As I stir the tomato sauce gravy encircling a bed of crispy egg noodles, the distinctive aroma of Sarawak pepper swirls into the air, offering a delicious depth to the tangy flavours.
Although tomato mee is a much-loved Sarawakian street dish, it’s rarely found in Kuala Lumpur so I was delighted to discover it recently on the menu of SALTed, a small café with a big message run by a Sarawakian couple, Sofya Yusof, 39, and her husband Karel Loong, 51.
From its cosy space in a quiet neighbourhood of Petaling Jaya, SALTed wants to introduce the unique flavours of Sarawak to Kuala Lumpur. SALTed hasn’t got anything to do with the condiment; it stands for “Sarawak Authentic Local Taste – extra delicious”.
“Many Sarawakians will know of say, Penang food, but West Malaysians generally don’t know much about Sarawakian food,” says Sofya.
One might say that this reflects the unequal relationship between the east and west of Malaysia, whereby influence flows in one direction only. Many West Malaysians generally have little exposure to their Bornean counterparts, despite having been part of the same country since 1963.
SALTed’s compact menu comprises just six dishes, all from Sarawak.
Right at the top is Sarawak laksa. It’s the one dish from the state that is widely known across Malaysia, thanks in part to the late food writer Anthony Bourdain who had memorably described it as the “breakfast of gods” during his visit to Kuching in 2015.
In tribute, SALTed has an image of Bourdain painted on their wall. A nearby table has become a favourite spot for diners who want to eat their laksa together with the famed traveller.
This dish was, in fact, the first one which Sofya learnt to make when she and Karel moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2009 for his work. Pining for the flavours of the laksa from her favourite stall, she decided to learn to cook it for herself.
She started out using store-bought paste but found it didn’t yield the right flavour.
“I discovered that there are so many other elements that are important to get right – the soup stock, coconut milk, boiling time, among them,” she says.
It took her months to come up with a dish that was up to scratch. It’s now the most popular dish on the menu and comes in various permutations, from a basic dish with just chicken and omelette strips for students on a budget to a luxe version with large sea-caught prawns.
“Sarawak laksa, in particular, is crucial to get right as people will judge the entire menu based on that one dish,” Sofya says.
It was tricky, not least because laksa comes in strikingly different versions in Sarawak. Sofya’s version strikes a middle ground between the Chinese version of the dish, which uses a light broth, and the Malay one, which is milky and rich. She also takes the middle path between the Sarawak version, which is served with just enough broth to cover the noodles and West Malaysian laksas that are served with a full bowl of broth.
Next up on the menu is kolok mee. Traditionally, this noodle dish is made with pork lard and topped with pork mince. As SALTed is halal, with Muslim owners, it serves a halal version perfected by Sofya.
It took her months of experimentation to create a dish that comes close to the classic version. She employed her husband, a Chinese convert to Islam, and non-Muslim friends as her tasters.
While the menu is strictly Sarawakian, Sofya’s experimental spirit has prompted her to offer a non-traditional optional twist to her kolok mee. Diners can opt for chicken or beef toppings, but also minced lamb or smoked duck.
Their customers certainly seem to like the variety, with kolok mee now one of the top sellers.
The menu also includes the lesser-known belacan meehoon (noodles in soup-like gravy made from fermented shrimp paste) topped with a century egg. With a pungent flavour and strong smell, it is definitely an acquired taste. If a customer orders it, Sofya will check whether they’ve had it before; if not, she’ll describe it so they know what they’re in for.
Other dishes include Sarawak mee jawa (noodles in spicy beef gravy) and kacang ma chicken with rice (chicken cooked with motherwort herbs). The beverage options include a unique Teh C Apong (milk tea with palm sugar), which has a rich caramel flavour.
Many of the key ingredients, such as egg noodles, belacan, motherwort herbs and palm sugar, are brought in from Sarawak, as Sofya hasn’t been able to find the equivalent in Kuala Lumpur.
Photo by SALTed: Belacan beehoon
Yearning for home-cooked food
Sofya and Karel’s culinary journey began in 2016 when they opened a food kiosk selling Sarawak laksa and kolok mee to feed the hungry yearnings of Sarawakians working or studying in Kuala Lumpur. To her surprise, though, Sofya found herself becoming a food ambassador of sorts because many West Malaysians were flocking there as well.
“It was amazing, we didn’t expect that at all,” she says.
Within seven months, the couple opened SALTed. Despite the initial success, it was still a risk to expand to a shop, she says.
Drawing from a rich tribal culture and its melting pot environment, the flavours of East Malaysia can be stronger and unfamiliar to those accustomed to the street food of West Malaysia.
The risk has paid off though, with the café pulling in large crowds since it opened, with queues a regular occurrence on the weekends. It gets a mix of Sarawakians – some of whom travel 30 kilometres to get their comfort food – and West Malaysians who have come to try some new dishes.
Sofya says is keen to introduce even more unfamiliar dishes and flavours such as linut (sago starch), umai (a piquant raw fish dish) and ayam pansoh (chicken cooked in bamboo).
Their current space is too small for a large menu, but Sofya does hope to expand their offerings and is already experimenting in the kitchen. With any luck, diners in Kuala Lumpur may soon be able to enjoy Sarawakian nasi aruk (fried rice cooked with little to no oil) without having to fly to Kuching.