February 13, 2007

Kota Kinabalu: the markets & the food

“Welcome to Sabah”, a uniformed officer at the Kota Kinabalu International airport smiled as he greeted us with his right hand on his heart and an ever-so-slight bow. I realize later that this is a typical greeting of the warm and gentle Malaysian people.

So there I was, finally, eight months after we booked our (super cheap!) flights to KK on Air Asia, with the “Macau group” – the friends I went to Macau with this exact same weekend last year. We had had such a wonderful time then, that we vowed to do a trip together every year.

Kota Kinabalu, or KK, is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah and is located on the coast of the island of Borneo. It is named after South East Asia’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kinabalu, a massive granite dome of molten rock popular with mountain climbers everywhere. Because KK is surrounded by a wealth of natural wonder, we decided to experience the best of both worlds by staying 2 nights downtown and 1 night at the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort 45 minutes away.

Our home in the city, Le Meridien, was conveniently located across the Waterfront where most of the city’s best restaurants and bars are located and within walking distance to the markets. On our first night, we ate out on the boardwalk and ordered our food from the Oregano Café. The food was excellent. We had tom yam soup, steamed mussels, nyonya spicy crabs, fried rice, sambal prawns, sweet & sour fish and tons of fresh baby kailan. We ordered practically everything on their menu!

We were stuffed and needed to do what we could to aid the digestion process. So we strolled along the boardwalk past coffee shops, hip bars, english pubs, satay stands, massage stations and other restaurants. Each place pulsed with it's own unique sound and vibe, with varying smells wafting from invisible kitchens, intermingling with that of their neighbors, as locals and tourists occupied both their indoor and outdoor areas. It was after all, a Friday night.

Before retiring to our hotel, we checked out the sprawling central market located just beside the Waterfront esplanade. We walked through stall after stall of vegetables and fruits, some of which were unrecognizable. They had a fish market towards the rear near the water, and a large section with tables and chairs surrounded by stalls of cooked food, chicken and fish on the grill and all sorts of native sweets. It was already 10 pm yet the market was in full swing.

We tried some snake fruit (top left photo), so named because of it's leathery snake-like brown skin. The fruit is native also to Thailand and Indonesia and known locally as salak. The flesh is firm and acidic, not very sweet. I wasn't too fond of it, but I'll take it over durian any day! We did buy some pomelo and guava sprinkled with plum powder to take to the hotel. My sister had introduced me to the apple and plum powder combo recently and even gave me a tub of the stuff, now I have a new fruit to eat it with.

guava with plum powder

The open-air Sunday market on Gaya Street is open from 6 am until 2 pm. They sell pretty much everything here: pets, vegetables, antiques, orchids, fruit, clothes, shoes, name it. It was hot and crowded with tourists and locals but not stinky or dirty. I hadn't had breakfast so I bought some donuts and lemonade. My favorite food item was the mini pancake sandwiches (middle picture below)with assorted fillings of chocolate, peanut, kaya, butter and cheese.

The food. Omigosh the food! There was lots of it. Malaysian cuisine is a perfect representation of the multi-cultural aspects of Malaysia. It is strongly influenced by Chinese, Thai, and Indian cuisine. Like in most Asian countries, rice and noodles are staples together with Indian-style bread such as roti and naan. The dishes are colorful and flavored with a tantalizing mix of spices and herbs that include lemongrass, turmeric, nutmeg, pandan leaves,kaffir lime leaves, cumin, fenugreek and of course garlic, onions and chili paste. Malaysia is like disneyland for the tastebuds! Here are some of the meals we enjoyed:

tom yam soup, chicken satay with peanut sauce and compressed rice, roti canai with egg

curried chicken, lamb kebab, nasi goreng

Nasi Lemak is is a hearty meal of rice, sambal (a thick chili paste), boiled egg, cucumber and peanuts which is usually enjoyed for breakfast. The breakfast buffet of both hotels had a DIY nasi lemak station with all the condiments. It was my first encounter with nasi lemak (it is nasi goreng I am most familiar with) and I thought it was pretty good. Another favorite of the group was the laksa, a tangy soup dish of noodles, shrimp, lettuce and fish.

Another first for me is teh tarik . I becamse an instant fan! It is tea sweetened with condensed milk. They serve it with a nice layer of froth which is achieved by pouring the tea from mug to glass repeatedly with outstretched hands. It's so good, I would have it as dessert.

teh tarik

Next: Kinabalu Park and canopy walk


Anonymous said...

I was waiting for your KK post! :) Food looks amazing! I am craving for roti now...hey, is that makopa I spy in one of the pictures?

Socky said...

Now I'm sorry I didn't make that side trip to the city from Rasa Ria. Hotel food is no match to all the local fare and street food you described so vividly, with pics to boot!

P said...

Rama couldn't get enough of the salak. And I am a huge fan of plum powder. Your first night meal sounds awesome - all my faves. Your pix are great, nena.

Oggi said...

Now I want to know and taste plum powder! And eat makopa! Fabulous photos.

wysgal said...

Everything looks great! What I love about travel in South East Asia is the mix of wonderful flavors and food influences from around the region.

christine said...

Ey jo! Yup that's makopa. Something from my childhood that I haven't seen in ages! :) Have you ever had the roti with egg? It's pretty good. Boy did I stuff myself with roti in KK!

Hi Socky, as much as I LOVED staying at the Shang and eating at the buffets there, I think a trip to the city and the markets is worth it. Something for you to do when you go back :). It's so cheap I wouldn't mind going back again someday!

Poch, I'm surprised Rama not only liked the salak but loved it. I think it's an acquired taste. :) You know when we sat in the airport waiting for our flight back and doing a recap of the trip, someone asked, so which was your favorite meal? And everyone was in agreement that the first night was the best. And the cheapest to boot! I didn't get to take pictures (cept for 1 or 2) because the food was passed around the table so fast and before I knew it , gone! hehe

Hi Oggi, I learned a trick from my friend. If you don't have plum powder, just grate a champoy (the red one) on your fruit. :) Instant plum powder!

Hi wysgal, you're so right! I think SE Asia has some of the most flavorful dishes in the world, at par with Middle Eastern & South Asian (Indian) food in my opinion.

Unknown said...

I just want to own plum powder. It sounds so yummy!

Anonymous said...

You had me in tears by the second paragraph of your post! I spent a good part of my childhood in Malaysia (though it was more of a late-70s/early 80s stay in KL) and your posts about the food brought back so many wonderful memories. Ah, the simple pleasures of li hing mui (it's the Chinese term for plum powder), roti canai, and teh tarik. There are Malay/Nonya-style kopi tiams here in the Philippines now, but they can't hold a candle to the real thing!

christine said...

Garrett, it is! If you have an Oriental grocery nearby, I'm pretty sure they would have some. If not, good reason to make a trip to SF Chinatown! :)

Awww Midge, I'm sorry you were in tears. But at least they were happy memories right? :) Aside from Banana Leaf which I think has the best roti canai, what other places would you recommend? I know I'm going to start craving these dishes soon enough.

Anonymous said...

I love markets! Yours is fascinating. Disneyland for the tastebuds~

Anonymous said...

Ok so seeing as I'm a foodblogger it's not hard to guess how I felt about this post: I loved it! Local markets and cuisine are a source of endless fascination for me, thanks so much for sharing. :)

Ari (Baking and Books)

christine said...

Hi Sandi & Ari, thank you. :) I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Markets are exciting places, no? So colorful and so alive, and very fascinating.

Cath said...

Hi Im cath Im looking at going to KL and KK in August with my two adult daughters, yes cheap Air Aisa fares from Australia :) Im looking at staying at Rasa Ria at KK loved your blog but also love the your KK one. A question...is Rasa Ria too far out of town? What was the transport like in terms of cost lol. We have a great place to stay in KL an apartment at Junes Apartments but thought we would like a little luxury, just a little concerned that food prices at Rasa might be a little expensive for us..any advice really welcome, havent booked anything yet but Im almost ready. Im becoming very familar with MYR :) thanks Cath

Cath said...

just an add on... we have never traveled out of Australia before so this is going to be fun :)

christine said...

Hi Cath! I don't know how I missed this comment of yours, but I'm sorry for the delay in responding. Shangri La Rasa Ria is about 45 mins from the center of KK if I'm not mistaken. We took the shuttle from Shangri La Tanjung Aru to get there, but honestly don't remember how much we paid. I think it may have been free as we were hotel guests. The food in Rasa Ria can be pricey especially when compared to the restaurants in town but they are not too bad for five-star hotel rates. You will have a great time for sure! :)