Finding a restaurant serving Bornean cuisine in West Malaysia is quite like striking gold. As for one serving good Bornean cuisine? You’d have better luck getting the first prize at the jackpot. However, we probably did hit the jackpot with the opening of Borneo Restaurant & Bar recently, a new restaurant in Bangsar focusing on indigenous Bornean ingredients.
The sad reality is, not much is known about the native ingredients foraged from the rainforests of Borneo by the indigenous people over in East Malaysia. Sure, we might be familiar with the likes of mee kolo or kampua mee, but these are entirely different in comparison with the foods of the tribes.
With that in mind, owner Sheela Velappan wanted to show that these native ingredients are extremely versatile and not just restricted to traditional indigenous dishes. So while you won’t find authentically traditional dishes here in Borneo Restaurant & Bar, you’ll still be able to gain a certain appreciation for these enigmatic ingredients infused into food that we’re familiar and comfortable with.
Borneo Restaurant & Bar has taken over the former Ashley’s By Living Food, but it still retains certain elements of the older restaurant. For instance, Borneo still has the same rustic vibe with natural-finished wood and vintage lamps. Locally-made art pieces still adorn the walls, available for purchase by anyone — proceeds go to any charity of the artist’s choice.
The overall vibe of the restaurant is relaxed and fairly casual. Velappan mentioned that she specifically did not want to make it into a fine dining outlet, because it would deter most people from getting to know the cuisine and its ingredients better. The open bar counter is inviting, with high-quality spirits lining the shelves — an invitation to have a good serving of Gin & Tonic or one of the restaurant’s sparkling tuaks.
Understanding the Ingredients
It might be challenging to navigate your way through the many foreign-sounding native ingredients and dishes. But no matter, because Borneo will be holding your hand and guiding you through your gastronomical adventure there. At the beginning of the menu is a glossary of all the indigenous ingredients that the restaurant uses.
There’s dabai, wild black olives that can only be found in the Borneo islands; janggut duyung, which literally translates to mermaid’s beard, a Sarawakian seaweed with high amounts of collagen; terubok roe, prized roe from a Chinese herring ; kacangma, a type of herb also known as Chinese motherwort; and more.
One fun fact to know is that Borneo Restaurant & Bar doesn’t get these ingredients from a supplier or distributor — the owners need to fly over to East Malaysia regularly to source for these ingredients fresh from the markets. Native foragers will trawl the rainforests for these plants and sell them at the morning markets. Hence, supply isn’t always guaranteed — something that Velappan finds thrill in. There’s also a focus on seasonal ingredients, so you may expect the restaurant to have special menus now and then to highlight these items.
Diving Into The Menu
There’s no need to tread carefully with the food in the restaurant — dive in headfirst and trust that everything will be okay. Start off with the Rainforest Salad (RM18), a Western take on the local staple salad of ulam. In here you’ll find a medley of local herbs, arugula, dabai to lend that creamy and buttery flavour to the earthy salad, pineapple for a sweet and juicy touch, a dusting of coconut kerisik (grated coconut), and lime juice to cut through the intensity. It comes served with ikan lumek salai (crispy smoked soft-flesh saltwater fish) or a cashew nut tamari for a vegan option.
For snack options, we’d recommend the Crispy Cangkuk Manis, Borneo Satay, and the Kong Pia. At first glance, the Crispy Cangkuk Manis (RM12) looks like a vegetarian ode to the steak tartare. The cangkuk manis—sweet leaves that are commonly known as Mani Chai—have been fried to crispy perfection, arranged into a perfect circle with a single egg yolk, cured with soy sauce and mirin, nesting above it. We break the yolk and mix it together with the crispy leaves, giving us a lovely flavour of umami and sweetness together with a delightful mouthfeel of crisps and silky cured yolk.
Then, treat yourself to the Borneo Satay (RM25), six delectable skewers of Spanish olive-fed pork marinated gula apong (Sarawakian palm sugar) to tender perfection, served with a side of keranji (velvet tamarind) gravy. It’s essentially your regular satay given a gourmet update. 10/10 would recommend.
To end your snack journey, be sure to order the Kong Pia (RM20), a Foochow favourite. This traditional Chinese dialect dish features minced pork, salted fish, and raw egg yolk served on a hot plate. Mix it all up and the hot plate continues cooking the dish, which you have with a cube of kong pia (fried sesame pastry buns).
If you want to go full-on into the Bornean cuisine experience, get yourself the Borneo Rajah (RM60), a large platter consisting of all things Bornean. On the platter, you’ll find a medley of terubok roe and seafood pancake, grilled kacangma chicken, and hinava. Hinava also goes by the name “umai”, which is a Kadazan-Dusun dish made with fresh fish preserved in lime juice, chilli, and shallots — our indigenous’ version of ceviche.
The platter is served with a side of Bario rice — another indigenous produce cultivated in the highlands of Sarawak that is rich in vitamins and minerals. The Borneo Rajah is an excellent introduction to Bornean cuisine, allowing you to try a little bit of every native flavour and texture. The grilled kacangma chicken lends the meat an aromatic, yet slightly bitter taste, which goes perfectly with the Bario rice. Meanwhile, hinava might take a little getting used to thanks to the unusual texture and mouthfeel. However, we say it’s worth a try: open wide with an open mind and you might even expand your palate to bigger things.
Another main dish to place in the spotlight is the Engkabang Pasta (RM24). The key takeaway from this dish is the engkabang butter, which vegans might be familiar with. It’s the answer to vegan butter, made from the extremely rare engkabang tree’s fruit, a native of the Sarawak rainforest.
The tree only flowers once every five years, and then the hunt for the harvest begins. The fruits are peeled, left to dry in the sun, and then pounded and extracted of its oil. The oil is filled into a bamboo tube and left to cool, resulting in a consistency akin to hardened butter. Locals often have it served over hot rice, turning a simple dish into a vegan, buttery goodness.
How Borneo Restaurant & Bar does its version of the Engkabang Pasta is by turning it into a creamy, comforting pasta. The spaghetti simply has mushrooms and cangkuk manis in the mix, drenched in a sauce of engkabang butter and egg white. Despite missing out on any dairy, the dish is still creamy and flavourful — almost sinless.
Instead of pairing your food with wine, how about going native and pair it with tuak instead? Borneo Restaurant & Bar has perhaps the largest selection of artisanal tuaks that you could possibly get commercially in this part of Malaysia — and the best part is that you never know when it could be the last time you’re tasting that batch of tuak, because no two fermentations are the same.
Just like the native ingredients, Velappan sources the restaurant’s tuaks from local brewers who make it in extremely small batches. “Most of them are home brewers who make it for their own consumptions,” she says, explaining that at any given time, she may not be able to procure the same tuak in the future.
One great way to sample the different brews of artisanal tuaks in the restaurant’s list is with the Tuak Flight (RM48), which comprises six different tuaks, all made with different brews and exhibiting different aromas and tasting notes. During our review, the six we got to try were the Cider Tuak, The Red, Big Apple, Wedding, Bad Cat Asap, and the Roller Coaster.
Each tuak was positioned from a mild to intense flavoured spectrum, and each performed beautifully. The Cider Tuak is best for those who have not tried tuak before. It’s mild, sweet, and fragrant, not unlike a good junmai sake. Meanwhile, the Bad Cat Asap was full-bodied with a herbaceous aftertaste, and the Rollercoaster performed just like its name — bringing us on a palatable rollercoaster ride of flavours.
For those who aren’t ready to go on a tuak journey, worry not. It isn’t the only alcoholic beverage available at the restaurant. You can still get your selection of gin, wines, and craft beer.
You have more to gain than lose when you dine at Borneo Restaurant & Bar. Each dish is a lesson learnt, an ode to our literal backyard supplies. We may know so much of foreign ingredients and yet so little of our indigenous plants. It’s time we began championing it and recognising that our native ingredients are equally as versatile to be used in our daily cooking. Borneo Restaurant & Bar is the perfect example of this, making excellent Bornean cuisine accessible to all.
(All images: Borneo Restaurant & Bar)