Welcome to our Borneo food guide, bursting with flavour and tradition and including some easy Borneo recipes you can try at home. Lazat!
The Borneo Food Guide with Borneo Recipes
Borneo Food: An Overview
My introduction to Borneo food arrived to the soundtrack of thunderous monsoon rain. I studied at the Mango Garden Restaurant near Kota Kinabalu and journeyed across Malaysian Borneo, from street market to food hall, grand hotel to lightbulb-lit lounger.
Malaysian Borneo itself is a mix of Chinese, Malay and indigenous peoples and as you’d expect, the food is too. It’s typically light and healthy, bursting with lemongrass and coconut and plenty of fresh fish. In fact, it’s one of my favourite cuisines in southeast Asia.
Where is Borneo?
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, found in the southwest Pacific and divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Malaysian Borneo consists of Sabah and Sarawak, which, let’s face it, are fantastic sounding names.
Expect plenty of grilled fish and barbecued prawns, along with rice and noodles, and locally grown vegetables. The stand out characters include rambatan, with its scarlet spiked skin and soft white inside, and banbagan, a kind of savoury mango with a rough, brown skin.
Cooking School in Borneo
I bundled my camera and notebook beneath the monsoon skies and scurried into the class, distracted by splatters of roadside mud and the thunder of rain on tarpaulin. Food so far in Malaysia had tasted so fresh and so delicately spiced. The clear soups and sauces disguised the strength of the flavours and carried a secret I thought I’d never manage to learn. Back home, soups come thick and chunky, with taste indicated by hue, the brighter the better.
Recommended reading: The King of the Swingers in the Orangutan Sanctuary Borneo
The name of the game was the “Basic Sabah Ethnic Cooking Class” run at the Mango Garden Restaurant (right next to the rather bizarre Upside Down House. A story for another day perhaps…)
But how basic was basic? In other words, was it going to be basic enough for the likes of me?
Taking the Basic Sabah Ethnic Cooking Class
Oh, cover me in eggs and flour and bake me in a banana leaf for 40 minutes, it was. Happy days! Tasty days! Not only did the whole plan come together but (bar an ingredient or two) this menu did actually look like something I’d be able to do back home.
Step aside Jamie Oliver. I’m coming home ready to impress.
Recommended reading: Beautiful places to stay in Sabah Borneo
Easy Borneo Recipes
Manuk Tinapah – BBQ Chicken in Herbs
Unlike the other recipes, this one is generally reserved for high days and holidays. The rich canary yellow sauce brings a splash of colour to the plate and locals use it to dazzle at weddings or to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Manuk means chicken and Tinapah means BBQ in the local Bajau dialogues but, well, you know, Manuk Tinapah sounds cooler than plain old barbecued chicken.
200g boneless chicken, 30g garlic, 30g ginger, 40g mashed shallots, 30g galangal (root that’s similar to ginger,) 30g lemongrass, 15g turmeric, 20g saw leaves (hm, may need to resort to rocket in the UK,) 50ml coconut milk, 20ml cooking oil. Sugar and salt to taste.
- Pound the garlic, ginger, shallots, galangal, lemongrass and turmeric together to form a chunky paste.
- In a bowl mix in all the other ingredients, season to taste and marinate for around 10 minutes.
- Roll the chicken and tie with string. Cook in the coconut milk until half cooked (slightly pink when sliced.)
- Remove the chicken and put aside for grilling.
- Turn up the heat to medium high and reduce the coconut gravy to form a sauce.
- Pour the oil into a frying pan and cook the chicken until slightly browned and burned.
- Slice the chicken, set it on the salad leaves and then audaciously drizzle some sauce all over it and into a fancy spiral on the plate.
- Eat and enjoy (with rice if you need a carb hit.)
Malaysian Recipe Two: Daeng Masak Timbul
Fish Cooked in Local Herbs
The tradition behind this recipe involves stealth cooking on a boat – either from pirates evading capture or hardworking fishermen struggling to get by. Either way, this Ubian delicacy from northern Sabah is super fast, ultra fresh and with the low fat combo of lean protein and mixed veg, it’s ridiculously good for you.
It even looks good when artfully arranged.
200g Tuna 20g, Garlic 30g, Ginger 30g, Onion 20g, Turmeric 20g, Chilli 30g, Tomatoes 30g, Lemongrass 20g, Lemon Basil Leaves 10g, Dried Carambola (starfruit to the rest of us…) Salt to taste
- Clean and cut the fish into large pieces (about the size of a deck of cards.)
- Slice the garlic, ginger, onions and turmeric
- Pound the lemongrass then cut the chilli and tomato into wedges
- Mix everything except together in a pot of water and bring to the boil (everything except for the fish and lemon basil that is.)
- Once the water is boiling, add the fish and lemon basil and boil until the fish is cooked through.
- Pour into a bowl and garnish.
- Serve hot and enjoy
Malaysian Recipe 3: Hinava Sada
Traditional Fish Salad
Hinava sada has quite a ceviche vibe (the fish is “cooked” by the citrus juices rather than by heat from over a fire.)
I love, love, love this kind of combination but if you’re at all uneasy at the sight or taste of “raw” fish then perhaps this isn’t for you. I’d urge you to give it a try, though, and you can rustle it up as either a starter or side dish or even (served with enough salad) as a summer main course.
If you’re short on time, this can also be prepared the day before and left in the fridge ready to go.
200g Fresh Tuna Fillet, 67g Bitter Gourd, 17g Ginger, 34g Shallots, Red Chilli, 42ml Lime Juice. Salt to taste.
- Clean and finely slice the tuna fillet then marinate it with lime juice and salt.
- Slice the bitter gourd, ginger, shallots and chillies into thin, thin strips
- Mix everything together in a bowl and leave for at least 10 minutes.
- Toss well then serve.
- That’s it! Ta da!
So, there you go. Three really easy Malaysian Recipes, recipes so simple that even I could make them look and taste good.
Have a go yourselves and let me know how you got on!
Cheers for now,
Disclosure: I visited the Mango Garden Restaurant as part of a project with iAmbassador, Sabah Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines. As ever, as always, all words and thoughts and tastes and cooking experiences my own. Otherwise, there’s just no point. The pics are my own too and what’s more I made all the food myself! How about that?!
The Borneo Travel Guide
- How to see orangutans in Borneo’s rainforest
- Looking for hotels? Check out our guide on where to stay in Borneo
- Have a connection in Brunei? A glimpse inside the richest country in the world.