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the.Dyak - Urban Iban Cooking in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia)

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the.Dyak is a relatively new Iban restaurant on the fringes of Kuching town. It has attracted rave reviews on TripAdvisor and other media for serving traditional Iban cooking in a smart, air-conditioned environment. So when we were looking for an authentic yet comfortable experience after a few days in the jungle, it seemed like the natural choice.

The main dining room is lit by a series of chandeliers; portraits of traditional Iban life and practices adorn the walls, including pictures of the proprietor Vernon Kepit’s great-grandmother, who was a member of Iban high nobility. The decor is very much a statement of intent – the experience is going to be authentic and personal, albeit recast in a more modern, luxurious environment than one may expect.

The winelist is small, headed by three types of tuak or local rice wine, three whites and seven reds (guests are welcome to bring their own wine for RM70 corkage). The emphasis is clearly on the tuak, which is perfectly fine with me, but I am happy to see that they have eschewed the typical big distributor Aussie and Chilean wines and have instead decided to sell wines that match well with the food (a strikingly novel idea, I know). That they have listed two rieslings (German and Alsatian) and an Alsatian gewurztraminer for the whites elevates them even higher in my estimation.

The menu is divided into vegetables, pork, chicken and tilapia from the Batang Ai River; mains start from around RM18 for meat dishes, and RM30-35 for the tilapia. Relishes go from RM8-12 and desserts range from RM7 to RM12, so you should budget around RM40 plus drinks per head.

Aperitif: Complimentary “Men’s” Tuak

The.Dyak offers a shot of complimentary tuak to first-time visitors. It has a strong green apple flavour and a bracing, cleansing bitterness. Full credit to them for brewing their own tuak; Vernon later tells me that the fermented rice from which the tuak is brewed, the tapai, is served as dessert with vanilla ice-cream.

Main Courses: Jani Kari - three-layered pork simmered in rich curry gravy (RM18); Daun Ubi Randau Guring – sweet potato leaves stir-fried with garlic, dessicated coconut, chillies and dried shrimps (RM10); Tilapia Lempis – garnished with ginger and chillies, wrapped in turmeric leaf and seam-baked Dayak-style (RM30).

The pork curry and greens were excellent, with nice complex flavours layered upon each other. The “three-layered pork”, essentially fatty pork with three layers of meat, fat and skin, is a textural delight. You know the fat kid who always picked out the skin from the braised belly pork at Chinese New Year? Well, that fat kid was me, so you can understand why I am crazy about this dish.
Vernon expressed surprise that we order the tilapia steam-baked, as it is a very subtle flavour. Indeed, it is a little too subtle for my liking. Don’t get me wrong – the fish is supremely fresh and lightly sweet, and its flesh is succulent and moist. However, I have just returned from the jungle and have had the pleasure of jungle-fresh greens harvested and cooked on the same day. In my view, it takes more than just freshness to stand out amongst all the marvellous food available in the area, and I am afraid that this dish simply doesn’t.

Condiments: Pusu Empikau – anchovies stir-fried with pickled durian (RM12); sambal belacan (RM8)
The pusu empikau is amazing - durian has latent spicy notes, and the transformation of durian into tempoyak appears to allow these notes to blossom.

According to Vernon, the Iban believe that sambal pounded with an odd number of chillies is going to be really, really hot. the.Dyak’s version has three normal chillies and a chilli padi; from the Iban perspective, this does not make four, but rather a pair of odd numbers, which Vernon describes this preparation as “napalm”. It wasn’t that hot, but it was suitably delicious and complex.

Bario Rice (RM3 per bowl)

Dessert: Asi Manis Ice Cream (RM7 for two scoops)

Vernon explains that Dayaks normally do not eat dessert, but he had to dream up suitably local-flavoured combinations for guests to finish their meal with. The tapai is like a sweet, alcoholic rice cake, adding a nice adult touch and substance to two scoops of store-bought ice-cream. Good stuff.

Just a word on the service. Vernon is obviously very much on the ball and we were competently looked after by a slender bespectacled waiter (I believe his name was Douglas). Outside of those two, I’m afraid, it becomes a bit of a struggle. A Dutch couple with three young kids at the next was put through a wringer. When the father asked for “appetisers”, the waiter directed him to the “relishes” section, where pungent delights such as enchalu (fermented shrimp with chilli), sambal belacan and pusu empikau awaited; delicious as they are, they are no one’s idea of a Western appetiser. We were then treated to the spectacle of the poor chap shovelling a teaspoonful of enchalu into his mouth, before spluttering and downing his beer in one gulp and his daughter’s 100Plus in a second.

We had a similar though rather less painful brush. After we paid our bill, Vernon came up to us to tell us that the ice cream was on the house, a courtesy he extends to all first-time visitors, to which I responded that we had paid for it in full. Of course, he offered to refund the money but I politely declined and assured him that we appreciated the gesture regardless. This suggests to me that the front-of-house is having some communication issues, and that guidance and instructions are not being followed through.

Our total bill came up to RM109 (no service charge and government tax is added), which was very reasonable considering we ordered some RM20 in beverages. Overall, a very worthwhile experience and a great way to experience the native cuisine in comfortable surroundings. A bit of work on the service and the.Dyak may well become a place worth going out of your way to visit.

More photos at http://julianteoh.blogspot.com/2012/0...

 
 
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  1. Fab write-up, Julian. More food pics next time? ;-)