Eating Putu & Lato @ Filipino Market, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Written by @Lan
(Photos by curiostraveller.com)

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Thought of the day-“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”-Miriam Beard

In the east part of Sabah, particularly in Semporna, the Bajau people, Putu and Lato are inseparable. Some of them have moved to Kota Kinabalu city bringing along their tradition which includes, Putu and Lato. Both are staple food of theirs, a must in their diet. There’s only one way to know what Putu and Lato tastes like, eat em’! If you are an adventurous person, gastronomically speaking, head to Kota Kinabalu’s Filipino Market. We went. We consumed that Putu and Lato. This is our story, in regard to that particular experience.

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The alley that has many stalls selling cooked food

Filipino market is located right in Kota Kinabalu City and I did wrote an article about it (Here is the LINK). Majority of the food sellers in Filipino Market are Muslims so for the Muslim Visitors, there is little to worry about. It’s one hectic market I say, with sellers trying to get passers by to come to their tent. There’s one section in Filipino Market that concentrates on cooked food and barbecued seafood. In that section alone, there are about 4 stalls (tents) that serves Putu and Lato. If you do come here, pick the cleanest stall and you will be alright.

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Rina, at her stall (Stall Number 2)

We wander around till there’s this young lady at stall number 2 invited us to have a look at the food display. “My name is Rina, please have a look”she said. We immediately obliged. It was their food layout that impressed us. It’s colorful and amazingly neat. The layout was open to the elements but there’s not even a single fly. That was enough to convince us. Our eyes were on that 4 colorful dishes, sliced and diced tomatoes, young mangoes, seaweed, onion and many more. The colors made us curious. We need to know what those 4 types of dishes tastes like.

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Anti clockwise: Mix of Onion, Red Chili & Tomato, Seaweed, Sliced Young Mangoes and Umai 

Our goal was to consume Putu and Lato. I told Rina about our intention. “We want to have Putu and Lato” I said and she smiled, politely asked us to take our preferred seat. We did with that high level of anxiety, worrying if we will be able to have that Putu and Lato pass down the throat. We were just about to sit down when Rina start to explain each of the 4 dishes that we were looking at. She told us that none of the 4 are Putu and Lato. That 4 dishes are to complement Putu and Lato. Alright, lesson learned. Rina went ahead with her explanation while we were trying to digest that information. It was kind of attending a cooking course.

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Mix of Onion, Red Chili and Tomato

Rina said the first dish is easy to make. It consists of sliced Tomatoes, Red Chili and Onions (I guess that’s more than 1 unit each, pardon me for not asking). The next thing to do is to mix all that ingredients and squeeze some lime onto it. “It gives that sour taste” Rina said. A pinch of salt for taste and mix the whole thing again.

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Seaweed

This is part of seaweed and cut into desired length, topped with sliced onion, red chili and tomato. Rina told me that no cooking process is required, it’s best eaten in its raw state.

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Umai

Then there’s the Umai. It’s a dish consists of sliced raw fish with mixture of onion, chilies, salt and lime juice. The Kadazan people refer it as Hinava while that Umai term actually refers to the Sarawak’s Melanau version. It’s close to the Latin America’s ceviche. 

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Sliced young mangoes

The fourth dish is sliced young mangoes and nothing is added onto it. It’s already sour in taste and there is no need to give it any dressing whatsoever. Rina told me it’s best to keep the texture as it is, minimizing any moist as the mangoes are already watery. She went to the next stall and she came back with something that looks like small grapes.

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Lato

Introducing Lato, the name given by the Bajau Laut people. It’s Sea Grapes Seaweed. Some named it as Green Caviar. The scientific name is Caulerpa Lentillifera. The best way to consume it, in its raw state but some people prefer splashing drops of vinegar onto it. Rina told us that there’s no need to do that as the 4 dishes that will complement Putu and Lato are already sour in taste.

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Putu

Then there’s Putu. It’s made of boiled cassava, meticulously spread onto sort of plastic wrap, rolled and steamed again! Putu is best to have with Lato as it sides or other Bajau traditional food such as Sagol, Kima, Tehek-tehek and Tayum. For this visit, Rina told me that we’re to have this Putu with Lato that will be mixed with all that 4 dishes mentioned earlier. The degree of our curiosity increased!

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Step 1-Mix all 4 dishes

When we were just about to sit down again, Rina invited us to come over to the desk where she normally prepares all ingredients for her customers. On the serving plate, she mixed all that 4 colorful dishes. She told us that the serving varies according to the number of diners. In our case, it’s for two person and it’s about RM3 (USD0.69), excluding the Lato and Putu.

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Step 2-Apply the gravy/dressing

She apply the dressing onto the mixed dishes. That dressing is quite thick in texture and black in color. She generously poured about 5-6 spoons of that dressing/gravy and she told me it’s made of lime juice, shrimp paste, thick soy sauce, bird eye chilies, salt and sugar.

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Step 3-Top the mixed dishes with Lato

Rina put that Lato (The Sea Grapes Seaweed) on top of that mixed 4 dishes with its gravy. She reminded me to mix all the things in the plate. “That way, you get the best of the best” she said. “Enjoy that popping sound when you eat that Sea Grapes Seaweed!” she added.

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Step 4-Eat!

Overall, I say it’s one spicy and sour dish. There’s generous amount of lime juice and there’s the sliced young mangoes as well. Bird eye chilies gave that sharp spicy taste. Simply put, quite pungent. Rina taught me to consume the dish the same way the Bajau people eat it. A small portion of Putu, mix it with some of the dish in the blue plate, eat it! We did and while it’s sour and spicy, gradually, we both like it. Will we go for a second in the near future? Absolutely yes. Upon learning that we have interest in consuming the dish soon, Rina insist us to have it with barbecued seafood!

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Lobster
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Barbecued Fish and Prawns
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Squid

I wonder what is it like to have Putu, Lato and that 4 mixed dishes with the barbecued seafood such as Lobster, Prawns, Squid and Fish. For now, we both are still curious and surely we have to re-visit Rina’s stall to try it. How much was the price for our dish in the first visit? It’s cheap, RM5 (USD1.15). When we were about to leave her stall, she informed us that apart form the barbecued seafood, she also sells raw seafood, meant to be cooked whenever there is demand. Now, that’s interesting! We must come back here again soon!

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Rina with her fresh seafood!

In need to have the same experience? Head to:

Filipino Market
(Opposite Le Meridien Hotel)
Cooked/Barbecued food section, Stall Number 2 (Look for Rina)
Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen
88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

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