, the locals would lump them into one category – expatriates, as opposed to transient visitors or tourists, which were a comparatively rare species in those days.
Nowadays, there is a tiny population of foreign retirees who are living amongst us – they too rely on the supermarkets with cold storage facilities for the source of their kind of food.
The wife of an expatriate teacher, or banker, or company manager, must cook (or order a ‘cookie’) proper meals for her husband.
Her ideas of ‘beefsteak’ were probably different from the ones of the beef seller in the old Open Market near Pangkalan Batu, where a cow head (1960s) lay on the table to prove that the chunks of meat dangling from hooks were indeed beef.
While local housewives had more choice of fresh meats, vegetables or fish, and were more experienced when it came to tell top quality from the rest, our expatriate friends and Malaysians of the middle-class relied on ‘Cold Storage’, imported frozen meat.
In the late 1960s, it was Joo Chan in India Street that attracted these customers. A very decent shop it was – they even sent out ‘Christmas hampers’ to regular customers, but the location was unfortunate. Shoppers could practically close off India Street, due to the unfortunate habit of Kuchingites who always wanted to park right in front of wherever they did their shopping.
I’m not suggesting that Ting & Ting was started just because of the traffic jams in India Street. Expatriate shoppers, and the locals who had studied or lived overseas, like the look of a ‘real supermarket’. Easily available parking was a bonus.
What is this that I heard about Ting & Ting (T&T)? Its site at Tabuan Road has been earmarked for a bigger project? If true, my wife would miss the resident butcher; I mean, his expertise in cutting up meat just right, not slash it anyhow leaving bone splinters in everything!
I will miss T&T too, but for a sentimental reason. I had an office on the top floor of that supermarket. The headquarters of the Sarawak Alliance had moved there from the Teo Chew Association Building just 200m up the Tabuan Road.
In 1968, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Razak held court in the premises. As the owners of the shop were originally from Kapit, we bought soft drinks on credit for the VIPs from them. Believe it or not, the party chiefs from Pesaka, Berjasa and Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA) were talking about ‘how to make Malaysia work’ upstairs of that supermarket.
The venerable Ting &Ting was the premier supermarket for several decades. During its heyday, the whole ‘Who’s Who of Sarawak’ (or at least their good ladies) could be seen shopping and gossiping there. Not omitting the young Peace Corps or VSO teachers, if their meagre stipend allowed them to buy the occasional beefsteak!
They went to Ting & Ting for frozen meat; for special drinks like wine, sherry and port; for cheese and other dairy produce; the continental fanatics for ‘exotic’ tinned food. You could even buy tinned Christmas pudding!
At the time it was not necessary for Ting & Ting to advertise its wares. Word of mouth would do the job. At coffee mornings or Bridge sessions, the availability of peppermint essence could be an important topic of conversation. Old-timers, like the lady who’d lived here for more than six months, would be happy to tell the intending visitor to Kuching about the market where most of their kind of food would be available.
I never did much food shopping in Kuching, lucky for me there was always a kind aunt to put food on the table. Such did not come from a supermarket; there wasn’t any around.
One evening, I was invited to dinner at a restaurant called Ann Lee, at Carpenter Street. First time, I saw coloured electric lights! It was my first real restaurant meal too, something quite different from toddling along to the coffee shop in Lundu with my dear ‘aba’, who always shared with me his coffee with condensed milk, me drinking out of the saucer!
Can’t say I’ve become a serious restaurant-eater, I can’t really afford the luxury, but over the years I’ve had a few splendid meals in the eateries of Kuching. Some are still around, some have gone the way of all meat.
I remember having meals downstairs of Ah Lok Cafe, at Padungan – the place for lunch and evening dinning for the yuppies those days.
Another popular restaurant called Chia Heng along the Carpenter Street has apparently been relocated somewhere. I failed to find it the other day.
The upmarket restaurant at Electra House, the ‘Le Coq d’Or’ (‘Golden Rooster’ in French), and the Mandarin at Odeon Theatre were the names of restaurants that people in Kuching were talking about when it came to evening meals with friends and families.
And who could ever forget the Chili Crab at the Hilltop (Sarawak Turf Club building), cooked by the famous Mr ‘Eleven Fingers’! The only way to enjoy that specialty was to forget about chopsticks, knives or forks, and use what nature had given you. At the end of the meal, a discreet bowl of water was passed around for hand-washing.
Nowadays, I have lost count of the number of restaurants in Kuching. Every shopping mall, there is a restaurant catering for all sorts of delicious food.
People in Kuching eat out a lot and there seem to be insufficient eateries. Several more are appearing on the scene.
Where do the people get all the money?
A luxury for people like me, but apparently an ordinary and routine affair for a busy family – dad and mum working full-time.
Not everybody has an ‘amah’ or a resident cook.
Ever wonder why supermarkets and the eateries are important; they complement each other.
Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]