Thursday, August 19, 2010

Extreme Food Tourism

I'm not very good at the tourist thing, by and large. Oh, sure – here in Borneo I made a point of seeing orangutans, and travelling up the Kinabatang river and all, but mostly, I'm not interested in the tourist arc. That includes the backpacker stuff.

That has made Kota Kinabalu a bit tricky for me. The city got flattened back in WWII, and over the last six decades, it's been rebuilt with a very strong emphasis on the tourist trade. Malays come here on holiday: they go paragliding, they hit the nightclubs, they go snorkeling and go to the beaches, they head off to Gunung Kinabalu and Poring Hot Springs. They take photos. They buy souvenirs.

I don't mind paragliding, but I'm damned if I'll fly umpteen thousand kilometres with my family to do something I could do more comfortably at the Gold Coast in Australia. That's just stupid, in my opinion. And I really don't give a damn about multi-story shopping malls or cineplexes. Visiting Gunung Kinabalu was at best an interesting venture into the countryside, a chance to see some of Borneo doing its own thing. Poring Hot Springs were nearby, and we needed lunch.

The backpacker thing does even less for me: nightclubbing, 'adventure trekking', and hanging around a bunch of other backpackers... even when I actually WAS backpacking, I tended to do things like hitch-hike my way at random around Ireland, camping in people's fields. I don't mind backpackers in general. They're usually energetic, often reasonably intelligent, engaging and outgoing people. But if I've flown half a world or so, the people I want to learn about are the people who actually live there, no?

That's my problem. I'm not actually a tourist: I'm curious. I'm looking for the things that make living here, in Borneo, different to living at home. I want the different viewpoint, the different way of doing things, the different ideas and approaches. And in KK, it's bloody hard to get them because KK is all about selling the Tourist Experience, on the whole.

There's a zillion craft and souvenir shops in this city. I swear they all have exactly the same inventory, right down to the badly-made boomerangs with faux-Aboriginal dot-painting designs on them. I've even seen tanned cane-toad skins with zips in them so they can be used as wallets, and I'm dead certain Borneo doesn't have cane toads. Figure they've been bought from Queensland, most likely.

There's a building on the waterfront. It must be eighty metres by fifteen metres, and inside, it's an orderly grid of tiny little shops, each about three by three metres. And each of those shops has sarongs, wood carvings, fetish masks, beaded jewellery, postcards, a few pieces of mass-produced songket... I cannot actually distinguish between the stock in these stores. Clearly they all use the same suppliers. How the fuck do so many of them stay in business?

It's been interesting. Watching the locals watch my children, for example: as long as we're walking around, doing touristy stuff, we're invisible. But the moment we walk into some backwater, offbeat eatery, the kids – especially the Mau-Mau – become objects of amazement. Oh look! The boys are using chopsticks! Hey, check it out – not only are these white kids eating squid, but the older boy is using our chili sauce! And that little girl! Isn't she just the cutest thing you've ever seen?

Useful to remember that tourism is a two way exchange: we're not just a source of revenue, we're something to be observed and marvelled at.

Anyway, KK isn't my cup of tea. I preferred Singapore, for all its sphincter-tight control: still there was more history, more variety, more of a chance to slip out of the role of tourist, and try something the locals might do.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not going to babble on about 'authenticity', or try to get myself put through some kind of obscure tribal ceremony in an Iban longhouse. I'm simply curious. I've come a long way. I can speak enough of the language to explore, and listen, and learn. I don't want to paraglide. But I do want to know where the locals go to eat, for example, and I want to try the food there for myself.

Happily, I did get that chance. It was challenging, and uncomfortable, but it was also really interesting and a shitload of fun.

It's Ramadan at the moment. Thumbnail sketch: Islamic folk may not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. They get up before dawn to load up for the day, then not a bite nor a drop passes their lips until sundown. But after that...

Well. During Ramadan, here in Borneo they lay out great big complexes of food-stalls on areas of waste ground, and after sunset, it's a feast. In KK, at least one of these bazaars is here on the waterfront, and I managed to convince the others to give it a try. It wasn't as successful as it could have been, simply because it was all a bit much for Natalie and the kids and our friends with whom we're travelling, but for me, it was the best part of the trip.

The bazaar is a huge maze of stalls and tables, all tucked under a giant patchwork marquee of tarpaulins, sheet plastic, and anything else which can be used as a temporary roof to keep off the rain. It's definitely not a tourist show: the tables are jam packed, shoulder to shoulder, with local folk, and it's a big challenge for someone my size even to move through the place. And the food!

Grilled stuff: huge skewers of little grilled cuttlefish, hot and spicy, wonderfully flavoured with charcoal smoke, and not the least bit chewy or rubbery. Prawns the size of big bananas, one to a skewer. Entire fish, the skin scored and salted and spiced to hell, cooked in wire frames over charcoal. Satay sticks of all kinds. Racks of marinated chicken wings, threaded onto skewers: buy them a dozen at a time, eat them piping hot. Clams and mussels, lightly grilled with butter and chili and garlic and coriander.

Dumplings – more kinds than I ever knew. Coconut cakes, a little charred underneath, but sweet and grainy and heavy. Proper yeast donuts: no batter here, but a genuine leavened dough worked into shape and then fried and covered with sugar and spices. Absolutely delicious, and thirty-five cents will buy you a bag of three, each as big as my fist.

Fritters – prawns, bananas, chicken, fish... you name it. All of them light and crisp and hot enough to melt your tongue.

Fresh fruits and juices of all sorts. Blended fruits. Fruit salads. Bizarre drinks full of lumps of jelly and corn kernels and coconut cream. And coconut, yes – fresh coconut milk, coconut meat, coconut rice.

Traditional dishes of all kinds: wonderfully spicy nasi lemak with the coconut rice and the dried anchovies and eggs and wickedly chili-laden sambal full of lime and belacan. Laksas. Rotis of all sorts. Murtabak – superthin sheets of springy dough thrown onto a greased griddle, with chopped, spiced fresh vegetables on top. You fold the dough over the vegetables, then fold it again, and again, until it's crispy on the outside, chewy in the centre, and the vegetables are layered all the way through. Soups: Javanese bakso, hot and sour Tom Yam out of Thailand... currries, noodles, rice...

I could eat there every night for six months, I suspect, without ever duplicating the menu. And for me, it's the height of fun: wrestling with the language, making conversation with friendly strangers who can't believe this big white guy and his kids are sitting down to a platter of kway teow and murtabak and satay right alongside a bunch of working-Mohammed types.

I love it. I love trying the new flavours and textures. I love the stumbling, hilarious conversations that result when I try to find out what it is I'm eating that tastes so damned good. I like swapping names and potted personal histories with the curious folk sharing a rickety, plastic-covered table with me. I love the huge smiles from the vendors when I greet them in their own tongue, price the dishes properly, make change correctly and make the right sort of polite small-talk. And the way those grins get even bigger when they see that I'm enjoying the food as much as they do, with the chili and the spice and all the rest of it...

Yes, sure, it's probably thirty-five C under that mass of plastic and canvas, with all those grills and cookers. Sure, I've got sweat running off every square centimetre of my skin. My hair is dripping, my clothes are soaked. I can hardly move for the press of people in all directions – but the food is great, and it's new and it's different, and the people are friendly and curious and everybody's there for the same reason, just to get a decent meal and have a chat at the end of the day.

We've got nothing to match it in Australia. It's a wholly different way of dealing with the evening meal, and it only occurs during Ramadan, so even for the locals, it's a treat – something they look forward to with considerable anticipation. Getting involved; getting hot and sweaty and messy and trying all that nifty food, exercising my rusty (but rapidly improving!) bahasa – that's my idea of tourism right there.

You can keep your paragliding and your nightclubs. I'll take a Ramadan food bazaar any time.


  1. Sounds like you're enjoying the culinary aspects of the trip.

    BTW are you going to AussieCon4? As I'll be in town at that time.

  2. Chaz: that's a big yes. And yes again to the culinary stuff. Gonna work on a dish I encountered in a little restaurant... it was called 'black pepper chicken', and it was indeed all about the black pepper. And It Was Good.

  3. Mmmmm Murtabak! If you think it's difficult to get a decent Kway Teow around these parts, try finding Murtabak ANYWHERE. Hope that's in your repertoire Dirk.

    Anyway, sound like you're having fun.

  4. Man the food sounds killer but there's no way I would enjoy eating it in a steamy tent like that. I can't eat while sweat pours from my face on to my meal. Honestly, it's the only time this chunkster has difficulty ingesting grub.

    Sounds like a great time though! Can't wait till you post the pics.

  5. I'm a little hungry now. I crave butter chicken this moment.

    Nice post.I enjoyed my read.Thnx.


  6. Hey, SW - nice to hear from you.

    Heidi - the sweating thing... after a couple of weeks, you sort of just give up caring. Not much else you can do.

    Mayhem: I don't know how to prepare murtabak... yet. But I will.