I’m an accidental cook

No one is born a great cook; one learns by doing.

— Julia Child, American cooking teacher, author, and television personality

When my 24-year-old niece and her mother (my younger sister) visited an Iban friend in Johor Bharu, they had kasam babi (fermented pork) for dinner. My niece loved the pork, which had been preserved in a jar with salt, so much that she could not forget it.

When she came back to Kuching, she asked me to cook the same dish. So we went hunting for the preserved pork in a few native markets in Kuching. When we could not find any, she asked me to make my own. That to me was the most unusual and difficult request from a family member in a long time.

You see, it has been years since I ate preserved pork and the last time I ate some was when I was schooling in Sibu, my hometown!

In Sibu, you can easily buy kasam babi at any of the jungle produce markets there. Some are brought down all the way from Kapit in the upper reaches of the Rajang River.

In Kuching, I have never come across these products at the jungle produce market in Sutong Market or the markets at Kota Sentosa or even Sungai Apong.

But never mind, when there is a will, there is a way. My niece asked her Iban friend to share her family’s kasam babi recipe. While waiting for her reply, I went on the Internet and was surprised and greatly pleased that many Ibans are now very IT-savvy and generous enough to share their kasam babi recipes with other netizens. There were various recipes; some used hot rice, some used porridge and all used coarse salt to preserve their pork.

So, I — a reluctant and accidental cook — decided to experiment. I made a few versions of the fermented pork. I bought a big slice of three-layer pork. Since my niece insisted I made the Johor Bharu version of kasam babi, I obliged and made more of that version.

I am actually quite surprised to discover that kasam babi is not that difficult to make. The most essential items are pork, coarse salt and either cooked rice or porridge.

After you have mixed the ingredients, you must store them in air-tight jars and wrap the jars in plastic sheets to keep out flies. The next thing you do is to wait for at least three weeks to taste the fruits of your labour!

In my case, time flew. In fact, I forgot about my experiment until my niece reminded me.

In the olden days, the Ibans never fried their kasam babi; they just washed it and boiled it, sometimes with tapioca leaves. Sometimes, they just cooked it in a bamboo tube. But I was sure my fussy niece would not like her kasam babi cooked like that.

When it was time to cook the fermented pork, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. So once again, I turned to YouTube and decided to fry it with shallots, garlic and chillies, as demonstrated by a YouTuber.

With bated breath and trepidation, I waited for my niece to give her verdict as she tasted the dish of fried fermented pork that I cooked. I felt like the contestant of a food show waiting for the master chef to give his remarks!

My niece gave the dish the thumbs-up. “It is nice, just right. Not too salty,” she said.

Phew! I was pleased with the verdict. It encouraged me to try that particular recipe again in future.

When it comes to food in the house, my niece is the boss. I only cook what she wants to eat because I don’t eat much. There are only three people at home — yours truly, my niece and my elderly mother.

“Do you want me to make more of the preserved pork?” I asked my niece.

“No need. We must not eat too much salty things at one go,” she replied.

As I experimented with the kasam babi recipes recently, my best friend also shared with me memories of her late mother making Chinese-style salted pork. Her mother, who was a mainland Chinese, used earthen jars and the salted pork she made could last for years.

My best friend also shared with me a recipe given to her by a trader from China.

I am glad there are Iban YouTubers from Sarawak who are generous enough to share authentic native recipes with the rest of the world. Until I watched the videos on YouTube, I had never witnessed the actual process of making kasam babi. Thank you, YouTubers, for your kindness and for sharing. May God bless you all.

Dear friends, when it comes to cooking, some cooks are born and some, like yours truly, are reluctant and accidental cooks. Until next week, please stay safe.