North Borneo

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Follow Your Nose To a Tasty Borneo Delicacy
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Kota Kinabalu may have changed since Sarah Shuckburgh first visited , but its market is as pungent and chaotic as ever.

You can smell the durians long before you see them. The prickly yellow fruits stink of drains and rancid meat, and laws forbid you from taking them on buses or into hotels. But when you cut open a durian (blocking your nose), the soft flesh is a famously tasty delicacy.

Much has changed in Kota Kinabalu since my first visit 17 years ago, but the central market is still a pungent and colourful cornucopia. The stifling labyrinth of narrow alleys is crammed with stalls displaying weird local produce - bundles of dainty fern tips, hairy red rambutans, translucent pink and green rose-apples, pinkish papayas, giant yellow pomelos, jackfruit with tight clusters of prickles, smooth pale mangoes, tiny beige langsats, mountains of dark green watermelons, pointed starfruit, purple mangosteens with leafy rosettes, tiny yellow dukus, knobbly breadfruit, tufted coconuts, plump bruised bananas and sayur manis – thin stems with tender leaves, a local speciality.

The dried and preserved foods are also startling – vats of soya-bean curd, bunches of dried fish, and extraordinary eggs, buried in mud until the white becomes brown jelly and the yolk turns inky black. Everything is wrapped in plastic, and there are no flies or piles of rubbish. Smokers buy curled cylinders of dried pandanus leaves to roll round locally grown tobacco, or bundles of heart-shaped leaves to chew with red and black betel nut and white lime. A strong clove-smell of kretek cigarettes hangs in the humid air.

Hopping over yard-deep monsoon drains, we visit Kota Kinabalu’s covered fish market, where a fantastic assortment of seafood is artistically arranged on concrete slabs, with tails fanning out, whiskered heads wedged upright, glistening bodies aligned - huge Pacific oysters, cuttlefish, yellow-fin tuna, tiger prawns, squid, saucer-sized mussels, crabs, lobsters. Small children sluice the displays with water, while adults squat by bowls of grey water, washing fish and throwing guts aside.

Back in the central market we climb stone steps, obeying signs in Malay, Chinese and English saying ‘Do Not Spit’. On the upper floor, stalls offer tracksuits, shoes, handbags and Wayne Rooney football shirts. I buy two pairs of sandals for £2. Ducking under a plastic curtain, we find a vast open-sided hall with trestle tables. Hundreds of shoppers are tucking into soup, rice and meat.

After quenching our thirst with sugar-cane juice and soya-bean milk, we join throngs of pedestrians on a raised walkway leading from the market across two traffic-choked roads towards a formal square with flags and fountains. Steps lead down to busy side-streets lined with open-fronted shops. Chinese music blares out. Women sit on low stools, checking children’s heads for lice. Youths doze on piles of canned food. Shopkeepers lean on their bales of gaudy cottons.

While a band of blind street musicians plays amplified Asian pop, we have our feet and shins pummelled and kneaded by blind reflexologists. Later, we have lunch in a crowded café called the Hungry Muslim. Diners are watching American wrestling on a flickering television. Lizards stare down from the flaking ceiling. On the pavement, the cook is preparing fritters, dipping slivers of banana in a dustbin of batter before throwing them into a massive wok of bubbling oil. Our delicious lunch – including banana fritters – costs us £1.10.

We have not seen another tourist all day, but away from the central market and crowded street-cafes, Kota Kinabalu has undergone rapid social change.

In 1979, my brother James, as part of his medical training, spent six months working at Kota Kinabalu’s hospital. His letters, which my mother has kept, describe a small, low-rise colonial town surrounded by coastal plantations of banana, cocoa, coffee, rice and pineapple. The hospital was cluttered and chaotic. Patients often disappeared in the night, stolen by relatives who distrusted western medicine. At Chinese New Year the wards emptied as everyone ran away to enjoy the festivities. Much of the doctors’ work was stitching knife wounds – one of the few words that Malay has given to the English language is ‘amok’, the blind rage with which locals attacked each other with parangs.

There were almost no roads into the interior in 1979. Logging had begun, but primary rainforest still covered most of the vast island of Borneo. Tribal villages were inaccessible except on foot, perhaps a week’s walk from the nearest track. Doctors reached outstation clinics by helicopter – a turbulent ride over the steaming jungle. In remote kampongs of stilted longhouses, while Kadizans banged copper kenongs and performed their strutting bird-courtship dance, barefoot doctors dispensed pills and medicine with slim hopes of their instructions being followed.

James was adopted by the expat clique, who, with a few Malaysian timber millionaires, drove their speedboats to the islands, watched a weekly film on an outdoor screen at the British Council, and went on an occasional ‘hash’ – a paperchase along jungle paths, through prickly pineapple plantations, across rope bridges, through thigh-deep rivers, with false trails and trip-wires which set off loud fire crackers.

My husband and I visited Sabah for the first time in 1990 – by chance, three months before my brother James died of cancer, aged 33. By then, vast tracts of primary rainforest had gone, replaced by rubber plantations. Kota Kinabalu had sprouted tall buildings and some hotels, and while James had journeyed for six hours along bumpy jungle tracks to reach the base of Mount Kinabalu, our drive to Kinabalu National Park was smooth and quick.

On our return in 2007, we find further dramatic changes. Lucrative palm oil plantations now cover the country, which is crisscrossed with logging roads. Only a few patches of rainforest remain, and the traditional stilted houses are now best seen in the state museum, where longhouses and other dwellings have been assembled in a Heritage Village. KK has become a sophisticated international resort - we began and ended our trip staying with 1000 other guests in luxury air-conditioned hotel complexes with restaurants, nightclubs, pools, gyms, spas, golf courses, video games rooms and hundreds of smiling staff in immaculate uniforms.

But the magic of Kota Kinabalu has not disappeared. As James did 28 years ago, we took a speedboat to Mamutik, the smallest of KK’s forested islands, and spent an idyllic afternoon strolling on sand as soft and white as icing sugar, listening to the cooing of tiny doves and to the gently lapping South China Sea. The sky was heavy and grey, but underwater the coral reef glowed - a vibrant landscape of dusty blues, vivid yellows, reds, greens and browns, inhabited by black spiky sea urchins, blue snake-like fish emerging from holes in the coral, and shoals of iridescent fish in harlequin spots and stripes.

My brother would also recognise the humidity, the heat, the lizards, the torrential rains, the streets thronging with KK’s extraordinarily diverse and friendly people, the coconut shells of thirst-quenching milk, the sugar-cane juice, the sizzling banana fritters - and the delicious stinking durians.

First published by the Telegraph

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