I come from the Kingdom of Sarawak. Not really. Sarawak is now one of the 13 states of Malaysia, but it hasn’t always been that way. Sarawak was part of the Brunei Sultanate, then under the governance of the White Rajahs (1842 – 1946, it was known then as the Kingdom of Sarawak), later ceded to the British after WWII (1946-1963, Crown Colony of Sarawak). Sarawak gained its independence on 22 July 1963 and became part of the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963.
These changes in the governance of Sarawak happened not too long ago and my parents were born during these changes. Di was born into the Kingdom of Sarawak (though during WWII Borneo was under Japanese military rule) and Mi was born during the British rule, in the Crown Colony of Sarawak.
Sarawak certainly has an interesting history, but what ties Sarawakians together is our all-consuming love of the local cuisine. Being Foochow (a dialect from Southern China) adds another layer to this already melting pot of flavours. The Foochow have a rich history in Sarawak, and to my delight, has brought some of this history to Melbourne.
I was introduced to Kitchen Inn by a Kuching friend. This chain of eateries (Melbourne and Perth) serves up kampua (Foochow dry noodles) and kolo mee (Hokkein dry noodles). Oh, be still my beating heart! Kampua is equivalent to a staple food for Foochows, and kolo mee to Sarawak Hokkiens. These dishes are near impossible to find outside of Sarawak, even in West Malaysia. BL is from Kuala Trengganu by way of Kuala Lumpur, so these dishes were a mystery to him.
The kampua here was delightful. They tasted authentic. Fresh-made chewy noodles flavoured with lard and fried shallots. The char siu (barbecued pork) was excellent, sweet and savoury. There are very few dishes that make me feel more at home than this. Unfortunately, the traditional accompaniment to kampua, a bowl of pig liver soup was sold out. Seriously. Who knew there would be a run on pig liver soup?
The teh-C peng (iced tea with evaporated milk and palm sugar) was glorious. Strong tea, with a good balance of milk and sweetness.
The kolo mee was not as successful; it was just a bit too wet and had a puddle of liquid at the base of the noodles. The special version comes with prawn and roast pork as well as the char siu.
Another traditional Foochow dish is zao cai hoon ngan (see this post for authentic Sibu version). Kitchen Inn calls theirs fish zhao chai vermicelli (which described it well), it is a savoury, sour-ish fish based noodle soup with pieces of fish and preserved vegetables (zhao chai). The version here uses fried fish pieces, – traditionally these are fresh pieces. It’s a minor quibble really; this is a massive portion of comforting, flavoursome noodle soup.
All my Sarawak favourites are here. There’s the Sarawak laksa and even the oddly delicious tomato sauce kueh teow. The portions at Kitchen Inn are huge, but the food is so good, you won’t want to share. A bonus, if you get here between 3-6pm, a selection of the best dishes are ~30% off.
During our nearly 3 days in Melbourne, we ate here twice, and also ordered takeaways for our next stop.
SugarBun is a Sarawakian home-grown fast food chain. Sarawakian children grew up with SugarBun’s fish burgers and fried chicken, it was our version of Maccas, and I would still choose SugarBun over McDonald’s any day. This outlet in Melbourne, housed in a historic building on Russell Street, was opened by the twin daughters of SugarBun’s founder. The menu here is limited. Gone are the burgers, and the fried chicken comes in sets with rice and condiments of pickled vegetables and fried tofu.
I went for bak kut teh (herbal pork bone soup), with offal ($18 set with drink + $3.50 for the offal). This nourishing tonic soup is a regular dinner dish at my home. SugarBun’s version is pale in colour, but has a good depth of flavour. The bak kut teh is served in a traditional earthenware dish, and comes with somewhat stale you char kuey (fried bread) and lukewarm stodgy rice.
I was disappointed with the teh-C peng, – it needed to be stronger, and the serving size at SugarBun was small. It seemed odd that they serve these in takeaway plastic cups for dine-in customers.
BL had the sambal pedas (hot) broasted chicken set ($14.50). The pressure fried chicken is marinated with spcies, ginger and lemongrass. The set comes with coconut rice, fried tofu, homemade chilli sauce, acar (pickled vegetables) and dates. The spicy chicken is nicely flavoured, not oily and I liked the combination of flavours and textures.
I was disappointed with SugarBun. The food seemed lack-lustre, and expensive for what was provided. The food also needed to be served at a hotter temperature.
Overall, it was a massive treat to find food from my hometown. Luckily, Melbourne is a lot closer than Kuching, allowing me to satiate my homesickness in between trips home.
369 Elizabeth Street, CBD, Melbourne (also at Glen Waverly)
Sun – Thu 11am – 10pm
Fri/Sat 11am – 10:30pm
SugarBun & Nanyang Bak Kut Teh
205 Russell Street, CBD, Melbourne
Tue – Thu 12 noon – 3pm, 6pm – 9:30pm
Fri – Sun 12 noon – 9:30pm