Viewpoints

Glutton On The Go

Published: Saturday July 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday July 18, 2014 MYT 2:50:30 PM

Food hunting across Sabah

Fulfilling trip: The writer goes on a gastronomic adventure around the region.

Fulfilling trip: The writer goes on a gastronomic adventure around the region.

Our columnist eats his way through the 'neck' of Sabah, venturing from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau.

My eating adventure across the “neck” of Sabah (imagine the map of the state as a wolf’s head) involves an epic land journey from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau. It starts at KK with the famous Tuaran mee, one of Sabah’s “representative dishes”, and a 4am breakfast of nasi lemak. And now, it’s time to head deep into the interior of Sabah.

We – a mixed bunch of tour guides and travel writers – head south of KK along the coast, past the small towns of Papar and Kimanis, before swinging inland to cross the Crocker mountain range. Up here, the weather is similar to Cameron Highlands. But instead of a bustling highland resort, there is a modest national park headquarters with a handful of chalets. After a quick look at the small collection of mountain ferns (in a garden), we descend back to the lowlands.

Mountain views at the Crocker Range.
Mountain views at the Crocker Range.

Bittergourd Bath

Being insatiable gluttons, we stop for our second breakfast of the day at the town of Keningau, which is famous as the home base of the Kadazandusun’s “paramount leader” Joseph Pairin Kitingan. The Fook Loi coffee shop is probably one of the busiest in town, and we sink our teeth into some bak chang or dense glutinous rice dumplings with a rich filling of pork, mushrooms, beans and chestnuts, as well as packets of nasi lemak.

Those who feel that glutinous rice is too heavy for a morning meal can also try the excellent hum chin paeng. This version of the famous deep-fried Chinese pastry is light and fluffy, its aroma of freshly-fried dough/oil is complemented with spiralling strands of sweet tausar bean paste that make it look a bit like a cinnamon roll.

Speaking of the spice, Keningau was once famous for its cinnamon trees, known in the local language as “kendingau”. In the 1970s and 80s, it became something of a timber boom town until the supply of logs was exhausted, and the economy is now mainly based on agriculture.

A walk through the market reveals lots of fresh vegetables and also a curious remedy for a detox bath – bunches of dried bittergourd leaves. “Boil these in a pot and then pour it into a tub of water. It will clear your skin of any problems,” the lady selling them tells me.

The bak chang or glutinous rice dumplings at Fook Loi coffee shop in Keningau had a rich filling of meat, mushrooms, beans and chestnuts.
The light, fluffy and fragrant hum chin paeng at Keningau’s Fook Loi coffee shop had spiralling strands of sweet tausar bean paste that resembled a cinnamon roll.
These bunches of dried bittergourd leaves on sale at the Keningau market are said to be a remedy for skin problems.
These bunches of dried bittergourd leaves on sale at the Keningau market are said to be a remedy for skin problems.

Hunters’ Heritage

We pressed on further into the interior towards the town of Nabawan, moving from the Kadazandusun heartland into Murut country. “Be careful of the headhunters,” jokes Pat Lingham, our guide from Equator Adventure.

In centuries past, a man could only get married if he had proven his bravery and virility by chopping off an enemy’s head and presenting it (after being suitably preserved, by being smoked, that is) to the family of the desired girl. Indeed, the Murut were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce head-hunting, after many of them converted to Christianity.

Traditionally, they lived by shifting cultivation of hill paddy and tapioca, with blowpipe hunting and fishing to supplement their diet. They lived in communal long-houses, usually near rivers which served as their highways. Traditional dress for men was a jacket made of tree bark and head gear decorated with Argus pheasant feathers.

We search for the rich romance of ancient times at Nabawan, but the town feels new and barren, sprinkled with modern concrete buildings of government offices and shops. And rather than feathers, the men’s T-shirts are decorated with Adidas or Nike logos.

However, we are lucky to be in time for the tamu or market (held twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday). People from surrounding villages have gathered here under a large shelter and laid out their mats to sell their vegetables. Other patches of mats are selling cheap clothes, kitchen utensils and manufactured items. One stall that stands out has a full array of parang or machetes.

A few people also offer jungle meats brought in by hunters, including wild boar and (unfortunately) marbled cat. The last animal is a protected species in Sabah, but enforcement in the deep interior can be difficult. Nevertheless, Pat quickly put a picture of the dead animal up on his Facebook page (there is a data line here!) and quickly got a response from a senior officer of the state’s Wildlife Department, who promised to look into the matter.

Another animal commonly eaten in Sabah is barking deer, which is called payao in the Kadazandusun and Murut languages. According to James Alin, a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, this animal is not regarded as “endangered” and one can officially buy a licence for RM50 from the Sabah Wildlife Department to hunt it. However, James does caution that this undervalues the animal’s important ecological role and may be resulting in overhunting.

The animal is served mainly as kari payao or deer curry, says Pat, who orders some at the Yun Khong 2 restaurant in Nabawan. With a bit of guilt-tinged uncertainty, I dig into the fresh, springy meat, which is cooked in a mild, sweet curry with onions and bell peppers.

The kari payao or deer curry at the Yun Khong 2 restaurant in Nabawan features fresh deer meat cooked in a mild, sweet curry with onions and bell peppers.
Clockwise: Sup tulang is all about beef on the bone being boiled till its goodness has been extracted into the soup; The bakchang or glutinous rice dumplings at Fook Loi coffee shop in Keningau had a rich filling of meat, mushrooms, beans and chestnuts; The light, fluffy and fragrant Ham Chin Peang at Keningau's Fook Loi coffee shop had spiralling strands of sweet tausar bean paste that resembled a cinnamon roll and the kari payao or deer curry at the Yun Khong 2 restaurant in Nabawan features fresh deer meat cooked in a mild, sweet curry with onions and bell peppers.
Sup tulang is all about beef on the bone being boiled till its goodness has been extracted into the soup.
Road signs in the deep interior of Sabah near the Maliau Basin.
Road signs in the deep interior of Sabah near the Maliau Basin.

Meat Soup

After Nabawan, the road gets wilder and bumpier, the result of damage from heavy lorries it seems. The small village-towns that zoom past our van’s windows have rudimentary sundry shops selling rice and sugary sodas. They also have the best way to keep chicken meat fresh – by keeping them alive in wooden coops.

When we pass by road signs that warn of elephants crossing the road, we know that we are near the fabled forests of the Maliau Basin. We spend three days trekking there (but that’s another story) and then continue to Sabah’s south coast, the “lower jaw” of the wolf’s head, if you will.

About half an hour before we reach Tawau, we stop by the town of Merotai Besar. “You guys must try the excellent soto here,” says Pat, as he leads us to Kedai Makan Maskur (Maskur Eating Shop). Soto is a meat soup which originates from Indonesia and it’s popular all over Sabah. The soto at Maskur is hearty and full of beefy flavour, enhanced by a secret blend of spices, and is something to warm up the body and bones after a hard day’s work.

I decide to be more adventurous and try the soto campur (mixed soto) which also has beef tendon and intestines along with meehoon and bean sprouts. Those who want a pure meat flavour should go for the sup tulang (bone soup) which, as its name implies, is all about beef on the bone being boiled till all its goodness is extracted into liquid form, something like a halal version of bak kut teh (which, by the way, literally translates as “meat bone soup”).

To compensate for the guilt of this carnivorous indulgence, I load up on my share of fibre by tucking into the excellent gado-gado, the famous Indonesian mixed vegetable salad served here with a particularly luxuriant peanut sauce.

Next stop: Tawau, a place famous for its seafood and also for the Sabahan food craze of fried bananas with cheese! But that’s a story for another instalment of Glutton on the Go.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Sabah, hunting, food, tourism

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