Wednesday, October 5

What would you consider to be Sarawak’s signature dishes?


Heritage foods.

DID you know that a grand total of 213 foods in Malaysia have been declared as national heritage foods?

Well, neither did I!

It’s an amazing figure to be sure and one could very well under one’s breath ask – why should it seem like almost every local ethnic food be so classified if we wanted to just highlight, promote or concentrate on a few really great authentic and original local foods – for after all, there would be so many foods and dishes that we share in common with our neighbours like Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and even further afield like Thailand and Vietnam?

Where then do we draw the line?

How can we truly say which of our foods are unique?

On Thursday, June 2, the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Malaysia (Motac) Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri stated that there would be 14 ‘heritage foods’ to be added to Sarawak’s current list; of which the earlier batch had included Manok Pansuh, Umai, Bubur Pedas Sarawak, Sayur Midin Goreng, Kek Lapis Sarawak, Kelupis, Tebaloi, Celorot, and Penyaram. The five newcomers would include Laksa Sarawak, kolo mee, Burasak and Borongko (of Bugis origin) and Nuba Laya (of Kelabit origin).

This is all well and good, and if only to ensure that we have a proper and comprehensive record and a full listing of all the foods considered local and authentic and originate from Sarawak, it’s a laudable effort. Indeed, I for one would love to know exactly which 213 foods have so far been included in the national heritage foods list.

As it is right now – the published literature in the way of journals, magazines and books related to such heritage foods and other endangered foods together with the more commonly home cooked range of simple fare regularly consumed in homes throughout the country in the villages, longhouses and urban residences – have been rather limited and can be counted on two hands.

Indeed, the minister herself disclosed that Motac itself has only so far published six books through the Department of National Heritage.

I have seen on bookstore shelves at least a dozen titles on just Peranakan foods alone, which were published commercially. I’ve been told that these actually sell rather well, as the contents and quality of these local publications are very high indeed.

I would like to highlight two such books by our local Sarawak writers/authors/contributors – firstly one called ‘Food Heritage of Sarawak’ by Heidi Munan, 233 pages, published in 2012 by the Department of National Heritage; secondly ‘Legacy Cookbook’, 303 pages, published 2011 by Sarawak Eurasian Association, the brainchild of Dona Drury Wee (President SEA), which had won the Best in the World Award bestowed by Gourmand Magazine France in 2012.

These two publications are still in print and can be ordered and/or sold at good bookstores everywhere. They are well worth looking for and are superb keepsakes.

By declaring as many as 14 foods to be ‘heritage foods of Sarawak’ is in a way likened to a hunter using his shotgun with a #4 cartridge  trying to shoot down two or more birds flying together!

Personally I would rather just go for a handful, say five ‘best of’ dishes to promote to the foodies, the tourists or the food bloggers when we are promoting our Sarawak local foods.
After all, when you think of a nation’s favourite food, you’d immediately think of pizza in Italy, sushi in Japan and tom yam kung in Thailand!

I am prepared to stick my neck out by offering my own personal choices of what popular, local and authentic dishes we have that we can promote on the basis that these five are uniquely ours, tastes completely original and are unlike any other dishes you have tried before and are difficult to find outside Sarawak.

These three criteria should always be used when we discuss about authenticity in foods.

There’s actually no point to debate about why isn’t such and such a dish on the list – for instance, why not include Chicken Rice, Nasi Lemak, Roti Canai, Chendol, Kuih Chap or Midin?

Well, simply because you can easily find them elsewhere – any of our neighbouring countries offer these as well, and sometimes, much better versions too!

My own personal choices for the foods uniquely Sarawakian and worthy of being promoted and written about, and can be easily sourced, located in cities and towns (although not necessarily easily cooked at home by us!) are as follows, in no order of priority:

  • Laksa Sarawak – Nowhere else can you find a bowl as good as in Kuching, and although every foodie would have his favourite stall, it is very special in its overall taste, looks, and aesthetic appeal. I challenge you that if everyone were to make his own Top 5 list, most of the time you’d find different names of favourite stalls on it. Also our palates and personal tastes tend to change too over time, and what you had liked 10 years ago may not be the same now; or if the original stallholder had retired, the replacement isn’t as good. There’s also a range of broth as well, from the more curry-flavour version or the more santan-laden version, or the lighter, more refined one. There’s also variations with original Chinese parsley/coriander; whole versus sliced prawns; striped chicken versus sliced chunky, and of course, the spiciness of the sambal belacan! Nowadays, a nice bowl can cost you anything between RM5 to RM12.

Laksa Sarawak.

  • Kuching Kolo Mee – In the 1960s right up to the mid-1980s there was only one version, the traditional straight Kolo Mee, with a good splash of lard and fried shallots oil, and the noodles were topped with slim slices of ‘char siew’ and deep-fried minced pork and some chopped green onions; a small ramekin with light soy sauce and cut chillies would accompany and even a small bowl of clear broth topped with MSG and chopped green onions for those more traditionalist ones. Nowadays you have at least three more varieties – the ‘mee pok’ (flat noodle), the curly and the hand-made! You also have a whole range of optional ingredients, from pork bits and pieces and organs, to mixed seafood, to whatever else you may want to add on, so long as you can see it on offer. You can also ask for it in its original ‘white’ form, red with char siew oil, or black in soy, or spicy sweet red in an awful sweetish yet ‘chillified’ concoction.

Kolo Mee.

  • Mee Jawa – This is also unique to Sarawak, and you can still get really good ones if you look hard enough. Although it is a traditional noodle dish brought over by the Javanese who had made their homes here, it has been transformed into something quite different from the original. It is sometimes confused with ‘Mee Rebus’, which is rather different. Mee Jawa is a yellow egg-noodle dish heavily drenched in a finely blended sweet potato base mixed with tomato sauce and prawn stock. It is also pumped full of beef stock to give its slightly meaty flavour. The toppings normally include beansprouts, ground peanuts, sliced beancurd and optional chicken or beef pieces. Always ask for the special and they’d serve it with three satay sticks (choice of chicken or beef) and the extra satay peanut ‘kuah’ (gravy) when added into the bowl of Mee Jawa, enhances and improves the taste by 100 per cent! Nowadays, a standard bowl costs between RM4 and RM6, and the ‘special’ is from RM7 to RM9.

Mee Jawa.

  • Pansoh Manok – It is the Dayak festival food, but can be commonly found nowadays at good restaurants and specialist eateries, or on special orders. It usually consists of ‘manok’ (chicken), but you can also use pork, fish or seafood, or just vegetables. Chunks of the meat are mixed together with certain jungle leaves, plants and herbs and stuffed tightly into the hollowed-out pipe of a good sized bamboo (use only green ones, not the old or broken bamboos) and placed over an open fire (firewood or charcoal fire has to be medium simmer, akin to that when BBQ-ing your meats on an open grill). For some, for that extra ‘oomph’, ‘tuak’ (rice wine) or alcohol is added into the mix. Personally, I’ve had some awesome versions of this dish at Le’Pau, a native eatery at Ban Hock Road behind the Supreme Hotel, and also at The Venue, in RH Plaza, opposite the Expert Food Court. Usually they are on special orders only. It would cost around RM40 to RM60 per serving.

Pansoh Manok.

  • Kachangma – It is uniquely Sarawak and is created from dried motherwort herbal leaves that are slowly dry-fried and then cooked with chunks of chicken and mashed ginger and lots of rice wine, slowly simmered until everything is totally stewed and the special fragrance and aroma fills the entire house. It started as a Hakka speciality, essentially consumed by postnatal mothers as a medicinal food to warm their wombs, restore their appetite and increase milk production for breast-feeding. It caught on as a popular food among the local Chinese and had quickly spread to the other races – I’ve seen it cooked and enjoyed in households, from Bidayuh to Melanau, to Iban and Eurasian. Today, it is quite commonly found at fast food stalls in the urban areas and many popular eateries also offer it on special orders. However, I hasten to warn first time testers, especially Caucasians, who might find it too earthy or strange in its taste – it’s definitely one of those ‘love it or hate it’ foods, rather like durians! A bowl of kachangma for two persons would cost around RM10 to RM15.


There you have it – really special and totally unique Sarawak foods all of them.

Of these five highlights, at least one or two would definitely stick in the minds of the foodie to last him a while – and for him to be able to say to another fellow foodie or traveller should he be asked this question: “What did you eat when you were there – did you like any of the food in Sarawak?”

I bet you he’d have at least one of these at the tip of his tongue!