Cooking in Sabah: Two Healthy Sea Gypsy Recipes (Fish Soup & a Fish Salad)

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.

What I loved about these recipes is that they are not complicated, but they are full flavoured, and very healthy too. This is proper home cooking, using the ingredients from the sea and the land surrounding it. The fish soup is a powerhouse of aroma, light and fresh, golden with turmeric and zingy with chilli and lemongrass. The fish salad (a Malaysian style of ceviche, really) was fresh, bright and warm with chilli, the fish was lightly “cooked” in the acidity of the lime, before being served with shallot, chilli and ginger. Bitter gourd too, but that is difficult to source here so I recommend substituting with cucumber, which does’t have the same bitterness, but it works well in terms of texture. Both use tuna, there are four types of tuna in Sabah waters, according to the chef.

Many of the vegetables are sourced from the restaurant kitchen garden, which Fortunato brought us on a tour of. I love seeing new things, and it was a joy to see a turmeric flower (pictured above), and also to taste herbs and leaves, straight from the ground, when their flavour is at its best and most vibrant.

We cooked three recipes, two of which I will share with you here now. I will share the recipe for the BBQ Chicken and Herbs another day, when I have had time to adapt it at home. Both recipes cook quickly and are sure to brighten a sorry winter day at home, they would be perfect for a sunny summer day too. Close your eyes before you eat it and imagine the suns rays on your face, and enjoy all of the wonderful aromas.

[I know you will anyway – ahem – but do scroll to the bottom for an immense reader offer for a Sabah holiday. It is available only until March 31st 2015, details at the link below.]

Recipes adapted from those taught at Mango Garden Restaurant, Sabah, Malaysia. I have adapted these so that they are easily recreated in Western kitchens, but they are still 100% authentic. Enjoy them!

Both recipes are for 1 person

RECIPE: Daeng Masak Timbul [An Aromatic Malaysian Fish Soup Recipe]


200g fresh tuna
2 cloves garlic
3 inch segment of ginger
1 red onion
2 pieces of fresh turmeric root (substitute with a half a tsp of dried, but do try to get fresh if you can)
1 red chilli
1 ripe tomatoes
1 stalk lemongrass
a handful of Thai basil leaves
sea salt, to taste


Cut the fish into two large pieces.
The garlic, ginger, onions and turmeric are aromatics in this soup, and so are not used as a paste. Simply peel the turmeric and ginger (using a spoon is easiest, and if you don’t want your hands to be bright yellow, use gloves), and cut into thin slices. Peel and slice onion the garlic also.
Pound the lemongrass in a pestle and mortar or with a heavy pan. This releases the oils and therefore the flavour. Deseed then cut the chilli into slices and cut the tomato into wedges.
Bring a small pot of water to the boil (a small claypot is what is used in Sabah – see photo – so a milk pan or so would be perfect), then add the aromatics (ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric, lemongrass). After a few minutes add the fish and tomatoes and cook until the fish is done to your liking (I like mine still pink so only cook for a few minutes).
Finish with the Thai basil and season with salt to taste.
Serve hot. Enjoy!

RECIPE: Hinava Sada (Traditional Fish Salad, like a Malay take on ceviche)


200g fresh tuna, sliced finely
2 inches cucumber, deseeded but skin retained for slight bitterness, halved and cut into small slices
1 inch ginger,
1 large or 2 small shallots, peeled and finely sliced
1 mild red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
the juice of 2 fresh limes
sea salt, to taste


Combine all ingredients, except the salt, ensuring everything is well mixed.
Leave for 10 minutes then season with sea salt to taste.
Ready to eat. Chill if preparing in advance, but I find this is best made just before you want to eat it.

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I visited Sabah & Brunei with the #LoveSabah and #TasteofBrunei campaigns, brought to you by iambassador in partnership with Sabah Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines. As always, I maintain full editorial control. 



Written by Niamh
Cooking and travelling, and sharing it all with you.