Kuching Flavors / Sarawak Cooking with Bumbu Cooking Class
As a vegetarian I was having a rough go in Sarawak.
I know… I’m sad. I was even starting to feel pathetic. Entering a new place, I don’t always research food until I get there. Why? No time. I always expect to swim by somehow- either, well or badly. But within days I was bottoming out on oily, foods that I did not know how to order. Sarawak, Malay, Chinese cuisine… I couldn’t tell the difference. Instead, Pizza Hut, Mc Donalds and Burger King were becoming shameful trade secrets for getting by. Oily food gave way to french fries and pizza. My diet wasn’t getting any healthier… just more familiar and that brought comfort.
But knowing I’d be staying in Kuching for longer than a week, I knew I needed to take aggressive action.
Taking a cooking class
Until now, I’ve only taken two cooking classes in my life- once in Dharamsala and Istanbul. While I enjoyed myself at the time, cooking is not normally something I jump at. I’d rather be sightseeing or trekking. To slow my adventures down for ‘domestic’ learning, I have to be pushed…
Browsing the eOasia, a site full of day and activity tours in Southeast Asia, I saw Bumbu Cooking Class. Positive reviews, a shopping excursion to the local market, learning about jungle survival cooking…. I’ve frequented many Southeast Asian fresh markets to walk away with only questions about mystery fruits. The class description was piquing my adventure/culture interest.
Bumbu Cooking Class: Sarawakian cooking in Kuching
I arrived at Chef Joseph’s studio in Kuching’s heritage heart, Chinatown. It was so conveniently located, it was right around the corner of my hostel. If you’re wondering, “Bumbu” means raw coconut. There was a Canadian couple participating also. They were no strangers to cooking classes; and being a couple, I didn’t expect them to be. Coupledom domesticates you to some degree. At least,that’s what my single-dom rationale.
I was the wild child, the un-couplecated, undomesticated, novice-of-a-cook solo traveler. It was as good as putting a frock on a tomboy. But I digress…
Flavours of Sarawak: Sarawakian Food Influences and Cooking
Sarawak has a population of over 2.6 million people. The ethnic minority tribe natives make up the largest population with 29.9% from the Iban longhouse tribe. Thus, although you might find Malay and Chinese cuisine in Kuching, there in fact, is a Sarawakian style of cooking.
Chef Joseph was born and raised in Sarawak. Joseph’s family hailed from the Bidayuh tribe of Borneo, one of the ethnic minorities known for living in longhouses. His Sarawakian cooking style was influenced partially by living and surviving in the jungles of Borneo.
Something surprising I learned from Joseph, was that Sarawakian cooking focuses on cleanliness and is actually not greasy. Chinese and Malay foods can be rich in oil as their style of cooking and they can also contain MSG (unless noted otherwise) but Sarawakian food is quite the opposite. Influenced by jungle cooking, the foods are prepared fresh and with little grease.
The traditional way to eat in a Sarawakian household, double-dipping of utensils is frowned upon. Serving utensils are always used to carry food over to your plate. There’s a separate one for your mouth.
My outlook of this cooking class and Sarawakian food began to shift to intrigue and promise.
Shopping at Medan Niaga Satok Market
After quick introductions about the class and the menu we’d be cooking, we hopped into Chef Joseph’s car to do grocery shopping. Ten minutes later had passed and we were at Medan Niaga Satok Market, the largest well known local fresh markets of Kuching, spanning local produce to fish and meats. (Note: To get here on your own, take the K7 bus from central Kuching bus station)
The local vendors were all laid out neatly in organized stalls with name plaques above them. It reminded me of the clean and clear organization of the streets in Kuching. For about an hour, Joseph showed us around introducing ingredients and produce popular to Sarawakian cooking. You’ll find many familiar American produce here, with some Southeast Asian and Sarawakian exceptions (see video for some examples).
My Bumbu Cooking Class Itinerary
The class lasts from morning to lunch, and you learn, do and eat a lot! A summarized sample of our class session is below:
Cutting a pineapple the Sarawakian way
There are things you take for granted when you buy them ready-made off the streets. For me, that’s pineapple. Joseph showed us how to cut a pineapple in the most efficient way- by cutting out the eyes carefully and then slicing the pineapple as to not waste the fruit.
Tako ( coconut dessert with sweet corn)
One thing I’ve never known was how coconut milk was made! Coconut shavings are soaked in water and then hand pressed. Voila, coconut milk! We added more ingredients, like sweet corn, into the mix. Then we wove pandan leaf baskets to pour our milk into. After it hardened, it reminded me a bit of Hawaiian haupia– absolutely delicious!
Sambal Midin Salad
Midin is a slimy and crunchy plant that grows in the jungle and regenerates after it’s cut. Prepared well and with some stinky shrimp paste, Sambal Midin Salad is the jungle equivalent to a salad. It was if my long lost Sarawakian food love had found me- the midin and I were inseparable.
Sarawakian Vegetarian Curry
The Sarawakian Curry was the main course. It was probably one of the quickest meals to make. I got ingredients for the vegetarian version, while the others prepared it with chicken. My substitute was dried bean curd (see my video), inflated with water and thrown into the stir with a coconut milk curry and some veggies. Surprisingly, vegetarian options existed in Kuching. The coconut milk and spiced curry flavor was the highlight of the meal!
Our food was laid out like a feast. I was overwhelmed by the amount of food we made. It really felt like it could feed an entire crew or large family!
I’m glad I took this class! From the grocery shopping in the market to the insight into Sarawakian cooking culture, it connected me to many interests I, as an adventure traveler, could relate to and feel engaged with.
I learned much more than I knew before starting and it made a world of difference with my relationship to Sarawakian food in Kuching! Thanks to Chef Joseph and Bumbu Cooking Class, my excitement for trying foood was renewed.
No 57 Carpenter Street, Kuching
(Off Jalan Wayan Street in Chinatown)
Note: This class was sponsored by eOasia in exchange for a review. Initially, I didn’t want to take the class, and they really had to encourage me to do so and I’m glad I did! I learned a lot about Sarawak and Sarawakian cooking. This class also supports a local business people in Kuching. As always, my opinions are honest and my own.