Sabah Road Trip Day 8 – Eating with the Hakka

We left the Tip of Borneo on Day 7 after getting throughly drenched in the rain. Our next stop was supposed to have been Kudat, which was half an hour drive away, but we never made it there.

Baby Crab was hungry, so Baby Tilapia took to Google Maps to find a place in Kudat to eat. While searching, he came across a curious icon which read “Hakka Private Dining” in the middle of nowhere.

Since it was along the way to the main road, Baby Tilapia asked Baby Crab to slow down as they were passing by. It was a large plot of land with a few small houses. We recalled passing by it on the way to the Tip of Borneo. But it clearly doesn’t look like it’s got any restaurant inside.

Nonetheless, we turned into the dirt path, went down it, and emerged on a hillside with a large two-storey house. We went past two cars parked on the ground level and saw what looked like a kitchen of sorts, with a couple of people there.

We winded down the window and asked, in Chinese, if there was anything to eat here. A lady in pink there introduced herself as Mei Zhen, and asked if we made a reservation.

We did not.

Mei Zhen said that while she does serve meals, she requires a day’s notice to prepare the meal. And so, she was unable to serve us any meals since we lacked a reservation. She did give us her phone number to contact her in future though.

Then Baby Crab activated her superpower.

She told Mei Zhen that we were very hungry, and if it was possible for her to whip us up a simple dish anyway. A simple plate of fried rice or fried noodles would be fine. Mei Zhen hesitated, then agreed, and we whooped with joy! Because that meant we didn’t need to wait to go to Kudat to eat.

We parked the car and got off to talk to Mei Zhen while she whipped up a dish. We learned that her house was on a 30-acre plot of land that is mostly dedicated to growing and harvesting palm oil. In fact, they owned a 20-year-old palm oil plantation.

Along the way here, Baby Crab and Baby Tilapia had a discussion:

What’s the difference between a farm and a plantation?

Baby Tilapia was of the opinion that farms are owned by families while plantations are owned by large companies.

He was wrong.

Here was a palm oil plantation owned by a family. They were third generation owners of this particular plantation. Mei Zhen’s grandfather-in-law came to Sabah from China when he was just 18 years old.

According to Wikipedia, Hakkas came to Kudat since the 1880s when Walter Medhurst offered free passage to British North Borneo to prospective migrants in southern China. A missionary named Rudolph Lechler actively encouraged Christian Hakkas living in the Guangdong province to take up Medhurst’s offer.

The first batch of immigrants came in 1883 and founded the settlement Lau San or ‘Old Mountain’. The second batch came in 1889 and founded the settlement Sin San or ‘New Mountain’. Later batches of immigrants came and founded new settlements further away from Kudat Town. These included the villages of Pinangsoo (‘betel nut tree’), Tamalang and Sikuati.

Why is this relevant? Aside from being fun facts that Baby Tilapia likes to read about the places he visits, it also explains the name of the road outside. It is called Jalan Pinangsoo Loro.

Hence, Mei Zhen’s grandfather-in-law was likely among one of the later batches of immigrants that founded Pinangsoo. This also explained why there’s such a large population of Hakkas in Kudat.

Mei Zhen told us how the early Hakka settlers were offered free land and tools, and food rations for their first six months. In return, the settlers were required to clear the forests in their 10-acre plots of land. For some reason that was not explained, Mei Zhen’s plot is 30 acres, which is about the area that would be taken up by 22 football fields.

Until 20 years ago, their family had coconut plantations. Then, palm oil was rising in popularity, so their family switched to growing palm trees.

All the oil palms that you can see in this photo belong to them.

We learned that the oil palms are a highly productive crop, capable of producing more oil from less land than any other vegetable oil in existence. Each oil palm tree will continue to produce fruits for up to 30 years, before it needs to be chopped down.

Every 2 weeks, they hire harvesters to come collect the palm oil fruits from their trees. The activity takes about 1 day to complete. On a good harvest, the plantation yields about 20 tonnes of palm oil fruits, which they sell. In the past, they could get about RM600-700 per tonne of palm oil. However, the price of palm oil has dropped by about 50% to just RM300 per tonne.

This meant that Mei Zhen and her husband Huang had to find other ways to supplement their income, one of which was opening “Hakka Private Dining” a year ago. Now, she turns her love for cooking for people into a business where tour groups visiting Kudat and the Tip of Borneo, come to eat. Her centre can feed up to 100 people per meal, and all the cooking is done in her house.

Besides this, Mei Zhen and Huang also grow fruits and vegetables on their land. We saw dragon fruits, coconuts, passionfruit, kalamansi, papaya, and many others, as well as various vegetables. We understand that Mei Zhen grows her own vegetables for personal and business consumption.

Dragon fruit crops

They also rear tilapia (hehe) by the thousands in a fish pond they dug out for this purpose. Besides this, they have a large pig and 3 small piglets, which they rear to sell for villagers having celebrations. They also keep kampong chickens which eventually make their way into Mei Zhen’s dishes.

Ain’t they just so cute!
Huang and Mei Zhen showing us the tilapia pond.
They started with 3,000 baby tilapia, which have now multiplied into thousands more.

Finally, they have a couple of minsu or home stays on their land. They have two small huts, which consist of a bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom is small and cosy but the bathroom is so large we didn’t know what to do in it. They also have a large wooden house that they built, and is suitable for a group or large family to stay.

These are the minsu that we stayed in.
This is the wooden house that Huang and Mei Zhen built for groups of guests.
You can make simple food here, such as instant noodles. Otherwise, the smoke will stay in the house.

We learned all this in conversation with Mei Zhen and Huang, not just before and during dinner, but also supper. More about that later. First, the dinner photos!

Washing the cookware
Prepping the ingredients
Frying the shallots and garlic at the outdoor kitchen.
Adding beaten eggs
Added prawns
Missed the addition of the noodles. Pouring out onto plate.
Looks good!

We ate dinner inside Mei Zhen’s real kitchen, not the outdoor one she uses for cooking. The kitchen is so big that you can easily fit a 4-room HDB flat inside. And that’s just the kitchen!

The enormous kitchen that is bigger than a 4-room hdb flat.
It was soooo good!

After dinner, Mei Zhen brought us to the minsu, where we decided to take up her offer to stay for the night instead of going to Kudat. She also invited us to come back to the house to chit chat after we had showered. So we did.

Halfway through the conversation, some of her long-time friends arrived. They worked in Kota Kinabalu and whenever they come home to the village, they would come over to Huang and Mei Zhen’s place to chit chat till the wee hours of the morning. We talked over Dong Ding Oolong Tea, and very purple dragonfruit freshly plucked from the garden.

In the morning, Huang and Mei Zhen had to go to church, as they’re both Roman Catholics. But just before that, they brought us breakfast.

We couldn’t finish it, so we packed it for lunch.

All in all, it was a fabulous stay and a real unexpected and hidden find. We’re definitely going back again!

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