There’s more to Kota Kinabalu than the mountain that it was named after.
As the capital of Sabah state in East Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu, known colloquially as KK, is a popular tourist destination and a gateway for travellers to Sabah and Borneo. The city of half a million people boasts a rich heritage, both historical and cultural. This is reflected in its food, which is as diverse as its people. From fresh seafood and succulent beef noodles to addictive local snacks, here are eight recommended dishes to make a beeline for once you get off the plane and into the city.
An iconic noodle dish named after Tuaran, a small town about 30 kilometres from KK, Tuaran mee is made from a simple combination of eggs and flour.
While appearing deceptively simple, the process requires delicate kneading, which gives the noodles its signature springy texture and distinctively eggy aftertaste. In KK, Seng Hing Coffee Shop is a popular haunt with locals and tourists alike, where the dish is fried and garnished with egg roll slices, char siew (barbecued pork) or seafood and green vegetables. Some Chinese restaurants fry it with a bit of lihing (rice wine) for added flavour.
- Seng Hing Coffee Shop Block E, Lot 10, Sinsuran Complex, Kota Kinabalu. Tel: +6088-211594
- Tuaran Mee Restaurant Lot 35, Block E, Ground Floor, Inanam Business Centre
Sang Nyuk Mee (Pork Noodles)
Despite the name, which translates to ‘raw meat noodles’, everything is perfectly cooked in a bowl of Sang Nyuk Mee, as the moniker refers more to its quality and freshness. Seasoned with tapioca powder and tenderiser, the meat is smooth with a melt-in-the-mouth texture. There are two ways to enjoy the dish, either with a soup base or served dry. For the latter, the noodles come in a separate bowl, mixed with dark soy sauce and lard, accompanied by tasty pork broth swimming with meat slices, meatballs and pork innards such as liver or kidney.
- Kedai Kopi Jia Siang Lot 1-0, Ground Floor, Lorong 3, Lintas Plaza Ring Road, Kota Kinabalu. Tel: +6016-8303435
- Kedai Kopi Kim Hing Lee Lot 9, Lorong Sinsuran 3, Sinsuran, Kota Kinabalu
As the largest indigenous group in Sabah, there is a significant population of Kadazandusun in KK, and they bring with them traditional specialities not to be missed. If you like strong-tasting dishes, consider trying the local ‘sashimi’ or hinava, made from thinly sliced raw mackerel fish mixed with chilli, ginger, diced red onions, grated wild mango seed, salt and lime juice. Other notable items include bambangan, a wild mango that is not usually eaten whole but pickled with salt and mixed with chilli, as well as tuhau, wild ginger mixed with chilli and scallion and pickled with salt and vinegar. All three are appetisers or side dishes that can be eaten with linopot, hill rice with mashed yam wrapped in tarap leaves. Adventurous souls may challenge themselves by swallowing a wriggling butod, the sago grub, as the ultimate test of courage.
- D' Place Kinabalu 2.01 & 2.02, 2nd floor, Plaza Shell, Kota Kinabalu. Tel: +6010-2282381
Ngiu Chap Mee (Beef Noodles)
Although beef noodles can be found in other places, ask any homesick Sabahans and they’ll agree that Ngiu Chap Mee is something hard-pressed to be found outside the state. Flavourful with a thick consistency, the dish, which translates to ‘mixed beef noodle’ in the Chinese Hakka dialect, is essentially noodles in beef broth, served with beef balls, marinated meat slices, tripe, tendon, tongue, omasum and radish. The best way to enjoy a steaming bowl of this savoury goodness is to eat it with bird’s eye chilli sauce for an extra kick.
- Kah Hiong Ngau Chap Block A Shop, No. 2-0-10, Kolam Centre Phase 2, Ground Floor, Jalan Lintas, Kolam Centre, Luyang, Kota Kinabalu.
Made from sago, a starchy substance extracted from the sago palm trunk, ambuyat is widely consumed by the Dusun and Bruneian Malays who live in the southwest of Sabah. During World War II, food was scarce and most people could not afford to buy rice, so sago palm provided an alternative source of carbohydrates, which is why the plant is often referred to as the ‘tree of life’ by locals. Ambuyat is usually bland, so pair it with savoury dishes such as pinasakan, a Kadazandusun dish of fish, wild mango, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass and chilli.
- Sagang Tialiu Grace Point Food Court, Sembulan (Jalan Pantai Sembulan), Kota Kinabalu
- Asia Rasa Cafe Lot No. 3, Block D, Ground Floor, Karamunsing Capital, Kota Kinabalu
Seafood Tom Yam Noodle
For those who love seafood and spicy food, Sabah’s seafood tom yam noodles might bring the best of both worlds in a bowl of soupy goodness. While the dish’s origins may be Thai, KK-ites have put their unique spin on it and made it their own. The version here is thick and creamy, with a bright reddish hue that warns of its spiciness. Thanks to the abundance of seafood in KK, expect gigantic prawns and fresh fish in each serving, and if you’re lucky (depending on the catch of the day), some juicy lobster meat as well.
- Kedai Kopi How Kee Lot 16, Jalan Bundusan, Beverly Hills Plaza, Kota Kinabalu. Tel: +6019-8807392
- Kedai Kopi Ah Chee Tom Yam Ground Floor, Segama Complex, Kota Kinabalu City Centre.
West Malaysians visiting Sabah for the first time may be in for a surprise when they order rojak, as it is completely different from the version in Peninsulra Malaysia. Instead of the ‘typical’ rojak of cucumber, bean sprouts, bean curd puffs and various chopped fruits, you get thick and sweet peanut sauce, sliced beef or chicken, and yellow noodles. Mee rojak is available in most Malay coffee shops in and around the city.
- Restoran Sri Rezeki Jalan Lintas & Lintas Plaza 3, Lintas Plaza, 88300 Kota Kinabalu.
It’s not uncommon to see smoke rising from behind the Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market come dusk. Follow the trail to discover Sinsuran night market, where a bustling seafood corner featuring dozens of ikan bakar (grilled fish and seafood) stalls await. Take your pick from a rich array of freshly caught seafood, be it fish, squid, tiger prawns, lobsters, crabs, stingray or slipper lobsters, and watch as vendors grill them over a charcoal fire. Alternatively, have them prepared in a variety of styles, such as goreng tepung (flour battered and fried), sweet and sour, chilli, soy sauce and more, for a truly satisfying feast. While you’re here, don’t forget to try latok, a green seaweed with caviar-like bulbs on the stalk. It can be enjoyed raw by dipping it into lime juice and feeling each bulb pop in the mouth with a salty burst.
- Sinsuran Night Market, Behind Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market, 88000 Kota Kinabalu
UFO Tarts And Other Goodies
Like the wonderfully diverse people of Sabah, all sorts of colourful and delicious snacks abound in KK, making delightful companions to a steaming hot cup of Tenom coffee or Sabah tea. Look out for UFO tarts, which are pastries with meringue and custard on top of a fluffy vanilla cake base. Originally from Sandakan, another town in Sabah, these bite-sized treats - also known as ‘cow dung tarts’ because of their shape - are now a favourite all over the state, including KK. A popular place to get them is at Haijoox on the first floor of Suria Sabah Shopping Mall. Dessert lovers can also indulge in kuih pinjaram, a chewy snack from the Bajau ethnic group, made from rice and wheat flour, or kuih jala, a sweet and crispy triangle or tube-shaped snack of sugar and rice flour. Many of these snacks are available in shops all over KK.
Haijoox Open Shop 11, First Floor, Suria Sabah Shopping Mall, 1 Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Kota Kinabalu