Local Food Tales: Kolo Mee – Home Away From Home

What’s delicious to you, something you can’t live without and unique to your culture? It’s our ethnic food, of course! These are special because food originating from one’s country can never be imitated. How different can food be in a different country? Well, think of your favourite food native to your country. Have you ever come across an excellent representation of this dish in another country? Most would say no. For me, kolo mee is one of my favourite ethnic foods that must only be regularly eaten at home. Originating from Malaysia, native to the state of Sarawak. It’s a dried noodle dish tossed in savoury shallot oil and soy sauce mixture, added with various garnishes. I realised I haven’t tried a single kolo mee that comes close to how it tasted back home in Sarawak. Even in the same country, it can be difficult to replicate.

** This article references to, or contains non-halal elements! **

The famous kolo mee with minced pork, sliced pork, spring onions, and fried onions.
A visual representation of kolo mee with its barbequed pork. Here, the sauce evenly coats all the bits of noodle.
Image by Evelyn Chai from Pixabay

Is Kolo Mee A Foreign Dish?

Famous foods like kolo mee is usually famous for a reason. Infused with a rich history and hints of people’s “secret” ingredients, kolo mee has evolved through generations of “traditional” recipes. Especially more so in a country like Malaysia, filled with a huge diversity of cultures, its story might be an interesting one.

Malaysia boasts of many ethnic Chinese people. They have influenced many aspects of what we call Malaysian today. And we can see many of the big influences around Malaysia like in Sarawak. And one big impact is definitely the food. Some are Laksa Sarawak, Mee Jawa and Hainanese Chicken Rice. Kolo mee as well is definitely a Chinese-inspired dish, and I’ll tell you why.

A kolo mee, noodle dish, bought from a shop with a bowl of soup next to it.
My sister and I had tried kolo mee from a restaurant called Dayang Sarawak Corner in Kuala Lumpur. It looks very pretty but the taste did not scream ‘home’ to me.
Image by Atiqah Ghazali

1) Where Did Kolo Mee Originate From Anyway?

I don’t exactly remember my first kolo mee but I also don’t remember a time when I didn’t eat it almost every time I went back home to my hometown, Miri in Sarawak. If you have a chance to visit Miri, Sarawak, buy yourself some kolo mee at any local restaurants like the one I always frequent, Awang Mahyan in Lutong. Whether you like Asian food or not, you will love this. If you forget, don’t worry. You won’t miss the locals enjoying their tiny bowls of noodles with their chopsticks just going at it.

Even with its popularity in Miri, kolo mee actually didn’t originate from here. Instead, it was made popular in the capital of Sarawak i.e Kuching. If you think kolo mee was popular in Miri, kolo mee in Kuching is at another level. This is the place to go to if you want to go on a daring journey with various types of kolo mee.

An alleyway somewhere in Kuching overlooking a yellow building.
Kuching is the largest city in Sarawak, no wonder so many iconic foods like kolo mee is famous here. But make no mistake, this city isn’t just for the adventurous taste buds.
Image by travelphotographer from Pixabay

2) So, Where Exactly Did Kolo Mee Really Come From?

Going further back, the original kolo mee was actually introduced by Chinese immigrants in Malaysia around the 1800s and is still sold in Malaysia today. Its Mandarin name is gan lao mian. But the kolo mee is actually a Hokkien Chinese dialect directly translating to mean dried tossed noodles. For Malaysians now, we know it as the famous mee kering (dry noodles). Over generations, the dish changed to suit people’s ever-changing palates. As we live in a world of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and overseasoned food, one must adapt. The dried noodles come with more sauce and steamed vegetables are replaced with spring onions. A simple story but one full of mystery that can only be told by real people themselves.

A noodle bowl with sliced beef and fried shallots called kolo mee
This is the exact kolo mee that I remember. The one I crave whenever I’m outside Sarawak.
Image by Dina Ghazali

3) From A Chinese To Malaysian-Chinese Dish

As this Chinese dish evolved to satiate Malaysians’ taste buds, many versions like the halal version for Muslims were introduced. Hence the name, Malaysian-Chinese cuisine. We know that the majority of the Malaysian people are Muslims, therefore they only eat halal food. And we know that the star ingredient of kolo mee is pork, which is not halal. Naturally, as more people wanted to enjoy this feast, a halal version was created. The difference being only the protein. Instead of pork, they use beef, and chicken as a substitute. Up to this point, only a handful of muslim shops are selling kolo mee.

Glistening sliced pork on a plate called char siu.
If something’s delicious, you can eat it with anything, This is how I imagined ‘char siu‘ (Chinese barbecued pork) being combined with kolo mee in the beginning.
Image by Sunday133 from Pixabay

The Foundation Of A Good Kolo Mee

History aside, to actually begin to make kolo mee you always start with the main star of the dish. In the name of the dish, mee which translates to ‘noodle’ is the main ingredient. We also know that ‘kolo‘ in Cantonese translates to dry toss. It’s a dry tossed noodle. You need to use proper ingredients to achieve the taste that people love so much. But first, we need to find out which noodles suit this dish best.

Two packs of dried egg noodles which can be used as a subsitute for kolo mee.
As I’m currently outside Malaysia, this is the closest I could get to a kolo mee’s dried noodles. As long as it’s thin and has some curl to them, it will still work out.
Image by Dina Ghazali

1) Noodles For Everyone, It’s Flexible

Wheat noodles that are dried then boiled are the ones you’re looking for in a recipe like this. In Sarawak, they sell them in packs specifically labeled for kolo mee. These brands are mainly Chinese brands and are non-halal because they add lard. Therefore, those who eat halal opt for a Muslim brand or use thin egg noodles that are similar to the image above. But make sure they aren’t too thick. If you do not have a preference, go for the original Chinese brands here as they have a better chew to them. If you’re feeling adventurous, below is a video recipe for handmade egg noodles. For a simple meal, the noodles from an instant noodle pack are also a nice alternative.

These fresh egg noodles will guarantee chewy texture and you can control how thin you want your noodles to be. Plus it’s fun.

2) Dry, Sweet, or Spicy? And More?

Now here is where the flavour comes in. We can adjust the flavour to our taste, whether we prefer a sweeter dish, or one with strong flavours that coat every single noodle strand in the bowl. So, what are the flavours?

Well, there’re many different ways that people make them. But the flavours that we cannot exclude are definetly shallot oil (pork oil for non-halal), light soy sauce, and white pepper. From here, we can build our own perfect bowl of kolo mee. Others like to add some sesame oil, fish sauce or vinegar, oyster sauce and sweet soy sauce. I personally like my noodles more savoury and darker, so I would add all of these ingredients if I could. Until you can see a thick sauce at the bottom of the bowl when you tilt it.

Six sauces laid out next to each other, with white pepper, seasoning, and shallot and garlic oil.
The number of sauces in this recipe can be confusing but you will understand once you taste it all together.
Image by Dina Ghazali

More interestingly, people have created other varieties of kolo mee. There’s the addition of chilli pork oil for a spicy version. A sweet soy sauce version that makes the kolo mee darker in colour. There’s even an unorthodox menu of curry kolo mee and rendang kolo mee. While I was researching, I even came across a Maggi brand kolo mee. I’m not sure how that’s going to taste but it simply shows how popular this menu is.

3) Steps To A Delicious Bite of Kolo Mee

Now comes the hard part. The garnishes and sides are usually the last steps when plating a meal. But for this recipe, we garnish it first. It isn’t much but it takes some time. Definitely worth the wait. We have to fry some sliced shallots, blanch the vegetables, sauté some minced chicken, make a simple beef soup, and last but not least, concoct a side of sweet chilli sauce. Remember, it’s worth it.

A kolo mee plated nicely topped with fried onions, spring onions, sliced beef with a side of chilli sauce and beef broth soup.
I even tried my own recipe for kolo mee where I topped it with some slices of beef. The taste isn’t exact but I was able to feed my whole family proudly.
Image by Dina Ghazali

The platter of choice is undoubtedly any type of bowl, preferably small. The way to eat kolo mee in my personal experience is in a small bowl with small portions. This way we get all the noodles coated with the mouth-watering sauce. If you’re still hungry, you can always add or order more. First, put your sauce into the bowl. My advice is to make the one portion of sauce directly into the bowl you’re gonna eat out of. It’s just easier and people can add according to their own taste. Then nicely plate the freshly blanched noodles in. Lastly, sparingly garnish your bowl. Serve with a bowl of refreshing beef soup and chilli sauce.

Share Authentic Food In Unauthentic Places

If we want other countries to serve the food from our country, we would want it to be as similar to how we experienced it. So more people can understand our culture and how our amazing food came to be. This is done through teaching people the recipes physically, sharing the recipes with friends and with the cooking community online. Food52 is a really good platform to ask for any advice relating to cooking. It has a diverse range of people you can interact with in their forum.

A man's hand holding a glass globe with social media icons surrounding it.
Social media has certainly helped in connecting people around the world. We should use the Internet to give exposure to our country and share how delicious our ethnic dishes are as well.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Join The Food Community Online

If you wanted to find a recipe to cook, many have been published by people in the Food52 community. If you cannot find a recipe that you want people to know more about, you can even add your own recipe as well. Food52’s videos introduce recipes from all over the world. It’s surprising how they even have a recipe for Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak. But they took it a step further and included a podcast network.

One of the podcasts that stood out to me is called, Play Me A Recipe. Cooks from Food52 share their recipes, tips, and stories only a speaking voice can convey. This is an amazing opportunity to voice your opinions and share your stories on food, hence creating a more experienced platform. Let’s make our home away from home come true by sharing our ethnic recipes with friends, online. Why don’t you start now by commenting below where you’re from and what your favourite ethnic food is?

Listen along while you cook in the kitchen or hear the stories and tips that people share. In order to create a place for people to go to when they’re stuck or are curious about a food they’ve come across.

Open the recipe in a new tab.

About Dina GHAZALI

Raised abroad almost her entire life, Dina is well exposed to the multi-cultural world around her. Penned her innermost thoughts on paper as a child, and eventually fell in love with writing. Aims to be a successful writer one day.

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