From Borneo and Around

This blog is all about Borneo (and sometimes elswere) as I experience it. It's about places, people, fauna, food ... and anything I find pleasantly worth sharing in words and pictures.

Monday, December 13, 2010


The Strange riddle of the Yew Char Kueh and the Chichi fregi

Yew Char Kueh

What can a Mediterranean Frenchie like me and the Chinese people of Sarawak possibly have to share from their respective cultural heritage? Give up? I’ll tell you what it is: A long golden fritter.
I would not dream of entering a debate on whom actually “invented” the rather addictive fritter and whether the Chichi fregi as it is called in Provence came before the Yew Char Kueh which is commonly served in Kuching or even in China.                                                                                                                                                Back where I come from and back in time, and well before my time, the port-city of Marseille was born out of a cluster of small and often quaint fishing villages. L’Estaque, on the west side, happens to be one of those villages with one very special pride: the Chichi fregi.                                    
Mediterranean folks from beyond the Italian border will probably point out, and rightfully so, that the Chichi fregi is actually a Chichi while at the other end of the coast, a Spaniard will insist that it is but a churro and by now I too could probably argue with them that it is in fact Yew Char Kueh; and if I did, any Estaquois (People from l’Estaque) listening to me would probably be only half surprised that their recipe should be found as far as Asia. Indeed the story goes in Provence that once upon a time, a man from l’Estaque left to visit China. When he finally wanted to come home and he presented himself at the Peking train station to purchase his return ticket, the officer asked him: “l’Estaque Beachside or l’Estaque Town”?  This would bring any common-sensed Estaquois to reason that it must be that the reputation of their treasured Chichi fregi has reached as far to the East as the Kingdom of Heaven; so much so that the Chinese are now aware that l’Estaque counts not one but two train stations!                                                                                                                                        And what of the amazing coincidence of l’Estaque being legendarily linked to China when they seem to share the same popular recipe? If Marco Polo brought the Noodle back to Italy, could someone have brought the Yew Char Kueh to l’Estaque all the way from Peking? Or could the Chinese have taken the recipe of the Chichi fregi back on board their ships in 1421 or 1434, perhaps after a short call at l’Estaque harbour?
Whether any amateur historian will ever get to the bottom of this (please do let me know) or not, I am simply grateful to be able to enjoy one of my childhood favourites on any given day while staying in my adopted home town of Kuching in Borneo; and the joy is even greater when I realise that I have learned many other ways to eat my Chichi fregi other than with olive oil and Orange blossom flavouring and sprinkled with sugar as it is the tradition in l’Estaque and which has long since spread to the street hawkers of Marseille and of all the fun fairs and markets of the region. Here in Malaysia, it also served as a mouth melting treat with sweetened milk or even with kaya (a curd made from coconut), my personal favourite. It is also delicious eaten with porridge and bak ku teh (herbal pork stew) or simply dipped in chilli sauce. So truly I just don’t know whom I have to thank for the joy of eating Chichi fregi except perhaps that young Chinese bloke at Penrissen Food Court? Never mind, if you happen to catch me there on my Sunday brunch, do join me for Yew Char Kueh!

Yew Char Kueh at Pensissen Food Court