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A taste of Borneo

It’s my fourth day in Borneo and I’ve eaten such an odd assortment of things in such a weird range of flavours that my taste buds are thoroughly bewildered.

A couple of days in the jungle regions near Sandakan have exposed them to tastes such as bitter gourd, pineapple-and-chilli salad, sago in coconut milk and an assortment of greens and mushrooms that look and taste unlike any I’ve ever seen (I had never heard of Chinese broccoli — it is far more tender and tasty than its South African counterpart).

Back in Kota Kinabalu — the tourist hub of Sabah state — an evening stroll in the shopping district reveals shops selling dried aquatic everything, from seaweed to rolls of spiced dried cuttlefish (rather like our dried mango rolls but a lot more pungent) jostling for space with Western-style coffee shops with names such as Big Apple Donuts and Coffee.

The branding on the Big Apple may look like a generic American doughnut shop, but that’s where the similarity ends: fancy a ring doughnut topped with glaze and chicken floss? Or perhaps one with green-tea icing, in brilliant bottle green? Being a scaredy veggie, I plump for white chocolate sprinkled with what the menu assures me is “finest New Zealand cheese”. I imagine it’s an acquired taste.

On the other hand, ice creams in flavours such as yam and sweetcorn are divine, but the green-tea ice cream still doesn’t get my vote.

Feeling somewhat dehydrated by all this epicurean adventure, I head off to a Momo Bubble Tea stall that which is all cutesy Japanese styling, staffed by funky young girls in cut-off denim shorts and bleached hair. I dismiss drinks like a yam ice shake as being too safe and opt for their signature bubble milk tea drink, which boasts flavours such as pearl, coconut and pudding. As I have no idea which one to order, the cashier suggests I try the pearl, which is apparently their bestseller.

It arrives in a huge clear plastic cup with a straw fatter than my thumb, and I soon realise why. At the bottom of the cup of strong, cold milky tea rest the “pearls” — huge, black and glossy globules that look like eggs spawned by a terrifyingly huge frog. I suck one up with a mouthful of tea and shudder: it’s just too chewy and slimy for me, even though I’m assured it is totally vegetarian. I sip the rest of my drink gingerly, careful not to ingest any more of the slippery stuff, and head off to meet some Malaysian journalists for dinner.

Somewhat stuffed after hours of nibbling, I forego dinner and content myself with raiding the communal plate of “money bags” — tiny pastry parcels of veggies tied up with a filament of seaweed and looking exactly like a bulging purse.

I decide against an avocado milkshake and settle for an iced honey lemon drink, which is hugely refreshing in a climate with 98% humidity. And because Malaysians are such a fascinating diverse and opinionated bunch, we sit on late into the night, arguing about politics, families and culture over endless cups of teh tarik (“pulled tea” frothed up with condensed milk).

Borneo’s tastes may take a little getting used to, but it is definitely a place that could grow on me very easily …