In a time when much of our food comes mass-produced, it’s good to know that there are still places where handmade food is appreciated and valued. One such place is Central Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, where local traditional food has been made in small batches long before locavore and artisanal became food trends.
In the town of Sibu, it’s not unusual to see Foochow food being made the traditional way. The local version of the bagel, kompia is a well-loved by the Fuzhou Chinese who settled in the area a century ago. In the alleys near Sibu Central Market, kompia is made fresh daily at Sheng Kee 63.
The shop opened in 1963 and is still doing good business selling kompia baked in a charcoal-fired oven that resembles a tandoori oven. Dough is rolled, shaped and slapped onto the sides of the oven, then scraped out when they buns are done. Selling at four pieces for MYR 1, it’s cheap and filling.
Another Foochow specialty is mee sua, or longevity noodles. Given how common and inexpensive machine-made noodles are, it’s a wonder that small home-based producers can still survive and compete. Under a belian wood house in Ulu Oya outside Sibu, mee sua makers count on good weather to make handpulled noodles, which have a chewy texture that the locals still prefer.
After kneading and rolling the dough, it is stretched on on sticks, then brought outdoors to dry under the sun, and pulled at intervals to create long unbroken noodles that symbolise long life. It is often cooked in red wine to make the classic Foochow noodle soup.
The Melanau ethnic group is one of Sarawak’s indigenous communities. One of their most famous specialties is umai, a raw fish salad that can be made from various types of fish.
Umai is easy to find in Mukah, 160km overland from Sibu. The fish market along the Sungai Gigis has a number of stalls where fresh umai is made from the day’s catch. The fish is deboned, thinly sliced, and packed ready to eat. It is served with a spicy, tangy sambal of onion, ginger and chilli.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
While you’re in Central Sarawak, scour the markets for exotic produce, delicacies and other items you can only find there.
Bintangor Market has everything you can expect from a riverside town marketplace. Don’t be surprised to find carnivorous pitcher plants ready for cooking nasi periuk kera (pitcher plant rice).
Sarawak’s largest market with over 1,000 traders, Sibu Central Market is said to also be the most interesting. Look out for the live chicken wrapped in rolled-up newspaper for takeaway, unusual tropical fruits and jungle produce.
As dusk settles, Sibu Night Market is one of the few places in Sibu that’s still buzzing. Be ready for clouds of (barbecue) smoke, a wide range of prepared meals both halal and non-halal, and some dry goods thrown in for good measure.
Seeing where your food comes from is an eye-opening experience, especially for foodies. The famous Sarawak pepper is grown in plantations such as this one near Bintangor town, which has around 600 of these vines and has been around for about 20 years. Get the chance to meet farmers who are happy to enlighten you on every step from farm to table.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Sibu from Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Johor Bahru. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.