The thoughts that go through your head when you are terrified of heights but doing something that might kill or cure you are overwhelming. When in Sabah, despite signs saying something like “just please don’t do this if you are afraid of heights, ok? OK?!”, I kept schtum and did a very high and very wobbly rainforest rope walk anyway. I have had a year of trying to conquer my fears (doing the worlds longest island to island zipline in Sabah was another one), and forced myself.
Visiting Sabah, I was excited as always about the food and the peculiarities that would be offered by the region and the local cooking. Sabah is tucked away in Borneo, caressing the sea, but it has a lot of rainforest and cultivated land too. On the coast there are what are referred to locally as sea gypsies, living in wooden houses on stilts in the sea by the coast. Originating from Indonesia and the Philippines, they do have their own local food culture, and I found a chef who teaches it, Fortunato Lowel, at the Mango Garden Restaurant.
One of the joys of going to Sabah is exploring the food markets. Malaysian food culture is rich and diverse, and Sabah, tucked away on the island of Borneo, has a food heritage all of its own combined with Malaysian standards. Lots of native fish and meats are used, crocodile and stingray are probably some of the most unusual, but there is lots of beef and chicken, and more familiar fish like snapper and prawns.
(and an incredible package offer for the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort for you – see the end of this post for details)
Indulge me. I know I obsess about food, and that is why you mainly come here, but today, I want to talk about orangutans. On my recent trip to Sabah, I was swept away not just by the food, but also monkeys, apes, monitor lizards, crocodiles and inquisitive owls.
Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, is a well known honeymoon destination. It has the pristine beaches, luxury hotels and resorts, glorious sunsets, blue skies and crystal seas dotted with islands, that top most honeymoon wish lists. Sabah has wonderful Malaysian food, lots of fresh fish, aroma, heat and spice, but also curiosities like crocodile (I tried a kind of crocodile bacon at one point!). There are great street food markets (sambal stingray, you tasty thing you), lots of local restaurants, the people of Malaysia are passionate about their food and they eat very well.
I was expecting to love exploring the food and to be enthralled by the views but I wasn’t expecting to become completely obsessed with primates. It is one thing to know that primates are similar to us – 98% genetically in some cases – and to see them in a zoo. It is another to see young orphaned toddler orangutans find their way around the tree branches, cheeky and enchanting, utterly gorgeous. To see curious proboscis monkeys in the wild with their huge noses, strapping multicolour thighs, tiny babies clinging on and feeding, in large groups in the trees, sitting peacefully. Wandering to breakfast past macaques, the cheekiest and least fearful of the lot, always hovering by kitchens waiting for an opportunity to steal and smash some eggs, or any other food that they can get their mitts on.
Going to visit an Orangutan Sanctuary in Sabah is a special experience. Every day at feeding time, it is possible to go see the orangutans as they feed on a platform in the rainforest in the Nature Reserve at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort (which rehabilitates baby and toddler orangutans) and the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, deeper into the rainforest near Sandakan, where the toddlers move to be further rehabilitated and to learn essential skills like nest building and other essential skills that there mothers would have taught them for the first 8 years of their lives, before reintroducing them to the wild.
I have stacks of recipes to share with you all, and was in the midst of writing one up for you, when I thought: no, I really don’t want to do that right now. What I have to do is share some pictures from Sabah with you first. It is a wonderful place, and while I am here I am keen to share it with you.
Sabah is in Malaysian Borneo. A tropical part of the world, it has sea and rainforest, monkeys and bears, and lots of fantastic food, particularly seafood. I have been busy since my arrival, that won’t surprise you much, and have seen and eaten lots. The food has been wonderful, as good as I had been told, but I would be telling a lie if I didn’t tell you that it was the wildlife that stole my heart.
Oran utangs (translates as man of the jungle), proboscis monkeys (so called because of their massive nose, they are also called belanda, Malay for Dutchman, as it was thought that the Dutch colonisers had similar large bellies and noses) and cheeky little macaques (which were rifling through the rubbish and stealing eggs at breakfast this morning) featured but there was much more.
How many times have I talked or written about or extolled the virtues of chicken soup? Too many and yet not often enough. It is the very best thing. Soothing, rich but not heavy, and receptive to so many things. Chicken noodle soup loves to be just itself, but is also loves spice, a little curry, and most vegetables deal very well with being here. It is fond of carbs, as we all are. I adore a noodle but some pumpkin is beautiful in here too. Soft and slippery but still firm, and full of the gorgeous flavour of the chicken broth that it has cooked in.
This soup won’t solve all of your problems, but it will come pretty close. On a day that requires it, this soup will warm you up from your toes to your fingertips. Especially on a gorgeous snow day like this. The rich gorgeous stock, the sparkle of white pepper, the marinaded pork, smoked tofu, sweet pops of tomato and shiitakes. Those slivers of egg. It will fight the cold, be it physical or mental. People, you need this hot and sour soup in your repertoire.
Every soup is only as good as its stock and the stock I made for this is special. If you don’t have time to make it, substitute it with the best chicken stock you can find. The flavour and the goodness is in the broth. I like to make it with a combination of chicken wings and pork ribs, but honestly, whatever you have to hand or like. Broth from a ham hock will do a mighty job here too (and isn’t it ham hock season?! Deep joy).
What do you think of cold soups? Some people absolutely rage against them, don’t they? But they can be so good. Gazpacho? CHECK. Aja Blanco? Hells YES. That delicious confection of almonds, raw garlic, extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar, with green grapes halved on top to finish. And of course, vichyssoise, aka wonderful leek and potato soup. We usually eat it hot here, but the tradition in France is to have it cold and it is gorgeous.
It isn’t hot I know, at least it feels cool at 22 deg C with a breeze. My internal thermostat was forever reset by those days early in the summer in the mid 30’s and a few days over 40 in Ottawa in June. Yet, I wanted something cooling, and my friend, who is ill with a poorly intestine did too.
This is so simple that it hardly demands a recipe, but it is so tasty I feel compelled to share. I bought a big wodge of tuna to make my recent Tuna Tartare with Blood Orange & Radicchio and I had some leftover which I needed to use. It was a particularly excellent piece of sushi grade tuna and whatever I did with it would be good. I thought about just frying it, but I wanted more, and so my mind wandered back to some almond crusted tuna that I had years back in a restaurant in Sicily, and I wondered how a covering of sesame seeds would work instead. I love their flavour and their nutty texture.
I love fish fingers, which is a funny thing as I remember distinctly deciding that I hated them and would never eat them again when I was about 3 or 4 in my aunts house. That would start a childhood of freakish food habits. There were foods that I loved (potato, beans, eggs, rhubarb, apples, gooseberries, CRISPS!) and everything else was pretty much rejected. I would starve myself and spent hours at my grandmothers table watching my cousins and siblings playing outside. I was not allowed to move until I ate my meal, which I never would. I am stubborn, and it has served me well.
I have come back around to the fish finger now, especially made at home with hake or halibut or the posher ones from the supermarket on rare occasion. I have even embraced the fish finger sandwich slathered with peas and mint and a slick of mayo. I think this must be an English thing as I never came across it until I moved here (Irish readers: am I wrong?!). I figured tuna in a sesame jacket, crisp outside and rare with, might raise my fish finger game a little. It did.
I served mine with a miso mayo, but if you want peas and mint go ahead, and blitz them a little to make a dip. Chilli mayo works well too. Recipes for both mayo recipes are included below.
Other Eat Like a Girl recipes for tuna lovers
Other tuna recipes you might like to try
Gorgeous recent blog posts from elsewhere
Fish Cakes and Salad. The Sea, The Sea – from The Little Library Cafe, a gorgeous blog penned by Kate sharing recipes inspired by literature.
PEA SOUP WITH PANCETTA AND MINT, JUST LIKE ME… – from the lovely Jul’s Kitchen, a gorgeous Tuscan cooking blog.
- 300g tuna, cut into fish finger size widths (about an inch wide and 3 inches long)
- 1 egg
- 100g flour (plain flour or rice flour or similar if you are gluten free)
- 100g sesame seeds
- sea salt and black pepper
- light oil for frying like groundnut or rapeseed - enough to fill the pan you are going to fry in to an inch deep
- 2 tbsp mayo, 1tbsp miso of your choice, 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp mayo
- 2 tbsp gojuchang (Korean pepper paste)
- a squeeze of fresh lime juice
- fresh coriander leaves and edible flowers (I used wild garlic flowers)
Well, hello. Ham hock, so neglected, and why? It can be difficult to find now, unless you have a terrific butcher that stocks it. We need to bring it back. It should be in our supermarkets, it should be in our kitchens. Ham hock is so versatile, and incredibly frugal. Less than £5 for 1.5kg or so, even in the fanciest of butchers.
In an ideal world when I cooked my ham hock I would have had a bounty of carrots, celery, onions and bay leaves, but I didn’t. This would have resulted in the perfect ham stock, but the stock that I got at the end was so intensely hammy, it was wonderful anyway. It has formed the base of most of my cooking for the last few days. And I still have enough left for another bowl of something. Something good!
This soup is a fond look back at my Irish roots where bacon and cabbage are the informal national dish. I love beans, and had in my fridge some gorgeous judion de la granja, plump creamy butter beans from Spain, cooked from scratch as is always best, and not as much a drama as most people seem to think it is. You can use whatever white beans you can get your hands on, and whatever your favourite is.
The first time I made this, I used a lot of cream, and it was drop dead gorgeous and steeped in luxury. I would encourage you to do the same occasionally. The second time I made it, I tamed it, quietened it down, and let the broth and ham shine through. I finished it with chives once, and mint another time. Mint is my favourite, it sings clearer and brighter, but chives will do too.
I plan to get another hock or two in the coming days. I have plans for pies, croquettes, more soup, and lots of joy.
Note on the recipe: this assumes that you have boiled a ham hock. If you haven’t, you can substitute a good broth of your choice, chicken or vegetable if you don’t have ham or pork. And use any ham or bacon that you have to hand. But do try and source a ham hock for next time. They are gorgeous.
Other soup recipes on Eat Like a Girl:
From Bangkok: Prawn Tom Yum Kung (a vibrant and delicious Thai soup)
Recipe: Ham Hock, Butter Bean and Cabbage Soup
makes 2 bowls of soup
150g ham hock, pulled apart gently (from a whole ham hock, if possible, see method below)
100g cabbage (of your choice, kale and sprout tops work well too)
400ml ham stock
1 onion, cut in half and sliced finely
1 bay leaf
250g butter beans (cooked from scratch ideally, but this will equate to one drained tin too)
100ml cream (heavy cream or single cream, depending on where you are!)
optional: 1 tsp Korean gochujaru (red pepper powder) or chilli of your choice for some heat and flavour
2 tbsp fresh chopped chives or torn mint
a knob of butter and a tsp of light oil
If you have a ham hock, and that is where you are starting, cook it in a big pot of water – no salt – and skim any scum that comes to the top off. Then, if you have them, bay leaves, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and peppercorns for the perfect super ham stock. Boil for 2 hours, then remove the ham hock from the broth, and remove the ham from the bone (it should just fall off). Strain the stock, you will have a lot more than you need, but it will freeze well, or you could just keep it in the fridge and use it all week as I did. You will have leftover ham too, this recipe is for a small portion, double or treble as required.
Melt the butter and add the oil over a medium heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softening.
Add the ham, beans, cabbage, bay leaf and stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the cream and stir through. Turn off the heat.
Serve immediately finished with the herb of your choice.
Even though it is only a couple of hours flight away, Sarawak feels very different to mainland Malaysia. Sarawak is hotter, the humidity is particularly intense, and it feels very rural. There is a lot of jungle, and you know, orangutans and proboscis monkeys. Lots of lovely primates. And while Sarawak may only be one of two Malay provinces in Borneo, most of which is actually Indonesia, you could fit the whole of Ireland into it one and a half times. It ain’t small.
Kuala Lumpur by comparison felt very urban, and while I was prepared for a very sticky situation in terms of heat and humidity, it felt cooler, although so would almost anywhere. Kuala Lumpur is a tall city, with the Petronus twin tours and several bars perched high with great views. Despite this, Kuala Lumpur feels very accessible and not overwhelming, and people don’t feel rushed. It is very doable as a stopover which is essentially what I did.
I laid my head at The Majestic Hotel, a Kuala Lumpur institution still very attached to its colonial roots (the doorman is dressed in old colonial gear). I had a Junior Suite, a large room with four poster bed, day bed, sofa, table for 4 and 2 desks! A bath too, and all of this at a very accessible price (rooms start at £170 a night). I hadn’t realised until I got to KL that it has a reputation for luxury on a budget, something that I plan to take advantage of another time.
We started with an afternoon tea in The Tea Lounge, there is also a beautiful orchid room which unfortunately was booked out. Breakfast was the best of the trip with a broad selection of dim sum, sushi, curries and my favourite fresh roti canai with dal. That roti canai was perfect, and I am trying to work out how to make it at home. It is all technique, swirling and swishing, teasing the dough like a tissue and introducing air. Then folding, frying and tearing it to dip it in dal or curry, which clings to the grooves and the pockets. So lovely, I could eat one every day.
We were very lucky in KL to have Guan lead us, and introduce us to some Nyonya food. Guan was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, and while he is based in London now, he is devoted to his food culture through his own Nyonya supper club. You may remember Guan from The Taste, right?
Guan brought us to one of his favourite restaurants, Limapulo, which strictly speaking is Baba food (baba = grandfather and nyonya = grandmother). Guan ordered and the table was filled with food not long after. A rich Nyonya curry laksa was my favourite. We also had kuih pie tee (aka “Top Hats”), crispy outer shells with turnip filling, sambal sotong petai (sambal squid with ‘stinky’ petai beans), ayam rempah (braised chicken in nyonya spices, chillies and coconut milk), ayam pongteh (chicken stewed in fermented soy bean paste and palm sugar), hu chnee rempah (mackerel stuffed with sambal spice paste and udang masak nanas (prawn & pineapple curry). You mustn’t miss this restaurant when you visit KL. It is incredibly good value too.
There is lots more to see in KL, I am sure of it, but start here, and you will be very happy.
Related posts from Malaysia and Borneo:
Read my previous post on my trip to Kuching and surrounding Sarawak directly before
Cooking in Sabah: Two Healthy Sea Gypsy Recipes (Fish Soup & a Fish Salad)
The Street Food Markets of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
Sabah: Observing Orangutans at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre
Visiting Sabah Tea Plantation & Facing My (Non Tea Related) Fears
A Postcard from Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
Dispatches from Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan in Borneo
My trip to Sarawak was sponsored by Malaysia Airlines, who are the only carrier to offer a twice daily non-stop A380 full service link between the UK and Malaysia. UK passengers can also take advantage of frequent onward connections to destinations across Malaysia, Asia and Australasia. Economy class return flights from London Heathrow to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur International Airport start from £817. Business Class from £3167 (prices including taxes and charges). To book visit www.malaysiaairlines.com or call +44 (0) 871 4239 090.
So where were we? Oh yes, the blog turned 8, I got salmonella poisoning (separate incident!) which unfortunately is still lurking, and then I had a birthday too. A significant birthday, no guessing, lets just say it warranted a very big celebration and a long one. What better than to skip off to Borneo and spend my last day of the year before the significant one (a-hem) with orangutans, then spend my birthday itself eating laksa and satay and all sorts of other wonderful Malaysian things.
Sarawak is the other Malaysian province of Borneo. You will remember that I have already been to Sabah, and I loved it. I liked Brunei a lot too. I especially fell head over heels for long haired ginger men of the forests (gasp! no, that means orangutans whose name literally translates as that). I was so lucky this time, I saw so many, which is very unusual. This is because it isn’t fruit season so they tend to come to the feeding platforms to eat.
Brunei, a tiny country on the island of Borneo, surrounded by Malaysia, Sabah on one side and Sarawak on the other, is one of the worlds wealthiest countries, thanks to their plentiful supply of oil. It is also one of the smallest, with a population of 415,717, approximately 10% of the population of the small country that I hail from, Ireland. With one major city, Bandar Seri Begawan, and the rainforest beyond, Brunei makes a good stopover en route to Melbourne or other destinations, like Sabah, on the Royal Brunei flight network. But what do you do when you get there?
This post was sponsored by Le Creuset. They asked me to write a one pot recipe and to choose one of their pots to cook it in. I fancied something spiced, slow cooked and full of character, so I settled on a rendang inspired by my travels to Malaysia. I chose a shallow pot that would aid evaporation, caramelisation and intensification of the sauce (a 30cm shallow casserole, in lovely Marseille blue).
I have been to Malaysia twice in the past year, to the tip of it in Langkawi, and the bottom, Sabah, Borneo. I love it there for many reasons. The monkeys (who can resist?), the rainforests and the gorgeous seas, the sandy beaches and the mangrove trees. Best of all is the food, seasoned with punchy aromatics and a little spice. Where India has spices, Malysia has aroma – galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass, lots of fresh turmeric – and slow cooked tender meats, bright fish, with sometimes funky undertones from fermented fish. For this project, I settled on a chicken (ayam) rendang, the perfect food for a chilly November.
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