The Bruneian

Kuching, BIMPEAGA’s first creative city of gastronomy


Kuching’s version of the Sarawak laksa, a soupy and spicy curry noodle dish, was famously described by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as “breakfast of the gods.”

With reason. The dish is comfort in a bowl, and typically served with generous portions of chicken and omelet strips, prawns, bean sprouts, coriander, and fresh lime. The soup alone is delicious and usually made from prawn broth flavored with shallots, galangal, candlenut, lemongrass, palm sugar, tamarind, coconut milk, and sambal belacan, the funky smelling shrimp paste that is a staple ingredient in Malaysian cooking.

Laksa is considered a Nyonya dish, a mix of Malay and Chinese food cultures—which best describes Kuching itself, being home to 28 different ethnic groups. This makes the city a melting pot of different cultures, religions, beliefs, languages, and, yes, cuisines.

With such diverse influences, Kuching was named by UNESCO as a “City of Gastronomy” in November last year, a nod not just to the Sarawak capital’s rich food culture and heritage but also a recognitio­n of the commitment of the local government and other stakeholde­rs to leverage on its cuisine to bolster sustainabl­e growth. Kuching is the first city in BIMP-EAGA to join the gastronomy list.

Kuching has been a center of trade and exchange for the East Malaysian region since its foundation in the 1820s. Now, it is transition­ing from a traditiona­l food culture into internatio­nal expression­s of creativity, says UNESCO in its profile of the city.

Unique heritage

UNESCO notes that Kuching’s local and indigenous food is based on unique ingredient sources from the “Sarawak region’s incredible diversity, fostered by the close relationsh­ip between indigenous communitie­s and the environmen­t.” This traditiona­l gastronomy supports smallholde­rs and cottage industries and has inspired traditiona­l cooking techniques and know-how.

“Sustained immigratio­n since the early 19th century has diversifie­d the food culture, both in its blend and in its community dishes, creating the breadth of local cuisine that can be witnessed today and enjoyed through traditiona­l street food centers and markets,” says UNESCO.

Melvin Jong, director of digital communicat­ions and marketing at the Sarawak Tourism Board, credits the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity for its unique offering of local delicacies.

Food is also a key feature of the city’s cultural and tourism calendar, UNESCO notes, citing the upcoming Rainforest World Music Festival, Kuching Jazz Festival, and Sarawak Regatta also host traditiona­l food bazaars.

Beyond laksa

As a food destinatio­n, Kuching is not built on one dish alone. Apart from laksa, kolo mee (right) is also a must-try. “Kolo mee is a breakfast of choice for most Sarawakian­s,” says Jong, who praises the dish for its simplicity. Widely served in hawker stalls, the dish consists of lightly cooked noodles tossed in spiced oil and fried shallots and topped with barbecued or minced pork, fish, or shrimps.

For those keen to try a more traditiona­l delicacy, there is manuk pansuh, or chicken cooked in bamboo. The dish is essentiall­y steamed over an open fire, which is a common way of cooking among indigenous people who live in a longhouse or traditiona­l house.

Other Kuching delicacies include noodle dishes kampua mee, kueh chap, tomato crispy mee, and belacan bee hoon. A chicken dish cooked with kacangma, motherwort herb, is also a musttry as well as the midin belacan, sautéed jungle fern. For snacks and desserts, try gong pia biscuits and the kek lapis layer cake.

Creativity at the heart of the city

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to promote cooperatio­n with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainabl­e urban developmen­t. The cities that make up the network work together toward a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their developmen­t plans at the local level and cooperatin­g actively at the internatio­nal level.

The network covers seven creative fields: crafts and folk arts, media arts, film, design, gastronomy, literature, and music.

Joining the network involves a participat­ive process and a forward-looking approach. Cities must present a realistic action plan, including specific projects, initiative­s, or policies to be executed in the next 4 years to implement the objectives of the network.

UNESCO says as a Creative City of Gastronomy, Kuching should:

* Support smallholde­rs and cottage industries in the collection of heritage food products and ingredient­s by increasing access to both domestic and online markets;

* Encourage entrants into heritage agricultur­e and gastronomy to increase creativity and sustainabi­lity and support intergener­ational knowledge transmissi­on;

* Diversify income streams for heritage agricultur­e through responsibl­e tourism;

* Increase appreciati­on of gastronomy through documentat­ion and awareness campaigns;

* Promote health, hygiene and responsibl­e consumptio­n in the recovery phase from the COVID-19 pandemic; and

* Foster knowledge exchange with UNESCO Creative Cities Network member cities to embed creativity within traditiona­l gastronomy.

 ?? ?? Image courtesy of the Sarawak Tourism Board
Image courtesy of the Sarawak Tourism Board
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