By B.L. Khoo
Believe it or not, this is my foremost visit to Kuching, Sarawak. I have heard so much about the uniqueness of the place, the indigenous culture, the honoured people and the delectable local food that they are so proud of. Finally I am at the Land of Hornbills!
I was determined to savour as much local food as I can without bursting the seam of my pants. I had the pleasure of staying at the wonderful Waterfront Hotel which was ideally located in Kuching town. On top of my list was of course the much raved about Sarawak Laksa!
I managed to contact a true blue Sarawakian whose family is pretty well known in Kuching. His name is Edgar Ong, a local foodie aficionado with an in-depth knowledge of the various cuisines available in Kuching and the many history and stories behind it all.
My first day schedule was rather packed with meetings and networking with some of the local hoteliers. To de-stress a bit, we were kindly invited to have a few drinks at the Victoria Arms at Merdeka Palace Hotel. The interior was like an old English pub but the evening highlight was the band which was very good and entertaining. As some of us decided to take a walk back to our hotel after the drinks, the hungry pang strike and we were wondering where we could get some nice supper. We decided to check out Chinatown area which is just across the hotel.
It was about 12.00 am midnight and we noticed this little stall just finished setting up. A “one man show” dishing up hot Pork Porridge. It offered 2 choices, with or without egg at RM 4.50 and RM 5.00 per bowl respectively. The porridge was simple but the taste was very satisfying with a generous amount of minced meat. I must say that the portion was just perfect for a late night meal, not too overwhelming.
The following day, Edgar and Doreen arranged a dinner and invited some of their good old friends to join in. We went to a restaurant called The Venue Restaurant and they provide many local style dishes. The first dish on the “must-try” list was Ayam Pansuh. It’s a traditional Iban dish prepared by cooking chicken meat in a bamboo, filled with water, seasonings and covered with tapioca leaves from the cassava plant. The other ingredients are garlic, red onion, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, bungkang or salam leaves and red chillies.
I thoroughly enjoyed it as I like the flavourful, natural sweetness of the combination. Edgar ordered a few other dishes but the other one that I found interesting was the Bidin, an authentic local wild vegetable (fern) grown there. We had it prepared Kerabu Style with a nice, tangy taste but I was told it’s perfect to stir fried the vegetable with garlic, belacan or even Chinese red wine.
Finally on my 3rd day, I was brought to the Sarawak Laksa stall made famous by the patronage of world famous Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain. We arrived quite early in the morning at Choon Hui Café but it was already filled to the brim with so many customers patiently waiting for their turn.
We found a table and while waiting, Edgar ordered the Kolo Mee and their local Poh Piah for me to try. For me, the seasoning of the Kolo Mee was a bit mild but the toppings were pretty generous with sliced pork, minced pork, char siew, pork ball and one big prawn. As for the Poh Piah, it was pretty huge in size, dry style with no seafood content as compared to the Penang version. A small portion of chili sauce is served separately for you to dip it in.
After waiting for about 20 minutes, the climax of the morning breakfast arrived on our table. I had the Special Order that came with five succulent prawns, shredded chicken meat served with a spicy hot chili paste and calamansi to add if you want the curry stock to be a bit more acidic. I actually found the Sarawak Laksa to be pretty good and tasty with its own unique blend of spices and herbs.
Edgar’s good buddy, S.J Lim insisted that I must try the local Pork Leg Rice before leaving Kuching! I was told to make my way to Fook Seng Café before noon. I reached there five minutes before 12.00 and was greeted by a grinning old man telling me that everything has been sold out!
I saw the operation hours written on the wall signage and it says from 11.00 am. Wow…..I’m at a lost for words! Not to be disappointed, I was recommended to walk further down to try another stall which is supposedly his disciple.
Happy to have found it, I ordered a Special Order for RM 9.00 per person. It came with a mixture of collagen high-sliced pork skin and meat, innards (big & small intestines) and pickled cucumber. Two small bowls of soya-based gravy and curry were also served together with rice. The meat and innards were all nice and tender but I find the overall flavour lacking for my palate however the chili sauce given was pretty hot and gives a real kick to the dish. Wandering around town got me trying out the local food like Pork Satay, Pulut Udang and their Bak Chang, which is completely different from Penang.
My flight was at 9.00 pm so I had time to try the last local “must-try” favourite, Koay Chiap! The stall we went to had a combination of dishes and meats to go along with a choice of rice, porridge or hor fun. I ordered a combination of braised pork, innards, taukua and egg to go with a choice of porridge and hor fun. I also tried their version of “Lor Bak” or more commonly known elsewhere in Malaysia as “Ngoh Heong Bak”.
Surprisingly, the stall also cooked two kinds of stewed fish (one is fresh water fish and the other from the sea) as part of their Koay Chiap staple. I ordered the sea water fish option but I found it a bit bland for my taste. Overall I would rate the local Kuching version pretty good and pleasing.
Well that was my short local food trail in Kuching for this trip but I will definitely be back to try more things as there are so many more other “Best Choices” to discover and eat!