I live in New York City, a series of islands more focused on its dynamic urban landscape than on communing with the rivers and sea. Perhaps due to this conditioning as a New Yorker, I am awed by how other coastal cities emphasize their aqueous boundaries. Since living and cooking in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the late ’90s, I have returned there numerous times, traveling up and down the coasts. And nowhere have I experienced the bounty of the sea quite like I have in Sabah, a region of northern Borneo that’s controlled by Malaysia.
It was in Sabah, on a recent visit, that the skies parted after a storm, and the late-afternoon sun shone down on a seaside market, illuminating bright eyes, shiny skin, and iridescent scales. This was the Kota Kinabalu night market coming to life on a dockyard off the South China Sea. It’s not a huge fish market, but it’s of unparalleled quality. There was tuna; squid of all sizes; multicolored crabs and spiny lobster. Market cooks were busy manning their grills, readying hardwood charcoal fires. When my girlfriend and I could no longer keep our appetites at bay, I chose my grill man. There were several, and I watched mine cut and grill fish, measuring his skills against the others’. I bought an embarrassment of seafood: a lobster was split in half and dropped on the grill, followed by crabs, stingray, a mackerel, giant prawns, and squid. When you happen upon a market like this, you don’t hold back. Finally, the meal arrived, the fish and shellfish on plastic plates, on a table anchored by a huge jug. Inside the jug was a chopped-up mix of chiles, shallots, garlic, palm sugar, the tiny limes known as limau kasturi, and fish sauce. We ladled this salty-spicy-sweet condiment over our fish as we tore apart the flesh with our hands. I asked our grill man for some sambal belacan, a chile sauce made with fermented shrimp, and he served us a version that blew my mind.
We had bought a small bag of lato, a type of seaweed that looks like a cluster of tiny grapes; they pop when you bite them, and provided an awesome textural contrast to the stingray. Another condiment unique to this part of the world is bambangan, grated wild mango pit seasoned with salt and chile, which I tossed in with rings of grilled squid. As we ate, fragrant smoke from burning charcoal, roasting shells, and sweet steamy apam balik (peanut and bean pancakes) swirled from other vendors’ stalls, giving shape to the rays of the setting sun. This is my church, I thought, my temple. —Zak Pelaccio, Fatty Crab and Fatty ‘Cue, New York City