A WhatsApp message popped up on the screen of my phone early Wednesday morning, letting me know that we best get a move on if I wanted to see Tenom, where there would be good coffee and food, and a chance to meet the producers. This was at 4 am in the morning. I was up feeling a little groggy and rummaging around for my straw hat, but there always seems to be good outcomes around here: the earlier you have to wake up to travel to get somewhere, the more likely it is to be opened when you get there. And since Tenom is known for an array of riches in terms of fresh foods and great places to eat breakfast, I decided that that was where I was heading out to that morning, along with friends, to see what was up.
When we arrived, the indoor market was bunched up with people with their market bags, who obviously had the exact same intentions as I. The finest foods disappear within the first hour so you need to shop early for a good selection.
There were piles of produce. Most of the stuff was in good shape. Of course cabbage and root vegetables were also in good supply. And over here, you needn’t worry about buying vegetables and finding unpleasant surprises rotting away in your bag of tomatoes. Everything that’s sourced at the Tenom market is really fresh and there seems to be quite a frenzy about it.
After looking at the market we then went up stairs for some Hakka breakfast. I had very dark, very rich Tenom coffee. This is a no brainer since Tenom boasts one of the only coffee factories (Yit Foh Coffee Factory) in Sabah that roast their own coffee beans over an open wood fire. In a cup, its dark roasted coffee is deep brown liquid. A great sipping drink over breakfast that’s bittersweet smoky, bold and lingering, which then endures on your tastebuds for 10-15 minutes afterwards.
When I’m home, all I want for breakfast is coffee, boiled eggs and some bread and butter — and I’m good. But in Tenom when they start bringing out all the chun kien, meat balls, yong tau foo and silky pig blood curd, I’m helpless to resist. Tenom is a jewel box of world class kopi tiam food. The pig blood curd, a favourite of Tenom people, was punched up with slices of ginger and inside the curd was a pocket of juicy minced pork. Perfect if you’re feeling delicate. And just totally delicious, as good as anything I’ve had in Sabah to get me going in the morning. I also ate as much chun kien as I possibly could, a thin crêpe-like egg roll, wrapped in meat paste.
Being a resolutely agricultural town, the people in Tenom are no strangers to farming. We met up with a chicken supplier for Pick N Pay who represents several family owned and operated chicken farms across Tenom.
He takes us to meet the owner of a small free range chicken farm who confides in us that the secret of a great produce is the type of feed. It’s the local corn feed of the region that gives the chickens farmed the flavours that are not found elsewhere. Also, because there’s more ground to run on, this makes the meat much softer.
Chickens farmed for meat typically take less than 6 weeks to reach slaughter size, but a free range chicken like the ones in this farm will usually be slaughtered at about 12 -14 weeks of age.
After our visit to the chicken farm, we made a move to Keningau. There are a few rice mills in Keningau, the most well known is Foo Loong Rice Mill. The rice mill sits quietly in the middle of town, but once you’re at the place you’ll notice that there’s quite a bit of muscle used to get things done. It’s not just a rice mill per se but salvaged wood, machinery, spare parts and guns are sold here too. Most folks in Keningau and Kota Belud get their supply from the Foo Loong mill for the freshest selection of rice because the company turns over their stock really quickly.
The production facilities were an eye-full. I looked at another, then another. Then another. There was a floor to ceiling mill in the corner of the warehouse and just next to it, a little reminder of the past that had left me completely smitten, was a traditional small scale rice processor.
Allen Lin, our very eager host disclosed that it’s a seven part process to mill the rice over here but once it’s ready, lovely pure unpolished rice that requires no soaking are vacuumed packed in bags and sold for RM6/kg to the folks around town.
There’s something very relaxing about running your hands through rice. Allen let me stick my hand in rice that had just been milled and it felt all smooth and a little powdery.
Foo Loong Rice Mill and the owners are truly Keningau-style. The place has lots of bits and bobs, and plenty of things to take a peek at from one room to another. Kooky, and all kinds of fun.
It was a wonderful visit to two of those very special regions of Sabah.
– Tenom Market – fresh produce and Tenom famous pork egg roll
– Yit Foh Coffee Factory – oldest and one of the most famous coffee manufacturers in Sabah.
– TFC Cafe – Free Wifi and good place to taste Tenom Coffee
Foo Loong Rice Mill – Selling many grains and rice milling since 1955
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Babi, right? My name is I-Ling Yee and I am the pork beast. Life is too short—especially when it involves pork—not to eat crispy blistered pork crackling and glorious fatty pork with mustard sauce and a beer to wash it all down. I eat pork and squeal at the screen when Liverpool plays but it’s only a thing. Sometimes I write stuff. When I’m not in Sabah, I live in KL (not the cool part), fumbling towards finishing my final year at Monash.