One day not so long ago, Sheela Velappan was having a conversation with her friend Emily Chak over lunch. That conversation sparked an idea. And within the span of 20 days, that idea became Borneo Restaurant & Bar.
“Basically, Emily is my partner-in-crime where alcohol and food is concerned. So on and off, we’d been talking about how we should start a Sabahan/Sarawakian restaurant because there is nothing here from Borneo,” says Sheela.
While Sheela is not from Borneo (but has made countless trips there), Chak is a born-and-bred native of Sandakan in Sabah and both share a strong passion for the rich culinary tapestry of Sabah/Sarawak. With their fledgling restaurant, they are keen to showcase the incredible diversity of ingredients in the world’s third largest island.
“We’re not trying to re-do traditional dishes – we just want to show that they’re really flexible ingredients that are not restricted to traditional methods of cooking,” says Sheela.
So some of the ingredients you can expect to find at the eatery include things like midin (a kind of fern similar to pucuk paku), tuhau (wild ginger stem), Bario rice, janggut duyung (a seaweed high in collagen), terung Dayak (round eggplant grown by the Dayak people) and dabai (wild black tropical olives).
Many of the ingredients have been foraged from the forests by natives of the island who then deliver them to the closest markets, where Sheela and her friends typically source them. These ingredients are then hand-carried back from Borneo to the restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.
“For now, that is the only thing we can do, because shipping is very expensive. If we were to ship, there is no guarantee we’ll get the goods in good condition and also we’ll have to raise the prices of what we serve. And we don’t really want to charge exorbitant prices because this is a journey for us and an educational one and we want everyone to be able to afford this experience,” explains Sheela.
The menu at Borneo has been designed by Chak, who acts as the restaurant’s consultant chef.
Start your Borneo odyssey with the aptly named Rainforest Salad (RM18) a colourful assemblage that features local herbs, arugula, pineapple, dabai paste, quinoa and kerisik (toasted, pounded grated coconut) in a lime dressing.
The salad is a vibrant, effervescent affair that offers fresh flavours and an exploration of different textures – some tender and some crunchy, underscored by a coconut-laced tropical underbelly.
Next, tuck into a porcine delight in the form of the Borneo Satay (RM25) or as Sheela puts it – “What’s better than pork on sticks?”. Here, olive-fed pork is marinated in gula apong (Sarawak palm sugar) and served with a nutty keranji gravy. The pork is tenderly yielding and very succulent but it is the nutty, slightly sweet keranji gravy, made with the keranji fruit that really gives it added depth and dimension.
The Fried Pork (RM18) is based on a family recipe and features olive-fed pork marinated in red fermented beancurd. The pork is fried to perfection, resulting in a crisp outer core that melds fluidly into juicy meat that is so good, you’re likely to be reaching for a second piece before even finishing the first.
If you’re after a large platter to scratch that long-suffering Borneo itch, you might as well go all out and indulge in the heaping selection on offer in the Borneo Rajah (RM60). Here, you’ll discover different delights designed to give you a better indication of just how diverse the food of Borneo can be.
First, tuck into the disc-shaped terubok (Chinese herring) roe and seafood fritter. Here, you’ll discover a wonderfully crispy crust that gives way to the briny, deeply opulent undertones of the fish roe.
The grilled kacangma (Chinese pennyworth) chicken in this medley is a unique recreation of a classic confinement dish. “Normally they boil the kacangma with the chicken and rice wine, but we’ve done a reduction of that soup and marinated the chicken in it and grilled the chicken,” says Sheela.
As a result, every square inch of the chicken is soaked in the flavours of rice wine and pennyworth, a lethal combination that is both delicious and has a potent alcoholic kick to it.
The most addictive offering on the platter is probably the hinava, which is the Bornean version of the Peruvian raw fish dish, ceviche. Here, white fish is cured in a Himalayan salt bed before lime and janggut duyung (mermaid’s beard seaweed) are added to the ensemble. The entire concoction might sound like a meeting of strange, unusual bedfellows but ultimately proves to be a lively union of fresh, citrus-drenched fish juxtaposed against bouncy, crunchy seaweed.
Sliced ribeye makes up the key component in the Borneo Steak (RM60) which is rubbed with a red rice wine marinade from Chak’s mother’s recipe arsenal. The steak is a little bland on its own but dramatically alters its flavour profile once you mix in some of the Sarawak black pepper sauce, which gives it a much-needed peppery infusion and is the equivalent of resuscitating a lifeless subject.
Do not even contemplate leaving the restaurant without checking out the Tuak Flight (RM68) which features six different tuak options produced by Borneo-based tuak brewers Bad Cat.
Of the tuak flavours, the original is a light, sweet offering that has an incredibly smooth finish while the roselle is very floral with a distinct alcoholic undercurrent. Perhaps the most inventive offering of the lot is the black pepper tuak, which has hints of pepper swimming through in the most pleasant way imaginable.
Ultimately, Sheela says her goal with Borneo has remained the same since the day the restaurant opened: she simply wants people to gain a deeper appreciation for the wondrous bounty of flavours that Borneo has to offer.
“We really want everyone to know that there is more to Borneo than Sarawak laksa and kolo mee. And our restaurant offers the chance for more people to access, enjoy and appreciate local ingredients from our own backyard,” she says.