Sarawak is a gastronomy hub and a melting pot of flavours, be it traditional or modern. These days, travellers have become more cultured, and prefer taking part in the locals’ daily life to get a gist of local culture. When savouring local food from restaurants is simply not enough, take it a notch up and learn how to cook them instead. There is a difference between cooking and tasting. Cooking opens up doors while tasting offers only a fraction of the full experience to be had.
Kuching has several culinary adventures that will let you discover new tastes and cook unique local cuisine under the guidance of trained local chefs. Among the cooking classes that can help you gain a better sense of Sarawak’s food culture are those offered by Telang Usan Hotel and Indah Cafe. The experience you gain will enrich your travels here.
Morning visit to the local farmers’ market
Before you start cooking, a trip to Medan Niaga Satok local farmer’s market at Kubah Ria is highly recommended. The biggest outdoor wet market in Kuching houses aisles and aisles of stalls selling regular wet items of local produce and rare finds. Manned by local farmers, all ingredients here are guaranteed to be locally and ethically produced.
Here, participants will get to see, feel and smell fresh vegetables and fruits, including pucuk manis (star gooseberry), salak fruit and petai (stinky beans). Follow the guide from stall to stall while listening to stories and benefits of the vast array of each produce. You might even stumble upon Sarawak’s very own natural alternative of monosodium glutamate (MSG): bungkang leaves, which are a must-have enhancer for the Iban folks when it comes to making dishes like manok pansoh (chicken in bamboo).
If you sign up for a cooking class on the weekends, expect to find the market jampacked with throngs of locals buying their necessities. On the weekdays the market is less condensed. Our advice: Come here on weekdays if you wish to explore the market when it is less hectic.
After your local market trip, it’s time to get down to business and show off your cooking skills with fresh organic produce you just bought from the local market.
If you prefer a casual and laid-back cooking class, Telang Usan Hotel is the place to be. Here, participants will get to learn directly from Chef Hazmimah Hajemi and prepare three main cuisines: umai, Sarawak rojak and midin (jungle ferns) kerabu by utilising local herbs, flowers and roots bought earlier. All dishes require very little to no contact of the fiery stove. Preparing these dishes takes less than one hour.
Vegetarians need not worry, as they also have their in-house recipe for midin kerabu. The umai served at Telang Usan is simply one of the best in Kuching, as only fresh red snapper bought daily is used.
Although Sarawak is particularly famed for its laksa paste, pitis is also another Sarawakian paste the world should know. It sets the Sarawak Rojak apart from the other kinds of rojak. At Telang Usan, participants will get the opportunity to chop and mix vegetables such as sengkuang (turnips), and cucumbers with this pitis paste mushy, and black with a tinge of brown.
However, when it comes to actually cooking on a stove, Indah cafe would be your best bet. It offers intimate cooking classes with five dishes, namely Indah’s very own in-house chicken laksa Sarawak, gula apong (palm sugar) chicken, midin & pumpkin, kerabu salad and nasi ulam (herbed rice). Five dishes can be quite intimidating, but do not fret, as Indah’s chef will assist in the cooking processes to ensure the smooth flow of the cooking session, all within three hours. Here, participants will also get an authentic feel of the Sarawak food culture by using the ancient pestle and mortar instead of having to rely on blenders and food processors.
There are cooking breaks too, where you get to indulge in fruits; you’re lucky if soursop is on the menu. Thorny on the outside, but sour and sweet on the inside, soursop is an absolute delight to the taste buds.
Cooking classes at Telang Usan and Indah Cafe are centred on easy to follow recipes, and you will be surrounded by fellow participants from different parts of the globe, making the experience much more enjoyable. Although some ingredients can only be found in Sarawak, participants will also get an insider’s tip on substituting these ingredients with alternatives available in their respective countries.
The experience of a lifetime
Once your masterpiece renditions of local Sarawak dishes are all prepped and ready, it’s time to dig in with your new cooking pals! That is the beauty of cooking classes. Not only you get to understand new cultures, relish on new tastes, but also experience it all together with complete strangers who will turn out to become your best foodie friends. So, the next time you visit Kuching, consider taking part in a cooking class, because it is truly an experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere, at any other time. Plus, it lets you bring a slice of Sarawak back home.
You’re back home, and your mind simply cannot stop thinking about that delicious umai you had in one of the cooking classes in Sarawak. It is only right for visitors to learn how to make this popular Melanau dish at home for them to enjoy.
Here’s a recipe for umai that will come in handy at times when you miss the Sarawak delicacy:
- • 400g red snapper (skinned, deboned and sliced thinly)
- • 1 tablespoon vinegar
- • 3 finely ground shallots
- • 2 cloves of garlic
- • 6-8 calamansi limes (get the juice)
- • 1 red chilli, seeded and sliced into thin strips
- • 1 small purple onion
- • Salt to taste
- Marinate the fish slices with vinegar for one hour.
- Pour out the excess vinegar. In a large bowl, mix the fish slices with pounded shallots, chilli, garlic, lime juice, and onions.
- Let the fish cook in the acidic dressing for at least 5 minutes.
- Season with salt to taste.