Noodles of Borneo

6 Jan

The Borneo jungle

Since we’re doing the family holiday get-together thing later this January, we decided to spend Christmas in Borneo. (Sarawak, to be specific.) That’s right, like Timbuktu, Borneo isn’t just shorthand for “exotic hinterland” but a real place, a large island in the South China Sea a 2-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. Borneo is divided between Malaysia on the north side and Indonesia on the south side; we stayed on the Malaysian side, since you can drink the water. (We did see Indonesia, though.) For non-Malaysians, Borneo is known (by those who know it at all) for orang-utans, primordial rainforest jungles, and headhunters (who are still around, though headhunting as a practice died out about a century ago. But they’ve still got the skulls to show tourists).

Sarawak laksa

For Malaysians, of course, Sarawak — and Kuching in particular — is known for its laksa. Laksa, basically noodles in a spicy broth, is to Malaysia as barbecue is to the American South: every region seems to have its own, often wildly divergent, take. One of the most famous is Penang assam laksa, which I’ve posted on before; Johor has a famous version as well, though I haven’t tried it yet. The distinguishing features of Sarawak laksa seem to be the copious amounts of Sarawak pepper (that’s peppercorns, another specialty) in the broth, which gives it almost an anise-like flavor, and that the noodles are bihun, or rice vermicelli, rather than the thicker rice noodles used in other laksas. I’m ashamed to confess that my first time with laksa was at the hotel breakfast buffet, and that I didn’t make it to any of the famous laksa stalls in Kuching, because they don’t serve it past 10 am or so (and honestly, if breakfast is included with your room, there’s little incentive to go out). That’s right, a bowl of peppery, spicy curry noodles is the breakfast of champions for most Malaysians. Take that, Wheaties.

If you can’t get up in time for laksa, there’s kolo mee (sometimes spelled kolok mee) for lunch.

Kolo mee in soup

I actually had no idea when ordering that kolo mee was so famous — we ended up at this stall because the laksa place wasn’t open. Apparently I ordered it wrong; you’re supposed to get it dry (soup on the side). It’s basically egg noodles topped with some veg, pork mince, and char siew. (One interesting difference between Sarawak and peninsular Malaysia is that, because the population in Sarawak is mostly indigenous Christian tribes and Chinese, pork is a frequent feature on the menu.) I did notice that the chilis, which are usually served in soy sauce in peninsular Malaysia, were in vinegar; the pickled chili gives the noodles a nice tang.

You can even take kolo mee with you. We went on a kayak trip, and instead of sandwiches or musubi or even nasi lemak, we got these tasty packages for lunch:

Kolo mee "tau pau" (takeaway)

Obviously, this is the dry version, and served room temp. I found this version quite tasty also, and I don’t think it was just because we’d been kayaking and I was hungry. (Tom did most of the work, anyway.) It reminded me of a Japanese dish called hiyashi-chuka (literally, “chilled Chinese [noodles]), but without the sweet soy sauce dressing and with more chili peppers.

Food in Borneo isn’t all noodles, and I’ll be posting about other unusual specialties soon. But it’s a testament to the Malaysian love of noodles that the two most famous dishes are both noodle-based. Although, who doesn’t love noodles? In fact, I think noodles and dumplings are pretty much as global as it gets; can you think of any culture that doesn’t have one of these things as a part of the regular diet? Maybe Inuit cuisine? Anyway, having had laksa almost every morning in Sarawak, I think I could really get behind the noodles-for-breakfast thing. If only I could get up early enough to make it….

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One Response to “Noodles of Borneo”

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  1. More food from the jungle: bamboo chicken, ferns, and a bilingual pun « Straight Out of Kampung - January 6, 2011

    […] ferns, postaday2011, sambal belacan, Sarawak, shrimp, umai If you’re not in the mood for noodles, Borneo has a lot of other unique cuisine to offer. On our first night in Kuching, we decided to […]

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