It was during a trip to his Kelabit wife Noralisha Maisara’s remote village of Long Napir in Sarawak that Pahang-born Haidhar Hazlan first realised how unique Sarawakian food is. “Long Napir is three hours off-road from the town of Limbang. It is very peaceful there, even the air is fresher. And when I tried the food that my mother-in-law and other family members cooked, I thought, ‘This is so different!’” says Haidhar.
So in the middle of this year, Haidhar (who is in construction) and Noralisha, a former accountant, opened Long Napir Kitchen, in homage to the food of Sarawak.
The eatery is dotted with pictures of Long Napir, taken by the couple during their trips there. The images tell a tale of tranquility and a life undisturbed by the trappings of modernity.
Noralisha’s village (and her family) are also steeped in history as her grandfather, who passed away last year at the ripe old age of 112, was the village headman of Long Napir and once worked for Vyner Brooke, the last White Rajah of Sarawak.
The restaurant is helmed by an all-Sarawakian team led by seasoned head chef Hugh Salim Bohari (a distant relative of Noralisha). As a result, the food is tinged with authenticity – from the gula apong (sourced from the nipah tree) to the ikan terubuk masin, daun kang and even the kasam ikan sultan or fermented fish, which is prepared in Sarawak by Noralisha’s mother.
“This is the food we grew up with and that Sarawakian people normally eat – it’s like mama’s cooking,” says the ebullient Hugh.
To begin your meal at Long Napir, try the umai (RM22.90 for a small portion. Umai is the Borneo version of ceviche – raw seafood cured with lots of lime and enhanced with bunga kantan leaves, chillies and onions. The final flavour profile is one of delicate, delicious citrusy undertones, with a spicy underbelly and prawns and fish that are inherently tender. It’s a meal that you can easily polish off, because it’s just so darn good.
The linut set (RM24.90) meanwhile, offers the opportunity to explore a road less travelled. The set comes with sambal assam, grilled fish and linut, which is made from sago flour. The linut strongly resembles a white gloopy mass of sticky glue. It is thick, difficult to disentangle and tasteless when eaten on its own, although the taste component does get elevated somewhat when you add some sambal to the mixture. Ultimately, while the other accompaniments are delicious, the linut itself may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially on the textural front.
The Sarawak laksa (RM16.90), however, is a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty. The laksa recipe is a closely-guarded secret of one of the chefs in the kitchen – 60-year-old Seleman Mohd Saini, whose family actually makes and sells Sarawak laksa. As a result, you’ll discover a laksa that is rich, spicy and buoyed by a sumptuousness that is ramped up a notch when you add some dried prawn sambal (provided on the side) to the mixture.
The Sarawakian fried rice (RM14.90) is a plate of spicy fried rice with a distinguishing feature: the ikan terubuk masin, brought all the way from Sarawak. The fish is delicious, with pleasantly pronounced salty notes and skin so amazingly crispy, it is like eating keropok.
Another popular Sarawakian dish is manok pansuh (RM24.90 for a small portion) or chicken cooked in bamboo. Long Napir’s version is incredibly good and enhanced with the addition of daun kang, which has rich umami notes. The result is tender, malleable chicken pieces in a broth that is aromatic, nuanced and nourishing to the core.
There are many dishes unique to Sarawak and mee belacan (RM16.90) is one of them. Despite its name, the noodle dish doesn’t actually have a strong belacan taste. Instead, the gravy that coats the noodles (known as petis) is more akin to the spicy-sweet fruit rojak sauce. In this incarnation, the unlikely duo work – the sauce coats the noodles like a snug, well-cut suit and is thick and lightly sweet with spicy undercurrents.
The luba laya (RM16.90) or Kelabit rice is typically eaten by members of the Kelabit tribe. It is a not-quite-porridge, not-quite-cooked rice concoction that is the equivalent of undercooked rice. The rice is packed in daun isip, and often includes a vegetable and meat accompaniment. While the rice may not find favour with some diners (the stodgy quality can be a bit much to take), the vegetables and fried fish on the side are deserving of your time.
End your meal at Long Napir with a selection of Sarawak layer cakes and steamed cakes made by the eatery’s waitress Siti Khadijah Abu Bakar. Each cake is carefully concocted and promises to tantalise, from the lumut, a silken soft affair made from a curious mix of ingredients like Horlicks and Milo and the masam manis, which as promised, has lightly sour notes interspersed amidst the sweet.
Haidhar says they have been heartened by response to the restaurant in the past six months, but equally it’s been a bit of a task educating people about the food, as so many of the dishes are unfamiliar to KL-ites.
“The feedback has been very good, but some people don’t know what the dishes are, so we have to explain it to them. Because on our menu, I think only 10% of the items are similar to other restaurants,” he says.
LONG NAPIR KITCHEN
No 31G, Plaza Crystalville 1
Desa Sri Hartamas
50480 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-6211 1323
Open Friday to Wednesday: 10am to 10pm