Sun, 02 Feb 2003

Milk fish, a traditional dish for `Imlek' in Jakarta

Maria Endah Hulupi, I Wayan Juniartha, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Traditional vendors usually display beautiful cut flowers along a small street in Rawa Belong, West Jakarta.

Several days before the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, or Imlek, however, you will also see about two dozen residents of Jakarta's indigenous Betawi ethic group turn into vendors, selling ikan bandeng (milk fish) to people of Chinese descent in the neighborhood.

"Each Chinese family usually buys around two fish for their ritual prayers. They usually choose the biggest ones, weighing one-and-a-half to two kilograms, with the best features. Bigger fish for bigger luck, I guess," said vendor Mansur, while sprinkling his merchandise with water from a plastic bucket.

The father of 14 started his five-day business on Jan. 27 and together with his brother Sanan, he runs his fish kiosk from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

On the first day, both men went to the Muara Angke Fish Market in North Jakarta and bought 200 kilograms of milk fish, or around 130 fish, to be sold at their kiosk in Rawa Belong. Prices range between Rp 10,000 (90 U.S. cents) and Rp 50,000 per fish, depending on its size, with an average profit of Rp 1,500 to Rp 2,000 from each fish sold.

But the vendors' target market is not only Indonesians of Chinese descent, but also local Betawi residents, who, inspired by the Chinese tradition, have developed their own annual tradition of eating milk fish before Imlek.

"They believe that milk fish sold before Imlek taste better than those sold at other times of the year. And it may spark a family spat if a husband does not return home with a fish for dinner," said Sanan, adding that the fish were usually prepared into a variety of traditional dishes and served for dinner.

The Chinese, he added, usually did their shopping in the morning or at dawn, while most Betawi residents bought their fish in the afternoon.

"They (Betawi people) are also important customers and they are the reason I'm willing to stay here, sweating in the heat," Sanan smiled, wiping the sweat on his brow and using his straw hat as a fan.

Mansur has been selling milk fish at this particular spot for 57 years.

"Back (when I started), the area was a small and dark alley and we came with a lantern. Now, it has become a sort of tradition for me and other vendors, and I keep it going even though I know I can only make a small profit," Mansur added.

Seasonal milk fish vendors like Mansur and Sanan have been hard-hit by the prolonged economic crisis. Before the crisis, each vendor could sell at least 80 fish in a day, while after the crisis, they could only sell 60 fish at the most.

"Now, business is slow. I guess it's because of the (recent) price hike. Yesterday I sold only 40 fish and we still have around 80 fish to sell," said Mansur.

As with other vendors, Mansur freezes the unsold fish and resells the remainder on the next day. They only buy new, fresh fish to sell after they have sold all of the first batch.

"If we don't manage to sell all of them, we give a huge discount of up to 50 percent on the fourth or fifth day," said Sanan, who also sells jentik, or mosquito larva, as fish food to several fish stores in the area.

But the heat and meager profit do not dampen their spirits in continuing this tradition. During the slow hours, they play cards or joke around with other vendors, to kill the time and to keep their spirits up.

Mansur and Sanan try to attract more customers by giving some practical tips on how to differentiate fresh, good milk fish from the bad ones. Shiny scales, clear eyes, firm flesh and a nice fresh-fish smell are the most telling indicators.

Apart from their educational tips, Mansur and Sanan also provide another service for their buyers: cleaning and gutting the fish.

"We provide this service just like in supermarkets," said Mansur proudly.