I fucking hate cooking and cooking hates me. We used to have this death-oven that served as the gateway to hell itself if the jacket potatoes I tried cooking to Google’s specification are anything to go by. I ended up with a flat full of smoke and two black cannonballs instead of two perfectly baked spuds just begging to be smothered with cheese and bacon. I had to get used to eating my pizza black around the edges and that was if I hadn’t accidentally grilled it instead, then there was the time I managed to weld lentils to the bottom of Tarrant’s saucepan (not a euphemism) mere days after I’d moved in. She eventually banned me from concocting anything more complicated than a cup of tea.
Weirdly though if you take me to a foreign country and put me in front of a human who will teach me to cook something I’m all over that shit. I fucking love food. Well, I love applying it to my facehole in quantities that upset my entire digestive system anyway. We happened upon Bumbu cooking classes in Kuching during a little stroll down Carpenter Street and booked ourselves in for three hours of knocking up what ended up being the best damn meal I’d wrapped my chops around in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fond of food in Malaysia, Laksa is the way and the light and proof there is a god, but we’d been getting tiny portions and not much meat and I was growing concerned that Tarrant would start chewing on my limbs in the night.
We duly rocked up to 57 Carpenter Street where we met Joseph, parted with cash monies, then were showed through to a room where we’d be making a marinade for a pretty fair quantity of chicken, and we wouldn’t be sharing this feast. Fuck no. We’d be cooking for ourselves, a whole bowl of chicken each which was pretty good. He’d already been to the market to get the chicken on account of the fact it’s best to get it before the flies became active. We’d also be leaving the bones in, this is how they cook in the villages apparently, not to add more flavour but they act as a cooking gauge; if the meat has shrunk to reveal the bones then it’s cooked. It’s also an indication as to whether its soaked up the flavour whilst you’re cooking it. Also, he’d removed the skin to make it less fatty. They don’t remove the skins in the villages, the chickens are free range and naturally less fatty but this was city chicken.
So we chucked the dissected carcass of the dead chicken into the marinade which consisted of curry powder, water, salt and a choice between sugar or MSG. Joseph doesn’t like to use MSG, they use sugar in the villages for flavour and that’s what Tarrant went with whilst I used MSG for comparison. I’m not adverse to a bit of monosodium glutamate, our teacher said it made him thirsty and can give you a headache but it’s never had this effect on me and I’ve consumed lots of products that contain it in vast quantities, mostly because I can’t stop once I’ve started. That shit is like crack.
Right then, that needed to be a left for an hour at room temperature in this climate. Longer in a cold British climate. We drove to the market to pick up some more provisions. This was awesome, I’d love to take more photos of markets but I’m generally too shy to ask but with a guide I feel emboldened. I took a shit load of pictures of a bunch of stuff I couldn’t even name. I knew what some of it was and Joseph named loads of stuff but I don’t remember most of it. There was a lot of wild ginger though but that stuff, we learned, doesn’t have roots, just these bright reddy-pink flowers and stems which you can use for cooking. We were to use actual ginger though and this ginger root look-alike called galangal, which could be described as ginger’s less attractive, weaker cousin.
One side of the market is fruit and veg and the other side is fish, meat and spices so we swung by here to grab an onion and some shredded coconut and yeah, he wasn’t shitting us about the flies either. We left with baskets full of root spices, long pandan leaves, shredded coconut, and ferns which were to be our vegetables. Ferns. Yeah. I wasn’t too sure about putting ferns in my mouth for no rational reason whatsoever. Probably because I’m just not that adventurous with food. He’d selected a specific fern, called midin, which can only be found in Bornean swamp land which he preferred because it was less slimy. There’s a distinct lack of Bornean swamp land in Sussex but you can substitute midin for asparagus or beans.
Once back in the kitchen he showed us how to make little baskets out of the pandan leaves for a dessert called tako. You face the shiny side, the top side, inwards where the food goes because spiders shit on the underside. Okay, he didn’t say that but I bet they do. But the underside is considered dirtier on account of critter activity, that’s where you generally find the bugs. You fashion them into a little square tray and fasten them in place with a cocktail stick, cover the gaps at the bottom with anything you want such as tiny bits of mango or sweetcorn, then spoon this gelatinous cream coloured stuff you just made into them before sticking them in the fridge.
This substance though. We made coconut milk by adding water to the shredded coconut, mixing it all up then literally squeezing the liquid out. We sieved it, added sugar and green pea flour then stirred it on a low heat for about ten minutes. We took turns because ten minutes can seem like forever when you’re stirring. Then we were back to the chicken. As if it wasn’t going to be stunning enough with the marinade we were going to add a shit tonne of other stuff. This would never occur to me. If I add black pepper to something I consider myself somewhat of a culinary genius. It seems it’s quite true that white people don’t season food.
We had to pound a bunch of ingredients like garlic, ginger, shallots, lemongrass and this mysterious galangal we’d been introduced to, with a pestle and mortar which is quite therapeutic but it upset our triceps. Haven’t really been using our triceps for much recently, my bingo wings are practically trailing on the floor, this was quite the workout for them. We smashed it all up as best we could whilst trying not to wear most of it then chucked it into a wok with oil and fried it a while before adding star annice, onion, cinnamon bark, pandan leaves, curry leaves, and a curry paste which in turn consisted of chilli, turmeric, cumin, kendle nut (which I’m writing as if I know what the fuck it is) and bumbu which I’ll describe at the bottom. He’d held up this ready made paste in a bag, all its separate components visible, and asked us if we wanted to remove some of the chilli paste. We told him we liked it hot. He raised an eyebrow and asked, “Sarawak hot?” Oh hells yes, Sarawak me, sunshine! Melt my face! Shitting hell, all that flavour, I was struggling to keep my saliva glands under control. We chucked in the chicken with a bit of water.
You’re meant to stir it and add water slowly and let it simmer once all the water is in. While we were waiting for that to happen he showed us the correct way to peel a pineapple which is still incredibly labour intensive. I think my brain blocks out how much I actually adore pineapple because it takes so fucking long to skin the bugger and requires a sharp knife, not something we generally have in our kitchen. Our knives can barely slice though bread, never mind the fruit world’s answer to a fucking armadillo. It also melts my tongue but Joseph reckons that only happens when the eyes aren’t removed properly. We tore ourselves away from pineapple peeling for long enough to add evaporated milk and chopped, deep fried spuds to the chicken, left that to simmer some more and resuming cutting all of the eyes out of our pineapples. Joseph’s looked lovely. Mine looked like a psychopath had gone berserk.
That was basically it. We moved back into the other room and started on the mountain of food we’d prepared. There was enough there for double the amount of people and I assumed they’d just eat it later but we were given containers to take everything away with us. Our stunning chicken and spuds, all the pineapple, enough tako to share with the hostel. That’s really good by the way, if you can get around the jelly texture. And as for the midin? We’d fried it with pounded chillis, shallots, shrimp paste and dried prawns and it was amazing. You can eat it raw if you ever find yourself lost in the jungle if you have long enough intervals between panicking and wanting your mum to locate it. We both had a lovely morning and spent the afternoon lamenting the fact we’d eaten so much I had to be rolled back to the hostel.
Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Quiik Cat
Activity: Cooking class with Joseph at Bumbu
Useful shit to know…
- Joseph’s phone number is +60 (0) 19 879 1050
- Booking is essential and the course costs RM150
- There’s an advanced course available, also for RM150, where you make everything including the curry paste from scratch.
- If you don’t like eating dead stuff they have vegetarian recipes available, and if you’ll happily munch on the corpses of fish but nothing else there are fish recipes too.
- Bumbu is the dry coconut you just squeezed all of the milk out of dry fried until it’s brown then pounded into a paste with a pestle and mortar. Apparently it’s not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn’t even sound that easy.