Spending a day hiking through rainforest takes its toll. Both of us woke to aches and pains, but I had the bug bites to-boot. My hand was worst off, three bites between the knuckles.
Our muscles could relax today, we’d already booked cooking lessons at the Bumbu Cookery School. It’s in an older part of town, one room rented at the back of an old Chinese shop. It’s rudimentary, and as its rented they can’t do much to it (ie change the toilet!), but it makes do, perhaps it even adds to the authenticity. We were a group of five, a friendly dutchman, a mother (83) and daughter from New Zealand, and us two.
Before leaving for our market tour we needed to prepare our marinade for the first dish, a Sarawak chicken curry. All chicken is cooked on the bone; when the edge of the bone changes colour then it indicates that the meat is cooked. It also gives a better taste.
Our cook, (he said he can’t call himself chef, for that he’d need a license) explained that we’d be preparing dishes in the traditional Sarawak style, but where possible he’d provide details of ingredients we could buy locally when we got home. These cooking courses are a way for him to share his culture with others, and that seems to drive him. He’s from a small town, owns a farm, and collects durian species, and he’s a lovely friendly man.
With the chicken marinading we all clambered into a comfortable people-carrier and headed to the market. It was the cleanest, freshest, nicest Asian market any of us had seen. The market used to be in town, within walking distance, but it had recently moved to a dedicated new-build. Not quite as convenient though.
Our chef (I can call him that) explained all the weird and wonderful fresh things, whilst picking out the items we needed for our course, putting them in our cute wicker bags. There were long beans, snake beans, orange egg plants, pea sized egg plants, curry leaf, green peppercorns and fiddle head jungle ferns (in three stages of freshness — from good to slimy). Yams and tapioca, wild ginger flower and stems, sour prunes (or snakeskin prunes — so acidic it can cook fish), baby corn (still with its greenery) and sago flour. There was red wild star fruit, which has a thin flesh and edible seeds but is very sour. We needed ripe pineapple for our dish — you can tell ripeness by the green/yellow, we picked up some that were about half yellow half green. There were sour custard apples, which looked like deflated pineapples. In Sam’s bag was a bunch of pandan leaves — like a quiver with arrows, she swung about with them and narrowly avoided (or sometimes not) tickling passers by with the tips of the leaves.
From the fruit and veg aisles we moved to the meat and fish. A fishmonger posed with two enormous fresh water shrimp, and a man squeezed past us carrying a hundred chicken eggs. Piles and piles of crispy anchovies were on every table; the more expensive they are, the more crispy, “don’t scrimp on the anchovies”. Chef had already bought our chicken, “always buy meat first thing”.
The market was notably devoid of durian, and that rancid smell. Apparently they aren’t yet in season. Chef gave us a good tip too, if you smell of durian (should you have eaten it, you mad person!), you can wash your hands with water soaked in durian skin, which extracts the smell.
With ingredients ready, we drove back to the school to continue cooking. First up we made sweet tako boxes for our dessert. Using the pandan leaves we carefully folded and cut as instructed, creating 20 or so leafy boxes held together with a cocktail stick. Inside them we hid some sweetcorn (“a surprise”). Next we prepared coconut water by squeezing fresh coconut in a bowl of water, this formed part of a sugar and flour mixture which we stirred on a low heat until it bubbled. That became the dessert, we poured it over the sweetcorn and filled the boxes, and put in the fridge for later. Very simple and incredibly tasty. Best eaten fresh!
As a side to the chicken curry we prepared Sambal midin, midin being fresh jungle ferns (asparagus makes a good alternative), and Sambal being a traditional pounded chilli paste. In a pestle and mortar we pounded dried chillies, shallots, shrimp paste and dried prawns — crushing the shallots into a paste is hardest and the Sambal is often judged by how small they are. Chef looked at mine, and gave me a look, no that’s not ready, pound harder. We prepped the ferns by pulling off the stalks. Cooking was simple enough; put in the paste, add the ferns and season.
To the main course, we fried our chicken with red chilli paste, white candle nut paste, brown cumin paste, turmeric paste and some dark brown bumbu paste, then onion, star anise and a pounded mix of lemongrass, ginger, galangal, garlic and shallots. We added water slowly and waited until the bone changed colour and the meat was cooked inside. We added lots more water, some fried potatoes and left for 20 minutes.
In the meantime we prepped some fresh pineapple. We’d always just cut off the edges, creating a lot of waste, chef explained that we can instead peal, then remove the eyes along the diagonal — leaving you with much more succulent pineapple to eat. By the time we’d finished prepping our curries were ready, we were starving, and we were ready to eat. The amount of food we’d cooked could feed 40, and I think the leftovers were taken to people that would eat it.
Around a table we devoured our feast; sarawak chicken curry, sambal midin, rice, coconut tako boxes, and fresh pineapple. Yummy! We were finished by 3pm, and of course, like all previous cooking courses, we bought a new apron before leaving.
Outside it was searing hot. Rather than traipse about in the heat we made our plans and reservations for tomorrow (a morning drive to Semeneggoh orangutan reserve, and an afternoon hike in Kubah national park). We didn’t do much after that, I relaxed in the hotel while Sam hunted down a good-looking wooden hornbill statue (it broke on the return flight, but nothing a bit of super glue couldn’t fix).
We met up again in the evening and checked out the lauded “Top Spot Food Court”. Sounds great, right? It’s also on the top of a concrete multi-storey car park and adorned with neon lights. Still, it has the best seafood in town, and the locals swear by it. But I wasn’t in the mood for fish, and Sam reluctantly agreed to find somewhere else.
While looking for ‘somewhere else’ we stumbled on an over-the-top traditional Chinese dance. It featured a dragon, held by 20 people who danced in a circle, to the tribal beat of drum. It spilled out from a grand Chinese pagoda into the road, blocking the streets, everyone filmed it on their smart phones.
Eventually we found the place we were looking for, “Bla bla bla”, described as “Innovative, chic and stylish … [with] Chinese-inspired fusion dishes” by the Lonely Planet. It was all of those things, minus the fusion (it was just Chinese). We couldn’t work out how much to order; after placing our order the kitchen gave word that we’d “ordered too much”. They were right, the utterly delicious crispy seaweed, fried rice and crispy duck were too much, and had we’d eaten an oyster pancake too we might have been unable to move. Sam’s choice of drink didn’t help, an enormous dessert-like coke float (I instead rekindled a taste for Longan juice). A glutton for punishment, we shared cheesecake for dessert too.