THE two favourite hawker foods of Kuching are without a doubt Laksa and Kolok Mee. Whenever I have visitors in town, they invariably say, “We must have your Laksa and Kolok Mee before we leave.” It is curious that these two are recognised as the signature breakfast meals of Kuching. In terms of taste, they are miles apart — if the latter is unassuming and plain, the former is exciting and exotic. Yet, while they may represent the different ends of the taste spectrum, they are united as one, occupying a special place in the hearts of Sarawakians.
It reminds me of the 1988 film, ‘Twins’. In that film, unlikely twins (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito) are the results of an experiment that allows one, Julius, to grow into a perfect figure of a man while the other, Vincent, to turn out to be quite ordinary and short. I guess it is easy to know who played which character.
Despite their physical differences, the two were united as a pair of endearing twins and loved by their respective girlfriends.
I suppose it is easy to fall in love with Laksa. Just visualise this: crunchy fresh bean sprouts, strips of chicken, succulent prawns and slivers of omelette sitting on a bed of Bee Hoon, bathed in a rich spicy broth and garnished with chopped coriander. Add a dash of lime and you have a meal good enough to excite even the most demanding palate.
On the other hand, Kolok Mee is plain and simple. It is just noodle, boiled, strained, stirred with lard, flavoured with a liberal dose of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and topped with a few slices of roast pork. Of course, in these present more healthconscious days, lard is being substituted with healthier cooking oils and MSG is administered with greater restraint.
Nothing to shout about you would say and I would be inclined to agree. However, there is something almost mysterious about the lure of this seemingly ordinary dish.
One day, I was taken aback when my friend Jack said that he wanted to go to a coffeeshop to buy bags of Kolok Mee for his son to ‘ta pau’ to Kuala Lumpur. My niece, Lynette, who lives in Singapore, also has the habit of stocking her fridge with bags of this local favourite after each visit to Kuching. I was rather bemused by this eccentricity and further intrigued when someone mentioned that she brought along a good supply of Kolok Mee for a vacation in Hong Kong. Talk about ‘bringing coal to Newcastle’ — Hong Kong is the food capital of the world.
There, aside from the rich and exotic Cantonese cuisine, one can sample practically all the dishes of every country in the world. It was a puzzle to me why one should be bothered with the plain, starchy, oily Kolok Mee in the midst of such abundance.
That was my question until a few days ago. I am on vacation in California and enjoying the wide variety of food here.
However, now I begin to have this craving for Laksa and Kolok Mee and I have been away from home for barely three weeks! In fact it is a déjà vu for me. During the time when I was living in England, I used to have a recurring dream where I dreamed I was walking down Oxford Street, London and somehow I ended up in a coffeeshop in Kuching. You know how in a dream, time and space can just collapse? I would be slurping down a bowl of Laksa or Kolok Mee one moment then waking up to a sense of acute deprivation the next.
Maybe that’s what it is. Food is more than a meal.
It is a fragment of our home. Laksa and Kolok Mee are to Sarawak what Apple Pie is to the Americans or Fish and Chips to the English. ‘Apple Pie, just like mother used to make’ is a popular billboard slogan in America. I recall also that in Spanish resorts popular with English holidaymakers ‘Fish and Chips’ restaurants always feature rather prominently.
However, Laksa and Kolok Mee carry a deeper meaning. They are apt metaphors for the harmony of Sarawak multi-racial society. Laksa is a manifestation of that cliché so popular with Sarawakian politicians, ‘Unity in diversity’. The various ingredients are representative of the different racial groups in our State. They are all united to form one beautiful dish.
On the other hand, Kolok Mee is a story of acceptance and integration. With its lard and roast pork, it is a truly Chinese dish.
However, such is its popularity that it transcends cultural and racial boundaries. There is now a halal version of Mee Kolok served with chicken or beef.
So when we take a bowl of Laksa, Kolok Mee or Mee Kolok we are not just eating a tasty meal, we are making an affirmation of our belief in Sarawak society. I hope all those who doubt the viability of a multi-cultural society can learn from these two signature dishes of Sarawak.
For me, I know I am home only when I sit in my favourite coffee shop savouring a bowl of Laksa or Kolok Mee. Hmmm.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org