Though Sarawak usually conjures up images of lush green rainforests and rich charming culture, a hungry traveller wanders off the beaten path and on the ‘eaten’ path, to explore the culinary side of Kuching.
Words & Images: Ari Vanuaranu
Kuching, the charming city in Sarawak whose namesake refers to the general feline house pet, is many things – beautiful, quaint, natural, and scenic. The gateway to the land of hornbills, Sarawak, will have you lapping up on its alluring charm as you ponder in amazement on your close encounters with the exotic wildlife the world has been obsessed about since the time the western explorers set foot upon Borneo.
Hailing from the mystical land of Indonesia, I’m no stranger to green vistas, orang-utans, corpse flowers and the native Dayaks. While I have the fullest admiration for Sarawak’s natural attractions, or what every other tourist hails as an “adventure”, it’s basically an uneventful “sunny Wednesday afternoon” for me back home.
Hence, I set forth to discover another kind of adventure that involves the most hard-working muscles in my body – the gastronomical muscles. Armed with 1% determination, 1% curiosity and 98% hunger, I searched high and low (without leaving Kuching, of course) for the best food the feline city could offer.
Sure, you can find laksa (Peranakan-style noodle soup) in any other place in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, but what sets Laksa Sarawak apart from the other variants is that the thick soup contains no curry at all. “What atrocity is this?” some of you might exclaim in horror, but trust me, the city’s take on the popular dish is just as good. Instead of curry leaves, they intelligently use a mix of belacan (fermented shrimp paste), coconut milk, tamarind and other aromatic spices. This gives the overall flavour an additional kick of tangy sensation. Those who are used to have their laksa a certain way might not find this variant agreeable, but if you are an open-minded foodie, you will definitely appreciate its uniqueness.
This particular noodle dish is a must-have when you’re in Kuching. There are several variants of mee kolok, but the most common one would be the dry noodle variant with clear soup served separately in a different bowl. On top of the noodles is the real treat – thin slices of meat cooked to perfection with light sauce, spices and broth. The meat used for the Halal versions are usually beef or chicken but there are also variants with fish, otherwise pork and pig’s innards are common among Chinese vendors. You can opt for the ‘dry’ or ‘soup’ noodles, but personally, I like to eat my mee kolok dry so I can taste every single ingredient impeccably, and sip the clear soup slowly to really savour the flavour.
If you’re a lazy bum (like me) who wants to have a feel of the jungle without ever having to brave the mosquitoes yourself, then midin belacan is your next must-try. Okay, so this is not exactly “Survivor” material because it’s a far cry from munching on tapioca roots to stall hunger pangs, but eating the ‘fern’ comes a pretty close second. The peculiarly shaped midin is a special kind of fiddlehead fern which grows on the Borneo Forests’ fertile soil. In this part of the world, the young curly fronds are stir fried with belacan to make an excellent vegetable dish. It’s also quick to prepare as it takes only a few minutes to cook. Why the hurry? It’s so that the midin maintains its crispiness and freshness with a tad of bitterness still intact. It goes well with the savoury taste of the belacan.
Me and fish – we don’t get along very well together. I am not entirely against the idea of eating fish, but raw fish is a whole different class of its own. That’s why I was a bit apprehensive when a plate of umai was presented in front of me. The raw fish salad silent taunted me for my cowardice. For the sake of trying anything once (hey, you only live once!), I braved myself and took a spoonful of the Melanau dish into my mouth. To my surprise, it didn’t taste raw at all! Apparently, the high amount of lime and other spices mixed in can somehow “cook” the fish meat. In fact, it was an explosion of meaty, tangy and delectable goodness doing the tango on my tongue. Definitely a must try!
The Ibans are well-known for their infamous reputation as fierce head-hunters (no, not the job hunter sort), but who would’ve guessed that they are also great cooks? Exhibit A: manok pansoh.
Free-ranged chicken cuts and other ingredients such as ginger, lemongrass and mushrooms are stuffed inside a tube of bamboo and then placed on an open fire. This special way of cooking locks in the flavour and aroma, resulting in an extremely delicious meal! This is my favourite food in Kuching, hands down. I don’t understand how the Ibans of the past managed to leave their houses when there was something this delicious at home. If it was me, I’d refuse to step out of my longhouse so I could spend the whole day nom-nom-nom-ing manok pansoh!
Even More Bites?
It’s such a shame that I didn’t have the time to eat some of the other local favourites such as mee sua, kueh chap, foochow mee, terung dayak and bubur pedas, but it gives me even more reasons to go back to Kuching. Which leaves me with just one thing to do – to find out which among the limitless choices of delicious dishes should I try the next time I visit Kuching?
My to-eat-list starts right here, right now. Till then, do share your favourite Kuching dishes in the comment box below! My bottomless pit of a belly and I will be extremely grateful!
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