Sabahan Foods

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May 26th 2012
Published: August 8th 2012
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Anyone who knows me knows that one of, if not THE, greatest love of my life, is food. I have been known to out-eat hungry men, and there are few foods that I dislike or won’t eat. This has always combined well with my love of travel: exploring new foods & cuisines is one of the best parts of going new places. I adore good food markets from both a gastronomic and an anthropologic perspective—exploring markets in new places gives insight not only to what foods are common or prized in an area, but also to how people socialize, gather, and eat.

Because I’ve been coming to Sabah for so long, I sometimes forget how great the foods here are. A friend recently asked me about Malaysian food and in retrospect, I probably undersold it. I was caught a bit off-guard by the question and failed to properly convey all the great wonders of the mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cuisines that makes up the food here. To rectify this somewhat, I think it’s time for me to officially express my love of Malaysian food. A list of all of my favorite things in Sabah would be long and rather uninformative, so I’ve decided to focus on a few of the highlights, and some of the things that I tend to relish whenever I’ve been gone and come back again.


Whenever someone tells me that they don’t like coconut, I always give them the great line from “It’s a Wonderful Life” uttered by the young George Bailey: “Don’t like coconut? Say brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from?”

I happen to love coconut in all of its forms, and luckily for me, Malaysia is awash in them. I believe that coconut milk improves just about anything it touches (curries! Desserts! Instant noodles!). Coconut water/juice is refreshing and practically free, and is surprisingly variable. Get a young coconut, and the flavor is distinctly different from an older one—the older one being almost carbonated and my personal favorite. Once you’ve finished drinking your coconut, you can split the husk open and eat the flesh (two treats in one!), the texture of which also varies with the age of the coconut—younger is softer and a bit like jelly, while the older is firmer. Here in Sabah you can also get a variety of coconut that
Coconut 3 WaysCoconut 3 WaysCoconut 3 Ways

Fresh coconut (front), coconut pudding (right), and roasted coconut (back).
tastes mildly like pandan (a plant with a very fresh, green flavor), one of my favorite Asian flavors.

A few years ago, my good friend Ket Sing introduced me to one of the greatest of Sabahan food wonders: coconut three ways. There’s a stall outside of KK where you can get a) plain coconut, b) roasted coconut, and c) coconut pudding. The first is self-explanatory. The second is a whole coconut that has been roasted over coals all day, giving the juice/water and flesh inside a smoky flavor (it’s eaten the way a “plain” coconut is). The last one is a dessert made by combining coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk, and possibly a few other ingredients to make a pudding that is served inside the coconut husk. All of them are worth the side trip out of town should you ever find yourself in Sabah.

I could go on and on about how coconuts also provide a great fuel source (the husks can be burned), oil that is great for both cooking and skin/hair, and much-needed shade on tropical beaches, but I’ll move on to my next food item…

Tamparuli mee

This dish
Tamparuli MeeTamparuli MeeTamparuli Mee

From the greatest noodle shop in Sabah. Mmmm...
deserves its own entry because I love it that much. Firstly, I have to state that I love noodles. Handmade noodles are a thing of beauty, much like handmade gnocchi to those of you who are more familiar with Italian cuisine than Asian cuisine. If they’re well-made and fresh, they should be tender but not soggy; they should hold their shape when cooked, and they should never ever be greasy. The town of Tamparuli, about halfway between KK and Kinabalu Park Headquarters, has a special type of mee goreng (fried noodles) particular to that town, and each shop in town has a slightly different variation on the theme. The basic ingredients are noodles stir-fried with egg and barbecued pork, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The shop I prefer is straight out of a movie--run by a family, one brother makes the noodles by hand, one is in charge of the cooking, one handles the money, and various other family members work in the restaurant. Every time I think of Tamparuli mee, I think it can’t possibly be as good as I remember, and then I taste it again and I’m transported to noodle nirvana. The shop manages to stir fry the noodles so they’re not at all greasy, and they have the perfect amount of egg and deliciously cooked barbecue pork…again, I can’t do it justice, but trust me when I say that this is a dish that’s worth traveling 45 minutes out of town for. Pair it with iced coffee and you may contemplate moving to Tamparuli.


To fully understand my obsession with crab, you have to understand that it is something I only ate for the first time in the past 5 years. I’m horribly allergic to fish, and when I was little, I was told that my allergy included shellfish as well as fish, so until I was about 28, I never tasted any seafood in my adult life. Given that I love food, and the fact that discovering any new food is always exciting to me, I have fully embraced the beauty of crab and have been making up for the lost 20 years in which I could have been eating crab.

While in the US seafood is often very expensive, it is extremely affordable here in SE Asia, and Malaysia does crab very
Greatest Meal in SabahGreatest Meal in SabahGreatest Meal in Sabah

Wet butter crab, Mongolian chicken, and sayur manis.
well. The main ways I would recommend eating crab here are (in no particular order) wet butter, black pepper, and chili. Each time I come to Malaysia I eat crab just about every chance I get, and on more than one occasion I have eaten a kilo (2.2 lbs) of crab by myself because I was traveling alone and didn’t have a dining companion, and I wasn’t about to NOT get crab just because I would look a little bit…overzealous, shall we say.

One of the most perfect meals I have ever had (and frequently get when in town) was at a seafood place in the suburbs of KK. This particular restaurant always attracts huge clientele and it’s best to arrive before 7:30 or 8 pm to assure they’re not already sold out of crab. While the menu is quite extensive, I recommend getting two types of crab (wet butter and either dry chili or black pepper), sayur manis (a local type of asparagus) with garlic, and something called Mongolian chicken. I have no idea what goes into the Mongolian chicken sauce, except to say that it’s mildly sweet and may be tomato or chili based, based on its
Kway Teow BabiKway Teow BabiKway Teow Babi

Pork noodle soup, paired with iced coffee--one of the best brekkies!
vague orange/red color. When I ate this meal for the first time (wet butter crab, Mongolian chicken, and sayur manis) I can honestly say that it was second only to discovering good quality black truffles. The flavors were so delicious and rich, balanced by the clean crisp veggies, and beer proved the perfect refresher to wash it all down. You can easily feed three people, including beer, for under US$35—in total.

Chinese-influenced foods—especially breakfasts

Two things I really wish I could get easily and cheaply in the US are dim sum and breakfast noodles. Dim sum is basically a way to eat lots of different Chinese dishes in small portions. It’s typically eaten as breakfast (or brunch) and good dim sum places tend to be packed—both with customers and carts from which you can select your dishes. The place I most frequently go to in KK has a constant stream of carts milling about with both sweet and savory treats—braised short ribs, pao (steamed buns filled with meat), shu mai (shrimp or port dumplings), fried won tons, sesame-covered balls made from rice flour & deep fried, and my newest favorite: taro stuffed with barbeque pork, battered
Dim SumDim SumDim Sum

A delicious dim sum selection
& deep fried. Taro is another one of my favorite Asian foods, and this combination of sweet taro and the pork, plus the fried aspect, makes this just about the all-around perfect food.

In addition to dim sum, I adore noodle soup for breakfast—specifically kway teow (flat wide rice noodles) with pork. I think this strikes westerners as very strange (noodles? For BREAKFAST?!) but trust me when I say that it’s awesome. The kway teow noodles are light, the pork gives you an early protein boost, and the soup is a nice warm way to fill up. Pair it with iced coffee to balance things out on a warm morning (or hot coffee on a cold morning for an added shot of warmth) and you have a recipe for a good day.

I’ve also recently discovered an array of dumplings available at various Chinese places—everywhere I’ve found them, they’re hand-made and cooked fresh to order, and I prefer the pan-fried over the steamed, mostly because I like the little bit of crunchy texture you get with the fried option. These are served with a garlic/soy/vinegar dipping sauce, and make a great appetizer to a larger meal, a nice snack, or even a light meal in and of themselves, depending on what else you’ve been eating that day.

Tandoori chicken & garlic naan

Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten is tandoori chicken and garlic naan at a small place in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Petaling Jaya). James used to live in this neighborhood and was the first to take me here many years ago—and I’ve been going back every chance I get for several years now.

Tandoori chicken is marinated in a combination of yogurt and spices and cooked in a clay oven (the tandoor). Since eating at this place, I’ve tried lots of different tandoori chickens, and often, the chicken is a bit dry, or a little flavorless—but this place somehow manages to ALWAYS (and I’ve eaten here dozens of times over many years) make the chicken moist but fully cooked, and full of tandoori flavor. I don’t know what their secret is, but I should probably just ask.

Naan is an Indian flat bread, and the garlic naan at this place is bigger than my head, awash in butter and garlic, and has a fantastic chewy, doughy, soft texture. You can get tandoori chicken and garlic naan along with a large fresh mango juice for about US$5. This is one of the reasons that I find it hard to go to Indian restaurants in the US—my frequent visits to Malaysia ensure that I can often get delicious Indian food and what I consider reasonable prices, and I can’t bring myself to pay 3-4 times that amount for the same thing in the US.


Lastly, my favorite dessert in Malaysia, and one that truly represents Sabah to me, is cendol. I first had it on my original trip to Sabah, and admittedly, my first taste left me unimpressed. But my second taste, from a much better cendol stall, had me completely hooked.

Cendol as a whole is a combination of cendol (glutinous rice flour strips flavored with pandan), coconut milk, & gula melaka (a dark brown sugar from the coconut palm), served over shaved ice. I think one reason I love it so much is because each component is uniquely Asian and to me, representative of Sabah. It’s also a very light dessert, so you can always make room for cendol, no matter what or how much you’ve eaten for dinner. And because it’s made with shaved ice, it’s always refreshing, especially given that most nights in KK are warm—if not downright hot. There was a cendol stall in KK that I frequented for many years, but sadly it no longer exists, and I’m constantly trying to find a suitable replacement. Currently, the best option is the Filipino night market, but their cendol isn’t quite the same quality as the old stall I knew and loved. Still, it is tiding me over until I find something truly outstanding.

I could go on and on, talking about curry noodles, satay, Indian foods, peanut pancakes, coffee, kit chai ping, and so many other foods and drinks, but suffice it to say that Malaysia really has a great mix of cuisines and foods and deserves much more credit and attention than it currently gets in the US. And if you really are dying to hear me ramble on about the foods of Malaysia, just ask—I never tire of talking about it.


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