Food always resonates unity among Sarawakians. At the mentioned of Sarawak cuisine, what often comes to mind is the kolo mee. Thrown into boiling water, and later tossed in the midst, a typical kolo mee is topped with minced pork, spring onions and char siew (Chinese barbecue pork) and served with chilli in vinegar or pickled chillies.
Tracing back the origin
In Kuching, the springy dish can usually be seen in three different forms — ‘tik mee’ (straight noodles), ‘q mee’ (curly noodle) and most recently, handmade noodles.
Nonetheless, different noodles may offer different pleasure in the mouth, but its identity is similar to one another.
‘Kolo’ also come in different variations such as kolo kueh tiaw, kolo mihun, kolo meepok and kolo lao shu fan (mouse tail/silver needle noodle). Patrons wanting to savour the delicacy can also opt for ‘kolo mee soup’ on a cold rainy day.
According to Sarawak history researcher Chai Kit Siang, kolo mee history in Sarawak can be traced back to the 1920s when a Hakka businessman from Guangdong, China settled down in Kuching at No. 44, upper China Street. Initially, he manned a Chinese medicine shop but later chose to venture into selling a delicacy taht originated from his hometown.
Back then, it was not called ‘kolo mee’ — it was far from that. The Hakka man, Kiew Shao Nyap sold ‘yan mee’ (dry cooked noodle) which originated from Baihou Town, in the Dapu county of Meizhou City, Guangdong. It is believed that he was one of the pioneers that introduced this delicacy.
Made the same way as ‘yan mee’, or also known as Hakka Mee, Kiew would use a long bamboo stick to make the noodle dough. The sound of him beating the dough with the stick was said to be heard from Upper China Street to Carpenter Street and even the Main Bazaar.
At the same time, Kiew also introduced ‘lao shu fan’ (mouse tail/silver needle noodle), and was the first shop to sell both lao shu fan and kolo mee. When his business boomed, his wife and his seven-year-old son started to help him to man it.
He never stopped working except during World War 2. Kiew was said to be a meticulous and persistent man when it comes to noodle making. He would weigh the flour twice to get an accurate weight, and when the dough is rolled into noodles, he would measure the length with a ruler.
Kiew was also a man of principle and honesty — he would never sell overnight noodles, and when there was a rush in customers with a limited supply of noodles, he would rather not sell than to make batches in a hurry.
In the 1960s, Kiew retired and his place at the shop was assumed by his fourth son. He later died in the 1990s at the age of over a hundred years old.
Over time, the dry cooked noodle taste and ingredients gradually change to adapt to the local and different Chinese immigrants taste that came then. When Kiew started selling noodles, there was no such name as ‘kolo mee’. At that time, patrons would refer to it as dry cooked noodle or soup noodle.
The name ‘kolo’ was derived from the Cantonese dialect which means ‘dry cook noodle’. It was only widely known as ‘kolo mee’ in the 1980s, by word of mouth as in the prior era, many were illiterate and there were no signboards at local eateries.
A different perspective of the name ‘kolo’ was also said to come from the sound of bamboo beating the dough ‘kolok kolok’.
The fond memories
Asking my Iban father if he remembered the local delicacy as a young boy, he shared it was only called ‘mee’. Back in the 1960s, if he wanted the noodle to be dry, he would order ‘mee kering’, or if it is immersed in the broth, he would simply say ‘mee soup’.
He recalled back when he was still in school, he would buy the noodle from hawkers at his school. It would cost him 20 cents a pack. In the 1970s, the noodle would cost 50 cents without meat, and a ringgit with meat.
There were also varieties such as mihun, kueh tiaw, ‘mee besar/mee pok’ (flat noodle) and ‘mee halus’ (straight noodle). He shared that kolo mee back then came only with char siew (Chinese barbecued pork) or steamed pork.
In the modern days, many would opt for their kolo mee to be dipped in the redness of the barbecued pork oil. However, my Iban father revealed that there was no such thing as a red noodle.
I myself coming from the younger generation had known and tasted kolo mee ever since i can remember as it would be our everyday breakfast. My mother would complain about how fattening it is, however, as a young Sarawakian girl, kolo mee is the way to go!
These days, I must have my kolo mee in red and extra spiciness from the chillies I threw in it. My noodles must be strictly ‘q mee’ as I loved the feeling of chewing onto the grit of the curly noodle.
I am also very particular with the taste of the char siew as not many can maintain its sweet and juicy texture.