It’s much easier for me to see the differences in food when I am in Kuching. I go with my Penang eyes anyway. Sightseeing aside, the local food in Kuching is quite different from Penang because they’re still quite traditional in many ways (read: not as polished commercialised as we Semenanjung people are). Each community has its own special food, either for celebrations or for regular consumption.
Below are some interesting snacks and food you might want to try the next time you are in Cat City!
“Bee phang” or rice cakes
According to my mom-in-law, these are eaten by the Hakka during CNY. They have various types: with sesame seeds, with peanuts, etc. I never knew this existed until Lisa (from KL!) told me she loved the bee phang from Kuching.
I first tasted bee thor when my mom-in-law bought it from the local market. It is shaped like a teardrop, the size of a hand. Think of it as a flattened steamed pau – the ingredients inside can be savoury or sweet. Sweet ones have peanuts and sugar while the savoury ones include minced meat. I love the savoury versions. I can’t remember if it is a Hakka or Hainan snack!
Tebaloi or crispy sago biscuits
Tebaloi is a famous native (Melanau) food in Sarawak. It is made from sago flour and tastes nice and crispy like a thicker version of kuih kapit (which in Sarawak is called kuih sepit). It is a snack which locals don’t eat at all just like we Penang people don’t eat tambun biscuits or nutmeg unless we buy them for visiting or out-of-town friends!
Kek lapis or Indonesian layer cake
Visit any open house during CNY in Kuching and you will taste fantastic kek lapis. The beauty of this cake is not in the cake but the various designs and patterns which are revealed when the cake is sliced, eliciting awed oohs and aahs. In this regard, Sarawak Malays are creative in making kek lapis in different colours, layers and yes, designs! I have seen a whole recipe book dedicated to the making of this beautiful edible work of art. Never leave Sarawak without getting this cake. Yes, there are halal and non-halal versions. The halal version can be bought in Satok. The non-halal versions can be bought at any good bakery in Kuching.
Keropok udang with vegetable acar
It is a given that you will be served keropok udang or ikan in any Sarawakian’s house. The way to eat this is with the local vegetable acar or pickle made with julienned carrot and cucumber in a tangy base of spices. It sounds odd (that’s what I thought too the first time I heard about it) but the combination works really well. You put a teaspoon of pickle (usually served chilled) on the keropok. When you bite into the crispy keropok, you get a burst of tastes and sensations on your tongue: savoury and sweet and salty all at once. It works only with acar from Sarawak so get a bottle if you’re in any local market there. (Quick sidenote: Learn how to make instant acar from a Sarawakian friend of mine in the US.)
Kuching siew pau
Unlike the Seremban siew pau which we get here in the Semenanjung, the Kuchingites have their own famous siew pau. It is less polished, unlike its Seremban cousin, and looks ‘whitish beige’. The taste is more traditional too. But yummy nonetheless. Imagine it’s a siew pau that your grandma made – looks and tastes like that. Try the yam puff and curry puff too when you buy the siew pau. Legend has it that the two feuding siew pau makers along Carpenter Street in downtown Kuching (near Chinatown) make the same pau because one learnt from the other and then decided to open a shop next to her mentor! Of course everyone says the original pau from the original shop tastes better! You don’t have to visit the shop to buy the pau – you can get it just as easily from any coffee shop around Kuching.
“Umai” or raw fish salad
Umai is a native food made from raw fish. I first tasted this during the Rainforest World Music Festival many years ago at the Sarawak Cultural Village. I’m quite all right with raw fish since I do love my sashimi with a vengeance. According to a Kuchingite friend who works in Mukah (famous for its sago by the way and of course fat juicy sago worms!), any type of fresh fish can be used to make umai. Also, you can have two types of umai – one is shredded raw fish mixed with sliced onions, lime juice, salt, sugar and chillies or the other type which is plain sliced raw fish (akin to sashimi) eaten with a spicy chili dip. Both taste equally good, he says. This same person has also taken grilled sago worms. We asked if it tastes like chicken. He smiles and says that he can’t describe it – one must take it to know how it tastes like!
Of course you must taste this when you are in Kuching. How can you not? The one I like is located at the 3rd Mile market, in a coffee shop which sells kolo mee too. It’s pretty addictive, this Sarawak laksa. If you start getting withdrawal symptoms, go to any Everise supermarket and grab a few packets of laksa paste. I’ve tried looking for the original brand – Swallow brand – but cannot seem to find it. I did find other unknown brands like Cap Helang, Cap Burung Bayan etc. Not tested so do not know if they’re any good. Or try getting Barrett’s laksa paste from their coffee shop at Bormill Estate if all fails. Barrett’s is the offshoot of the original Swallow brand. Don’t forget to get their sambal belacan too. Otherwise your sarawak laksa will not taste like sarawak laksa without the sambal belacan!
If you don’t know that Sarawak is famous for pepper, you shouldn’t read further. LOL. Sarawak is the world’s biggest producer of quality pepper, for your info. Pepper is the king of spices and your black pepper steak will be awful without this spice. Get peppercorns for your friends and family because nothing tastes better than freshly ground pepper from fresh peppercorns (Especially ‘too thor thng’! Yum) Anyway, if you don’t cook but would like something peppery, try pepper sweets (which taste like mints so don’t worry). Or buy pepper perfume! Or buy pepper sauces in bottles. Where to get? Any supermarket in Kuching or any Sarakraf or tourist souvenir shop.
Salted terubuk fish
I love eating terubuk fish (American Shad) which my grandma cooks although the fish has so many bones that it’s terrifying! But the fish is lemak and lovely when braised with bitter gourd and black beans. However in Sarawak, they do the salted fish version. Sold in the Satok market, this fish is a must-buy. I have not tasted this salted terubuk though but I guess it would be like any other salted fish. Anyone tasted this and know how to eat it?
Midin or young fern shoots
Only in Sarawak you will get this at your local ‘tai chow’ or ‘chu char’ eating place. It is crispy and yummy when stirfried with garlic and out of this world when fried with belacan! Midin is a jungle fern eaten by locals. Nic says the pucuk pakis (like the ones you find in Tesco) over here is similar but NOT the real thing.
It’s a sin if I leave this out. Kolok Mee or Kolo Mee is a simple dish of springy noodles (very “Q” – a Hokkien term for extreme springiness!) with seasonings, lashings of char siew oil and slices of char siew. That’s it. So simple, so delicious! Unlike our wantan mee, it has no black soya sauce, it is not soggy, and it is not full of ingredients. It can be served dry or in a soup. Either way, the kolo mee is good because it has bite and the flavourful char siew oil gives it the added ooomph. You can get kolo mee anywhere, anytime in Kuching. I’ve become as much of a kolo mee fan as my husband. You have not been to Sarawak if you have not tasted this local dish. Yes, there are halal versions too sold by Muslims – it is topped with beef slices instead of porky char siew.
OK, this post is making me really hungry. I must stop or I’ll drool all over this PC!
Do you have any favourite food/snacks from your hometown to share?
Granted, Kuching isn’t my hometown (it is my husband’s) but I feel I know the place after so many trips there! Any Sarawakians want to add on to my list of snacks and food of Kuching?