I HAD my first experience of Chinese cuisine when I was 15 years old. It was on my birthday and my mother decided to take us to a Chinese restaurant in Tanzania. She happened to be friends with the Chinese lady, by the name of LilyLike, who ran the restaurant.
I don’t recall the name of the dish but I remember the lady had to choose for us since we did not know what was best. All I can recall is eating a really big fish with a long single strand of vegetable on top of it.
Eating in Kuching has been one of the most fascinating and enriching experiences of my life. This spreads over a wide area, from the varieties of delicacies to the eating habits of Sarawakians.
Coming from a country where citizens normally eat at home, Kuching present an interesting experience that is exotic in its own ways. The number of times I have eaten outside within my three and half years in Malaysia exceeds those of my years in Africa.
Anthropologically speaking, Africa places more emphasis on eating at home due to the role of women in society, among other factors. One of the qualities stressed upon women in Africa is cooking.
Not proportional to education level or any other status, most African women would have learned to cook during the course of their lives, especially before getting married since one of the things that a woman is expected to do is cook for the family.
Though this is changing slowly in the modern age, with the presence of more women who cannot cook, most women are experts in cooking. Those not so blessed with cooking abilities solicit the help of maids with kitchen dexterity.
I believe the famous saying of ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ echoes the practice in Africa. Eating out resonates with bad cooking at home. There’s a popular belief that a husband will eat out if the wife doesn’t cook properly.
The belief furthers the notion that eating out too much is the evil of many marriages. A husband is prone to locate a concubine with good cooking skills, thus breaking his marriage since food is the way to the man’s heart.
This has played a role in the presence of minimal eating out. But this is not to say that people do not eat out and there are no restaurants. Eating out for most is considered a weekend affair, especially when it comes to the whole family going out.
This has further limited the presence of rampant restaurants, in comparison to Malaysia where every corner births a stall or a food court and every place presents its own eating experience.
Another difference I have noted is the manner of choosing a place to go. My friends would deliberate, sometimes up to 30 minutes, driving around thinking where to go for lunch. Initially, this was quite hard for me to understand, especially when I am hungry and someone takes a lifetime oscillating in their decision of where to eat. From where I come from, when one decides to eat out, there is no 30 minutes wasted on where to eat.
A process that seemed to require a few seconds of deliberation and a straightforward pace for me was indeed different here, but in time I was able to go with the flow, taking pride and assimilating to this enduring enterprise.
It’s only recently I have realised I have failed to make a choice of a place to eat, although I am familiar with different eateries. This is when it dawned on me that I was assimilating better than expected.
Up to now, I rank last when it comes to who is going to finish the food fast. It’s not about chopsticks as I am quite an expert thanks to experience. It’s the fact that I eat slowly incorporating conversation while doing so.
This has made me realise I need to gobble the food if I need to keep pace with my Sarawakian friends who, to me, run a marathon in eating. They’re swift and sometimes I don’t even realise they have finished the food on their plates. I get asked whether it’s a challenge eating Sarawakian food. Initially it might be something to juggle but in no time adjustment takes over. My taste buds have over time become Sarawakian.
The Sarawakian community presents a variety of dishes to choose from, from Chinese, Indian to Malay. There is definitely more to choose from and with enough tries, one will definitely find an area of interest.
I have also been asked on how different the food is compared to where I come from. One thing for sure, Chinese dishes are unique to most of us. But when it comes to Indian dishes, I am a bit familiar with them from the Indian cuisine back home.
Malay food is new but I have noticed some of the dishes having some similarities with Arabian cuisine, which I am also familiar with, due to the Arab population in my country.
There are other technical differences, from the ingredients to the manner of cooking. For example, I have noticed the presence of salt in fresh juices. Funny to say, it seems I am the only person to taste it since when I ask my Sarawakian friends they say they don’t taste it. This has happened over a couple of times making me think I need taste bud reconstruction surgery.
There are other minor things that might be different like the habit of some men of putting one of their legs on a stool while eating. I am familiar with crossed-leg eating but never leg-up-the-stool eating. This is fascinating.
But overall, the experience has been spectacular so far. There is definitely much to learn from trying out different dishes.