Monday, October 17, 2011

Anyone for orang asli seafood?

One Man's Meat

The five wooden restaurants in Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Temon are perhaps the only orang asli seafood restaurants in the country. Not surprising is that the restaurants are run by the Orang Seletar, or the Orang Laut, who depend on the sea for a living.

CAN you image “orang asli” and “seafood restaurant” in the same sentence?

Last month when googling “seafood restaurant + Johor Baru” I was dumbfounded to discover there were several orang asli seafood restaurants along the coast of Johor.

I told myself I must check out an orang asli seafood restaurant when I’m in JB as I was curious to know the dishes it served. Garoupa steamed with petai? Prawn cooked in bamboo?

When I was in JB to write about the Orang Seletar, an orang asli community who used to be sea nomads, People’s Progressive Party (PPP) Johor chairman Datuk Dr Siva Kumar introduced his orang asli bureau chief Eddy anak Salim to me.

Eddy’s family owns Salim seafood restaurant in Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Temon, a fishing village at Danga Bay. The villagers are Orang Seletar (also called Orang Laut), who make a living from the sea.

As you enter the wooden restaurant on stilts, you’re greeted by a signboard written in Orang Seletar language: Salemat Kian Kaun. Man Kedai Kami (roughly translated: Welcome. Eat at our shop).

The open-air restaurant has a view of Johor Baru city and Singapore’s Woodlands.

And what we ate in the restaurant was ... surprise, surprise ... seafood dishes typically found in Chinese-owned seafood restaurants.

“Why Chinese-styled seafood dishes?” I asked Eddy, a 32-year-old Orang Seletar.

“My father (Salim anak Palun, the 50-year-old Tok Batin, or village head, of Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Temon) learned to cook Chinese food. And our customers (from Johor and Singapore) prefer this style of cooking,” he related.

Eddy then told the story of his forward-thinking father who probably started the first orang asli-owned seafood restaurant in Malaysia.

“My father was unlike other orang asli of his generation. He mixed with other races and he learnt from them,” he said.

Salim owned fish, prawn and clam farms in the fishing village founded by his father Palun anak Teton from a mangrove jungle.

“But 20 years ago my father knew his livelihood would not last forever as he saw that development would pollute the waters where we made a living,” Eddy said.

“So, my dad decided to fulfil my grandfather’s wish to turn his tuckshop into a seafood restaurant.”

When Salim seafood restaurant became popular, Eddy’s relatives living in Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Temon also opened their own restaurants. Now there are five wooden seafood restaurants in the fishing village.

But Eddy’s clan is an exception among the Orang Seletar community in Johor.

Perhaps their village’s proximity to Johor Baru played a role in them rising out of poverty.

Many Orang Seletar living in relatively remote coastal areas in Johor are finding it difficult to eke out a living.

“For example, at Sungai Tiram, they are not educated and not all of them want to work in a factory,” explained Eddy, who is an SPM graduate.

“They’d rather make a living out of nature just like our ancestors. But the oil palm plantations and sand mining companies are polluting the rivers and the sea where they usually fish.”

The villagers whom I met at Perkampungan Orang Asli Kampung Pasir Salam at Sungai Tiram are proud of their heritage.

They related how the Orang Laut used to command Tebrau Strait and the coasts of Johor and Singapore.

“As late as 1980s, some Orang Laut still lived in sampans. That was our way of life.

“We were born in sampans, we lived in sampans and we died in sampans,” said Eddy.

As I savoured the sweet and sour crab and buttered prawn during my 3pm lunch, primary school boys (Eddy’s cousins) were living the idyllic life – jumping into the sea from a stilted restaurant in Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Temon.

But development is rapidly encroaching into their life.

From the restaurant, you can hear the construction of the multi-million Danga Bay development.

The big question mark for the Orang Seletar, who have lived in the village for three generations, is whether Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Temon has to make way for a concrete seafront jungle.

Dr Siva believes an amiable solution can be found between the villagers and the developer.

Rapid development has also polluted the surrounding waters in the fishing village.

“Twenty years ago it was easy for us to make a living from the sea. In two weeks we could get RM1,000 worth of catch,” Eddy related.

“Now, you’re lucky if you can get RM20 worth of catch in a day. We cannot depend on the sea anymore.”

Now the seafood restaurant business is more dependable.