Peninsular Malaysians who move to Sabah invariably do so because they like the racial harmony there. In return, they bring a little charm of their own – the peninsula’s irresistible food.
A LITTLE bit of Negri Sembilan has taken root in the interior Sabah town of Keningau. Nestled in the foothills of the Crocker Range, some 160km from Kota Kinabalu, a small eatery with Minangkabau offerings has attracted a loyal following among the Kadazandusun and Murut folk.
One regular customer who enjoys Restoran Ibu’s unique dishes – like Nasi Tomato and Nasi Goreng Cili Api – is Alexander Gatonis. The 26-year-old clerk visits the family-run restaurant several times a week.
“You can say the food here is addictive,” says Alexander, pointing to a long line of customers waiting for their take-away food at the restaurant.
Such words are sweet music to the ears of businessman Hisamuddin Sulaiman, 48, and his wife, Azlina Ahmad, 47, both from Negri Sembilan. The couple from Kuala Pilah came to Keningau to visit a friend 10 years ago. They liked the place so much that they decided to stay.
“Our relatives and friends thought we were joking when we told them of our decision to move to Sabah. The question on their minds was: ‘How could we relocate to a place that was culturally so different?’ Well, why not? Sabahans are such friendly people. They don’t think twice about extending their hands for a handshake. They call each other ‘boss’ in such a nice way, a genuine show of friendliness,” says Hisamuddin.
The couple were taken by the sight of people of different races and religions sitting down at the same table for breakfast and just about any meal of the day. The warm acceptance of diversity among Sabah’s communities is usually the “draw factor” for Malaysians from the peninsula who decide to make Sabah their home.
Just ask retired senior cop Datuk Illiyas Ibrahim.
“I know of policemen – officers and the rank and file – from the peninsula who cried when told they were being posted to Sabah. In their minds, they had images of having to serve in the middle of the jungle,” says the former Sabah top cop.
“I even know of parents of these policemen who appealed to the IGP (Inspector-General of Police) against the postings. But the funny thing is, once they come to Sabah and worked here for a while, they grow to like the place and especially the people.
“They find that Sabah is a great place to live and work because of the genuine harmonious relations among the people here,” says Illiyas, a 36-year veteran of the police force.
A native of Kampung Bingkul in the south-west Beaufort district, Illiyas started off as a police constable and rose through the ranks, serving in various Sabah districts, as well as in the peninsula before being promoted as state Commissioner of Police.
“I started as a PC and retired as a CP,” quips Illiyas, 64, who also served as mayor of Kota Kinabalu from 2007 to February this year.
During his time in the force, Illiyas saw the cross-cultural exchanges that took place between Peninsular Malaysians and Sabahans.
Malaysians from the peninsula often marvelled at Sabahans’ racial and religious acceptance of each other. Many who came over also introduced their unique cuisines.
“Many of the policemen from the peninsula who served in Sabah could cook. And they introduced dishes like nasi kerabu, nasi dagang and nasi kandar,” Illiyas notes.
Older Sabahans also remember how Malaysians from the peninsula sometimes gave a twist to dishes they were familiar with. An example is the now-ubiquitous nasi lemak. They recall that it was the Javanese immigrants who introduced the dish to Sabahans but it was the Peninsular Malaysians who served it wrapped in banana leaves.
Some find their food so well received that they decide to stay on in Sabah and open restaurants. Such is the story of Hisamuddin and Azlina. Restoran Ibu’s fiery dishes like ayam masak merah chilli api andgulai lemak cili api initially received cool response from customers.
“People couldn’t comprehend why our food had to be so spicy,” Azlina recalls.
Despite the early setback, the couple persevered and used any opportunity to promote their Negri Sembilan food.
Of course, reducing the prices in their menu also helped. As the couple’s business prospered over the years, their three children went to local schools and have now become more Sabahan.
Like many Malaysians from the peninsula who found their way across the South China Sea, Hisamuddin and his family now call Sabah their home. They enriched the state by introducing elements of their culture and cuisine, among other things. And they have absorbed the way of life and values of Sabahans. Because of this, Malaysia has become a better place.