Saturday, March 15, 2008

eTAK oh eTOK

Fresh etak being soaked in water

kerp (ph.d) of Let's Go Land has been persistently asking me about etak, so to answer your questions about etak, I dedicate this post to you for being interested in this bivalves and hopefully one day you will get to taste it the way the Kelantanese has been enjoying it for generations. Kerp, this blog is dedicated to you.
Raykinzoku wrote a great informative piece about etak which he called etok (the way the Kelantanese called it is somewhere in between etak and etok) in his blog: Distinctively KeLaTte : ETOK This is how Ray describe the etak.
Etok is a small, pebble-sized, freshwater corbicula clam which lives at the bottom of rivers and canals, alongside scavanging fishes and crustaceans. Mostly found in the shallows and sandy parts of the river, they are least known or simply neglected by most Malaysians.
A very apt description. I can't do any better than that.Via his blog we now know that etok is not only found in Kelantan but also in other states of Malaysia and as faraway as Japan! Only thing I would like to add is it is found only in fresh waters and it is very sensitive to the quality of the water.
When I started schooling in 1957, I went to school in Kampong Kangkong about 5 miles from my home in Kg Chekok both in the district of Pasir Mas to live with my maternal grandparents. The river was our source of life. We get our water for cooking and drinking from there carrying by the pails. My being small I have to carry a small container which is a kettle. We depend almost everything that has got to do with water on the river. Washing, bathing and as the toilet. A floating raft complete with cubcles with a gunny sack of a curtain as the door was the public toilet! Transportation back then was by river boat plying downstream to Pasir Mas and around noon upstream back home. Tarred road only became available much later.
Above all that we get some of our food like freshwater fish and prawns and etak from the river too.
Every time we go to the river for whatever activities especially bathing where we will get wet, we will use the opportunity to collect some etak. Without the pengokok, we either use our hands or feet to search for them. To use the hands was easy provided the place is muddy and there is no pebbles in that area. Most of such areas are by the river bank and much deeper than the sandy area. The way we do it is to dive in and feel for the pebble like etak among the mud and throw them on the bank or put them in the part of the cloth we wore to cover our 'aurat'. I was considered to small then and can just dip in without covering the 'aurat'. The etok from muddy areas are usually darker in colour and larger. The sandy areas where the water flows mcuh faster the etak is of much lighter color and look very clean.
For the sandy areas usually towards the middle of the river where the water level is much shallower due to flat sandbank, etak can be collected by shifting the top 2 or 3 inches of the sand on the river bed to one side using our bare feet. If the etak were there they would be exposed and become visible to the naked eye provided the water is clear which was often the case in the olden days. The water should be shallow enough to bend down like you are in the roko' position when doing the prayers. Another condition is there must not be ripples on the surface of the water which was usually caused by the wind if it was a windy day. The ripples will prevent you from seeing the etak when it was exposed. During the dry spell some parts of the riverbed will be exposed. If it was recently exposed many etak will still survive and there are tell tale signs to show where the etak are. Digging it with the finger will expose it and if it is big enough, it will be collected. If the sandy river bed is exposed to the sun for too long the etak will die off.
Using the pengokok needs some strength.The pengokok is made of metal bars of about 2 mm diameter strung together with wires to form an open cage attached to a long bamboo or wooden pole for handle like in the picture below. A bamboo pole is preferred as it is lighter.
Syed Azmi demonstrating how the pengokok is used

Details of how the pengokok is made

It is like a sieve to filter out the smaller sands and keep the etak inside. Some pebbles that are larger than the gaps between the metal sieve will also be retained. At the stage where the etok and pebbles are caught in the pengokok, an expert can segregate the etak from the pebbles using the principle of differences of specific gravity between the etok and the pebbles and the water flowing through the sieve. While the non expert will have to collect the etak by sight. In places where the sand is fine, only the etak will remain in it.
My activities of collecting etok ceased after I went to an English school in Pasir Mas. The occassional weekend trip home didn't provide enough time for such activities. Only after 1981 when I started working with Kumpulan Fima and based in Kuala Besut that I began to go to Sungai Besut to collect the etak. The locals there who were mostly descendents from Kelantan knows how to collect and consume etak. So whenever I feel like having etak, a trip to the river near Kg Amir will yield enough etak for my small family.
Later in 1996 when we moved into our own house in Kg. Kasa, Pasir Mas that we were able to enjoy etak again. Kampong Kasa is located on the bank of Sungai Kelantan and lots of etak were found. They were gathered and cooked by roasting it on a small fire after marinating it in a paste made of salt, blended with lemon grass, shallots, ginger and garlic. I suspect monosodium glutamate is lavishly added. Some may deny using it entirely to entice those non MSG consuming etok lovers. The marinating process takes at least an hour.
Before marinating the etak it must be washed clean and soaked in clean water. The soaking will make the etak purge all sand particles and mud within itself which may make it feel gritty when eating it if it is not totally purged. Soaking it over a minimum of 3 hours is necessary and overnight will be best.
Washing the etak
Roasting platform
Lighting the fire.

As Ray correctly said it, etak are mainly used as light snack but some people use it as appetizer to go with their rice ecpecially nasi kerabu. It can also be taken as lauk which I will describe later.
Roasting over a small fire on a platform raised 2.5 feet above the floor. The platform is made of long split bamboo pieces spaced close enough to each other to prevent the etak from slipping through. Over a slow fire the etok are constanly turned with a piece of plank attached to a wooden handle. The constant turning over is necessary to ensure eveness of exposure to the heat below. An hour of roasting is enough. Overheating or too long an exposure can result in the split up and the flesh to dry up and become less succulent. If there are extremely large etak in the mix, they must be seperataed and roasted first before adding the rest to it.
Turning ove the etak

Other than roasting over a fire, the etak can also be roasted in the hot sun. Some people love it that way. This way will ensure that the flesh will be succulent enough. For those who make a living out of roasting and selling etok, the sun is not a reliable source of heat and the timing isn't suitable. Grilling job must be finished by the latest at 11 am for them to start selling.
Roasted etak or etak salai as the local term for it is highly hygroscopic due to the salt coating on its shell. The best container to keep it is a badang which has more surface area or a bakul. A badang is best. Both are made of plaited bamboo slices and so has better breathing quality compared to metal containers. Thus the etok will not become wet too soon due to the hygroscopic nature of the salt coating it. If metal containers are to be used, absorbing materials are necessary to be placed on the container before putting the etak in it.

A badang
Etak in a badang
Newspapers being very good material to absorb moisture is the best material to use as wrappers. Unfortunately the ink used for printing is hazardous to health and the sellers are often reminded by health inspectors to refrain from using newspapers as wrappers. If you care for your health, better don't buy them when they are wrapped in newspapers. If you still have to use newspapers, quickly transfer them to some other containers so as not to allow the newspaper ink to stick to the shell of the etak.
Etak salai can be taken as snack or as lauk with rice be it nasi kerabu or nasi putih.
Etak salai showing the succulent flesh.

Beside roasting, etok are also consumed by making it into a dish called sayur etok where the gravy becomes opaque like, after adding pounded shallots, garlic and crushed lemon grass with salt and sugar to taste. MSG can be used instead of sugar. For etak masak lemak, santan is used instead of plain water as in the case of sayur etak. Why the word sayur etak is used by the Kelantanese really confounds me. It must be the misuse of the word like they say makan air or makan rokok. Makan angin is of course a different matter altogether.
Etak sayur
Etak masak lemak

Eating sayur etok or etok masak lemak is easy as the shell will be split open when subjected to heat but eating etok salai is a different ball game altogether. To retain the flesh succulent, the shell must not be allowed to split. If it is splitted, the flesh will dry up.
Lots of practise is required to acquire the skill to open the shell of the etak. Unlike the cockles which merely needs sufficient force to open them, the etak is too small and smooth to grip the shell the way you do to cockles. The regular eaters will just use their teeth to split them using the incisors (the front teeth) without breaking the two sides apart. The shell should open outward with the hinged part intact. The next act is to suck out the flesh from the inner side of the shell. The ingredients sticking to the external part of the shell will give flavour to the flesh. That is why splitting it with the teeth always taste better.
Those without the incisors or using dentures can still enjoy etak salai as there are other means of opening it. Ray's mother taught him how to use the knife to open the shell to save his teeth from wearing out faster. In Ray's case his mother taught him to scrape the edge of the etak to reveal the slit between the two sides. Inserting the blade of the knife and twisting the blade to either side will open the shell. In my case I will just put the knife blade across the slit and slowly turning the blade to align with the slit with a little pressure will make the blade penetrate the slit. A slight twist of the blade will open up the shell.
Using the knife to open the shell

Using half a shell

If you dont have a knife around, using one half of the shell can be a substitute for the knife.Using the sharp edge of the shell, use it the same way as a knife. With some practise, it will get just as good as a knife and less dangerous.
My two grand daughters Lis 8 years old and As 6 yrs from Puchong which I used to call Budak Puchong in my earlier blogs is back in Pasir Mas for 2 months. We have introduced them to etak salai and they are learning up on how to open up the etak with their teeth. For the moment they could open them but the shells spilt apart. Give them abit more time they will soon get the hang of it.
Lis and her sister As enjoying etak

Etak salai can be purchased in many places like the markets and roadsides. Near my home in Kampung Kasar there is a special gerai constructed by the Majlis Bandaran Pasir Mas solely to sell etak. Unfortunately not many sellers prefer the place and only one or two sellers use the place. Others prefer their own spots down the road.

Mak Su Minah selling etak

I told you when I first returned in Pasir Mas in 1996, etok was still available in the Kelantan river. A few years later they were not there anymore. What happened?
I asked Syed Azmi a regular etak gatherer whose livelihood solely depends on etak. He said etak disappeared from the Kelantan river some years back. The reasons was the proliferation of the use of chemicals to catch udang galah, the fresh water prawns. The other reason is the many sand mining operations along the river. The spawns of the etak were sucked up by the powerful water pumps used to suck up the sand being mined.
So where does the etak come from now?
He said he has to go everywhere as far as Pekan in Pahang, Terengganu and Perak to get his supplies. He will go in a mini lorry with his other brothers and brother in law. They now know where the locations are and every trip will secure about 100 kg. His own need is about 30 kg perday so he had to store them somewhere. Earlier they tried putting them in the Kelantan river and harvest them again for use on the day itself. To his consternation he found that only 50 percent survived.That was a heavy price to pay. Now he kept them under referigeration. At RM8.00 a kg, his loss was quite substantial.
A commentator at Ray's blog said etak was a nuisance at his place in Pahang. During the dry season they had this vast expanse of flat sandbar near they village which they use as a football field. They even call it the stadium. The problem is the dead etak leave behind sharp shells that often cut up the players feet as 'beach soccer' is of course played bare footed in his kampong in Pahang. He is appealing to anybody to come and harvest all the etak from his place. It will be a gold mine to people like Syed Azmi if he were to know the place.
The only solution is to educate the people there on how to consume etak. Once they have acquired the taste, they will harvest them for their own consumption. Another way is to teach them how to harvest the etak and sell them in Kelantan. It will be an economic activity and contribute to their income. Hey isn't that an easy way to make money?

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