When the shocking news of Anthony Bourdain’s death broke late last week, I thought first of the episodes of his CNN television series, “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” that took place on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
When I visited Sarawak twice in 1998, there had been a total of just nine tourists from North America, my guides told me. There were more Germans than any other Europeans, and a few Brits, too. It was there, in both the capital city of Kuching and smaller towns along the Trans-Borneo Highway, that I enjoyed some of the best foods I have ever eaten.
It took a while to convince my guides that I did not want to go to the usual places requested by the few American visitors they saw.
Finally, growing frustrated, I said, “I don’t eat at McDonald’s or KFC at home. Why would I want to eat there here?”
Somehow, these words convinced them that I wanted to eat what they eat. Suddenly, they were taking me to food stalls in night markets, tiny little restaurants tucked down alleyways, and deep in the forest alongside a small river in a little cafe that specialized in river snail soup.
I ate congee and roti with dal for breakfast and was served mysterious looking sweets in an Iban longhouse (think of a horizontal building with more than a hundred separate apartments under one long roof with a common area that stretched the entire length of the dwelling), where I was also offered the rice wine they made themselves.
Luckily, I was not there during the rice harvest festival, as Bourdain was, because then the drinking could go on for days. My only regret, other than not having enough time there, was not having a kitchen.
A spice stall in a huge food emporium featured colorful mounds of aromatic spices mixed with coconut oil that made me long to cook.
Bourdain and I ate many of the same foods: black pepper crab, all manner of noodles, the freshest and most tender chicken imaginable and delicious dishes with names that were impossible to translate.
His eating and mine took place away from fancy hotel restaurants and shared more with indigenous cooking, and home cooking, than with chef creations. That’s where you find the best food, which I have always felt was at the heart of Bourdain’s message and passion.
One of Bourdain’s talents was the way he connected with just about anyone over a plate of something good to eat. He asked all the right questions, ate with enviable gusto and seemed fearless in the way he would jump right in, sometimes literally, to whatever the moment demanded.
Keep savoring every mouthful with that gusto, Tony, wherever you may be.
“Do you want to go to chicken rice for lunch?” my guides, Ramlee and Taliq, asked me as we were heading up the Trans-Bornea Highway.
Honestly, it sounded so dull that I asked for other suggestions but, in the end, chicken rice is what it was and that’s a good thing. Chicken rice is a universe of flavors unto itself, with little dishes of rice, sauces and condiments orbiting a plate of the most succulent chicken ever.