In praise of the slow food movement and local traditional cooking


Sarawak Laksa at Sekama’s Jin Ming.

I HAPPENED to chance across a Wikipedia post which said, “Slow Food is an organisation that promotes local food and traditional cooking. It was founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 and has since spread worldwide. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds, and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. It was the first established part of the broader slow movement. Its goals of sustainable foods and promotion of local small businesses are paralleled by a political agenda directed against globalisation of agricultural products.”

At its heart is the aim to promote local foods and traditional gastronomy and food production. Conversely, this means an opposition to fast food, industrial food production, and globalisation.

At ground level, on the local scene throughout Sarawak and Sabah, we can consider ourselves blessed that we still enjoy a high level of local, traditional, and ethnic foods wherever we go – be it in the high-end restaurants, clubs and canteens, bistros and eateries, or in the traditional kopitiams (coffee shops).

The varieties on offer are rather astounding as they range from old-fashioned home-style Chinese cooking (various dialects like Hokkien, Hakka, Foochow, Cantonese, Hainanese, Henghua and Chawanese, etc) to the full range of halal Malay-Muslim cooking styles, Indian and Mamak, and in recent years native cooking from our brethren from the Highlands, as well as the Iban and Bidayuh communities.

Then there are the fusion foods, the culinary artisanal creations from the Peranakans or Nyonyas, as well as the Eurasians, and so many others, which have been lovingly created and crafted by personal tastes through the ages by both trial and error.

I remember the early days of the fast food culture and how it had first taken root in Kuching. It was called Sugar Bun and it was located at the newly-opened Kuching Plaza in 1982 with its very first ‘broasted’ chicken, which was a new culinary sensation in town – this one and only outlet was the hottest eatery in town until others like KFC, McDonalds, and MarryBrown came along many years later.

The dumbing down of our next generation’s culinary taste buds were forever changed and altered by the opening of this first fast food outlet.

Today, we can find at every shopping complex and multilevel commercial plaza dozens of diverse chain outlets offering everything from Korean chicken to Japanese fare, to Indian, to local chain Malay and Chinese fare; amidst the international ubiquitous likes of KFC, McDs, Pizza Hut, and so on.

As for myself I still find solace in my traditional comfort foods – you can also call them fast food, as they are prepared rather quickly, from creations or concoctions earlier prepped at the food vendor’s premises or homes; and finished off at the point of sale, be it a hawker stall, a shop outlet, or a small eatery.

I prefer the ones with some history – the purveyors of local foods that were either originally cooked and prepared by their forefathers or ancestors or someone in the family. There are still many to be found here.

Kolo Mee at Ang Hor, Tabuan Road.

For kolo mee (braised noodles – it comes in many types, straight, flat, curly, green or red), there are a handful of traditional sellers, passed down from generation to generation. The Tsai (also spelled Chai) family alone operates five stalls today – the original three brothers and two third generation; namely at Koufu (formerly Expert) at Mile 4 Kuching; his brother’s stall further down the same road; Ta Wan Kung at Jalan Ang Cheng Hoe; Gala Corner at Gala City; and Fock Hoi at Gala City. I also like the kolo mee at Ang Hor, at Jalan Tabuan; also a third generation from the 1950s.

Sarawak Laksa is almost always a controversial choice – no matter who’s your favourite there will be friends who will dispute, debate and challenge your picks. All I can say here is to each his own. Laksa is such a unique dish that everyone has his or her own favourite; some like it spicier, others more lemak as in more santan (coconut milk) added in; some prefer theirs with a tinge of curry flavour, others don’t; some prefer the overpowering taste of one spice over another; even the viscosity of the broth can be a big debating point!

My original favourite was at Min Heng at No. 5 Carpenter Street, the birthplace of Sarawak Laksa. The Goh brothers had served it there, having been handed down the recipe from their forefathers before them – the original broth was light and uniquely and subtlety flavoured, not overpowering nor very spicy. One needed to add in the delicious sambal for the extra oomph … and squeeze a lime to taste, and they always had wan sui – the fresh coriander – on top (nowadays almost 90 per cent of laksa vendors don’t even bother to serve this!).

Unfortunately, the last of the Goh brothers retired a good many years ago. However, they still make the laksa paste for sale to friends, neighbours, and those interested.

My current favourite laksa fluctuates with my breakfast companions; it’s not easy to agree on one regular stall. I find the laksas at these places extremely agreeable and tasty – they are among my favourites, but don’t take my word for it. Like I said, to each his own!

Here’s my Top 10! Jin Ming at Sekama (and his brother at Sekama Laksa based at Chok Kar Chong, Jalan Song); Yi Ann at Jalan Sekama; Min Joo Kee at Jalan Padungan; Hong Kong Pao at Jalan Padungan; Hong Hin at Abell Road; Chong Choon at Jalan Abell; Choon Hui at Ban Hock Road (Bourdain’s favourite); Mui Chin at Jalan Palm; and Fu Shin Kwang at Jalan Rubber.

I also have a new favourite dim sum place – big pao, small char sio pao, and sio bee place; it’s newly-opened by a descendant of the famous Hock Hai (also known as Fock Hoi), which was established in 1936 by the Hainanese Tham family.

They did a roaring business in the 1960s through to 1980s at their famous outlet opposite the General Post Office. Descendant Morgan and his son Mervyn have just opened a new outlet called Fock Hoi at Gala City; within the same shop a descendant of the famous Tsai kolo mee has also opened a new stall! Thus the merging of two very old Chinese families in the culinary arts of Kuching have come full circle – what serendipity. I say kudos to them all!