I didn’t expect to be eating that much in Kuching. First of all, I had noticed that in past trips, I gain an average of about 2 lbs for everday that I am on vacation. I had psyched myself-up that despite the interesting array of food that travel literature and websites have been touting about, I was going to stick to the basics and avoid indulging myself. But all that vanished just as soon as I step foot on this lovely city and saw the open-air food courts, the smoky hawker stalls, and the exciting dishes. Jungle ferns, bamboo-cooked chicken, and spicy noodles. How could I resist the temptation?
When the God of Laksa descended on Earth and showered his flavorful blessings on the Malays, the people of Sarawak were probably first in line. This noodle dish of vermicelli in a fiery orange-colored soup is marvelously aromatic with just the right degree of hotness. Enough to make you sweat but not enough to make your nose run. Large pieces of shrimp and sliced chicken and eggs float on the tangy soup made thick and flavorful with coconut. A spoonful of sambal and two squirts from native lemons, and I’m in soup heaven.
“Malay food!” I cried to my friend when he asked what I wanted to eat. I had had nothing but a sandwhich at the small cafe in the National Museum since arriving in Kuching and I was rarin for some local food. He brought me vacant lot where folding tables and plastic stools had been set out. Hawker stalls dispensed noodles, rice bowls, and drinks. The air was smoky from the nearby satay stall. The kolo mee arrived in a large bowl. The yellow egg noodles gleamed underneath the light bulb hanging above our heads. I dug in with my fork, twirled it around and put it in my mouth. The thick dark gravy of barbecued meat sauce and black vinegar was both salty and sweet. It tasted a bit like char siu but less savory. Barbecued meat slices perfected the dish. Delicious. No wonder, Malays have this dish any time of the day.
On my recent trip to Kuching for the Rainforest World Music Festival, David, my Couchsurfing host, brought me to two eateries famous for their kolo mee. Both visits were for breakfast and it was filled with people. We were lucky at the smaller eatery near Main Bazaar as we got the last few bowls of the hand-made noodles. Both places had none of the sweet-salty sauce. A dash of flavored oil (I think I tasted some broth) some ground meat and pieces of char siu were all it had. It was delicious in its simplicity especially as the flavor of the hand-made noodles shone through.
Light vermicelli noodles in a pinkish sauce flavored with belacan and topped with jelly fish and century egg. If it is at all possible to describe a noodle dish as refreshing, this would be it. After the sensory overload of Sarawak Laksa and the savoriness of Kolo Mee, Belacan Beehon was a palate cleanser. It was like having a sorbet in the middle of a French dinner so you can taste more. I have fallen in love with belacan ever since I discovered it. Sold in blocks, the closest we have to this wonderful flavoring made of fermented shrimp is Iloilo’s ginamos. Sampling this dish heightened my love for belacan even more.
Fans of big plates would love this. It’s humungous. Unlike the usual Chinese oyster pancake, the Sarawak version is crispy-chewy and has less oysters. In this one I had at Top Spot, I counted about 10 pieces of oysters spread around the pancake. I’m not sure how the cook allots the oysters— maybe their’s a ratio to the diameter of the pancake— but there really was more pancake than oysters. I was dining alone so halfway through it, I was ready to gag on the pancake. I picked-off all the oysters and left the rest.
A far better pancake is this sweet one. Thin wafer-like pancakes are ubiqiuitious in the food streets of Southeast Asia. One of my favorites is the miniature Thai version with its coloful toppings but I think this one in Kuching is much better. Batter is poured on small round flat pans and topped with coarsely grounded peanuts mixed with brown sugar. Once crips, the pancake is folded in two and set out to “dry”. A special comes with a pat of butter.This one at the weekend market in Satok was manned by Chinese kids who looked like they were barely out of high-school. Fresh off the pan, the pancakes are cripsy and utterly delicious!
I was surprised when this meal arrived as I had no idea it came with a few pieces of fried chicken covered in a thick red sauce. The menu only said nasi tomato, a dish I had been rarin to try as tomato-based dishes seemed to be quite prominent. There was tomato noodles and tomato rice. The rice was delicious but I found the tomato-based gravy of the fried chicken too sweet.
Anything cooked in bamboo is bound to be good. Together with clay pot cooking, this is the original slow cooking method. Literally “chicken in bamboo” I tried this traditional Iban dish at the restaurant of the Sarawak Cultural Village. It was very tasty as the chicken was wrapped in lemongrass then allowed to simmer in bamboo. I am not a fan of chicken cooked in soups like our tinola or sinampalukan but this was really really good and at the end of the meal, I had eaten it to the bone and sipped the last drop of the tasty soup. You would want to order an extra cup of rice for this.
Indonesia introduced the layer cake to Sarawak and the latter turned it into a work of art. However, unlike the Indonesian version which I tasted in Bali, the ones of Sarawak were heavy and sweet and came in a variety of flavors and colors. Of course, butter was still my favorite especially if it was of good quality such as Maria’s which was all soft and buttery you could slap it on a pancake. They’re found everywhere especially along Main Bazaar but the quality is as varied as their colors.
Teh C Special
There must be something about layers that the people of Sarawak must really like. Even the tea is layered. Cane sugar syrup