Food in Sabah
Food, oh glorious food!

by Herman (2006)

Maybe nowhere in Asia you can find so much food variety, at such good prices and quality, than in Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu. Here, you have to make a big detour around fast food chains, and head straight for those ever so typical ‘Kedai Kopi’ – café shops – that are found at every corner of Kota Kinabalu. I think there can’t be many cities in the world that have so many restaurants in such a small area, and that offer so much variety. For Sabah, that comes all natural: Kota Kinabalu (KK) is a melting pot where the locals meet with Chinese, Bruneis, Indian, Malays, and a handful of ‘white people’ (but we won’t discuss their food here!). Every ethnic entity has brought a taste of their food to KK, and the choice resulting in it is sheer ecstasy. I guarantee you: stay in KK for one month, and you can have at least twice a day a different meal, always tasting something new! Now, you might be new to KK and ask yourself: “but are local restaurants safe? How do I order? And what do the locals eat anyway?” First things first: the city hall is putting up a tremendous effort to instill awareness of cleanliness and hygiene amongst the local population. Most local kedai kopi are now nearly as safe as restaurants in international hotels. And if you still have qualms, there is a grading system for café shops in KK: 'A' for 'very clean’, 'B' for ‘clean’, and 'C' for ‘improvement necessary’. If looking for a local restaurant, you might pick out those rated 'A' only, but an 'A' for cleanliness does not always mean that the food is also 'A' rated… really, we here look at how many people are in a restaurant. The more people there are, the better the food, this is an indicator that is in direct proportions. And where people queue up for a table you might just join the crowd. The food will be excellent!

Once you have thus overcome your suspicion of anything foreign, and you have crossed the threshold of a local restaurant, the next question becomes more pressing: how to order. Usually the patron of the place will spot you easily enough, and he will look after you personally. Most people speak English, and you should be able order a decent meal – note that only very few places do have menus. Here, you ask what the chef proposes, it will be his speciality and the best dish. Some restaurants here specialise in only a couple of dishes! You can also look around what is on offer: many Chinese kedai kopi (easily recognised by their signboard in Chinese characters) have Malay and Chinese caterers working within their premises. There might be a display of Malay food, dumplings and dim sum are brought to your table to chose from, or you can simply ask for something the guests on the next table are having, if it looks to your liking. Be adventurous! Food is delicious here, and if you like the exotic, and if you don’t mind it a bit spicy now and then, you will like what you get no matter what…! Do not settle for the boring mee goreng, or nasi goreng! Anybody can order that! And what do we eat? Well, read on:

A typical KK breakfast – go to any local café shop downtown for a wholesome local breakfast, hot, spicy and all: fried noodles with pork or chicken, hot noodle soup (soto, mee sup) with fish balls, pork, or beef, ‘Tom Yam’ (spicy noodle soup) with fresh prawns, ‘nasi lemak’ (rice cooked in coconut gravy with hot sambal and fish fry, often traditionally presented in a banana leaf wrap), ‘laksa’ (noodles in spicy hot soup with coconut milk), ‘dim sum’ (steamed dumplings with a variety of stuffing’s, from chicken feet to crab meat), chicken or duck rice (nasi ayam / itik), ‘kon lau meen’ with ‘char siew’ and ‘sau nyuk’ (dry fried noodles with roasted and broiled pork – you can order chicken with it, too) you name it… ! Many Malay shops also offer a variety of rice based cakes (kueh mueh), arranged by striking colours, and Indian restaurants offer ‘roti canai’, unleavened, roasted bread with a spicy curry gravy. For breakfast we have a glass of black coffee or tea (kopi ‘o’ / teh ‘o’), or an iced drink (ping). If you like your coffee or tea hot, sweet and with milk, it is enough to order ‘kopi!’, or ‘teh!'. In KK that means the all inclusive drink! If you want your ‘kopi’ or tea strong, add ‘kau’, and for very strong ‘kau-kau’. No milk, say “kopi ‘o’”; no milk and no sugar, say “kopi ‘o’ kosong”… it sounds more complicated than it is, really, you get used to it quickly! Try to figure out now this order: "kopi 'o' kau-kau ping!"... this is naturally a very strong iced coffee without milk, but a bit of sugar!
A quick noodle glossary we like so much for breakfast: Mee = fresh yellow noodles (a bit like spaghetti); You Meen = delicate, fresh yellow noodles; Mee Hoon = thin white (glass) noodles; Kue Teow = large, white noodles. Nasi is, of course, rice, and goreng is fried.

A great local lunch – local coffee shops and food courts offer a sheer unbelievable variety of local dishes. If you would like to see and sample one of the best varieties, go to Wisma Merdeka, second floor food court. If you go there around midday you will hardly find any seat, and you have to wait in line with the locals. The food smells too tempting! There are many Chinese shops offering anything from vegetarian cuisine over clay pot rice to Pizza, and many Malay shops displaying the best the market can offer: brinjal in sambal, bamboo shoots in coconut gravy, ‘kangkung’, 'pakis' and ‘sayur manis’ (Sabah vegetables, inclusive ferns) with ‘belacan’ (prawn paste, rather odorant but ever so tasty), beef ‘rendang’, ‘kicap’, curry, or in some other sauce, steamed freshwater and ocean fish, fried fish, ‘acar’ (a type of fresh salad with pineapples, shallots and peppers), salted duck eggs and much more! Generally the locals go for some rice, with one or two fish or meat dishes and some vegetables. You can ask for some extra gravy, don’t be shy! Malay shops will always serve you a hot soup with your meal, and the rice is hot, too, but dishes might be cold; Chinese shops cook a lot a-la-minute upon ordering.

A sumptuous dinner – again, there are many possibilities of eating out. The simplest places pop up in the evening along the roadside and on designated places such as near the central market, and around Karamunsing and Sadong Jaya. There you can eat your fill of most deliciously prepared local Malay, Indonesian and Filipino dishes for RM 3.50 (self-service type, you get a plate of rice and you choose from the array). Though the food in these places is clean, they are more suitable but for the advanced adventurers! You can perfectly immerse yourself into the local dining atmosphere when you go to some of the many open restaurants around town, such as Suang Tain within the court of the SEDCO complex (Kg Air). They display a fantastic array of fresh seafood (often alive and kept in aquariums), and fresh vegetables. In those restaurants you have to ‘go shopping’, and tell the attendant how you would like your fish, mussels, lobsters, frogs and squids, cauliflowers, spinach and fern sprouts prepared. This is a fantastic way of composing one’s own dinner without having to worry about cooking it, and washing dishes! But beware, while the prices are indicated everywhere (and they include preparation), you might be astonished at the bill you receive in the end… a dinner for four, with a medium sized steamed carp, half a dozen giant butter prawns, a sweet & sour soup and two local vegetables can easily cost you RM 80, not including the drinks.

If you eat at a ‘normal’ restaurant, or a kedai kopi that is open for dinner you will pay by dish, which is offered according to size: small (2-3 persons), medium (4-5 persons), and large (6 to 8 persons), and according to what you order. A famous restaurant, where food is good and where you might have to queue and wait for a table (local style of 'reserving' your table) is Ang’s Restaurant, roughly opposite Wisma Merdeka. They also have a menu in English, bridging effectively the language barrier!

If you arrive in a group and you just feel like having a beer and some noodles with it, you always can order “five Ringgits of fried noodles, please…”. Nobody will be offended at that, this is exactly how we do it! Or you can ask for a couple of beers and then ask the shop owner if they have any pork chops – fried, in dark sauce, grilled… just ask what is their speciality – and then ask for ten Ringgits worth of pork chops, or whatever you fancy…!

If you are vegetarian, or allergic to ajinomoto (MSG, unfortunately often used in too large quantities here), or any other ingredient, let the shop owner know. Most dishes in Chinese places are prepared ‘à la minute’, and the cook will be happy to prepare exactly to your dietary requirements.

Note: in café shops with a Chinese signboard (Chinese characters) you will find pork (and later in the day beer); in Malay café shops (with signboards written in Roman or Arabic characters) you find a whole array of Malay and local specialities, but no pork, eels, frogs and other funny things.

Bon appétit!


KK's "Kedai Kopi" are difficult to resist!

Suang Tain - a good place to eat out if you are in KK and wish to sample local delights!



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