Musings of a galley rat

” 1 pound of bread, 1½ pounds of beef, ½ pint of rice and ½ pint of distilled spirits.”

— Sunday ration, US Navy, Naval Act 1794

It was a fine summer day and we had sailed to Po Toi on Wayfoong as guests of Peter and Gabrielle C****, the island’s ruling family, not by birth but by plebiscite, in recognition of their generous patronage. While heaps of clam shells were being hauled back to the kitchen, corks popped rythmically, with the occasional squelch of a Kiwi screwcap. The conversation had drifted to the subject of galley cooking. When I mentioned I was compiling local recipes for a South China Sea cookbook, my neighbour started talking animatedly about her passion for kinilaw, a Philippino raw fish salad similar to Peruvian ceviche. Her recipe, she claimed, was the best in Visayas, where kinilaw originates from. It had been entrusted to her by an indigenous cook who, on the eve of retirement, had shared it with her on condition that she never divulge it to anybody else. So the story went. And so it ended, frustratingly. We pressed her for a picture, a description, anything to wet our appetites but she would not expand, for fear of betraying some secret ingredient, no doubt. Like all tartare recipes, I suspect hers was mind-boggingly simple.

Nothing spurs one into action like feeling shorted. There and then, I swore to myself that before the year’s end, I would start publishing my South China Sea Cookbook, whose final version would include a recipe of kinilaw to challenge my neighbour’s claim, unsubstantiated to the point of insubstantiality, if you will forgive my scholastics.

The original motivation for this compendium dates back to the times when Susanna, Thomas, Gabriel and I sailed the Mediterranean without a refrigerator and to the realisation, several years later, that what was possible in the dry climate of southern Europe, such as storing fresh groceries in the cooler parts of AVA, was no longer an option in the sweltering heat of the South China Sea.

How did they do it, I asked myself, those sailors of old, on their tea clippers and sailing junks? How did they manage the crossing without refrigeration? Reading through the ration books of the US Navy and East India Company – salt, barrels of it, is the answer – I became convinced that Chinese sailors probably fared better than Westerners, both from the point of view of quality and variety. I am prejudiced that way. So I started looking to Ap Lei Chau for inspiration.

Having lived on a boat in the Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter for the past seven years, I’d had plenty of opportunities to discuss cooking on board with retired fishermen and fellow boat-dwellers. Of particular interest are the recollections of old captains like Gordon Ip who grew up on fishing boats, spending half their earlier life at anchor in Stanley harbour, the other at sea.

The challenge, as I see it, is to forego refrigerators and go native:

> forget canned and pre-cooked food

> favour pickled, fermented and dried foodstuffs, i.e. traditional, non-industrial methods, over all other forms of preservation, and learn to produce our own

> use only local produce

> restrict fresh protein to fish caught while sailing and at anchor

The only exceptions to these rules, as far as we are concerned, are the imported Italian pasta, olive oil and tinned tomatoes without which my family will never find contentment, let alone in the middle of the South China Sea.

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