Kuching sits on the island of Borneo, surrounded by tropical jungle. With a diverse ethnic and cultural make-up, the city is also home to some of the most exciting cuisines in Malaysia, many of which fuse recipes from around Asia with centuries-old local specialties. Here are ten of the city’s best restaurants.
When it opened a few years ago, the Dyak caused a sensation. It was the first venue in Borneo to take classic Dayak recipes, commonly seen as home-cooking or street food, and turn them into restaurant cuisine. Set in a beautiful, artifact-lined dining room, it offers one of the most complete culinary experiences in Kuching. Each dish can be sourced back to a local ethnic tradition. Try the tempoyak (fermented durian, an intensely pungent fruit) with anchovies, then enjoy the huge manok gulai upa kelapa, braised chicken and coconut palm in a rich creamy broth. No visitor should leave without trying the ice cream desert smothered in tuak, the local rice wine.
Several upscale restaurants in Kuching practice a fusion cuisine, cooking locally sourced ingredients with western techniques, but none do it as successfully as Jambu. Its building, a grandiose mansion, all tall ceilings and elegant low-lit lighting, was once the go-to place for glamorous colonial get-togethers. French-style starters such as homemade chicken pate and garlic-soused escargots can be followed with steaks and grilled fish. The sea bass is accompanied with Bornean coconut and lemongrass flavors, while the Sarawak chicken comes with local star beans and a Mediterranean source. Sip some wine, enjoy the evocative jazz soundtrack and take yourself back to the building’s 1920s heyday. The adjoining longue bar, with a leafy garden terrace, serves tapas.
It would be folly indeed to come to Kuching and not sample the seafood, plucked from the Sawarak River and Pacific Ocean. Excellent fish can be found all over the city, but for the very freshest morsels you should head for the Top Spot Food Court. Follow the neon-lit lobster up five floors to the roof of a garage, and you’ll find half a dozen stalls jostling for your attention. Among them, Ling Loong Seafood is often regarded as the best. If the catch of the day doesn’t pique your fancy, go wild and savor the sea’s tastiest fruits. For fish, red snapper fried in garlic and grilled pomfret are the local favorites, but the greatest joy is the shellfish. Try chili crab, peppered squid and oyster omelet, with a side of chili-drenched bidin (fern) and kai-lan (Chinese kale). If Ling Loong is too busy, don’t fear; other stalls, such as the Bukit Mata Seafood Centre, have their own delicious fare.
Popular with well-heeled young locals and national celebrities alike, Bla Bla Bla is an epicenter of the newly industrialized, economically flourishing Malaysia. The kitschy décor is eclectic, with Japanese koi ponds, an Indonesian Buddha and a candlelit courtyard. The chili midin salad is amongst the best around, made with fern freshly cropped from the jungle and garnished with a richly textured sauce. For those who crave a little flesh, the mozzarella-stuffed ostrich is fantastic, while the sugarcane chicken has a seamless blend of spicy and sweet. Most dishes come in huge servings, designed to be shared. Sister restaurant The Junk, which serves Italian food, stands in three early 20th-century shop-houses just down the street.
Kuching is not short of charming family-run businesses, but My Little Kitchen must be one of the most beguiling. Run by a friendly couple, one Malay, one Finnish, the kitchen serves a short, ever-rotating menu of foods from around the world. The restaurant’s signature dish, Swedish meatballs with gravy and mash, is only served at the weekend, but throughout the week diners can enjoy a range of roasted meats, wraps and salads. Everything, down to the bread, is homemade and locally sourced, with no additives and only high quality ingredients. My Little Kitchen is located down a charming lane in the waterfront area.
A fusion of cocktail bar and restaurant, 21 bistro is the natural habitué of the young professional. Set in the heart of Old Chinatown, prepare for jazz, a zestful atmosphere and conversations with interested locals. The diverse menu offers visitors from around the world a taste of home. The fried bee hoon (Singapore vermicelli noodles) are excellent, as is the salmon teriyaki and the grilled red snapper. The lobster thermidor is crisp and juicy, and the meat, from lamb cutlets to New Zealand steaks, finely done. A house band plays swing and easy listening most nights.
A kopitiam is a traditional Malaysian coffee shop, so it’s no surprise that Attap Corner, just behind the huge Satok Weekend Market, in the heart of the conserved historical center, has some of the best brews in town. Less obviously, however, it’s also one of the best authentic local restaurants. The mee mamak fuses Malay, Chinese, Indian and British ingredients for a heady mix of noodles, chicken, prawn and tomato, while kway tiaw, where noodles are fried with belacan (shrimp paste), tiger prawns and cockles, is one of the national dishes. After something a little lighter? Then try the curry with bamboo shoots.
Want to live it up like Sarawak’s 19th century raj? Then visit Absolute Tribal, housed within a pavilion from the era when Kuching was the capital of a kingdom ruled by British adventurer James Brooke. Situated alongside an art center that showcases native crafts, dining here feels like being invited into an aristocratic family home. The food fuses local recipes with Chinese and Thai influences. The tom yum soup, originally Laotian and Thai but popularly served throughout Malaysia, is divine; a sour and spicy broth, flavored with lime, lemongrass, chili and gingery galangal and peppered with tiger prawns. The umai, a raw seafood salad, is also fantastic, while the fiery salmon laksiam takes the sainted laska noodle soup and ramps up the heat.
Housed in an enchanting old teahouse, with a grand Chinese doorway lined with lanterns, the Life Café serves food from the great nation to the north. The Chinese now make up over a third of Kuching’s population, and the food here is as good as anything found in their homeland. Enjoy a salty seaweed soup to start, then get a plate of delectable wonton dumplings before tucking into a healthy herbal soup. There are also abundant vegetarian options. Accompany your meal with one of the many delightful teas, including a plum-scented green and medicinal mulberry leaf. The café’s success has led to two further branches around the city and two others in Jodor and Kuala Lumpur, but regulars claim the original to serve the best dishes.
Despite the luscious flavors of Malaysian cooking, every visitor needs a change once in a while. This is where Pioney Fiesta Ihaw-Ihaw comes in, selling the internationally underrated flavors of the Philippines. Run by a Filipino family with a propensity to burst into song while serving, Ihaw Ihaw’s the place to come for satay-coated chicken skewers and sour pork sisig. The crispy pata, deep-fried pork leg, deboned and tender, with soy, garlic and pineapple seasoning, is perfection. The pineapple chicken, doused in a coconut milk sauce, comes served inside a hollowed out pineapple, offering a true taste of one of the world’s most vibrant cuisines.