Borneo is known for its nature and wildlife, but visitors are often surprised by the wonderful selection of food on offer. While Borneo has similar cultural influences to Peninsular Malaysia – Malaysian, Indian, Chinese – the tribes native to the area have also influenced the culinary scene.
Sarawak is known for its native Malay tribes and their distinctive ‘longhouses’, so it is no surprise that its cuisine bears their influence.
The most popular dish among locals is the kolok mee, a dish made with a light toss of dry noodles with garlic and shallots, and topped with pork mince and thin shreds of sweet pork. Find this at Sin Lian Shin (182, Jalan Green, 93150) and at other hawker stalls around town. Locals will often have this dish for breakfast.
Kolok Mee | William Ng
Another noodle dish, already a Malaysian culinary icon, is laksa. However, Sarawak laksa is much heavier in texture and flavour and is cooked with locally sourced prawns, sour tamarind, garlic, fresh lime and coriander in a thick sambal-belacan-based broth, which uses less coconut milk than the laksas found elsewhere in Malaysia. Try this delicious soup noodle at Woon Lam Cafe 1999 (189, Ground Floor, Jalan Song Thian Cheok, 93100).
For those looking for wild native dishes, there’s a particular vegetable that must be tasted. Midin. a wild fern from the jungle, is a healthy alternative to other heavily cooked vegetables. The thin curly shoots of the fern are light and crispy, and are often stir-fried with garlic, ginger or shrimp paste with chilli. This dish can be found at any coffee shop across the city, and is often served with nasi campur.
Nasi Campur | Fei Tan
Kacangma chicken is another fantastic Sarawakian dish. This is chicken on the bone cooked in a marinade made from motherwort and lots of rice wine and ginger, an ingredient combination that is medicinal and which can assist with restoring physical health and improving circulation. It is popular with mothers who have just gone through childbirth. Kacangma chicken is most often served during the winter months.
Sin Lian Shin
182, Jalan Green, 93150
Woon Lam Cafe 1999
189, Ground Floor
Jalan Song Thian Cheok, 93100
Sabah, Kota Kinabalu and Surrounds
Sabahans love seafood, which can be found in abundance along the waterfront markets in Kota Kinabalu. For a large selection of fresh prawns, crabs, fish and other seafood from the Sabah waters, head to Ocean Seafood Village and have your seafood prepared and cooked to your preference.
However, if you just want to try something small and quick, head to the Houng Kee Restaurant (15, Ground Floor, Block B, Damai Plaza Phase 4, 88300, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah) and order the seafood noodle, a soup noodle bowl made with a fresh seafood mix that contains fish balls, slices of cuttlefish, fish slices and maw, along with a sprinkle of chives and tofu. The soup base can vary between spicy and sour tom yam, curry, or simple vegetable broth, making it a satisfying hunger-stopper.
Tuaran Mee | Vernon Chan
Another noodle dish that should be on your list is tuaran mee. A stir-fry-style noodle that can be found in Tamparuli, on the road to Mount Kinabalu and Sandakan, and in nearby Tuaran, it is fragrant, has an ‘eggy’ aroma and tastes slightly smoky. Stop by Kedai Makan Dan Kopi Keng Swee Hing and taste the noodle goodness this part of Sabah is renowned for.
Ocean Seafood Village
4, Lorong Api-Api 3,
88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Houng Kee Restaurant
15, Ground Floor,
Block B, Damai Plaza Phase 4,
88300, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Kedai Makan Dan Kopi Keng Swee Hing
No. 3, Jalan Bonto
89257 Tamparuli, Sabah
Food culture is inevitably linked to market culture in Borneo, as markets are where many of Borneo’s signature snacks and fruits are available. Some of the best culinary experiences to be had are at markets across Malaysia and it is almost obligatory to visit one when travelling.
In Kuching, the Jalan Satok Sunday Market is a famous landmark where both fresh and preserved produce is displayed and sold, including local seafood and wild vegetables. It’s also where you can find traditional Sawarak snacks such as tebaloi, the sago biscuit that can come pre-packaged or which are found piled up in the open air by vendors who make them at home.
Kota Kinabalu, on the Sabah side of Borneo, is also big on markets. Right on the city’s waterfront is a stretch of wet and dry markets where you can find raw and cooked foods throughout the day. Look out for snacks such as kuih cincin and kuih pinjaram, traditional Sabahan snacks popular with locals and tourists. Both are lightly sweetened and perfect to bring on day trips outside the city.
Outside Kota Kinabalu, the Tanjung Aru town market is also another great one to visit. The specialty at this market is tampoi fruit, a small, tropical rainforest fruit that can be found across Borneo.
Or, back in Kota Kinabalu at the Gaya Street Sunday Market and the Filipino Market, you can find the bambangan fruit, which is often pickled or cooked with fish. The fruit is also known as wild mango due to its sticky, sweet scent.
Tanjung Aru town market
Pekan Tanjung Aru, 88100
Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen
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