Sarawak Breakfasts – 7 of the Best
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SONIA LUHONG WAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SONIA LUHONG WAN
Kuching buzzes in the early morning with seven am school runs that require six am starts. The coffee shops are full, feeding the early morning masses with quick and easy hawker food to fuel their day. In a town where food is a religion, breakfast sees a packed congregation and a full service is in order – no hastily snatched muffin or insipid bowl of cereal will fill the space. An Asian breakfast is a full-on noodles or rice affair, indistinguishable from any other meal.
But breakfast has its clear favourites and, while all these dishes are available somewhere in town throughout the day, there is a certain rhythm to it all. Locals will know which stalls open when and the popular ones will even close up shop after a quick, early morning five-hour run. A little insider knowledge goes a long way if you want to sample the best breakfast Sarawak has to offer. So for all of you without a swanky breakfast buffet included with accommodation, here is our pick of some of central Kuching’s stars.
Laksa is Sarawak’s favourite son. Made throughout Malaysia in different iterations, Sarawak Laksa is a special blend –a spicy broth rich with coconut milk lovingly poured over a huge pile of shredded chicken, juicy prawns, crispy beansprouts and rice vermicelli. The late, great Anthony Bourdain famously described it as the ‘Breakfast of the Gods’, only confirming what Sarawakians knew all along: that they had a world class dish created right here at home. The question of the best Sarawak Laksa in Kuching is an endless debate – some people like lemak (creamy and rich), some people like light, some go for big prawns, some for simple balance. Choon Hui was Bourdain’s top pick, though it is a bit of a walk and you can expect a wait. But Mei Xin Laksa stall at Lau Ya Keng opposite the Teo Chew Temple on Carpenter Street and Poh Lam Laksa at Chong Choon Café on Jalan Chan Chin Ann both give them a run for their money. In the end, it is a matter of taste. Why not try them all?
Popiah is another top pick but this one gets high points for rarity value since not so many stalls offer it freshly made any more. Essentially it is a spring roll but a far cry from the deep-fried, vegetable medley, straight from the freezer variety. This one features thinly sliced jicama (bangkwang), french beans and beansprouts, wrapped in a lettuce leaf and then that wrapped in a delicate pancake, as light as tissue. Crushed peanuts, prawn paste and chilli all add additional, optional flavours, and then it is served with a sweet, dark sauce on the side. Old Nyonya versions added prawns, even crab, and mustard but in the main, this dish is entirely veggie. The result is a fresh and filling taste adventure. Choon Hui does a famous version, the ultimate palate cleanser to be shared as you wait for a heartier Laksa to come your way.
Kolok Mee used to be entirely confined to Kuching – even nearby Sibu had its own version in the form of Kampua – but its popularity has seen it spread throughout Sarawak. Overseas Sarawakians will often report that this is the meal that they miss most, either getting it imported to wherever they are in the world by helpful visitors or else rushing to taste it in the first kopitiam on the way home from the airport. It is a simple dish but entirely satisfying – noodles tossed in a magic mixture of soya and fish sauces, topped off with minced pork, crispy shallots and usually slices of char siu (barbecued pork). If you want an even unhealthier dose of extra, sweet flavour, you can ask for red which comes with a ladle full of the dripping from the char siu pan. But the real secret is in the noodles – crinkled and slightly springy – they give an extra texture dimension to the dish which is uniquely kolok. No kopitiam is complete without a kolok mee stall, or increasingly the Halal option of Mee Kolok, enjoyed by many at Muhammad Lim in Taman Sri Sarawak. But for chunky char siu made from scratch, head for Shirley at Sin Wei Tong or, for a true touch of the past, Oriental Park still stokes up the ancient burner to roast its char siu right there on the street in front of you. The famous Kim Joo on Carpenter Street is also something of a Kuching institution.
The Asian version of soft-boiled eggs and soldiers gets straight to the point. No fiddly eggcups and delicately sliced toast in sight. Seriously soft-boiled, these eggs are simply cracked into a small cup and the liquid goo in all its deliciousness is seasoned with lashings of soya sauce and a huge helping of pepper and scooped straight from the bowl. Pretty it is not but don’t let that put you off. This molten goodness is usually accompanied by toast but, in the best coffeeshops, this is of a different class. Some places still do giant doorstops of bread, laden with chunks of butter, and sandwiched with kaya, a rich coconut jam often flavoured with pandan leaf that has no equal. This is the source of its alternative name, roti kawin, which literally translates to married bread. But for the true classic, the bread should be toasted over an open charcoal flame giving it that heady aroma of the outdoors. Sin Wei Tong still toast the coals, as do Choon Hui who increasingly seem to have breakfast all wrapped up.
Bubur is the ultimate, Asian comfort food. This is the dish that every self-respecting Chinese mother will feed a sick child and, as they grow, it becomes a little taste of recovery. It is rice, boiled down to a silky porridge consistency, and then the addition of flavour begins. You can usually opt for a simple base of either chicken, pork (often with a few innards) or fish. Crack in an egg for an extra ringgit and it comes out almost creamy. Each stall has its own toppings – eu char kway (a type of chinese doughnut) century egg, fried shallots, pickled turnip – then it becomes a meal in itself. The Teo Chew version puts the flavours on the side, anything from steamed fish to braised pork. But the staples in every coffeeshop, identical to the eggs, is a bottle of soya sauce and a pepperpot – swirl and sprinkle to taste. Lau Ya Keng can cater to the very early riser or else Min Hong Kee on Jalan Padungan is a popular choice for that early morning porridge. Kopi O Corner’s version comes with crispy fish for that extra crunch.
Roti Canai is of Indian extraction but has become almost entirely Malaysian. Believed to have originated in the Indian Muslim population, usually meaning it is Halal, it is a flatbread created by curling rolls of dough around itself to form fluffy layers that crisp up when fried on a hot plate. Watch it being made for a bit of slap and tickle morning entertainment. Served with sides of dhal curry and tamarind sauce, the roti kosong (literally empty bread) is the classic, where the flakes of dough can melt in your mouth. Nowadays, you can also opt for a plethora of stuffings, from egg and onion to corned beef and even banana, but with these, the dough is folded around the ingredients, losing a little of that amazing texture along the way. Sometimes the simple option is the best. Take it with Teh Tarik, hot sweet tea that is frothed by the unique, patented pulling action from one cup to another. Try Restoran MahaShafi near the Old Courthouse or else the Ceylonese Restaurant behind Greenhill Corner does a busy breakfast trade.
If you are craving sweet cereal or croissants loaded with jam, then Mee Jawa is probably the noodle option for you. Yellow noodles, smothered in sweet potato sauce spiced with lemongrass, ginger, galangal and usually a good helping of chilli, the dish is a constant surprise in every mouthful. One minute savoury, the next entirely sweet, it is wonderfully startling. Just to complete the confusion, it is often served with a hard-boiled egg and a few sticks of satay, accompanied by its usual sweet and spicy peanut sauce. Originating from Java, the dish has been lovingly localized to suit Malay tastes – the Malaysian melting pot on a plate. Mee Jawa Rabak at Syn Wah Hui on Main Bazaar – a Malay stall in a Chinese coffeeshop – is a local favourite and Pak Awang on Kai Joo Lane renders his own meatier, more umami version of the classic.