Another town, another market.
Wet marketing is the best way we know to ground ourselves when we've landed somewhere new (or to re-familiarize ourselves when we're repeat visitors). Marketing is how we get a bead on local products and produce and acquire advance knowledge of what to look for in local eateries. It's total immersion. In Asia, every market - even the ones we've cruised fifty times over - promises to surprise.
Markets are, of course, a place of business. But they're also where news and gossip, conjectures about the weather and the harvest, opinions on local politics and, during festival periods, good wishes and small gifts are exchanged.
Almost every town in the Malaysian state of Sabah holds a tamu (a once-a-week-market). One Sunday last April we chose to skip Kota Kinabalu's famous Sunday market in favor of the Sunday tamu in Kota Belud, a sleepy town about an hour up the state's western coast. After an easy, picturesque drive that cut through forested hills and offered enticing glimpses of cloud-shrouded Mount Kinabalu and a tranquil, impossibly blue South China Sea, we took in an Asian market connoisseur's fantasy: under a canopy of old shade trees, a jumble of outdoor stalls extending on and on, as far as the eye could see.
The tamu seemed, at first glance, a bright, buzzing, hectic mess. As we made our first round of the stalls, however, order emerged. At the front of the market, mostly female vendors peddle their products from permanent corrugated metal-roofed stalls. Cultivated vegetables - lettuces, Chinese greens, carrots and eggplants and green peppers, garlic, onions, ginger, fresh turmeric, and leafy herbs - figure prominently here.
Dried fish too: pristine ikan bilis (dried anchovies),
large fillets of chile-rubbed dried fish that, when sniffed, induce a sneezing fit,
moist, fresh belacan, and bukuk, minute dried shrimp, sold by - among others - a Kuala Lumpur native named Norlinda.
Bukuk, she tells us, are dried in the sun just two or three days. They smell clean and briney, are barely-there but crunchy on the tongue, and are delicious stir-fried with eggpplant.
The markets's front section is also a fine place to pick up a bit of nourishment to eat on the spot - an assortment of kuih, perhaps, like those sold by Norlinda's mother-in-law (below), a petite lady with a wonderful apple doll face,
or wood-grilled chicken wings (a Sabah specialty).
To the market's rear, past the few Bajau (Sabahans originally from the Philippines, and reknowned for their skills as horsemen) offering cattle for sale, a chain link-fenced area houses the non-permanent part of Kota Belud's tamu. Unlike the vendors up front, who rent a specific stall for blocks of time, sellers here pay for their space on the ground, claimed when they arrive, on a week-by-week basis.
Much of the produce sold here is foraged. The ferny pucuk kemuning below, found around wetlands, is blanched and eaten in a salad or with sambal, or added to soups.
Sasad, or yeast beads, are in abundance as well. They're used to ferment rice for the production of lihing, an alcoholic beverage made by non-Muslim Kadazandusun, Sabah's largest indigenous group. In addition to being taken straight, lihing finds its way into Kadazan dishes like gingered chicken soup.
Fresh fish (opening photo) and other products of the sea occupy an area of cement ground directly adjacent to the permanent section of the market. This vendor offers a jaw-dropping variety of dried sea products, including squid, prawns, and fish ranging in size from fingertip-long ikan bilis to foot-long, rainbow-colored parrot fish.
Here, an unidentified type of small fish, filleted
and whole, is preserved with what may be ground pangi nut (buah keluak).
The culinary influence of southern Philippine Muslims, who have settled in Sabah over the last two centuries (the Philippines claims parts of Sabah's territory), might be seen in the tamu's edible seaweeds.
Particularly abundant are clusters of what look like small green grapes. The seaweeds are eaten raw, seasoned with garlic and/or ginger and soured with lime or kalamansi juice, or coconut vinegar (a staple of the Philippine pantry).
Sea products aren't limited to the live (or formerly so); these chunks of sea salt
were offered by a friendly haji (his white headwear marks him as a veteran of the Haj, or Muslim pilgramage to Mecca.)
Kota Belud's tamu can easily occupy a good two to three hours of a Sunday morning. The array of unfamiliar products on sale entice and inevitably draw the lion's share of the photographer's attention, but in the end this market's attraction (and that of all occasional markets) must be attributed, in large part, to the geniality of the vendors themselves. (Many are eager to be photographed but beset by shyness when camera is raised to eye.)
Kota Belud tamu, every Sunday morning. Sabah's largest and, therefore, most touristed. Get there by 7:30am or 8 to enjoy a couple of tour bus-free hours.