‘Bah’ is a colloquial Sabahan word added usually at the end of a conversational sentence for emphasis and reference. It is also used in replacement of ‘Yes’ or in agreement.
These days in Kota Kinabalu and some major Sabah cities, one would be able to find an assortment of international cuisines – Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Thailand, Italian, Mexican, American, English, and Indonesia cuisines – all readily available. Despite the varieties, Sabahans love their own Sabah food. So what is Sabah food? Besides exotic meats from the jungle, the urban folks usually consume a choice of Chinese (Hakka/Cantonese/Foochow), Kadazan-Dusun, Malay, Indonesian, Filipino or South Indian cuisines.
Generally, eating in Sabah is a lot more expensive than in West Malaysia – possibly due to higher transportation costs. Monosodium glutamate is used less hence those accustomed to strong flavors enhanced by MSG may find Sabah food rather bland. Some stalls even claim ‘no MSG used’.
Public transportation system in Sabah is poor. Even though Kota Kinabalu is the largest and busiest city, the public transportation is poorly managed with no fix schedules. If you don’t rent a car or motorbike and if you are short of travel time, visitors will need to rely on expensive taxi rides that do not have metered rates, thus requiring price negotiations. Getting to a destination outside of town can be time-consuming.
The following are 10 selections of typical Sabahan favourites which you, the intrepid foodie traveler, might want to seek out when visiting this land of macho tribesmen and pretty kadazan-dusun gals.
1. Fried Tuaran Mee
There are different versions of fried Tuaran Mee and every Sabahan has their own favorite stall. The dish has a distinctive noodle shape and texture that is only made in Sabah.
I traveled to its origins in Tuaran town to Lok Kyun Kopitiam to eat their version of the famed noodle. How did it taste?
It was impressive.
Smoky, sweet and savory meaty flavors. The noodles had a bite and even crunchy at some parts scorched by the hot pan. Definitely fitting their accolades for the best fried Tuaran Mee.
Having already tried Lihing and Tapai (both rice wines) many times over, I went in search for the elusive bahar wine, a toddy drink that’s native to Tuaran and made by the Lotud tribe. It’s made with coconut palm sap mixed with rosok, a tree bark which gives the drink its distinctive red colour. Sadly, during my travel period, there was none in town and even in the surrounding villages.
Another very popular option for those spending only a short time in Kota Kinabalu city is Seng Hing Kopitiam. They offer a choice of meats and can whip up non-pork versions like the one above. Having eaten there several times throughout the years, the taste is at best… average. It is generally savory with no dimension in flavors plus inconsistency in noodle textures.
Incidentally, a similar fried dish is found in Tamparuli town and it is known as Tamparuli Mee.
2. Sinalau Bakas
If you are a meat eater then you must have the Sinalau Bakas which translates to ‘smoked wild boar’ in Kadazan-Dusun language. In the Malay language, wild boar known as Babi Hutan.
The ‘feral hogs’ found in West Malaysia is generally made into a curry to mask its gamy flavor. In general, wild pig meat isn’t my preference due to its gamy flavor and tough texture, but with several Sabahan’s urging me to try out their version, I ventured out on the highway along Tamparuli, in the direction of Kundasang, to seek out this popular Sabah favourite. There are several dining locations for this meat along the highway, the one I stopped at was named Gerai Sinalau.
There is a choice of smoked, or grilled wild meat for the barbeque. There are also other dishes made with the exotic meat; from clear soups to bak kut teh (herbal soup), curry and rendang. There is even a Babi Hutan Burger!
Unlike in West Malaysia, the wild boar grilled meat here is tender and not gamy at all. Indeed a surprise for me. The marination was simple, soy sauce, sugar and salt. No tenderizing agent was used as explained by the lady manning the grill. She went on to explain there are 3 types of wild boar meat – the ones caught wild in plantations, caught in the jungle, and the ones reared for the meat. Apparently there are differences in textures and flavors. The best choice would be the one caught in the wild jungle.
3. Ngiu Chap
In West Malaysia, the same dish is called Ngau Chap or Mixed Beef parts. Ngiu Chap is in the Hakka dialect. The dish consists of your choice of noodles in a strong bovine broth with variety of beef parts.
I traveled to Menggatal town, 20 minutes drive from KK, to a well-known shop, Nyuk Pau Baru, for their version of Ngiu Chap. Locals might even refer to this shop as Menggatal Ngiu Chap which has been serving their famous recipe for several decades. They now have several franchises in Sabah and may be even a shop or a stall in West Malaysia.
When I mistook a bowl of salt at the stove for MSG and requested its exclusion, the pretty young lady proprietor glared at me before correcting me and proudly stating their recipe doesn’t use any artificial flavorings. Indeed, after devouring the tender hearty meat, and drinking the herbaceous soup with strong cilantro flavors, there were no symptoms of MSG. However, in its replacement, more salt was used.
4. Roti Cobra / Kobra
This dish is something I would eat at least once whenever I’m in Sabah as it is not available in West Malaysia. I wonder why it isn’t available as the dish is just made by stacking 1-2 roti canai or paratha, a choice of meat curry, an egg (usually sunny side) then drenching further with a variety of curries. A messy lover affair. Maybe its the higher price charged if it’s ordered in West Malaysia. In Sabah, it starts from RM5 and would probably be the cheapest cooked food available here if you are on a budget.
An aged Indian migrant worker in Ranau town, pointed out that this dish is available in many South Indian street eateries. It has now found a unique place in Sabah’s staple food list through migrant workers, and it is available at almost all of its Indian Muslim eateries.
On a side note, roti canai or paratha in Sabah is always freshly made. Seldom a diner is given a pre-cooked and re-heated flat bread. This is great quality for the diner. The bread is so fresh, I eat it plain without any curry. Complement it with a fresh cup of masala chai, Sabah tea, coffee or a chocolate malt, and it becomes a wonderfully tasty, yet light meal.
5. Beaufort Mee
Beaufort is a little town south of Kota Kinabalu. Here you will find its most famous food export to other parts of the Sabah state, and rest of the country, Beaufort Mee, a wet viscous noodle dish top with meat and choysum. The style is in similar vein with Cantonese Fried Yee Mee Noodles except the noodles are special to Beaufort. One of the popular places to eat in Beaufort town is Foh Chuan where they make their own noodles. As you would have guessed.. you have to arrive early.
6. Kon Lou Mee/Kolo Mee, Restaurant Ang Kim Lan
Based on a high recommendation from a hostel proprietor, who said that he doesn’t eat out much but if he did, he would visit this particular stall, just for their freshly made, chemical free noodles. I dropped by Restaurant Ang Kim Lan in Kampung Air to taste the dry tossed egg noodles.
There are many Konlou Mee in Sabah, many are good but this might be one of the tastiest with the most springy al dente noodles. You will need to visit the stall very early morning or risk having nothing left by late morning.
Another unique Sabah condiment to street food dishes are the slices of meat or egg rolls aka Chun Ken which is minced pork and fish rolled in an egg omelette then steamed. A Hakka influence.
To offer more variety and healthier choices, a neighboring noodle stall offers spinach noodles with an assortment of meat toppings.
7. Fish Paste Noodle @ Wan Wan
One of the earliest Sabah food we tasted like a decade ago was noodles made from fish paste and we ate it at Restaurant Wan Wan, Penampang. It has been awhile since we last visited but we hear that the restaurant is even more busy than before. Many locals would think twice about visiting it but if you have time on your hands and if you are a real foodie then venture on! There are probably many other similar shops offering the same dish these days and without the wait and crowd.
8. Laksa Noodle @ Yee Fung
What’s not to love about a spicy South East Asian dish made with fresh meat, herbs and coconut milk. This Sabah favourite located on Gaya Street still pulls in both locals and internationals alike. For us, this creamy, spicy, earthy, and citrus-sy curry dish (if you squish the key lime juice in) is pretty tasty that is if you are seeking a heavy dish, but then again West Malaysia has an array of good curry laksa noodles to choose from.
9. Sang Nyuk Mee
I’ve always mistaken this famous Sabah soup noodle as a dish made with wild boar meat since misinterpreting Sang Nyuk (wild meat) as Sang Chi Yuk (wild pig meat). Though tasty, I can’t find too much difference between Sang Nyuk Mee versus a good bowl of Pork Noodles. This comment might put some Sabahans on the defensive, and they might say that it’s the tender meat that is cooked fresh, or the thick, murky broth that makes the difference.
Patrons can choose either the soup or dry version with choices of pork meat and innards over their preferred noodles or served separately. The meat is usually softened with a tenderizing agent and mixed with tapioca flour to lend a smooth, soft texture. The thick broth is filled with flavors from hours of simmering pork bones, discarded meat cuts, and herbs. In the dry noodle version, the noodles are tossed with black soy sauce and lard oil.
If you are visiting Kota Kinabalu, there are 2 popular places for Sang Nyuk Mee – Kim Hing Lee in Sinsuran, Restaurant Jia Xiang(Siang) at Lintas Plaza, and Sang Nyuk Mee (Lorong Taipan) in Inanam – both outside of Kota Kinabalu city.
10. Hinava – the Sabah ‘Ceviche’
This Kadazan Dusun dish is made of fresh raw tenggiri (mackerel fish), which is filleted and thinly sliced; mixed with sliced chili, ginger, diced red onions, grated Bambangan seed, salt and left to cook with a few squirts of lime juice. For the extra (giant) kick, you may want to request the addition of the tiny ‘bird’s eye’ chilli which is popular in Borneo. I call this dish the ‘Sabah ceviche’ and it tastes simply divine!
The 10 selections highlighted here are only a scratch on the surface of Sabah’s frying pan. There are still many types of Sabah food we have yet to discover. We hope this post will spur more Sabahans and travel foodies to highlight more of Sabah’s unique delicacies especially its indigenous cuisines such as bambangan, pinasakan, ambuyat, tuhau, bosou/nonsom and the endemic jungle fruits.
We end of this post with another unique Sabah saying, “Buli Bah Kalo Ko” which translates to something like “go for it if you can do it”. It’s a sentence that’s used as motivation, or sarcasm, depending on the context. In this scenario, if you have the appetite and desire, go seek out the wonderful Sabahan dishes!