Sabah holiday 2015: Kota Kinabalu – 1

I write this in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I would like to cite a senior politician in Sabah who said to me:

Sabah is a special place. Here, people of different races and religions mix together, eat together, and intermarry. We celebrate each other’s festivals and we live in harmony.

I’m on holiday in SABAH, birthplace of my parents and a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Its verdent soil has supported my family since the 1880s when my great-grandparents arrived by boat to KUDAT from China. They were the first batch of Hakka-speaking Chinese Basel Christians brought to Borneo to clear the lands of jungle, for the British.

Kudat, the Northern-most point of Borneo
Kudat, the northernmost point of Borneo. Photo courtesy of Yen Phin Lee.

In time, my ancestors became plantation owners themselves: rubber, timber, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, oil palm. This led to other lines of work: building railroads, owning trading conglomerates; eventually entering medicine, law, accountancy. My dad was a journalist and press officer to the last Governor of British North Borneo, William Goode. Some of my relatives still own plantations today.

So I cannot come here without feeling love for the soil which has taken care of us for all these years.

All places have their local flavours and Sabah is no exception. When I lived there (2008-12) I particularly loved being able to buy produce from markets. It was a world away from loading up the trolley at a Tesco’s in London, which was my previous grocery shop reality. In fairness, these days my life is less pressured and I do have the time to mooch around my local butcher.

Still, hubby Mike was in Kudat recently and he and mates checked out the day’s catch, Eskies at hand. How neat is this?

Kudat fish catch

Kudat fish catch 2

When I first came to Sabah I thought their desserts were bizarre – made from veggies! Sweet corn, red kidney beans, all sweetened with a base of gula melaka (palm sugar). Now I love them all, Ais kacang, cendol and grass jelly. I don’t think these are specific to Sabah though, it’s more of an Asian dessert thing.

Red bean with shaved ice by Alfred Chong
Red bean with shaved ice courtesy of Alfred Chong

This is red bean and shaved iced. I had it at ZenQ in Lintas. I think this chain is Taiwanese, and they have outlets in Australia.

A “wet fry” is a lovely expression – sounds like a contradiction in terms – to describe noodles (many types) which have been stir-fried in a wok, and a thin gravy is added before serving to moisten the dish. The ingredients are not cooked in the liquid at all, but charred in the wok for that particular burnt flavour. If you are one of those die-hard fans of cast iron cookware, then for you, every new dish cooked in the chef’s wok will be infinitesimally graced by the flavour of the dishes preceding it, retained in the memory of that cast iron. Here, that’s called “wok mei” or the wok’s fragrance. And don’t wash the wok in detergent or you’ll strip it of all its oils! I guess all that could be received in a few ways… this is mee basah, wet-fried noodles.

mee basah

On the first day of my holiday in the capital city Kota Kinabalu, pianist Ian Baxter and guitarist Ronald James were having an impromptu jam in One Resto, a bar belonging to Sabahan Fred SK Lee, in Karamunsing Capital. This was the last night of Ronald’s holiday in Sabah, and he was on a plane to Sydney the next day. Ronald taught three generations of Sabahans to play music and headed the RTM (Radio Television Malaysia) Sabah kombo for a decade. Ian’s just completed his PhD in Ethnomusicology (specifically studying the music of the Orang Sungai people) and is returning to Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), where he previously headed the Music Department. I was stoked at the chance to hear them, together with guest singer Suhaimi. Their song selection was a smattering of all things, some bossa jazz, songs by the Shadows, Cream, Deep Purple, The Eagles, with one of the latter dedicated to me and Mike 🙂 Thanks guys!

Ronald Ian and Suhaimi

Music and food, might as well start as we mean to go on! Something about Webcamp KK coming up in the next post.


  1. skywalkerstoryteller

    I really liked learning about Sabah as I had never heard about it before you started blogging. But, this was the first time I really got to know it. That part of the world seems like such an interesting melting pot. And those deserts look good and healthy too. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

    1. Joanna

      I’m glad you are learning about Sabah through me. I am learning too and hopefully will share more over the years, with each visit. Blogging brings us all together.

    1. Joanna

      Hey Upper Valley Girl. I’m always amazed you ever have the time to stop by here. I see you are in the depths of winter over there. Spiking the egg nog. On the right track then. Thanks for spending time here 🙂

  2. in-theclouds

    Sorry for the double post, I hit accidetaly the post button. The quote is amazing and yeah, people need to learn to respect each other. It is possible, the only thing that can accomplish it, is the will. If everyone wants it, everything is possible.

    1. Joanna

      Thanks for stopping by InTheClouds. It’s not easy to do things in a big way, but if we cherish and respect those in our immediate circle, at least that’s a good place to start.

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