East Malaysians have long complained about the lack of home food options once they set foot in the Peninsular.
Recently, with the increased traffic in the last decade due to economic growth, educational opportunities and the availability of low-cost air travel, dining options for Sabah and Sarawak cuisine have mushroomed in Kuala Lumpur.
“Dapur Sarawak” on Jalan Sarikei is a favourite that comes up again and again when peaking to East Malaysians.
Whenever Kuching native, Shahparina Hazmi misses her hometown, she heads straight to “Dapur Sarawak”, which she also recommends to all her friends.
“I come over to have my mi kolok,” she shared online. “The kek lapis [layer cake] is also delicious.”
The mee kolok can include prawns, or try the fried variation. Their scrumptious Sarawak Laksa is another crowd pleaser.
Other dishes available include bihun belacan and nasi manok which comes with Sarawak-style grilled chicken.
Just a stone’s throw away in Sunway Putra Mall is KL’s second branch of “Sarawak Bowl”. The Sarawak version of mee sua and the chicken pansuh cooked in bamboo served with Bario rice are both must tries.
“Charlie’s Café” in Taman Desa is another name that keeps coming up. The social enterprise was started in 2015 by Sino-Kadazan couple, Desonny Tuzan and Debra Leong who wanted to serve the comfort food of their home state.
The café is known for their chicken chops, which some say are the best in town. Food guide, Burpple, warns that these crispy delights should not be missed, describing them as “brined and battered, the golden brown chicken is redolent of herbs and delicious when doused in its peppery gravy”.
You can also opt for the nasi lemak serai wangi or stay safe with laksa, the compulsory inclusion for any East Malaysian restaurant in KL.
For a treat, try the UFO tarts, a craze in Sabah. Otherwise, the durian soft serve ice cream or bambangan gelato will surely satisfy those with a sweet tooth.
The café tries to source much of their produce directly from Orang Asli communities, and customers can also choose to “pay it forward” by sponsoring a meal for the needy for RM5.
For those looking for a fine dining option, “Ashley’s” in Bangsar will not disappoint.
The family behind the Living Food Group have roots in Kuching, and with “Ashley’s”, they wanted to provide real wholefoods, with a focus on healthy organic offerings with no microwaves, chemicals or MSG.
"It's difficult to find good Sarawakian food in KL. And I'm vegan so that makes it even tougher,” says regular customer Elizabeth Caroline, who is originally from Miri.
“Ashley's has great options. My favourite is their Borneo Laksa, inspired by the traditional Sarawak Laksa," Elizabeth said.
The luscious Borneo Laksa is made with almond milk, brown rice noodles and a miso sambal. There is also a Nasi Kerabu made with coconut oil flavoured Bario rice, served with vegan palm heart rendang and shredded young mango.
There are also non-vegetarian options on the menu including a version of the Laksa with prawns and omelette.
However, if you want to sample a much larger variety of East Malaysian dishes, you might have to travel to Klang.
“Pinggan Borneo” offers the most extensive choice of East Malaysian food that we have yet seen, including the ever-popular kolok mee and Sarawak Laksa, but also mee Tuaran, the ceviche-like hinava (otherwise known as umai in Sarawak), the starchy ambuyat, and a local Sabahan dessert, kuih penjaram Kota Belud.
Otherwise, go straight to the Borneo markets, such as in Seri Kembangan and Galaxy Ampang Mall.
It’s guaranteed to be a gastronomical adventure with dizzying arrays of fresh produce, spices, nuts, herbs and ready-to-eat food, alongside clothes, handicrafts, textiles and other goodies.
“It’s great-lah, to hear your own accent being spoken, and you can pick up stuff like this vegetable, so you can get a taste of home,” Rachel Baling told the Star.
You can stock up on kek lapis, then try out lesser-known delicacies like tuhau, made from wild ginger, or bosou, strong smelling preserves of fish, fruit or vegetables, or pinasakkan, where the bambangan fruit is steamed with fish or fried with salted fish. Even the seed can be grated and eaten!
If you fancy a night in, or you’re organising a makan-makan event, you can always order from Deux Foods based in Manjalara or Agnes Borneo Cuisine in Ara Damansara.
Both have tasty menus of East Malaysian favourites, and can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
However, the most Malaysian thing you could do is simply work your way through every option above and decide for yourself who makes the best Sarawak Laksa in Kuala Lumpur.
Bon a petit!
UFO tart image source: Malay Mail