KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 8 ― Penang has her assam laksa and prawn mee. Ipoh means sar hor fun. Sarawak has her kolo mee that is vacuum-packed and flown back to KL by avid fans. But few are aware though that the latter’s neighbouring state in Borneo also has its favourite homegrown noodle dish. In fact, a visit to Sabah is hardly complete without tasting her Tuaran mee.
This small-town treat is favoured by travellers from Kota Kinabalu on their way to Kudat or Kota Belud in the north. All who travel must surely get hungry, so many stop by the town of Tuaran for their midday meal.
Enter Tuaran and you may feel as though you have entered a town that time has forgotten. This sleepy hollow perks up on Sunday mornings when indigenous farmers hold a large open-air market called tamu. Here you may find the choicest produce from neighbouring villages such as vegetables, fruits and tobacco. There are handicrafts and fish freshly caught earlier that very morning.
If you are lucky, you might even spot a few bottles of bahar, a traditional liquour made by the Lotud people from coconut sap and a local tree bark. The brew is supposed to be a heady concoction, but difficult to swallow for the uninitiated (meaning: tourists).
Besides the Tuaran river that encircles the town (which may have given it its name – Tuaran or Tawaran from the phrase “air tawar” or freshwater), the only discernible landmark is a nine-storey Chinese pagoda. Hardly a skyscraper but that’s part of the town’s charm.
Everything seems to move more slowly here.
But we are not here for souvenir-hunting at the tamu nor are we here for pagoda-scaling. We are hungry and eager to taste the town’s claim to culinary fame.
My friend, a Kota Kinabalu resident, brings us to Restoran Tai Ann at Jalan Padang Tuaran. There are many other places for Tuaran mee in town and back in Kota Kinabalu too, be it in restaurants or a simple hawker stall, but my friend enjoys the noodles here best. Always trust the locals, I say.
Here in the kopitiam (for it is indeed a kopitiam and less of a full-fledged restaurant), the ceiling fans spin gently enough you can hear the conversations even in the kitchen.
We grab a table and a waiter takes our orders briskly. Despite the slow-moving aura the town gives off, our plates of steaming Tuaran mee arrive mere minutes later. At first glance, the handmade egg noodles appear quite underwhelming, not unlike wantan mee, albeit wetter. Slices of char siu (barbecued pork) in shades of cough syrup red catch my eye, and not in an appetising way.
My friend notices my look of disappointment and encourages me to try it first before passing judgment. It’s a good thing I do.
Moist and flavourful, these eggy noodles have been fried with plenty of wok hei. There is a nice contrast of a crispy exterior that gives way to a softer bite. Every strand is pure elastic joy.
Ignore the fire-engine red of the devilish char siu, no artificial colouring can distract from the honest taste of this home-cooked meal. Each bite reveals something new: the fresh vegetable flavours of local choy sum; the tender texture of sliced egg rolls.
The old man at the next table pauses in reading his papers to nod at us; I’m obviously not the first tourist he has observed discovering the wonders of their small town delicacy. The other regulars sharing his table are deep in conversation, catching up on the morning’s worth of gossip.
Finish the meal with a big cup of local coffee – it is a kopitiam after all – the condensed milk resting like a golden band at the bottom of the oily, dark-roasted brew. Give it a stir, sip slowly and join the other kopitiam patrons in watching the world pass by us slowly.
There are many adventures to be had in Sabah: exploring the rainforests, hiking up Mount Kinabalu, scuba-diving in the crystal blue sea, and more. Just don’t forget to try the Tuaran mee too. Trust me, this humble dish will complete your experience of the Land Below the Wind.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on February 7, 2014.