The ubiquitous Sarawak ‘mee’ — kolo, kampua and ketchup

Kuching’s famous kolo mee – as simple and delicious as it gets.

I AM always excited by the prospect of writing about food – especially if they are locally sourced or dishes that are uniquely Sarawakian in origin.

My personal opinions would usually stir up some conversations, discussions and even debates about the subject matter – insofar as where and whom such dishes originate from or where currently the best examples can be found.

Let me start off by stating my credentials over my personal foodie status: I was invited by the publisher of ‘The Guide to Malaysia’, Ms Regina Fabiny in Kuala Lumpur to contribute to the section on Sarawak Foods for their ‘Guide to Sarawak’, which was published in 2014.

They have since released thus far five editions of their ‘Guide to Malaysia’ (latest being 2022) and one each for Melaka and Sarawak. I keenly await to be called for an update when their next Sarawak edition is due.

My months of research had taken me to all the different indigenous foods of Sarawak as well as enabled my in-depth look into many of the imported, modified and adapted-to-local taste variations of all types of foods. In the process, I was able to distinguish between what could really be termed as ‘original or ethnically authentic’ Sarawak dishes versus those that had just been fused with some local ingredients – a great example of this would be the neo-classic ‘ulam midin’, now done up in so many different ways and styles to reflect as rather derivative cuisine ranging from Western to Wastern, to fusion.

Today, due to the space and words limitation set, I’m going to take a look at just three popular dishes – rather common ones, but very much loved hawker fare and available virtually everywhere that you can find food courts to fanciful bistros or just roadside makeshift stalls offering them. Thus the word ubiquitous fits it perfectly as you can get a simple RM3 bowl of kolo mee by the rural roadside to a fanciful seafood laden plate of tomato ketchup mee worth RM25 stacked up with giant prawns with fresh fish fillet or even slices of tender beef.

It is always debatable that if asked to name just one dish that can be truly classified as Sarawak’s signature dish – would it be Laksa Sarawak or the kolo mee?

At the moment, public views and popular opinions seem to favour the laksa, as its aficionados spill lyrical about its uniqueness and unsurpassed taste. If the final summation of plus points are to be compared, obviously laksa as a multi-ingredient, organically complexed and somewhat tedious to prepare from scratch dish would easily win.

Yet, the simpler, less pretentious bowl of kolo mee might still beat it by simply beguiling one with its more evocative ‘Ratatouille’ moment every single time a whiff of its blend of aromatic fried shallot oil stirred in fragrant pork lard and blended with char-sio sauce catches the light wind on its way to one’s sensorial glans, and eventually lands on his palate!

From my own personal experience the many times that I’ve been away from home and not being able to have either laksa or kolo mee as an easy stand-by breakfast break, I had mentally assumed that I would most likely miss my morning laksa!

But lo and behold, more often than not, it’s the Kuching kolo mee that I miss and crave for more than anything else!

‘Mee’ (noodles) have always been a staple and easy to find dish no matter where one roams around the country. The freshly made local mee now comes in all shapes, sizes, shades of colour, taste and price. I remember as a boy back in the 1960s, we only had the one available straight version of the kolo mee, the flat mee-pok and the oily (yew) rounder and firmer yellow mee.

Today I’ve seen versions of all three plus others in green (spinach-dyed or artificially coloured), curly and hand-made, Heng Hua and Hainanese and of course, the various variants of the yellowish oily mee (popular for Mee Jawa, Mee Goreng and other dishes). Even some less or more alkaline than others!

Kolo mee is rather unique to Sarawak. In other parts of Malaysia and Singapore, you have different versions like wonton mee and charsio mee; garnishings and ingredients used are slightly different; even the texture and the taste of each are rather non-similar to the ones found here. Peninsular visitors would often wonder why our mee looks pale and unadorned by dark sweetish soy sauce and why many of our stall-holders fancy colouring their charsio reddish.

Singaporeans prefer theirs usually with fried minced pork and braised wontons accompanied by a bowl of plain broth. Their noodles too taste more delicate and less oily.

A perfect bowl of Kuching kolo mee involves a quick boiling of a batch of mee into high-heat being constantly stirred and twirled around with long tongs or wooden chopsticks – the trade secret being to time the result perfectly, as to a state of al-dente-ness just bringing it to being perfectly cooked but before it becomes too soft or overly soggy, and then stirring the mee into a mixing/serving bowl of well-prepared condiments.

Every mee-seller has his own secret ingredients or his method to prepare them, but basically they are deep-fried fragrant shallot oil, fresh lard, MSG, salt and pepper; the other optionals being black or white vinegar, light soy sauce or fish sauce.

Extra add-ons could involve deep-fried minced pork, chopped scallions, spring onions, green curly vegetables and deep fried shallots. Obviously sliced fresh red chillies, either fresh or pickled in vinegar, are also served.

I’ve seen and eaten bowls that had cost just RM2.50 (on the first floor at the Kenyalang Wet Market) to RM12 (many outlets, with mixed seafood and/or offals and meats). Each and every bowl tastes different – that’s the beauty and secret of a good bowl of the perfect kolo mee.

Sibu is the birthplace of the famous kampua mee – the Foochow version of Kuching’s more Hokkien/Hakka/Teochew noodle dish. It has long been the #1 breakfast dish among Foochows and for many years, was only available around the towns and areas populated by them.

A simple bowl of Sibu kampua.

As the Foochows found their way to other towns and cities like Bintulu, Miri, Kuching, Simanggang and elsewhere, they had brought the dish with them and its popularity had spread and grown by leaps and bounds since the 1980s.

I had my very first taste of Foochow kampua in Sibu in October 1970 – it was at the Hock Leong Hin kopitiam opposite the Chartered Bank, then the biggest coffeeshop run by the family of Tong Teck Hoe (who was at the time one of our Borneo Company biggest Guinness dealers in the Rejang area).

Amazingly 52 years later he (together with his wife Mary and son Kevin) still runs a food-stall producing one of the best and most authentic kampua in town, and he had relocated to Kuching sometime in the 1990s.

Today, he can be found at the Fu Hua Café at Chan Chin Ann Road. Try him out – his beef noodles and other great Foochow dishes are excellent too.

Last but not least, I must mention the very unique Kuching tomato ketchup mee, which apparently cannot be found anywhere else outside the state. There are many versions, and the nearest has an eggy sauce with a starchy corn-flour based gravy and it’s usually termed Cantonese fried mee. This particular version is extremely popular in places where Cantonese is widely spoken, and both Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu produce the best examples of it.

The uniquely Sarawak dish, the tomato ketchup mee. — Photo courtesy of Stephanie’s Kitchen ABC Food Centre Kuching

As for the strangely sweetish/slightly sourish (from the tomato) and very gooey dish known as Kuching tomato ketchup mee, the secret lies in both the way the mee is fried (usually that’s done first; either as a deep fried crispy version or simply by a brisk stir-fry in the very hot wok in oil); with the corn-starchy gravy poured over the mee. Into the mix of the tomato sauce based gravy would have gone pieces of pork charsio, slices of chicken, fishcakes, shrimps/prawns, fish fillets, and a small batch of cut-up green mustard veggies!

A halal version would involve pieces of chicken, beef or seafood.

Although mee is usually the base of these dishes, you can also order the tomato ketchup version with either kuetiaw or with bihun (rice vermicelli).

Everyone has his or her favourite stall – I usually frequent my personal faves at Stephanie’s Kitchen at the ABC Food Centre, the Kuching Open Air, The Venue, 319 Chin Siang Seafood and  The Sarawak Club.

The writer with Tong Teck Hoe (right), at Fu Hua Café in Kuching, which has been selling best Sibu kampua since 1970.

Most stir-fried fast food joints at the many food courts around town would serve their very own version. The quality and prices would differ greatly depending on the ingredients and obviously the eatery where it is based.

Nowadays it is difficult to find great home-made ketchup sauces, most of the ones available are commercially mass-produced and of an inferior quality.

Food galore – be adventurous and be experimental – take yourself to where your taste buds entice you to go. Try everything at least once – eat and enjoy – and thank God for everything that we have on offer for us.

Bon Appetit!

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