For most of us, ingredient shopping merely includes a long walk along pristine aisles, complete with coldsteel shopping carts and in-built air conditioning. The truth of the matter is that there is so much more to it than many of us realise. Enter Sarawak, a land rich in culture and culinary treasures. Some of these treasures are commonly found in public marketplaces; others are found only in certain culinary spheres. Origins of purchase aside, however, it is the undeniable truth that ingredient shopping in Sarawak is more than just a chore; it is an adventure.
At a first glance, one is immediately struck with just how systematically-planned the marketplace is. As far as outdoor marketplaces go, this one is undoubtedly clean: floors are kept dry by means of an ingenious draining system, and the occasional housefly buzzing from counter to counter is a rare occurance indeed. Much like an organised food-court in which huge signs denote hawkers' delights for sale, each stall in Sarawak's 3rd Mile marketplace is marked with a uniform board. Seafood here, poultry there, fruits further down, and vegetables that way; large block letters grasp the market-shopper's attention, leaving little room for one to be confused.
The selection is, in one word, amazing. Great fat lobsters, the royals of crustaceans, rest heaped beside piles of prawns that are as large as a man's palm. Poultry of all shapes and sizes are painstakingly arranged for display, quality and freshness guaranteed. Fruit and vegetables, bright and vibrantly-hued so as to catch the eye of even the pickiest shopper lie stacked in neat little mounds. It is not difficult to come to this realisation: that the chaotic anarchy so very often found on display in city marketplaces is absent. Instead, there is order, accompanied by a strange desire to buy a ton of fresh, lush green vegetables and to cook up a storm afterwards.
It does not take a person with superior powers of deduction to make an inference here. Those who run the marketplace, the stall proprieters, clearly take great pride in their work. In a corner, a little old lady painstakingly arranges 'pucuk paku' in neat rows atop a cut of banana leaf. Each strand of green is carefully set atop the previous one to form a string-bound bundle, tips perfectly aligned so as to create a vision that is reminiscent of meticulously-trimmed golfing greens.
While there is little physical effort applied in the careful bundling of stalk vegetables, one cannot discount the fact that there is little need to arrange wares the way these proprieters do so very scrupulously; yet they proceed with the task, and seem to take so much pride in it that one simply has to pause and smile at the thought. That something so mundane could be done with such great care is a marvel and a delight to witness. One cannot help but to be inspired, to take hold of these ingredients that locals hold so dear and in such high regard, and to craft great things with them.
The proprieters themselves are warm and affable in nature, a surprising thing indeed for one who has been made accustomed to the usually-chaotic marketplaces of our nation's more urban destinations. Ever genial and ready to share a laugh with their customers, each proprieter offers ready help to those who are less practiced in the art of grocery shopping. They are startlingly honest, and will waste little time in telling you which bananas are ripe, and which are not. Shopping for the perfect groceries in the midst of such people is nothing less than a pleasure. A simple pleasure, in truth, but one that hits home the true spirit of Malaysian hospitality.
With a marketplace thus equipped with local ingredients and helpful proprieters, it is no wonder that many local chefs frequent the circles, vigilant in their persuits to select the best ingredients possible. Despite the abundance of local flavours to be found in the hallowed halls of Sarawak's marketplaces, even greater treasures lie beyond: the highly-prized Bario rice, and the pride of the beautiful state, the empurau fish, the latter of which is purchased only from specialised freshwater fish suppliers. Of course, in the land of hornbills, it is not entirely surprising that specialised suppliers are a norm, given the sheer number of exotic food ingredients to be found in its vast expanse.
The former of the two ingredients as named above is well-known, and well-loved by health-conscious carbohydrate lovers the nation over. Grown only in elevated mountain ranges above 1,200 metres in height, Bario rice thrives in cool climates, and is much-prized for its smooth and silk-like grain texture. It is cultivated without the aid of modern-day pesticides, thus rendering it completely organic, a healthy and luxurious treat that is thoroughly enjoyable to all who have had a taste of it.
Similarly-adored by the gourmet foodie is the great empurau. Long regarded as the most expensive fish in all the nation, the empurau boasts velvety, smooth flesh when properly prepared. Unlike most other freshwater fish, the empurau is delicately flavoured, bearing little of the strong, earthen taste that is distinct to others of its kin. In Four Points by Sheraton, under the expert eye of executive chef Liou Chong Yaw, the RM 1,000-per-kilo empurau is cooked so as to be perfect upon reaching the table of its diners. He tags curried empurau as the general public favourite, opining that this is where the fish's flavours are best complemented. It is pricey, to be sure, but one who has had the good fortune to taste it will not soon forget. It is well worth its price.
Whilst modern-day supermarts are built for convenience and speed, one cannot possibly deny the pleasure that comes with a grocery-shopping expedition, whether it is to old-time market, or to specialised retailers. There is something comforting in the way that one may completely submerge mind, body, and soul into the ever-vibrant spirit of food, regardless of the ingredients' origins. It takes a true foodie to appreciate the quality of an excellent ingredient. Similarly, it takes a great lover to discover a passion for ingredients in others, and to be inspired by such. Shopping for ingredients in Sarawak is a real treat for such lovers, a sight to behold, in which passionate culture-chieftains and food-lovers unite, and emerge, enlightened and inspired.
And what a beautiful sight it is.