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Mini guide to eating in Sarawak, Borneo

Mini guide to eating in Sarawak, Borneo

by Helen Graves 11 August 2015

Food writer Helen visited Borneo to sample the incredible variety of foods on offer in the state of Sarawak. With dense jungles, the bustling city of Kuching and a huge cultural diversity, there was plenty to discover.

Sarawak, part of East Malaysia, stretches along the north west coast of the tropical island of Borneo. It’s a spectacular paradise dominated by dense, lush vegetation, vast caves, white sandy beaches and intense, powerful sunsets. Thick jungles are home to so much life it’s faintly terrifying; trees teem, roots squirm, flowers drip with nectar and carnivorous plants set traps. In the canopy, wobbly-nosed proboscis monkeys swing, and fuzzy, graceful orangutans glide between trees, bending branches and grabbing fistfuls of fruit as they go. Riverbanks are lit by fireflies above and prowled stealthily by crocodiles in the waters below. The remote areas are home to many indigenous tribespeople too; there are 28 ethnic groups in Sarawak, each with their own distinct culture and language.

The capital city of Kuching is a huge contrast, then - inhabited by approximately 325,000 people, it buzzes with modern life and a heck of a lot of cats. The word Kuching is thought to derive from the Malay word kucing, meaning cat, and felines are everywhere, immortalised in statue form and prowling the streets looking for food or a tickle behind the ear.

Wherever you go here however, there is good food. The cuisine focuses on the use of the many abundant native ingredients such as spices, seafood and vegetables, and flavours are full whack, intense with a certain clarity that mirrors the vibrancy of the people, the wildlife and the environment. Here’s what you really mustn’t miss when visiting Sarawak.

Delicious and fresh Calamansi limes
Fresh and ripe Calamansi limes

Eat Umai at Sarawak Cultural Village

Umai is the perfect dish for a hot day – and boy does it get hot in Borneo. Fish (I tried mackerel) is skinned and sliced, then mixed with onions, chillies, salt and the juice of tiny calamansi limes. These little fruits are native to Sarawak, and each of them yields a surprisingly large amount of fragrant, sweet juice. Umai is a traditional native fish preparation of the Melanau people (some of the earliest settlers in Sarawak), and one of the best examples is to be found at The Sarawak Cultural Village where you can also learn about the many indigenous tribespeople of Borneo. The dish is refreshing, hot, sour and salty all at once, the fish ‘cooked’ lightly by the lime juice, soft and salty against the bright crunch of onions. It’s just about one of the only plates of food it’s possible to contemplate eating when the midday sun is at its full force.

Sarawak Cultural Village

Sarawak Cultural Village, Damai Beach Resort, 93762 Kuching, Malaysia, http://www.scv.com.my/

Buy bags of Sarawak peppercorns

Grown in the mountains of Borneo, Sarawak pepper is considered some of the finest in the world. The peppercorns are plucked from the tree when green at an age of 2¼ to 2½ years old, then dried in the sun (to make black pepper) or soaked (to make white). The corns have a mild, earthy flavour, and are gaining favour with top chefs like Alain Ducasse who enjoys the ‘refined flavour’. It’s hard to imagine that the tiny string of bobbles dangling from a tree on a lush, sweaty mountainside in tropical Malaysia could one day be rolled around in the fingers of a top chef in Europe. Bags of black and white peppercorns are available to buy in the shops and food markets. Speaking of which…


Shop at Satok Weekend Market in Kuching

This huge market is a must-visit for tourists, although you won’t see too many of them; the stalls here serve the local population and you’ll see people doing their regular shopping. Borough Market it isn’t. Okay so the fringes are lined with a few stalls peddling woven shopping bags, hand fans and fridge magnets, but the core of the action is focused on meat, fish, vegetables, herbs and spices. People don’t speak much, if any, English here, but the tried and tested method of pointing and holding up fingers works just fine. There is a wet fish and meat market, plus many fruit, vegetable and spice stalls. The wet markets are more of a spectator sport for tourists, since unless you’re staying in accommodation with a kitchen it’s pointless buying anything to take away, but they’re endlessly fascinating still. Concrete floors twinkle in the morning sunlight as welly-shod men wash down fish counters with giant shower heads. Steam rises from the floor as water evaporates and fat, spiked yellow fin tuna glisten on their slabs. There are the sounds of ice chips being shovelled and deals being struck. Fat prawns tempt, as do oozing clams and molluscs. It’s cruel that these treasures can’t be bought, taken home and cooked over coals to be sucked, peeled and slurped at between chugs of ice-cold beer. Vegetable stalls are laid out meticulously, neat arrangements of gourds, both smooth and crinkled, gleaming purple orbs of aubergine, theatrical ginger flowers, like medieval torch flames, pink, smooth and irresistible. There are great, fusty-smelling stalls of dried fish, stacked with wicker baskets of tiny shrimp, which are used to bolster dusky undertones of murky noodle soups. The sea seems ever present in Borneo, on the nose, in the air, at the table.

Satok Weekend Market

Satok Weekend Market, Jalan Satok, 93400 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

Cool down with Ais Kacang

There are many variations on shaved ice desserts in Sarawak, which serve the obvious purpose of counteracting the heat. The ice is shaved from a block into a bowl and then topped with various accoutrements. The ais kacang is a fantastical kaleidoscope of a dessert, piled high with jellies, ice cream, condensed milk, fruits, colourings and anything else that will fit. It’s a riot of slippery, creamy textures, so beloved in this part of the world. Tapioca pearls pop in the mouth, chunks of fruit release their sweet juices, ice crunches and the whole thing swims around in creamy sweetened liquid. It’s enough sugar to keep you stomping around the market like the Duracell bunny, plus it’s just plain fun. I mean come on; the thing looks like a disco.

Ais Kacang
Ais Kacang - literally meaning 'ice beans'
Laksa is a dish from the Peranakan cuisine. It is a rich noodle soup, enhanced with the characteristic aroma of dried shrimp, thick with fresh seafood.

Eat bucket-loads of Malaysian Laksa

Laksa is one of Malaysia’s most beloved dishes (along with a couple of the other entries on this list), and it’s essential to eat your fill of it. A dish from the Peranakan cuisine (a combination of Chinese and Malay cuisines), it is a rich noodle soup, enhanced with the characteristic aroma of dried shrimp, and in the case of the Sarawak laksa, thick with fresh seafood, too. It has a particular punch thanks to those aforementioned Sarawak peppercorns, and it comes topped with those tiny calamansi limes. It’s basically a bowl that says “here is all that is good to eat in Sarawak”. It’s a little lighter, a little less creamy than other laksas, but no less satisfying, filling, or likely to stain your clothes (I speak from bitter experience).

An excellent Sarawak laksa can be found in an unnamed restaurant on Carpenter Street opposite the temple in Kuching.

Scoff satay

It would be a crime to visit Malaysia and not eat as much satay as is possible. These addictive, sticky skewers of meat (usually beef or chicken) are grilled over hot charcoal just about everywhere in Malaysia. You’ll find them in restaurants, on street food stalls, and even, it turns out, on aeroplanes. The Malaysia Airlines business class service offers its very own famous ‘satay trolley’ which is wheeled around for passengers and it’s just as good as the stuff served on the ground. The satay is, it turns out, grilled in exactly the same way as it is in a restaurant before it gets on board with the airline crew, and that means over a real charcoal grill manned by expert grillers (one person I spoke to had been working there for 6 years). It’s then finished before serving on the plane. Such is the Malaysian dedication to satay!

Satay. These sticky skewers of meat are grilled over hot charcoal across Malaysia.
Borneo sunset
Borneo sunset

Get your greens: Jungle ferns

The wonderfully exotic sounding jungle ferns are native to Sarawak and are very much like the fiddlehead ferns one finds in America. Picked when small and with their heads unfurled, they have a crisp texture like samphire and a fresh, vegetal flavour. I ate them stir fried with garlic, with torch ginger flowers, with onions and just relatively plain, which allowed their bright, fresh flavour to stand out. They go with anything, basically. They’re also super-refreshing, which is a huge bonus in a hot country, and they feel like eating a plate of goodness. A particularly good example can be found at the Telang Usan Hotel, where it’s possible to take a cooking class to learn how to prep them like a pro.

Telang Usan Hotel

Telang Usan Hotel, Ban Hock Road, Kuching, 93724 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia,


Eat Nasi Lemak for breakfast

This is the most famous of Malay breakfast dishes, and a national dish of Malaysia. In fact it would be almost impossible to take breakfast somewhere without coming across it. Rice is cooked in pandan leaves with coconut milk, then served with tiny dried anchovies, like salty fish crisps, twisted and mildly uninviting until tasted. Balking at the idea of fried fish for breakfast? Just give them a go and you’ll realise they’re the equivalent of seasoning with salt, just with the requisite Malaysian fish-funked spin on things. Fried peanuts come too, along with slices of cucumber, hard-boiled egg, and a lamb (or prawn) curry. Last but not least, there is sambal - Malaysia’s fierce (and I do mean fierce) chilli paste. Sambal belacan seems most ubiquitous, consisting of of dried chillies pounded with shrimp paste (the belacan) then preserved with salt and lime juice. It’s a wonderful condiment, but not to be underestimated!

Of course there is much more to the food of Sarawak, but it beyond the scope of this guide. Is there is one thing to remember, it is that the Malaysian table is a generous one, so go hungry, tuck in, try everything. You won’t have any regrets.

Flights to Borneo

Malaysia Airlines offer a twice-daily non-stop A380 full service link between the UK and Malaysia. Economy class return flights from London Heathrow to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur International Airport start from £817. Business Class from £3167 (prices including taxes and charges). To book visit www.malaysiaairlines.com or call +44 (0) 871 4239 090

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Mini guide to eating in Sarawak, Borneo


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