KOTA KINABALU, Jan 24 — Ever wish you could order coagulated sago, two-week-old fermented river fish and “live” wriggling sago grubs for dinner?
Although they are not exactly comfort food for most people, these are staples in Sabah’s native villages and the star attraction at a restaurant here.
Tourists and even local residents who are looking for a taste of indigenous food now have an easy alternative to trekking through Sabah’s vast lands to find these delicacies.
Sandra Paut, a 24-year-old banker turned chef, got the idea of sharing her Kadazandusun culinary heritage with everybody.
Her restaurant, D’Place Kinabalu, serves traditional Sabahan food, and they’re not just for the novelty factor.
Bringing native Sabahan food experience to the forefront
Food like pinasakan (braised big-eyed scad locally called basung); ambuyat (sago starch powder used as a carbohydrate replacement), and hinava which is not usually available except on special occasions, are staples at her restaurant.
Sabahans throng here for a taste of their childhood, while tourists are grateful for the chance to savour the dishes at their convenience.
Executive chef Paut, who always had a love for cooking thanks to her mother and grandmother, first ventured into the business after working as a credit loan officer.
At 21, she ditched her cushy job at a bank to invest in a restaurant that was doing a mix of Asian, Filipino and Western cuisine in a suburb of the city.
“But one day, some Australian tourists who were looking for a taste of local food came by, and I happened to have some local vegetables in stock, so I whipped up some of my favourite childhood dishes.
“They loved it, and posted photos on Facebook, and soon, more people were asking for the dishes,” she said.
The self-taught chef soon redesigned the restaurant menu to focus on just native food, and it became a popular hit.
Recently, she and her business partners took the venture to new heights by moving to Plaza Shell, right smack in the city centre and within walking distance of major hotels and businesses.
“As much as I wanted to bring the experience of my childhood to everyone, there’s a big difference in recreating that in the city, as opposed to eating in a kampung, but the restaurant can still bring it to everyone,” she said.
A stark contrast to the modern building the restaurant is in, D’Place is decorated to feel like a traditional hut, with plenty of bamboo and palm leaves.
The food is also presented family, or local style, with banana leaves.
“My specialty, or advantage is that I source my ingredients from villages. Growing up there, I know the traditional methods and ingredients, even without professional chef training,” she said.
Her background belies her wealth of knowledge and Paut taught herself the way of the kitchen, from the mise en place to the chef ranks.
“But I pride myself on the authenticity of the recipes and its origins. For instance, the doringin leaves used in the linopot are hand picked and collected by my mother who goes into the jungles in our backyard twice a week and brings them to me.
“The kodop — wild mushrooms found on a rubber tree — are also from a local supplier. When I cook my batang keladi masak lemak — yam stalks in coconut curry, I follow the old pantangs where you cannot complain or say anything negative so that the stalks won’t cause itchiness,” she said.
What’s on the menu?
Paut’s menu inspiration reflects her childhood memories of living in different towns of Sabah’s east coast growing up.
The classic Kadazan set has all the quintessentials of Sabah served on one plate: The pinasakan or deep fried basung, linopot of local red rice and yam steamed in doringin leaves, local vegetables, hinava, bambangan and tuhau among others.
The Ambuyat or Nantung set was derived from her time spent in the west coast of Kuala Penyu, Sipitang and Beaufort where the food is a reflection of the Dusun Tatana culture, which uses more coconut milk.
“There are many of the same dishes as in the Classic Kadazan set but here, ambuyat is a must, and the pinasakan soup is the preferred accompaniment,” she said.
The set also consists of curry chicken, bamboo shoots and tapioca leaves in coconut milk, a jackfruit curry and traditional condiments.
The two sets portray the mainstay of Kadazan culture but Paut wanted to create more and then came the miaga di gulu gulu. “In Kadazan, it means, reminiscences of old times, and that’s the experience we wanted to create,” she said.
The food is presented in a bamboo stalk, the way the natives of Borneo would’ve eaten it long ago.
Sweet potato and bario rice, local vegetables, hinava, bosou (pickled or fermented river fish), salted fish and spicy sambals are included.
“All three sets are inspired by my memories and my childhood. This is for the older generation to have food that they grew up with, tourists and outsiders — so they get a taste of my Kadazan culture and for the younger generation in the city who don’t have much experience or opportunity to enjoy native food,” she said.
Although D’Place has gained a name for offering “live” butod — (sago worms), Paut also offers the butod pizza, which has gained positive reviews among locals as well as tourists.
“People tend to want to eat butod ‘live’ for the fear factor, but in the pizza, it is actually very tasty and palatable also,” she said.
The protein-packed butod is fat and squishy and can be found feeding on the decaying pith of the sago tree. It can also be eaten stir fried.
Another signature dish of the restaurant is the oxtail assam pedas; Paut has incorporated tuhau into the dish. The wild ginger is extremely pungent and can easily overpower any dish, but Paut’s expertise in using the ingredient brings the old favourite to a different level.
“It’s very different from the usual assam pedas because the tuhau smell changes the dish. Cooking it in the right way and with the right amount will bring out the fragrance in the best way,” she said.
Paut also regularly introduces new items to the menu, all with a local twist.
D’Place also frequently has buffet specials where a varied selection of local and fusion food is offered.
Address: Plaza Shell, 2nd floor, 29, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Kota Kinabalu.