Hungry in Sarawak? Here are local dishes and drinks you wouldn’t want to miss, plus how they came to be so beloved.
What it is: Noodles in a thick, prawn-based broth, topped with shredded omelette, chicken slices, prawns and beansprouts. The noodles used is usually rice vermicelli or bee hoon. The most important component is the soup, which packs a flavourful punch! It has the richness of coconut milk, the sourness of tamarind and lime, the spiciness of belacan, and the fragrance of lemongrass. Heavenly.
Story behind it: As early as the 15th century, Chinese immigrants came to Malaya and contributed to the changing cultural landscape. Noodles was a staple food they brought in from the mainland. Laksa became a union of two different cultures, a marriage of traditional cooking methods and local spices.
How it came to Sarawak isn’t quite as clear-cut. One theory suggests that in the 1950s, a particular blend of laksa paste became increasingly popular, eventually setting the standard for Sarawak laksa. Another theory traces it back to the Chinese settlers from Indonesia.
What it is: Chewy noodles mixed with lard, minced meat and roasted pork slices. Unlike its cousin, the kon loh mee, it doesn’t use egg noodles or dark soy sauce, and the texture is much drier.
Story behind it: Kolo mee was another dish brought in by Chinese settlers. According to a local Kuchingite, the original version was a Cantonese noodle that was much drier than the ones you see today, and only had mince meat and vegetables. Not many were keen on how dry it was (and I imagine I wouldn’t have liked it as much either), which was why it evolved to have a little more gravy in it.
Teh C Special
What it is: Three layered tea. Basically, it’s a sweet concoction of iced black tea, condensed milk and liquid sugar. The different densities give it the signature three layers. Don’t drink it straight without mixing it all up with the straw, as the bottommost layer is literally a shot of either brown sugar, melaka sugar or palm sugar.
Story behind it: Black tea took root in the country thanks to the Chinese tea trade and British obsession for tea in the 17th century. Over the course of centuries, locals developed a taste for black tea with heaps of sugar and milk. During the colonial era, Cameron Highlands became the first highland tea plantation in Malaya.
And what about three layered tea? Locals claim that the original recipe came from 7th Mile Food Court in Kuching.
Tomato Kuey Teow
What it is: Thick rice noodles stir-fried in a tomato-based sauce, complete with vegetables and meat.
Story behind it: This dish closely resembles “Wat Tan Hor”, a Cantonese noodle dish made with a smooth, egg-based gravy. To be honest, how it came to incorporate tomato sauce still baffles me. Perhaps it was simply economical and easy to cook.
What it is: Juicy meat skewers that have been marinated in spices and grilled to smoky perfection, best eaten with peanut sauce. Although any meat can be used to make satay, you seldom see pork satay in Malaysia.
If you are in Kuching, the best pork satay in town can be found at Lau Ya Keng, a coffee shop sandwiched between two Chinese temples on Carpenter Street.
Story behind it: The history of sate traces back to when Muslim Indians and Arab settlers came to Java, Indonesia. Street vendors adapted the recipe for Indian kebabs and satay was born from the embers of the grill. I was told that the name “satay” came from the Hokkien words meaning “three pieces” as each skewer would have three pieces of meat. I’m not entirely convinced by this theory though.
What it is: Traditional layered cake. Art and tradition brought together in the most delicious way possible. Nowadays you can even get them in modern flavours such as chocolate, coffee and strawberry.
Story behind it: Kek lapis was created in Jakarta, Indonesia in the 1970s as a sweet staple for Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Several years later, the recipe was brought to Sarawak and adapted with different ingredients and flavours into the glorious cake locals love today.
Fried Oyster Omelette
What it is: Asian street snack also known as oh chien in Malaysia. The typical oh chien found in Kuala Lumpur and Penang is fluffy and gooey like a pancake, which I have a soft spot for. The Sarawakian version is thin and crispy, with a texture closer to crackers.
Story behind it: The dish is said to originate from Fujian and Chouzhou. During times of hardship when rice was expensive, street vendors mixed starch into their egg batter before frying them up to make it gooey and filling. Oysters were used as cheap source of protein. Now this street food is widely available across Asia.
What it is: Local coffee made from Liberica beans, cultivated in the lowland plantations of Bidayuh and Chinese villages towards the south of the state.
Story behind it: During the 19th century, Sarawak was ruled under a dynastic monarchy by the Brooke dynastic. In 1866, the Brookes attempted to diversify the economy by introducing new crops. The tropical climate made it difficult to cultivate coffee. It was only in 1875 that Liberica Coffee was successfully introduced and today this rare species accounts for 1% of the coffee trade.
If you are itching for a cup of good Sarawakian coffee, try Black Bean Coffee & Tea Company along Jalan Carpenter.