Sugar, spice and everything… strange?

Borned and bred a Penangite, I have always thought Sarawakian food looks a little, well, funky. Which made it all the more intriguing to me. When the time finally came for me to go across the South China Sea and try them out myself, I could not wait. Immediately, I got in touch with Mike, my one and only Sarawakian friend, and got him to take me around hunting for food.

Sarawak Laksa.

The schedule was tight for this trip, so we delved straight into it practically the moment I landed in Kuching. We headed off towards Jalan Ang Cheng Ho, where the Top1 Food Court is, and where Mike claimed is where the best Sarawak Laksa and Kolok Mee is at. I shall let the locals argue over this.

Growing up wrinkling my nose at the catastrophe that is the Penang Assam Laksa – yes, how un-Penangite of me – and raising a questionable eyebrow at the Curry Laksa commonly served in Kuala Lumpur, imagine my surprise when they placed a bowl of Sarawak Laksa in front of me. From the sour tamarind and rough rice noodles, to the spicy coconut-based soup and tofu puffs, I was invited to try out a whole new breed of the Laksa family tree.

The Sarawak Laksa tastes neither sour, nor spicy. In fact, it could be the grey area of the two other Laksa dishes. Sarawak Laksa uses rice vermicelli, or mee hoon. I took me awhile to accept big prawns and chicken as toppings for Laksa, but I am more than happy to obliged because those are what I am familiar with. Heh. So yes, Sarawak Laksa, over Assam Laksa any day.

Kolok Mee is a household pride for the locals in Kuching city. To me, it is kind of like Wan Tan Mee, minus the dark sauce; Kolok Mee is served up either plain or with char siew sauce. It is like a breath of fresh air for my tastebud on this, if my tongue can breathe at all. All this while, the dark sauce for Wan Tan Mee gets too heavy for the pallete, which is why I only eat it once in a while. So, it is a welcoming weight when the char siew sauce – light and sweet – hits the tongue. Compare to the one served plainly, which feels like something is missing, it is like welcoming a new guest that becomes an immediate favourite to your house.

Next, we headed off to the Sarawak Warriors Monument Park at Jalan Taman Budaya, where the quaint old shack called Summer House is. It was scorching that day, and it was nice to sit down amongst the trees and hear the soft ruffles around us, complementing the cemetery nearby as I tried out a plate of Belacan Mee Hoon.

I was expecting a serving of fried mee hoon, but what came was drowned in a languid bowl of soup with shreds of cucumber and squid, a generous dressing of prawn paste sauce, and sprinkled peanut crumbs. Probably because of the cucumbers and squids, but the dish just kept on reminding me of Rojak, where the two ingredients are always included, despite one being served in soup while the other in heavy sauce.

It is a refreshing start with every bite of the cucumber strips, as it cleanses the palette so that you feel the sweetness hit you full on every time. There is nothing spicy about this dish, despite its given name. For someone like me who cannot really take spicy food without groping for a glass of iced water in between every mouthful, it is definitely the kind of dish I would opt for.

Much to Mike’s dismay, the three places serving Manok Pansoh that he decided to go were closed that day. And he would not rest till he found some place with that dish on the menu. Luckily, just when we were about to give up for the evening, we ran into a shy restaurant at the back street of the hotel I was staying in. And just like that, we were having Iban food for dinner.

Visiting Sarawak without trying out the Iban delicacies is like walking around with a detached arm. One of the famous dishes is Manok Pansoh, which means “chicken in bamboo” in Iban. The chicken meat is cut into pieces and stuffed into a hollow bamboo tube mixed with mushrooms, lemongrass and tapioca leaves. Then, the bamboo tubes are cooked over an open fire, allowing the bamboo to preserve the taste and fragrance of the ingredients inside.

I didn’t find this dish really special because it tasted like any other chicken dishes I had. In fact, the lemongrass smell (I think) was overwhelming so it did no good to me. Yet, I would say this is a recommended dish for those who are just about to step into the wild side of Iban’s food spread; with ingredients everyone can relate to, yet cooked in an authentic style of the Iban culture. Because things will start to get a little more unusual by the minute as we proceed down the table.

See, the thing was Mike told the waiter to “bring out whatever Iban dish you have”. And how was I to know the Ulat Mulong was one of them. I was literally taken aback when the waitress placed it on the table. And everytime I looked at it, it ran chills down my spine, as if the worms came alive and started wriggling under my skin.

All the same, I still want to try it out. So, I gathered a big gulp of courage and cleared my mind that what I am about to put into my mouth is a worm, before I scooped the smallest one on the plate, buried it under a mouthful of rice, and – after another deep breath – stuffed it into my mouth. And chewed.

They said it tastes like chicken and they arere right, minus the usual meat texture I have grown familiar with. However, it is hard to pretend further when you started biting down on crunchy parts of the worm. And lying to yourself that it is a fried chicken will not do much help either.

And that was the only sago worm I tried for the night. And probably ever. Gosh. The things I do for work.

Alas, those were the only dishes I tried while I was in Sarawak that day. And I know judging from the size of the state, I have probably just wriggled the tip of my toe at the humongous pond. But I have a good feeling I will be heading back there soon enough. And I hope the next time, I will get to try out more.

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4 Responses to “Sugar, spice and everything… strange?”

  1. KittyCat Says:

    Interesting! I’ve been going to Kuching for close to 9 years now but have *not* heard of Belacan Meehoon or Manok Pansoh. Gonna look for some this CNY. Thanks 🙂

  2. Ah_Mike Says:

    LOL love your entry babe 🙂 When can we have a round 2 of ulat mulong? 😛

    Oh, Kitty Cat you want me to bring you to the belacan meehoon and manok pansoh?

  3. Celeste Says:

    mike: haha. i think i have enough for the time being. perhaps in the next say, 10 years. lol.
    and already, finding a new client for your illegal tour agency? heh.

    kittycat: you should try out the belacan mee hoon, and yup, mike can be the one to bring you there. heh.

  4. awangmadel Says:

    haha..nice article…i want to try ulat mulong..never tried it before… (^_^)

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