Monday, January 14, 2013

Sarawak Stories 5 : A tale of steamboats, wild ginger and tuak

Our adventures did not stop with the jungle, the dark  limestone caves or the tribal and cultural centres that we visited.  It extended, gloriously and blissfully, to food; plate and bowl-fuls of fresh steaming, aromatic stuff that we devoured day after day (exploring, after all, is a strenuous task).

Breakfasts consisted of plates piled high with noodles - stir fried with bits of vegetables sometimes served with meats doused in pepper sauce.  Occasionally we opted for steamed rice with peanuts, boiled egg and anchovies and when in Kuching, we partook of large amounts of the famous Kuching laksa (a spicy coconut broth served with prawns, chicken, rice noodles, slices of lemon, bean sprouts and spring onion greens).  Lunches and dinners were rice (and not just any rice, but the local Borneo varieties which have their own flavours), stir fried greens of different kinds (our favourite being jungle ferns) and some kind of curry or stir fry on the side.

The fish and prawns, freshly caught and lightly cooked, were always delicious.  In Kuching we often had one of the house favourites of 'Hong Kong Noodle Restaurant' - butter fried prawns, which were large prawns with shells still on, stir fried in an unknown way to impart a buttery, slightly creamy-coconutty taste.  Fish was excellent in any form - grilled, fried or in curries along with chunks of tomatoes, eggplant and starchy vegetables. The vegetables were cooked very differently from what we had back home - tender, barbecued eggplant (brinjal), crunchy fresh okra (lady's finger) with fried garlic, fresh mushrooms with just a drizzle of sauce, slightly sweetened bitter gourd with a sprinkling of boiled egg yolk, "sweet and sour" dishes with fresh pineapple, cucumber and onion - and there were many more that we didn't have time to try.  Everything was so good that we were tempted to visit the local market.

It was just a couple of blocks from the hotel, a large comfortable looking place with heaps of parking (I thought of our crowded and not very clean Bangalore markets).  There was a huge space for unloading and selling fresh vegetables, fruit, greens, herbs and more.  Though we had not intended to buy anything, we finally bought packetfuls of herbs ("something" for stir-fried chicken, "something" for chicken soup - to give you strength, to produce heat, to refresh you..), small dried flowers of different kinds for teas - jasmine, lavender, rosebuds, chamomile.  There were a lot of women in charge of stalls, which was a welcome change from India (where the women do sell some things along with other family members but rarely run a stall on their own).

We wandered around, in search of the fish market (and our noses didn't help us the least bit).  Finally we ran into it as we wandered through the back of the market.  There were stalls heaped with the fresh catch from the sea and river and a few stalls with dried and salted fish.  Kuching is famous for its salted shard - a delicacy equated with the Indian hilsa.  It is apparently packed and taken by many passengers on outbound flights from Kuching, but we had a long way to go before we reached home so we didn't attempt to buy any.  However we did buy some fish that was salted and dried; the hotel staff were delighted to see the packets and stored them for me, explained how I should store and cook it when I reached home.

We also wandered through shops in Chinatown that sold herbs and the famous Borneo pepper.  I was tempted to buy more bundles of things - bitter stuff to stimulate the liver, hot stuff for pains and other such, but I resisted.  Invariably, after a few months I forget what is what and how much is to be used and by the time I get round to using it, I am not sure if it will still work.  However, we bought packets of pepper - black and white, different kinds of rice (grown at various altitudes), dried scallops (highly recommended for soup) and pepper wine for cooking.  We saw a lot of "bird's nest" (another Borneo specialty), spent a day wondering if we should buy some, then decided we didn't know quite enough about them and it would be better to wait.  Bird's nests are edible saliva-nests of certain cave swiftlets.  They are believed to be very nutritious, rich in amino acids and minerals produced in a form that is easy for the body to take up.  They are supposed to invigorate the body, boost the immune system and improve the skin (for this last reason, a lot of Chinese actresses apparently use copious amounts of these, driving the already exorbitant prices still higher).  Bird's nest is normally had in the form of a soup with rock sugar, taken just once in a few months (as the store lady explained, trying to tell us that it was not that expensive if you actually worked out the price per bowl of soup and she also convincingly argued that these were as "vegetarian" as cow's milk).  Anyway, we abstained from buying them.

We had some memorable meals - one of them being a steamboat in our jungle cafe in Mulu.  We had ordered this on the last night of our stay (one had to place an order several hours in advance for this).  When we trooped in after our evening hike, we were directed to a special table.  The cook placed a hot plate and then two people began bringing out dish after dish of things to be dipped into large tureens of soup.  The soups were of two kinds - hot and sour and plain chicken broth, that were placed on the hot plate and left to simmer.  It was large and wonderful meal.  We had before us piles of freshly made noodles, fresh vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, thinly sliced meats, assorted fish, fishballs, chickenballs, salad and perhaps the tastiest of all - a local brown egg that slowly cooked and emerged creamy, custard-like, in our bowls.  We ate steadily and silently for about an hour and a half, trying different combinations with each bowlful, but could just about finish half of everything and barely walk at the end of it all.

Another nice meal was one at a fancier restaurant called the.Dyak, in Kuching.  This is the only restaurant that serves local tribal food in the city.  It was started by Vernon Kedit (from the Iban tribe), to share his great-grandmother's recipes and has an unusual interior with pictures of his family and tribal artefacts including the famous pua kumbu  (Bornean textiles, woven in a distinctive ikat-weave).

Here we ordered some of the house specialties - roast pork with local sambal, tilapia fish wrapped in leaves and steamed with wild ginger and red chilly, jungle ferns with wild ginger and steamed local rice.  Everything was lightly and simply cooked, each spice could be tasted on its own - the wild ginger, which I had never sampled before, had a flavour somewhat in between fresh ginger and turmeric.  The chillies were not hot, just flavourful.  The jungle ferns were crunchy, the pork soft and juicy and the fish meltingly tender.  We ended with a dessert of cold fermented rice topped with ice cream and crushed nuts and another one with ice cream, crushed nuts and heady rice wine (tuak).  Everything tasted good and the next morning (our last few hours in Kuching), we rushed to the neighbourhood shops to buy bottles of tuak before we finally took leave of Borneo.

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