Kuching’s version of the Sarawak laksa, a soupy and spicy curry noodle dish, was famously described by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as “breakfast of the gods.”
With reason. The dish is comfort in a bowl, and typically served with generous portions of chicken and omelet strips, prawns, bean sprouts, coriander, and fresh lime. The soup alone is delicious and usually made from prawn broth flavored with shallots, galangal, candlenut, lemongrass, palm sugar, tamarind, coconut milk, and sambal belacan, the funky smelling shrimp paste that is a staple ingredient in Malaysian cooking.
Laksa is considered a Nyonya dish, a mix of Malay and Chinese food cultures—which best describes Kuching itself, being home to 28 different ethnic groups. This makes the city a melting pot of different cultures, religions, beliefs, languages, and, yes, cuisines.
With such diverse influences, Kuching was named by UNESCO as a “City of Gastronomy” in November last year, a nod not just to the Sarawak capital’s rich food culture and heritage but also a recognition of the commitment of the local government and other stakeholders to leverage on its cuisine to bolster sustainable growth. Kuching is the first city in BIMP-EAGA to join the gastronomy list.
Kuching has been a center of trade and exchange for the East Malaysian region since its foundation in the 1820s. Now, it is transitioning from a traditional food culture into international expressions of creativity, says UNESCO in its profile of the city.
UNESCO notes that Kuching’s local and indigenous food is based on unique ingredient sources from the “Sarawak region’s incredible diversity, fostered by the close relationship between indigenous communities and the environment.” This traditional gastronomy supports smallholders and cottage industries and has inspired traditional cooking techniques and know-how.
“Sustained immigration since the early 19th century has diversified the food culture, both in its blend and in its community dishes, creating the breadth of local cuisine that can be witnessed today and enjoyed through traditional street food centers and markets,” says UNESCO.
Melvin Jong, director of digital communications and marketing at the Sarawak Tourism Board, credits the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity for its unique offering of local delicacies.
Food is also a key feature of the city’s cultural and tourism calendar, UNESCO notes, citing the upcoming Rainforest World Music Festival, Kuching Jazz Festival, and Sarawak Regatta also host traditional food bazaars.
As a food destination, Kuching is not built on one dish alone. Apart from laksa, kolo mee (right) is also a must-try. “Kolo mee is a breakfast of choice for most Sarawakians,” says Jong, who praises the dish for its simplicity. Widely served in hawker stalls, the dish consists of lightly cooked noodles tossed in spiced oil and fried shallots and topped with barbecued or minced pork, fish, or shrimps.
For those keen to try a more traditional delicacy, there is manuk pansuh, or chicken cooked in bamboo. The dish is essentially steamed over an open fire, which is a common way of cooking among indigenous people who live in a longhouse or traditional house.
Other Kuching delicacies include noodle dishes kampua mee, kueh chap, tomato crispy mee, and belacan bee hoon. A chicken dish cooked with kacangma, motherwort herb, is also a must-try as well as the midin belacan, sautéed jungle fern. For snacks and desserts, try gong pia biscuits and the kek lapis layer cake.
Creativity at the heart of the city
The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to promote cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. The cities that make up the network work together toward a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international level.
The network covers seven creative fields: crafts and folk arts, media arts, film, design, gastronomy, literature, and music.
Joining the network involves a participative process and a forward-looking approach. Cities must present a realistic action plan, including specific projects, initiatives, or policies to be executed in the next 4 years to implement the objectives of the network.
UNESCO says as a Creative City of Gastronomy, Kuching should:
• Support smallholders and cottage industries in the collection of heritage food products and ingredients by increasing access to both domestic and online markets;
• Encourage entrants into heritage agriculture and gastronomy to increase creativity and sustainability and support intergenerational knowledge transmission;
• Diversify income streams for heritage agriculture through responsible tourism;
• Increase appreciation of gastronomy through documentation and awareness campaigns;
• Promote health, hygiene and responsible consumption in the recovery phase from the COVID-19 pandemic; and
• Foster knowledge exchange with UNESCO Creative Cities Network member cities to embed creativity within traditional gastronomy.