A taste of Sarawak in Melbourne: Kitchen Inn & SugarBun

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.


Map of modern day Borneo (courtesy of http://www.malaysia-maps.com/malaysia-states-map.htm)

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. Continue reading

Madame Kwong’s, Riccarton, Christchurch

Madame Kwong’s is a new, upmarket Chinese restaurant in a city which sorely needs one. The cuisine focuses on Cantonese and Sichuan food, and also offers dim sum for lunch. It is probably the largest Chinese restaurant in town, well set up for functions and easily seating 300 across two floors. On the Wednesday night we visited, the lower floor of the restaurant quickly filled with both large groups (tables seating 12) and smaller groups of 4 by 7pm.

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U’ng Zao pork

U’ng zao (red lees or ang chao in Hokkein) is veritable red gold for any Foochow cook. U’ng zao is the sediment from making u’ng jiu, Foochow red wine. It is the seminal ingredient in the famous Foochow dish, zao cai hoon ngan (rice noodle with mustard green pickled in red lees), and also gives a very unique flavour to savoury dishes. The red lees is sweet, a little tangy and quite alcoholic, like the wine. U’ng zao can keep for many months in the fridge; a little goes a long way.

I guard my supply of u’ng zao jealously, though Mum now has a friend who makes these and she brings yearly supplies from Christchurch (a.k.a. the Foochow capital of NZ). I typically use u’ng zao to marinate pork belly or chicken before roasting.

The colour of u’ng zao is simply stunning, – vivid crimson, which this dish displays in all its glory. I grew up with this dish, but surprisingly, had never cooked it. A quick phone call home put an end to that.

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Foochow breads, pastries and cookies

For some unfathomable reason, there is a huge range of Foochow baked goods, or maybe it’s just a Sibu thing? I’ve always taken these treats for granted, until, of course, you realise you can’t get them anywhere else.

The food that typifies Sibu above all others (yes, even above the mighty kampua) is the kompia (kom piang). This Foochow bagel is instantly recognizable, with the sesame seed covered crust and the dimple in the middle. In Sibu, you can still get this made in the traditional way, – cooked in a clay oven, giving the crust a slightly charred taste. Continue reading

Eating Sessions in Sibu Part 2

The best cook in mum’s family is without doubt, Kging Kgee (Eldest Uncle’s wife). She has the magic touch, apart from the fact that she has cooked hundreds of meals for everyone in the large extended family for nearly 50 years. We enjoyed dinner at their house a couple of nights.There is nothing as welcoming as a home-cooked meal.

Pek ting ngiuk (8-herb soup)
Deep fried fish with sweet chili sauce
I was in Sibu over the Duanwu Festival (or ‘jho jie’ in Foochow). The festival is typically celebrated by eating rice dumpling (‘jhuh’), and each Chinese dialect has their own fillings. There are two main types, – sweet (peanut, red bean paste, plain) or savoury (pork, chicken, sometimes salted egg yolk is added).

The festival is mainly a time for families to get together for a meal. Eldest Uncle invited us to jho jie at a seafood steamboat dinner, where we feasted on a huge range of delectable seafood.

Chrysanthemum tea
Soft-shell crabs, scallops, mussels (top dish), fish maw, sea cucumber and shiitake mushroom (lower dish)
Large Sibu prawns, there was also a large plate of fish
Poaching eggs in the broth

Zao cai hoon ngan

This is another dish, which all Foochows swear by. Zao cai is mustard vegetable (vegetable = cai) preserved with red wine lees (zao), and hoon ngan is thick rice vermicelli noodles. This is savoury and sour, and is not easy to get the combination just right. The soup base should also be slightly thick.

The zao cai is finely chopped, some cooks now use a food processor to finely chop some of the zao cai to increase the sourness.

The hoon ngan is cooked in chicken stock with the zao cai and red wine, then put aside. The soup is further cooked with tomato pieces, other vegetables and various meats; sometimes a poached egg is added.  Zao cai hoon ngan ‘special’ comes with pieces of fresh fish or prawns. Continue reading

Eating sessions in Sibu Part 1

I consider Kuching is my hometown, but Sibu is the where I was born, and spent the initial formative years of my life. It is also where my parents ‘shipped’ us every school holidays to my maternal grandparents. I have fantastic memories of being spoilt by my very indulgent ‘Ngie Ma’ (Foochow for maternal grandma) and ‘Ngieung’ (grandpa).  Our visits revolved around food, and lots of it, – Ngie Ma was convinced we were too skinny and tried her very best to fatten us up every chance she got. When she picked us up from the airport, the first place we had to stop was at a kopitiam (coffee shop), where we had to eat a bowl of noodles and drink a hot cup of teh chieng (tea with condensed milk/milk and sugar).

Ngie Ma and Ngieung’s old house in Foochow Lane

Sibu has changed a great deal since those days; many of the old kopitiams have made way for modern, airy food courts or cafes. Farley Food Court in Salim is a popular modern food court. We came here for choi sia (a Foochow term which loosely translates to random eats/snacks). Continue reading