Head to Kuching, creative city of gastronomy

Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, is perfect for an educational gastronomy tour, says Karishma Nandkeolyar


Welcome to Sarawak, where sago worms are a delicacy and residents have, over the years, figured out how to cure and eat most things, including one nut (football fruit) that has cyanide in it.

This range of food – some indigenous (there are 34 tribes here); some imported – is perhaps why Kuching has earned the title of Creative City of Gastronomy. Awarded by UNESCO in 2021, it’s a celebration of the unique gastronomic heritage of the city.

Karen Shepherd, Strategic Director, Unesco Creative Cities Network (UCCN) Kuching, City of Gastronomy, explains the criteria to become a creative city includes having a unique gastronomic culture, a strong creative eco-system, partnerships for the goals and a commitment to growth.

That said, gastronomy tourism is new to the area, even though it brings with it positive reverberations for the socio-economic scene of the city.

As the sun rose in earnest, causing fans to appear miraculously in people’s hands, it was time to leave and head to a cooking class where we’d be divided into groups of five to recreate local dishes 

Shepherd spoke at the recently held Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) conference, where she explained: “To me, gastronomy tourism, certainly here in Sarawak, is new - the farm-to-table concept for tourists is growing. In terms of the creative cities network, they see responsible tourism as a driver for societal development. For us, it’s divided into two areas, in terms of our urban eating sector, we are looking at it being a massive employer at different points across demographics. In terms of our rural sector, this is where we are developing new tours, under the creative cities network, looking at the food chain. It changes the way the food chain is seen in an urban environment.”

It’s also what makes Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state Sarawak, perfect for an educational gastronomy tour. The day kicks off with us being ushered into a bus that rode us past a statue of cats; Kuching, in Malay, translates to ‘cat’.

Next, we were taken to the local vegetable market where our guide, Joseph, took us through the local produce. As we wandered from stall to stall, we sniffed, touched and tried to compare the names of the products – some, like curry leaves, were universal; others had region-specific names.

As we wandered through the lanes of produce, touching, feeling the different ingredients that we would later use to create lunch, we asked questions about how each product is used while cooking and how it is different from something that looks similar.

Finally, we moved on to a lane of ready-to-eat snacks including layered cakes. When cut into strips, these cakes, known as kek lapis Sarawak or kek lapis, have intricate patterns of flavour; there’s tiramisu and chocolate, strawberry and vanilla and so much more on offer.

Past this by-lane – with sweet treats and fried snacks, we entered the fish market.

Rows upon rows of fish lay on slabs of concrete under fans, where they were cooled and dried before being packaged. Even as young men cleaned fish for drying, hawkers called out to us to buy the cured version.

As the sun rose in earnest, causing fans to appear miraculously in people’s hands, it was time to leave and head to a cooking class where we’d be divided into groups of five, where we’d use the local ingredients to create dishes including Sarawak Rojak, Midin kerabu, Umai Ikan with sago pearls and Ayam Pansuh.

The tours, of course, are more interesting for those who have a passion for food and to learn more about it but the exchange of information can have a dramatic impact.

“There’s something about gastronomy tourism – the whole process is educational and it invites the kind of visitors who are interested in that educational, experiential tourism sector. So, for the visitors and the local participants, there’s a knowledge exchange that goes on. I think that’s the benefit of it. That’s invaluable to both sides,” she said.

Gastronomy, explains Shephard, marries food and culture. And a good example of this is Kuching, where one may stir-fry ferns with ginger one day and using age-old methods, craft a dish blending worms.