Saturday, October 02, 2021

Weekend Cooking: The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe

Recently I listened to Historical Novel Society Australasia's podcast interview with Mirandi Riwoe which is part of it's Imagining the Past series. Whilst I had heard of the author before, I wasn't that familiar with the books that she has written so it was interesting to listen to her talk. I was especially interested in reaading her work given that her books have unusual historical settings. I love a World War II historical fiction book as much as the next person, but it is nice to venture further afield both in location and timing.

The Fish Girl is set in Dutch colonial Indonesia and features Mina, a young village girl, who is unwillingly sent away by her father to work in the house of a wealthy Dutch merchant. Whilst she is a simple village girl who loves the sea, she soon catches the eye of the master and begins to serve his meals, including when he is entertaining. One evening, he has four Dutchmen come to dinner and one of them quickly becomes besotted with Mina and so begins to visit her, ostensibly for lessons on how to speak Malay. It is, however, clear that he is interested in her, bestowing her with gifts. However, Mina's interest is with Ajat, the son of the head man from her village. He is handsome, and a link with home. In the village, she would be too lowly for him, but here, they are drawn together.

This story is inspired by another short story, W Somerset Maugham's The Four Dutchmen. In that story he tells the tale of four Dutch sailors who travel the seas together and have a pact about retiring together at the end of their lives. One of those has a penchant for Malay girls, and this is where Riwoe has taken inspiration. Whilst in Somerset's story, the young girl is only referred to as a "Malay trollop", Riwoe has given her a name, a backstory, hopes and dreams. What she cannot and does not do is give her a different future than the one in the original story.

The first two thirds of this novella are packed with food descriptions, from the simpler food of the village to the richer food served in the Dutch merchant's house. Mina works in the kitchen with the always grumpy cook, Ibu Tana, who really doesn't like her, especially as she is shown favour by the master and his guests.

Ibu Tana tries to teach her to cook other dishes besides fried fish with sambal. The cook grumbles that nobody can live on fried fish alone. Of course, Mina knows this to be untrue. She is aghast at the variety of food the master and his guests insist upon, that even the servants enjoy. Only on very special occasions is a chicken or goat slaughtered in her village. And only the men eat their fill; women and children busily clear the cooking pots, douse the fire, sweep the hearth while waiting for what rice or meat might remain. But in the Dutch house Mina eats well, tastes sauces and sweets she never knew existed. She wishes her mother could try these wonderments, and vows to take her some food wrapped in banana leaves when she returns to the village for a visit, even if she has to steal morsels from behind Ibu Tana’s back.

One of the first things she learns to cook is pisang epe. Ibu Tana teaches her to fry the banana with palm sugar until it is brittle and sweet, how to recognise when to take it from the pan. Mina learns to knead dough for Dutch desserts and Chinese dumplings, how to slice the shallots and garlic so finely that, when fried, they become as wispy as wood shavings.

Once the day’s cooking has been done and all the dishes washed and sorted, Mina stands on the kitchen balcony and breathes in the traces of spice left on her fingertips — the peppery coriander, the tang of the lime leaves. She smells the night air, searching for the salt of the sea on the evening breeze. She closes her eyes and strains to hear the ocean’s whisper, which is occasionally disrupted by a dog barking or the night call of an owl. It’s in these closing moments of each night, when she feels the ocean’s presence, Mina remembers who she is. But the memory has weight, sinks in her chest like a pebble in the sea. She misses her mother. She misses the silence of plaiting the netting with her, she misses their rhythm of scaling the fish. She misses falling asleep besides her mother’s soft breathing, while the ocean whispers to her through the gap in the wall.

Where this novella shines is in the descriptions of the places and the food, bringing to life the smell, taste of food, the smell of the ocean and more. Mina's connection to the sea has an almost mythical feel to it which adds another layer to the story.

The novella is broken into three parts. I loved the first two parts, which concentrated on Mina and her new life but the third felt a little rushed, and very sad,  but as I mentioned previously Mina's fate was already determined in the original story.

I do find the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia to be an interesting period of history, I think because I never really made the connection in my mind between the two countries until much later than school. We learned about early Dutch exploration of Western Australia, and that they were in the vicinity because of the Dutch East Indies Company and spices. I also have distinct memories of being in primary school and seeing the wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia. Years later I was reading a book which was set in Batavia and I had an aha moment about the fact that the Dutch were in Indonesia and they I remember when I was on my European tour, we were in Amsterdam and the included dinner was at an Indonesian restuarant, which I remember being puzzled by. It is a subject that I have been intending to read more of. I am also mindful that there are very few, if any, colonisation stories that end well for the local people. 

It is of greater interest to me now because my husband is of Dutch descent. His parents were both born in the Netherlands so he is really 100% Dutch, despite being born in South Africa. We do eat some Indonesian food on occasion, in particular Nasi Goreng served with fried banana and egg, and we recently made a nasi spice mix, which needs some refinement, because right now it is a bit hot! 

I really liked this novella and it was nominated for a number of prizes, including winning the Seizure’s Viva la Novella prize. I am definitely going to be seeking out Mirani Riwoe's latest book which is called Stone Gold Sky Mountain and is setting on the gold mining fields of Queensland, which will be a new setting. I know about goldrushes in Victoria and Western Australia, but I don't know much about the history of gold mining in Queensland at all.

Rating 4/5

About the book

Winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize

Sparked by the description of a ‘Malay trollope’ in W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, Mirandi Riwoe’s novella, The Fish Girl, tells of an Indonesian girl whose life is changed irrevocably when she moves from a small fishing village to work in the house of a Dutch merchant. There she finds both hardship and tenderness as her traditional past and colonial present collide.

Told with an exquisitely restrained voice and coloured with lush description, this moving book will stay with you long after the last page.

I am linking this post up with the Australian Women Writers Challenge, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and Foodies Read.

Weekly Meals

Saturday - 
Sunday -  Roast Beef with vegies
Monday - 
Tuesday - Lasagne
Wednesday - Lasagne
Thursday - Bangers and Mash Pie
Friday - Take away

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page


  1. Your review is very enjoyable to read. The author's reworking the Maugham story with a more modern sensibility is a fascinating idea, and I love the quote you selected. The location of the story is as you say, not often represented in fiction, and represents a very unhappy chapter in colonial history.

    best... mae at

    1. Unhappy chapters in colonial history are all too common unfortunately.

  2. Another chapter in colonial history that we never learned about. We honoured our indigenous people for the first time this week with a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation federal holiday.

    1. I have been reading the things you have mentioned about the indigenous issues in Canada Jackie. Unfortunately as I mentioned it is hard to find any colonisation story that end well.

  3. Thank you for such a great review. It is interesting to learn about periods in history that we are not familiar with.

  4. I don't know why I don't have this one on my TBR because I have all the other winners of the Seizure Prize!
    I will do something about that because it's such a great story.

  5. Thanks for introducing me to this interesting book.

  6. Stone Gold Sky Mountain was one of my favourite reads last year, and I've been meaning to go back and read this novella ever since. I also know the guy her did the cover art :-)

  7. I was very intrigued to read this book but now have some trepidation because it made you sad. Historical fiction is my favorite genre though so I guess I will give it a go.

    1. I guess it's good that it made have an emotional reaction right?

  8. i know nothing of the gold rush in queensland either. how interesting. this book sounds like such a sad story. i grew up in melbourne in an area with lots of dutch migrants so was always aware of dutch food and the history with indonesia.