Saturday, March 06, 2010

A day on the plate in Kota Kinabalu.

Despite the mystery and allure evoked by its name, something about Kota Kinabalu keeps it from being a particularly engaging city. It's a city of placid avenues and grid-like concrete buildings, too modern to be characterful, but just a little too worn to be graceful. But if there is one moment when the city may be redeemed, it's when its residents sit down to eat.

Many people take their meals under the swirling ceiling fans of kopitiam, Chinese style coffee shops. For breakfast, this is where to go for a warm, sticky glass of coffee, sweetened with condensed milk. If you're lucky, you'll also be able to find a plate of bread with kaya, a rich coconut jam.

The kopitiam stay in business all day; you'll be able to swing by again for lunch. Items on the menu range from Chinese favorites, like char siew (barbecued pork), to Malay, like laksa (noodles in a coconut milk curry), to Straits specialities, like chicken-rice (poached chicken served with a delicate soup and a mildly garlicy bed of rice). Sometimes the most satisfying meal is the most straightforward, like the above mee ayam: a pile noodles (mee) that have been wok-fried in kejap manis (a dark, sweet soy sauce) are topped with cleaver-cut slabs of delicious crispy skinned chicken (ayam).

Elsewhere, Indian style restaurants sell a diverse range of curries, made with chicken, lamb, and vegetables, or even squid and shrimp. A few select shops serve their curry on a banana leaf; more often, a more humble presentation involves a plastic plate and a mound of rice. Look for the large griddles to identify a shop specializing in roti canai, unleavened bread served with small dishes of curry, or murtabak, a folded roti canai filled with meat or vegetables.

You'll still find the city's restaurants and kopitiam awake at night, but for a more lively dinner, head toward the night market on the waterfront. The stalls at the centre of the market seem oddly lacking in variety-- most sell fried rice, fried noodles, or soto, a spicy soup-- but you'll likely find a cheap, tasty meal at least. Around the periphery are dessert shops-- perfect for the sultry Borneo evenings are shops selling cendol, a pandan flavoured dessert served over ice with a dash of coconut milk.

For a more unique dinner you'll need to penetrate the clouds of smoke toward the back of the market. There, you'll find yourself among the grills of the Filipino Barbecue, where vendors display dazzling piles of seafood-- massive prawns, formidible lobsters, and technicolor fish-- all available to be grilled and served with a dressing of chili. It's perhaps the cheapest spot to indulge in the incredible catch available off Borneo's coast.

To walk through the city at mealtime is to hear the sound of spoons scraping at woks and of roti being slapped onto the griddle, to see piles of gorgeous seafood, ducks hanging in shop windows, and trays of colorful curries. It's encountering the unique mix of cultures-- Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Malay-- and the contrasting geographies-- from the tropic seas to the fertile forests-- that make up KK. You might not always be able to see what's exciting about Kota Kinabalu, but at least you can taste it.


michelle said...

Neat... am looking forward to your travels across the Maritime Continent and seeing the culture (and food!). I actually spend part of my workday looking at maps over there since part of my job is to forecast the El Nino-Southern Oscillation. By the way, expect drier than average conditions over the next several months :-)

Xander said...

Ha! It's actually funny you mention drier than average conditions, because we've actually been asking-- where's the rain? It's still supposed to be the rainy season here I think (the end of it, at least) and we haven't seen so much as a drizzle since we got here! -X

jen laceda said...

Oh, KK! Are you guys heading to Mount Kinabalu (highly recommended) or Manukan Island?

Xander said...

Hey Jen-- We've actually already blown through Borneo! We spent a day on Manukan Island, but gave the Mount a miss. It looked beautiful, but to be honest I'm really not into climbing. -X

Cate said...

Laksa yum! Love this dish. Didn't make it to KK but made it t Brunei. I figure the foods are very similar. Have heard Kuching is a place to eat yourself around. Delicious piccies.

Prêt à Voyager said...

You're making me so hungry! it's been nice in Marrakesh getting a little break from French food. Luckily I have one little whole in the wall Thai place I love, but otherwise Asian food in Paris leaves a lot to be desired!


Scho said...

Kota Kinabalu to me, is a potential great city.

Roni Faida said...

Your pictures are visually alluring, thanks for sharing.