The care and cleaning of tiny dried fish

In my first years of going to Australia as a university student, my mum always packed a large supply of these dried fish for my kitchen cupboard. It was the early 1980s, and Asian cooking ingredients were hard to find outside of large cities, which at that stage did not include Canberra.  “Chinese” or (even worse) generic “Asian” food came from typical Aussie-Chinese restaurants serving unrecognisably syrupy lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork.

I never had any trouble getting these through customs inspection, along with my year’s supply of curry powder.

I told this story to a Cambodian friend one day and she said that her mum always sent her off to France with a large supply of Cambodian dried fish. Maybe it’s a Southeast Asian thing, to see dried fish as insurance for a decent meal. Just fry them up to go with cooked rice and some green vegetables, and you’re set.

In Malaysia, these are called ikan bilis. Cleaning them at home was usually a kids’ job. You might sit for an hour plucking off heads and splitting the little bodies in half lengthways, forcing out the black innards with your thumbnail. Next to the growing pile of cleaned fish, you would have another pile like this:

Today, I cleaned some ikan bilis that were laying around in the kitchen cupboard, and put them out for the spell in the bright, hot sun. These were store-bought ones from a trip some months ago, so had not been lovingly pre-dried as yet.

It strikes me now that in all the past years of travelling, I’ve often carried some ikan bilis with me. Not that you can’t buy dried fish in other places that I’ve lived, including Cambodia and Thailand. They just don’t have that particular tang of home.

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