First Time Eating At A Night Market – Kota Kinabalu
I grew up in Crowland, a small town on the border between Lincolnshire and the less desirable part of Cambridgeshire. As a child I used to enjoy visiting the market on a Friday after school (not a night market of course, just a regular day market). There was a stall for plants, a stall for clothes, a stall for veg and a stall for sweets. The latter being the reason I enjoyed it. As I got older, and Crowland continued to cling to its market charter – despite a dwindling set of stalls willing to turn up at an ungodly hour on a Friday morning – and I set my sights further for market stalls. Peterborough, to be precise.
With a retro game stall amongst its permanent denizens and – at the time very exciting – a DVD stall, Peterborough’s market was a much more interesting proposition during my teenage years. Athough neither of these markets could prepare me for the night markets of Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu.
Dealing exclusively in food, we first saw Kota Kinabalu’s night market on our very first night there. The noise, the colours, the smells – it felt like everything had been turned up to 11. We’d already eaten, so had a purely hypothetical interest. So when a lady on one of the fish stalls waggled a large, deceased shrimp at us and in a thick Malaysian accent said “You want shrimp?” we sadly had to decline.
A couple of weeks later (having spent time in Sandakan and Sepilok), we were finally in a position to eat at the night market. After watching a wonderful sunset, our stomachs rumbling, we headed to the entrance of the market.
Immediately we were greeted by a clamour of vendors trying to push their wares.
Many picked up their prized snappers, parrot fishes or lobsters – no shrimp were waggled – to show us, whilst quoting a price at us. Having walked through, we decided to start with something fairly familiar – a couple of chicken skewers – one featuring chicken breast, the other was delightfully described to us as the chicken’s butt. Both of them were nice, although the butt was a little gristly. Cost: ~£0.20 a skewer.
Due to the fact it was raining quite heavily, the market had all of the rain covers up. Unfortunately, in addition to keeping the rain out, they also kept the smoke in. Carrying the scents of delicious flavours alongside, I suspect, a generous helping of carcinogens, the smoke did help stir our appetites further. And made our eyes sorer.
Next up, we decided to have a lobster. Laura had never eaten lobster and was keen to try it. We found a small lobster – offered up by one of the less nagging salespeople – and asked them to prepare it for us. They split it down the middle and prepared one side with butter, and the other with some sort of chilli sauce. Both sides were delectable, although we were a little disappointed to find that the ratio of edible lobster parts to inedible lobster parts was quite small. Cost: ~£6.00 for a 300g lobster (edible weight unknown).
We wandered a few stalls down to one of the night market stalls offering parrotfish that we’d spotted earlier. The barbecued fish consistently looked and smelled excellent across the stalls, and we were hungry to try some. As we picked our fresh fish, we were beckoned over to a table and started on our drink whilst we waited for our fish to cook. Cost: ~£2.00 for a small parrotfish.
Soon enough, our fish was brought to us. I tore off a large chunk with my fork and put it straight into my mouth. Biting down I realised that I’d made a terrible mistake – being an (almost) entire fish, it was still full of bones. Cowed somewhat by this first bony mouthful, we finished the rest of the fish at a much slower pace. We topped off the oddly fragmented meal with some ondeh-ondeh, a curious, gelatinous dessert that we’d bought at the beginning of the meal.
The following night, we returned to the market, sights set upon something a bit more interesting. An interesting addition that we hadn’t spotted on previous evenings was a number of stingrays on some of the stalls. After checking around (prices ranged from roughly £10-25 for a ray, depending on size and price), we realised that we would probably only want to try half a ray. Our waitress asked an assistant to come over and spoke to him in Malaysian, he wandered off and returned a couple of minutes later, slinging one half of our handpicked ray into the scales. Blood and fish organs slid out in a manner exactly as disgusting as you’d imagine, whilst Laura and I looked on, part horror, part interest at the cross-section of ray that stood before us. The ray took a while to cook, but not long enough for us to wash that particular image from our minds.
Between that and the difficulty picking meat from the cartilaginous skeletal structure, we barely polished off half of the ray before giving up. The taste wasn’t bad though.