My first encounter with Sabahan food was during lunch at Café Boleh in the sprawling Sutera Harbour Resort. As I scanned the lunch buffet, the aromas of the flavourful broths and stir-fries wafted up into my nostrils, literally forcing me to grab a plate and serve my appetite.
I am a diehard seafood enthusiast, and Sabah delivered. I knocked myself out with the number of seafood dishes at the lunch spread. Prawns, squid, fish, crabs, mussels, it made me feel like I was up on cloud nine.
My next experience with Sabahan gastronomy was when Chef Sushil Dwarkanath and Chef Datuk Gordon served up some mouthwatering stir fried kangkung (water spinach) with chicken and crispy prawns. I’d never thought that something so healthy could taste as heavenly as it did.
One meal that I can never forget is when I bought breakfast from a lady, selling food out of her car in a fuel station. The meal consisted of a Styrofoam box with soy fried noodles, with choice of sauces namely sweet chilli paste and Padi chilli sauce and an array of toppings to choose from, including fried eggs, chicken in soy sauce, sausages and my favourite – deep fried parson’s/pope’s nose(chicken bum/tail). This meal spoke chapters about the life and food culture of an everyday Sabahan. It reminded me that for food to taste good it need not be complicated; In fact, most of the time, simple meals from street side vendors are more satisfying than from a fancy restaurant.
A few days later my journey took me from the sea to the mountains, where I encountered the Sabah Tea Resort. This resort gave me a whole new perspective on food by infusing tea in every one of their dishes. I’m not a very big fan of tea, but nevertheless the resort didn’t cease to impress me. They served up some really creative and interesting recipes including tea crusted prawns, tea infused chicken broth, matcha tea waffles and numerous other tea-food amalgamations.
One interesting thing that caught my eye is the Sabahan obsession with crackers of all kinds. Every convenience store or any store for that matter sold at least ten different kinds of crackers. Some of my favourites included prawn crackers, chicken crackers, deep fried wakame (seaweed), crab crackers and peanut crackers.
My most prominent and memorable encounter with traditional Sabahan food was at D’Place Kinabalu, a restaurant situated in the heart of Kota Kinabalu, the capital city. D’Place Kinabalu specializes in the Kadazandusun cuisine, the ancestral cuisine of Sabah. We were warmly welcomed by people in traditional tribal attire. As I entered the restaurant I spotted a glass tank and a signboard above it, it was a tank full of squirming sago worms or butod as the locals call it; the signboard above the tank challenged people courageous enough to eat the butod alive. Quite a bit of motivation and peer pressure later, there I was, in front of a camera with a plate of wriggling worms, trying to face my phobia towards creepy crawlies. After ten minutes of coaxing, Simon the sago worm was in my tummy (yeah, I named him). I was glad I tried it, conquered my fear, and became an honorary Sabahan for a night. Simon had only elevated my appetite, but the dinner buffet at D’Place elevated me into a whole new world. The massive spread included steamed wild rice, fish steamed in banana leaves, chicken feet in soy sauce, fried noodles with peanut sauce, chicken wings, crackers(of course) and steamed rice puddings to name a few.
Sabah! I exclaimed every time I had a meal on this heavenly island. Sabah managed to excite me and had me electrified before every meal. Sabah had me delighted like a kid with cotton candy. Thank you Sabah, the three kilos I put on were totally worth it.