Malaysia is well known as a foodie destination in South East Asia. I havn’t been there personally, I but I have been told by multiple people that Penang in Malaysia is one of the best foodie cities in the world. Penang has such a huge foodie reputation, that Borneo often gets overlooked.
When we travelled to Borneo earlier this year, I knew that we would be eating well. But I didn’t expect the sheer variety of foods that were awaiting us. The two states of Sarawak and Sabah didn’t join with Malaysia until 1963, and have done well in preserving their unique tribal cultures. This tribal influence shows in some of the foods available, making for some pretty incredible meals.
What to Eat in Borneo
The best variety of foods is found in the larger towns and cities, with the capitals of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu having the most foodie options available. We actually wrote an entire guide to eating in Kuching, as we were completely bowled over by the sheer amount of delicious, delicious options.
Roti is not native to Borneo, but it did certainly make up a huge part of our diet. Roti Canai is popular all throughout Malaysia. It is an Indian influenced type of flat bread and is served with a mild curry for dipping. You can get plain roti canai, or you can try it with a variety of fillings, like roti with egg (roti telur), roti with cheese (roti cheese), roti with onion (roti bawang), and the list goes on.
You can find roti places everywhere and to our delight, most of them were 24 hours. Roti was our favourite thing to get for breakfast, and we could fill up on 1 or 2 rotis each for under $5 for the entire breakfast.
Laksa is a spicy noodle soup found all across Malaysia, but the Laksa that is special to Borneo is Sarawak Laksa. Laksa Sarawak is actually quite different from all the other varieties of Laksa you can find in Malaysia because it doesn’t contain any curry at all. It has a base of Sambal belacan, sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk, topped with omelette strips, chicken strips, and prawns.
Our favourite Laksa was from the James Brooke cafe in Kuching.
Stir Fried Jungle Fern
If someone asks me if I wanted to eat some fried jungle fern I would probably say yes (because I am Canadian and you have to be polite), but inside my head I would be very, very skeptical. These small and tender ferns are blanched, then fried with shrimp paste and garlic. They are fresh, crisp, salty, and delicious. They were actually one of my favourite things to eat in Borneo, and no one was more surprised about that than me.
Borneo is a great place to try fresh seafood. The sea is a big part of the local people’s economy and diet in areas along the coast. I’m not a huge eater of seafood, so it’s not something we normally seek out. However, while we were in Sandakan we were invited to join the CEO of Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventures for a meal at his favourite seafood restaurant.
The restaurant itself was fairly low key. There was nothing flashy about it, and its menu was proudly displayed in large writing above the entrance to the kitchen. Along the side of the restaurant, large tanks kept all the catch fresh until it was ordered. We had such an incredible meal here that I even wrote an entire post about it.
Try something Tribal
As I mentioned in the intro of this post, the tribal influence on the food of Borneo is something that is really special. It was something we did not expect, but which quickly became one of the food highlights of our trip. We found that Kuching in particular had quite a few different restaurants and cafes which specialized in tribal food. The tribal food is usually quite simple, usually featuring just a couple ingredients cooked to perfection. The ingredients used are ones that can be found in the areas that the tribes live in. For example, the tribes that live near the hills of Sarawak have a lot of cinnamon in their diet, as cinnamon grows wild in that area. My favourite tribal dish has to be the pineapple and cinnamon curry. We wrote about the tribal restaurants that we visited in our Kuching food guide.