Update: the hubby informs me that Malaysia has states, not provinces. I’ve corrected it below. Thanks, hubby!
The jungle opens up limitless new gastronomic possibilities, as we discovered last week in Kuching, the capital city of the East Malaysian province of Sarawak. Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states located on Borneo, an island famous for its rainforests. We were eager to try some of the specialties based on fruits and vegetables of the forest.
When we hit the Top Spot seafood hawker court in downtown Kuching, sauteed midin was on offer at almost every stall. Midin is the local jungle fern (pictured above), and it looks like no other green vegetable I’ve seen, with stalks the thickness and consistency of French green beans and curlicue ends shaped like pinwheels.
Top: the catches of the day are lined up neatly in front of each hawker’s stall for customers to have their pick; center: Stall 25 at the Top Spot Food Center is seemingly the most popular, and the one we chose to dine at; bottom: every order comes with fresh sliced chilies and chopped garlic
The locals love to eat midin sauteed with belacan, a paste made from ground fermented shrimp. Although I’ve grown to appreciate the salty tang that belacan brings to dishes, I wasn’t sure I’d be sold on it accompanied with jungle fern, since I’d never had it before. We ordered our midin instead with sliced garlic and absolutely loved it. Midin has an herbal, almost tobacco-like undertone, and when we added a little chopped raw garlic and sliced chilies, the result was a pleasantly warm, smoky flavor.
But enough about vegetables — you only get so far on a meal with greens. We also shared a whole local sea bass, which our hawker steamed with shredded carrots, ginger, garlic and cilantro. The fish was light, fresh and flavorful, and the perfect accompaniment to our other dish, a sinfully decadent battered giant prawn tossed in butter.
I love giant prawns. They’re expensive and hard to find in the U.S., but here in Malaysia, this dish with three prawns as big as my fist were less than $11. One of the skills I’m proudest of acquiring while we’ve been living here is being able to separate the prawn’s head and shell from the rest of its body using only my spoon (which is one of the two standard utensils used in Malaysian dining; the other is a fork). I mean, it’s not a party trick I’ll be pulling out at corporate happy hours, but, just like riding a bike, it’s a skill that you never forget once you have it.
Plus, this new superhero skill lets me inhale a giant prawn in less than a minute, flat.
Top Spot Food Center | Top floor of the parking garage on Jalan Pandugan | Open evenings starting at 5:30 | Kuching | Sarawak | Malaysia