Monday, June 28, 2010


I had a toothache on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, the capital of Malaysian Borneo, and by the time we landedI needed a dentist. We sped off in a cab to Dr. Roki’s clinic which was about to close for the weekend. Any thoughts of cannibals and wild jungle animals were quickly dispelled by the drab new strip malls and walled residential compounds that spread far out for miles from the old center of town. You can still find Indian spice traders and vendors of local handicrafts in the old part of town by the riverfront, but the new world has elbowed its way in, as KFC franchises and bulky new hotels along the riverside promenade attest.

The area around Carpenter Street is the most attractive part of the old town, best for exploring on foot. Old shop houses line the streets, providing shaded arcades for passing shoppers, who are buying everything from food and spices to dishes, gowns and tires. We snacked on dim sum, curried meat patties, and rich Sarawak coffee as we rambled through the neighborhood.

After exploring the downtown streets we crossed the river in a small wooden commuter boat, and found an old area of colorful wooden houses built on stilts, gardens lush with banana and palm trees, and surprised, but welcoming residents. It seems that few tourists cross to the far side of the river.

The city has enough sights to keep you busy for a few days (long enough to add a few extra meals).The Sarawak Museum has a small but excellent collection of tribal arts, featuring flamboyant carved doorways, finely woven baskets and mats and replicas of traditional houses. The Textile Museum has an collection of native textile arts, and also explains some of the culutral contexts (like weddings) for which these elaborate textiles were made. Air conditioning enhances the art in both places.

A row of colonial-era buildings facing the river is filled with shops selling local handicrafts and trinkets. Baskets, bronzes, bamboo furniture, t-shirts and key chains all glorify the indigenous tribes of Borneo. But the most beautiful handmade item I saw was the sarawak cake, a colorful, mosaic-like loaf, whose densely layered designs suggest embroidery or inlaid wood. A free sample test of the dense, sugary cake was enough for me—I just wanted to buy one and wear it.

Kuching is noted for its food, and it lived up to its reputation. Spices are everywhere: cinnamon, coriander,cardamom, anise, saffron, turmeric, ginger, cumin, nutmeg, poppyseeds and peppercorns are easily found among the myriad other exoticofferings. There isn’t a lot of street food here (ice cream served in a hamburger bun was the most unusual). Instead vendors have been gathered into hawker stalls, where we ate great local cuisine at reasonable prices. This is where you’ll find a traditional bowl of laksa, a coconut-rich noodle soup with tamarind, shrimp paste and fresh herbs, that is one of the local specialties.

While doing research for this trip, we met Annie and Nate through their great food blog. They’d just moved to Kuching a few weeks before our arrival. Annie was born in Malaysia, but for the past 15 years has lived in California, where she married Nate and had two beautiful children. They took us on a jaunt to the weekend market, a street sprawling with vendors of vegetables, meat, candies, sneakers, plants, and of course, the exotic fruits common to Borneo.

Annie knew her stuff, pointing out local produce, and haggling with the merchants in Malay (one of 5 languages she speaks). With her guidance, I had my first real taste of fresh durian, that spiky orb of forbidden fruit (it is not allowed on airplanes and some hotels and public buildings) whose pulpy pellets emit a creamy, flowery, cheesey taste unlike anything I’d eaten before. It has a short season and is highly prized by locals. When she saw them, Annie’s eyes grew wide with a delight that could only have been learned in childhood.

I had experienced the flavor of durian in ice cream and cakes in Thailand, but the real fruit is another thing altogether. I didn’t notice the strong, repellent odor I’d heard so much about, but the sensation in my mouth--taste, texture, delayed overtones of flavor—was one of the strangest culinary experiences I’ve had. I popped a thumb-sized node of durian into my mouth and felt a brief electric jolt go through my body. It was at once intoxicatingly aromatic and shockingly repugnant. The texture was a big surprise, at once familiar and completely new, very creamy, like warm fois gras, melted marshmallows, a sticky, fruity pudding quivering between pleasure and regret. I can’t wait to try it again.



Air Asia has flights all over the region. has flights between points in Malaysia.
for economic information about Malaysia

‘House of Annie’ food blog:

Malaysia travel guide


The Riverfront Hotel is in an old converted house—simple and inexpensive, good location. Look on google for information (no website at time of writing).

The Top Spot Food Court is a casual open-air place offering a vast array of fresh seafood, cooked to order.

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