It’s one of our last days in Kuching and we decide to book into the Bumbu cooking school, with the promise of the chance to learn to cook real home style Sarawak food, it should be a great day.
Our host, a lovely lady named Richa welcomes us to an open courtyard style home kitchen behind the family furniture business in the old quarter of the town.
It’s a class where we’re going to be doing the hard work ourselves, as Richa explains with a smile, “because I’m lazy”.
There are 5 of us in the class today and we start by learning how to construct little pandan leaf baskets, just the right size for little sweet corn cakes called kuih tako.
None of us are very good at it to start with, but with Richa’s help we pretty soon knock up a tray of the little baskets.
Next comes the filling, a very labor intensive task of squeezing our own fresh coconut milk, straight from freshly grated coconut flesh. It’s hard work and Richa keeps a close eye on us to make sure we extract enough of the precious liquid.
After we have enough of the milk, it’s time to thicken it up, Richa uses a local thickening starch made from peas but tells us cornflour would work as well.
We mix the ingredients together over low heat until it turns into a glue like substance, not great to look at, but very tasty. This then gets tipped into the little pandan baskets we made earlier, along with sweet corn in the bottom.
Desert done and in the fridge to firm up, we move onto the main course, a chicken rendang or rendang ayam as Richa explains, ayam meaning chicken. First though, more huffing and puffing as we make up some more coconut milk and coconut cream.
It’s messy but fun and we all get into the spirit of the moment.
After the cream and then milk is extracted it’s time to fire up the woks and roast some freshly grated coconut, it needs to be really brown and takes a surprising amount of time, but the aromas wafting through the class room are delightful.
Richa then gets us to pound the fried coconut until we get it into a brown oily paste which we then combine with more pounded ingredients in our mortar and pestles, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, red shallots and lots and lots of red chillies, lucky for us the seeds are out already.
That’s the hard bit done, now for some cooking, out come the woks again and we start to dry fry some lovely big chunks of chicken pieces. “How do you know when your chicken is done” we get asked, I think it’s some kind of Buddhist riddle and don’t answer, Annie on the other hand has the perfect answer, “When it gets put in front of me” she laughs.
The real answer, when it falls off the bone.
After the chicken takes on a bit of color we throw all the spices and coconut milk in with the chicken and let simmer, Richa also tossing in some sugar and tamarind for a bit of extra depth while we learn the correct way to slice a pineapple.
This is harder than it looks and involves some pretty tricky knife skills, Richa makes it look easy, but we’re about half way through when the thought of tinned pineapple starts to seem pretty attractive.
By now the rendang is pretty much ready, thick and dark with a pungent gravy, just one thing left to do, whip up a vegetable dish to go with it and we’re doing a fiddle-head fern, know locally as Midin.
These we quickly wok fry with some more chilli and lovely roasted shrimp paste, the ferns stay nice and crunchy with a bit of bite still to them.
Now, time to eat.
It’s not the prettiest or subtlest of dishes, but packs a wallop of flavor. I personally think it has too much sugar in it, but that’s the Sarawak way.
We’ve all made way too much for us to finish and those of the class that want to are sent on their way with a take-away pack courtesy of Richa.
All photos copyright Ross Duncan