OR FISHY STREET FOOD TO DIE FOR
Arrangements for the evening promised I dragged myself from my cool darkened siesta room and out into the still harsh sunshine. That throbbing heat of late afternoon when the heat has been absorbed by pretty much everything and is now radiating it back out. Stinging my freshly seared skin from sitting by the pool for half an hour earlier.
In fresh clothes after my cold shower I walked out onto the street jumped into a cab to the seafront market to meet newly befriended Alyana at the top end where the Philippine covered warehouse market is. Now A was very keen to go in and have a look (not sure why she hails from those shores) and buy a couple of bits. Seeing as it was her first solo trip I think it was more of a comfort thing as she seemed very happy to be with familiar things. It was huge and with narrow corridors between stalls selling all sorts of the weird and wonderful, and of course a lot of very sweet things. I waited outside, I was just out of the Philippines and was kind of done with that cuisine. I was more interested in the next section which was the grocery section for the locals.
Huge hessian bags filled with beans and pulses and other dried good. Spice stalls with the heady aromas of their pungent oils having been released in the heat of the day. Pots and pans and a lot of brightly coloured plastic things for the industrious Saban woman to fill her house with. Buckets and bowls, cups and plates, tablecloths with gaudy designs and so easily wiped. Brushes, aprons and obscure gadgets. All these wares in fluorescent pink, green, blue, purple so you could match them up. I, as an arrogant tourist, had expected some ethnic simple things made of, I don’t know, bamboo and reeds and sort of rusty looking metal. Some ceramics and artisan stuff, but no. Kota Kinabalu is made of sterner stuff, it has no time for that nonsense only cheap and cheerful and practical.
It’s a mad rough and ready sea front with a long swathe of markets for all kind of food produce, restaurants bars and of course the famous fish market where you can buy for home (obviously not it’s party land there) or have it prepared for you and eat there (very party land).
When A. caught up with me, I was gawping like a moron at all the bright plastic stuff and sweat was beading my skin, time to go eat.We stumbled further up to get to the good bit. Now there is a weird concrete conduit that you have to be careful of along with all the other obstacles on that un made-up section of the roadside, and it is for the market draining either when it torrentially rains or the market people clean there pitches. This effluence gets more dubious and stinky the closer you get to the meat and then fish section. So as no to sprain an ankle or get caught by a sudden rush of muck you need to walk concentrating on not falling and avoiding bumping into the ever increasing crowds. Finally when you find a narrow space into the street food section you’re in foodie heaven.
The expertly arranged fish on crushed ice were of such vivid colours they barely looked real. Freshly delivered from the water running alongside the market, they were so opulent and of different species that I didn’t even vaguely recognise. Then you had the squid and octopuses large and showy (everything big). Then whole stalls of crabs of so many colours it made your head spin, I never realised you could get blue crabs for fucks sake. Then came the lobsters a speciality of that market, and prawns and crayfish. Just when you thought there couldn’t be more, the shellfish.
Don’t get me started on those bad boys. They smelled sweet even raw. I ordered the butter and razor clams. They load a bowl as you point at what you want (and I wanted a lot), weigh it and then cook it. You just wait at a table, hopefully with an icy beer in your hand.
The colours and smells rock your world, this hard core protein bonanza is yours for the asking, you point at what you fancy and they weigh it and whisk it off to cook it behind the display. The heady smell of garlic and spices they use gears you up for your culinary delight of the night. I sat at a plastic table with an ice cold bottle of beer in my hand waiting for my fishy feast and drank in the atmosphere.The brightly lit stalls twinkling in the night and sizzling or steaming pans full of goodies. Lots of excited bargaining and people craning their necks to try to decide what they were having with such a huge choice, so difficult. The fish wives were shouting and teasing some with rather low voices until you see, well yes, they are men, very beautiful lady boys as exotic as their wares.
Alert: Although street food is a great way of trying a countries cuisine, do make sure that it’s all super fresh like in this market. It’s a bummer and a false economy if you fall sick. Make sure however fresh it’s cooked through if it’s chicken especially and don’t plump for something that could be left over from the day before. Remember it’s not always good to be too hip and risk that snack from a very ethnic but possibly poisonous delicacy. We all like to be adventurous but still keep a sharp eye. check out if the locals are using it and if there is a high turnover at the place you choose.
My razor, Venus, butter clams and scallops arrived through a haze of steam and my friends kebabs of chicken wings and a fish in a sticky, spicy aromatic sauce. Time to get down and dirty with food. The gnashing and gobbling sounds and smacking of lips was to be heard all round me, it was a symphony of gastronomic delight. Street food heaven.
The sweet buttery juices from my clams which tasted of the briny sea from whence they had just come were so delicious and fragrant I swooned. Prawns were delivered to the next table and lobster which is their speciality there and I was told by their proud owners (the diners) that they were indeed delicious.
After eating I wandered around to look at the other things on offer, leaving A to take a prolific amount of pictures. There was a meaty section with BBQ rotisseries for chicken and all its bits that poured out smoke when the skewers were ladled with hot fat. Some odd looking vegetarian options were on offer in one section of stalls and many different types of fresh bread. Amongst the fresh juice stalls was a man making fresh fruit popsicles from his own home made contraption that involved a lot of spinning. He offered mango, coconut, and the ghastly durian fruit versions after much theatre and bravado. A asked me to bring back a durian one which again is something much loved in this neck of the woods.Doughnuts and sweet puddings were on show but all of these things were super sweet, they love their sugar there!
Top Tip: If you haven’t tried the dreaded durian, yeah sure, give it a go, but let me warn you that you will smell it coming. Scientists examine what chemicals make the Asian fruit smell like “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock” If you’ve smelled a durian even once, you probably remember it. Even with the husk intact, the notorious Asian fruit has such a potent stench that it’s banned on the Singapore Transport, indeed most hotels have signs up warning people not to bring it into the room. If you’ve been to any China town you’ll have seen the weird spiky green fruit larger than a grapefruit. You’ll have probably had a bit of a whiff even then. However once cut open, phew, cover your nose. The pong of sweaty feet and or vomit, even indeed rotting flesh assails you. On tasting durian is a strange combination of savory, sweet, and creamy all at once. A durian is supposed to have subtle hints of chives mixed with powdered sugar. It’s supposed to taste like diced garlic and caramel poured into whipped cream. It also has a really weird texture. If you can just pretend that the smell is a bit like ripe cheese you might get past your gag reflex and try it. I just haven’t got round to it…..
On arriving back to the table where A. was fastidiously polishing off the last of her chicken wings and rice at our plastic table and sitting on a plastic chair, tourists mulling around gazing at what other people were eating to inspire them for their dinners. I passed her her lolly which she was madly excited about. A durian ice what amazing luck she loved it. I sat looking dubiously at her slobbering over it after having politely offering me a nibble that I had I declined saying I much preferred my mango one, which actually was terribly sweet and a disappointment, that was no problem for she polished off mine too. She had been very hungry she explained as we analysed the different palates of the world. She laughed at my fussiness over the sugary nature of all things in Asia. She also laughed at my hatred of karaoke, for a well educated girl she didn’t know when to stop laughing.
Stepping away from the chaos and theatre is finally somewhat of a relief, it’s almost too lovely and excitable. Too many fragrant aromas and too much loud haggling and bartering. Too much flouncing and yelling of the fish wives in your ear. Too much wild explosion of everything especially after being sunburnt and tired after a day on the exhausting search for all things cultural. The museum and mosques had shagged both of us out so onto the cocktail bars overlooking the water Time to be calm. We arrived at the bar and there was a tango night on. The couples gazed intently into each others eyes and moved those hips seductively, grinding their pelvises into each other, then suddenly the man would fling the woman away then grab her again and drag her back in. The weirdness, I think came from their clothes, for there was no nod to the usual costume of this passionate dance. All of them were dressed in skinny jeans and tight Tshirts which somehow turned it into something else…. They were all so expert and the whole thing so surreal that after watching these very professional dancers we went outside to gaze at the sea and chill. It’s always good to people watch after a good meal and there were plenty of people to watch.