But Kadazandusun food is now slowly making a presence as a commercially viable undertaking.
“Unless you go to the villages and interior parts of Sabah, you won’t find authentic and original dishes easily,” said Sandra Paut, a Kadazan from Inanam. She is the head chef of a traditional restaurant.
D’Place Kinabalu provides almost everything you might want to sample, thanks to Steven Ong, Lisa Thien and Sandra Paut.
Lisa, who is in the management unit, said one day a Chinese customer dined at their 1,200sq restaurant at Kepayan Perdana in July last year. A developer by profession, Steven immediately “fell in love” with the set up and food.
However, Lisa was concerned about Steven, being a Chinese and may not acquire its taste.
“I kept coming out to check on him whether his food was okay or need to change because usually, it is the local Kadazan (and other ethnic groups) who dine here, but not Chinese,” she said.
“Well, you don’t have to be a Westerner to cook Western food right. So, you don’t have to be a Kadazan to taste Kadazan food!” Steven claimed. He said he loved local Kadazan food as much other food.
Wasting no time, Steven immediately “proposed” to both Lisa and Sandra who were the original owners of D’Place restaurant about his idea and how they could expand the business further and by emphasising authentic food of ethnic Sabahan to a higher level.
The trio later became partners and moved the restaurant to a 4,500sq outlet in Plaza Shell in December last year.
“I have always been enthusiastic and in love with food especially the authentic ones. My work as a developer was my main source of income, but food has been my passion all this while,” shared Tawau-born Steven.
He said visitors would only know about seafood in Sabah and not other food. The idea of introducing authentic menu came to his mind when many of his friends requested to sample local food.
“Seafood was the only food that outsiders look for, as that was in abundance then but I told myself it cannot sustain as marine life would soon be gone if we keep consuming them. How about trying the original recipe handed down from the time of our ancestors?
“I am not a Kadazan but I have always enjoyed eating food prepared in the villages.
They are marvellous, the best, original and use natural ingredients too,” Steven said.
The restaurant serves authentic dishes such as Pinasakan Sada (fish in sour gravy), Hinava (raw fish with lime), Tuhau (wild plants), Linopot Naig (rice wrapped in banana leave), Nantung/Ambuyat (gluey sago delicacy), Tonimbu Kodop (porridge with wild mushroom) and many other sumptuous spread.
One of the fast-selling dishes is Butod (sago worm) after it gained popularity following videos of the dish going viral on Facebook.
Sandra said they started to officially serve Butod pizza last Christmas and it was a hit.
Many diners came to try them. Some liked it while others just shied away after looking at it!
“It was fun and new experience for the diners. The ‘dare-devils’ would just bite and swallow them and some claimed they taste cheesy and creamy,” Sandra said, adding that some diners screamed after seeing the worms moving.
Steven, 46, shared that although he is a Hokkien and brought up the Chinese way, his interest in authentic food developed since he was young.
“I attended a Kadazan friend’s wedding and it was from there I discovered menu like ‘Hinava’.
I thought that was the best food I have ever sampled. It is very tasty but healthy, too, because it is just fish (uncooked) with lime and other natural ingredients,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Taiwanese diner, Nina Hsieh, said she had never seen such a “cute” worm before and never imagined that the little creature would go into her mouth.
“Never! I would never want to eat it. It is cute but scary, said Nina who was on a Chinese New Year holiday with her husband Dr Samson Soon.
Meanwhile, Dr Samson didn’t mind trying the Butod and said it tasted very creamy and cheesy.
“Not bad! I can eat a few more,” he said.
Tuhau, a wild plant which smells and tastes pungent is another delicacy that is slowly being accepted by the diners. Their signature dish, “Tuhau Asam Pedas Oxtail” is another mouth-watering delicacy.
The original Oxtail Asam Pedas is “re-invented’ by adding a trash of Tuhau.
“I can’t really describe how it tastes exactly. You need to come and dine here to know it, but I assure you will not regret sampling all of our dishes as they are cooked and prepared with love and care.
Sandra is our main chef here,” smiled Steven.
Sandra attributed her knowledge about the Kadazan Dusun food from her mother, Maria Koijin, who is from Inanam.
“It was my mother who mostly taught me about our food and its preparation.
I managed to grasp all the recipes from her.
“I kept practising it until I get it right. We even write down the measurement of each ingredient used, so that there is some kind of standardisation in each of the menu,” revealed Sandra, who was a banker before she became a chef.
Also driven by passion, Sandra had always been captivated by how a few ingredients combined together can be turned into a wonderful dish.
“Natural products like ginger, Tuhau, salt and others, when combined, create mouth-watering dish which you hardly find in any restaurants or even anywhere in the world,” said Sandra, who could now prepare all kinds of local delicacies from Hinava to Hinompuka dessert.
Hinompuka, the ever-popular Kadazandusun dessert, is always seen in local celebrations.
It is a gluttonous rice flour wrapped in banana leaves.
“That is the simplest dessert but also the most delicious one, I think. Combine the flour with sugar and water.
Wrap it in banana leaf, steam it and there you go, our best dessert, the Hinompuka – Kadazan way!” boasted Sandra.
The restaurant is decorated the way early houses were decorated – with bamboo elements, plants and other items to create a more natural sight in the interior. A set of gongs, traditional musical instruments, are also seen hanging in front of the restaurant.
“We want to create an atmosphere of the yesteryears where the doors are made of bamboo, paddy husks hanging as decorative items, gongs as part of our decoration, too.
“When diners come, the gong players would beat the gong and the sound coming from the instrument is just magical. It feels very welcoming and anyone who hears it properly, it sounds like bringing happiness to anyone walking into our restaurant.
“Please listen to the music being played. It is so soothing and accommodative,” said Steven.
He also said their restaurant can be a good platform for the local artists who have paintings of scenery or anything to do with the local ethnic/tribes.
“As you can see in the restaurant, we hang a lot of the portraits which I gathered from the internet.
“But I welcome local artists who are skilled in drawing anything from sceneries or characters portraying the life of the local people, it is going to be marvellous.
We don’t charge the artists by displaying their piece here, it is totally free of charge.
They can even put out their telephone contact and let the customers directly contact them.
We are more than happy to invite all those talented artists to come and display your artwork in our restaurant,” he said.
There are two VIP rooms in the restaurant and named after Sandra’s ancestors, ‘Makinjal’ and ‘Sohimba’.
“In tribute to the people who made it possible for their generation to continue dwelling on earth, my ancestors, Makinjal and Sohimba are two important characters that God had given us in order for me and my family to be able to continue living.
“Therefore, the two VIP rooms in our restaurant are named after them, as they are the very important people in my life,” smiled Sandra.
Apart from the sumptuous spread of menu, they also provide cultural dance like the Kadazan’s Sumazau dance and also the Murut’s Magunatip performance.
Steven assured that diners would be entertained with the performances where they too (diners) would be involved in the dance towards the end of the show.
“This is a way to have a greater bonding with our customers, not only do we serve food, but we give them good experience by participating in the dance. And I bet you, they just love it. They even love trying out the blowpipe thing over and over till they hit the right target,” laughed Steven.
He said while diners are graciously dining and being entertained with the dancing performances, Steven would be around to explain to them, especially those from overseas the meaning of the dances, its historical facts, food that they are sampling and the restaurant itself.
“Coming to this restaurant is not just about dining. The whole idea is giving one of the best education and information to people about our history, where we came from, how the food derived, why there is such Magunatip dance and so on.
“So many things to learn from here. Since my love for traditional food is just incredible, I am passionate about our history as well. A lot of this little ‘education’ you may not find in text books or school.
Let’s keep our tradition alive regardless of what our ethnic is,” said Steven.