James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Brief Lesson in Avoiding Uncomfortable Conversations About Trump and Dietary Restrictions

A Brief Lesson in Avoiding Uncomfortable Conversations About Trump and Dietary Restrictions

Kolo mee in Kuching

“So how do you feel about your new president?” The Uber driver chuckles. My friend in the backseat rolls her eyes.

Uber is easy to use and cheap in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo, and for the past five weeks we’ve been having this conversation daily. Once I reveal I’m American, apparently there are only two things to talk about.

“You never know,” I reply tersely. “Maybe it will be better than we expect.” I wait for the next question. He pauses.

“So how do you like our kolo mee?”

Kolo mee is Kuching’s signature dish, sold morning, noon and night and apparently eaten that often by its Uber drivers. I still haven’t tasted it. “What?!” the driver yelps, suddenly upset. He harangues me about the springiness of the boiled noodles, served dry like pasta, the smoky sweetness of thin slices of char siu, red-rimmed pork, and the heat of brined chilies.

“This is the number one food in Kuching,” he says, wagging his index finger at the traffic.

I feign interest and make promises I don’t intend to keep. As a vegetarian, I’m doubtful I’ll ever taste kolo mee. But anything’s better than discussing the U.S. president. When we arrive at Stutong Community Market in Kuching’s southeastern suburb, I make a last false-assurance that I will absolutely buy kolo mee for breakfast and shut the door.

Inside the towering market building, shoppers and vendors loop slowly through a tidy labyrinth of fruits and vegetables open to the overexposed morning. I stop to inspect bundles of purplish jungle ferns called midin. When I look up my friend has disappeared.

I pay the grandmotherly Chinese woman for my ferns and stand tiptoe, scanning over the black-haired heads for my friend’s yellow halo of kinky dreads. She’s not looking at powdered spices or vegetables pickled to the color of camouflage. She’s not in the corridor echoing with the noise of fresh coconut being ground into milk. She’s not buying gummy rice-flour breakfast cakes.

At a loss, I tiptoe up the steps of the market to the second floor, a square cafeteria edged with dozens of narrow food stalls. Four or five advertise kolo mee. I ignore them.

But as I circumnavigate the top floor, yellow seals signifying Buddhist vegetarian food catch my eye. Penciled under the Chinese lettering are the words “Kolo mee.” I almost laugh, and sit down.

The yellow tangle of noodles arrives, topped with fried green onion, slices of soy-based char siu, and a large steamed lettuce leaf. I dump the smaller bowl of clear broth and all of the pickled chilies over the top and use chopsticks to gather the slippery noodles into a deep spoon. It reminds me of the ramen of my childhood, but less salty, somehow softer, and slightly spicy.

Finished, I head downstairs and spy her bright head between bunches of hanging bananas.

“Where were you?” she asks.

“Eating kolo mee.” She raises her eyebrows.

You never know.

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