Umai: Raw Fish SaladPosted: 10 July 2011
Fish, available all year round and is a cheap source of protein. Eating raw fish is identified with Japanese. Their sushi and sashimi are very popular outside Japan. But there is a Sarawakian dish called ‘umai’ which uses raw fish as it main ingredient. It is very similar to sashimi; the fish meat must be fresh and thinly-sliced. Umai is a Melanau dish, but it is famous across all ethnic in Sarawak. Sarawakian Malay pronounces it as ‘umei’. Basically it is raw fish salad.
There are many variations of recipes in preparation of umai, some might use ginger, turmeric leaf, shallot, belacan (shrimp paste) and asam paya (called asam kelubi in Malay) but my family’s version does not include all the said ingredients. There are only 5 ingredients; onion, garlic, raw fish, calamansi (limau kasturi) and chilies; and of course, salt to taste and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).
The most commonly used fish for our umai is ‘pirang’ or ‘empirang’ in Sarawakian Malay, mainly because it is available in abundant and cheap too. This fish has many fine bones in its body, just like ‘terubuk’. Since it will be sliced thinly, the bones are not going to be much problem as it is also quite soft but enough to get stuck in your throat and make you gag. Yes, the fish is consumed with its bones except for its vertebrae (obviously). Some people use ‘tenggiri’, prawns, squids and sharks! Well, small sharks or rather baby sharks.
In the olden days, calamansi is rare and hard to find. The Melanau used ‘asam payak’ as a subtitute (or more accurately, calamansi is a subtitute to asam payak). Asam payak is very acidic. It is seasonal and can be easily mistaken for buah salak, which is sweet and acidic. Another popular way of eating asam payak is eating it with cencaluk [‘bubuk’ as known by the local or udang geragau (tiny shrimps) fermented with salt, the ones from Miri and Bintulu are the most sought after]. To me, it is an irresistible appetizer.
How to prepare? Just slice the fish very thinly, pound some chilies, and slice the onion and garlic, then mix them together. Squeeze some calamansi and add salt and MSG. Sounds easy? Preparing the pirang is the most tiresome of them all. It requires some skills with knife to separate the meat from its vertebrae. You have to be very careful because pirang is a thin fish or you might cut your finger. Since it is thin, it does not provide a lot of meat so the process requires a lot of energy as it is also repetitive.
Once my mother prepared umai using salted small shark (I think it was baby shark). It was very fishy and adding to the fact that I hate eating shark due to inability to erase its carnivorous image from my head, that was the only time my mother prepared umai using sharks. Believe me; it was very fishy almost like dead fish fishy. Just my opinion.