The Food of Kuching, Malaysia

TRAVELLING MALAYSIA is travelling to eat. Doesn’t matter if you’re into greasy Chinese, buttery Indian, carby Western or spicy indigenous stuff, one of the reasons to visit Malaysia is the beautiful flavourfulness of it all. George Town, Penang— which will perhaps always rank highly in my Top Cities Of The World list—was my first and best introduction to the country’s many dishes (it’s worth giving a shout-out to the fine food journalists at Eating Asia, who have chosen the UNESCO-preserved city as their home), and since my first visit some months ago, my appetite has not been quelled.

Kuching is said to be the culinary capital of the Sarawak province, on Borneo, so even though I am by no means yet a professional food writer, the meals here may well be the most memorable parts of my visit. (Well, after the equal-parts creepy and entrancing cat museum.)

Maybe the most popular local specialty is Sarawak laksa, a creamy noodle soup filled with bean sprouts, sliced omelet, chicken, shrimp and green onion. The ratios and flavour will differ depending on your spot—I got one with loads of goodies in a thick, smooth coconut-lemongrass broth, and another that was homogenously 80-percent noodles, but compensated with a spicier and more complex broth. Regardless, the fact that I ordered two in as many days should say something.

The second-most vaunted dish here is kolo mee, a greasy, anything-but-healthy pork-noodle combo. We got ours from a “Chinese barbecue specialist” who looked every bit the part, flash-frying noodles in a pan with two varieties of pork—minced and sliced—before topping the dish off with green onions and red peppers. The veggie intake could have probably been higher, and I’m told unhealthy amounts of MSG are essential for the dish’s savoury flavour, but for $1, I won’t argue.

For all the mee (noodle) dishes out here, there are few variants that truly stand out; most linger around the fried pork/chicken/ginger areas, none too unusual. But tomato mee struck us for its unique sauce. The heavy, eggy tomato sauce drenched V’s crispy noodles but was easily the most delicious part of this otherwise egregiously greasy meal. This particular stall, Daniel’s Restaurant, run by a hefty bald man and his two disciplined teenage sons, threw in a good amount of processed fish meat, which I devoured appreciatively, but which others, like, say, V, might not prefer.

Okay, this last one isn’t special to Kuching or the Sarawak province, but we are in Kuching at the time of the mid-autumn festival (Korean friends will recognize this as Chuseok), which means that moon pies are fucking everywhere. We’ve noticed a lack of many Indian and Muslim restaurants here; East Malaysia is dominantly Chinese, which makes geographic sense. In the spirit of this, V and I opted to splurge on one of the fancier moon-shaped delicacies, ornamentally designed and filled with a creamy milk tea paste that basically melted in our mouths. I’m still not sold that it was worth the extra few ringgits over some of the allegedly “inferior” brands, but if we had splurged even more one of the gargantuan 2.5-kilo cakes, of which the vendor we spoke with had sold over 50 that day alone, perhaps we would now be more impressed. Or possibly dead. We’ll never know.

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