Last time you heard from me I was in an Iban longhouse, experiencing the amazing Iban culture which centres around the family, drinking and food.
An open fire, bamboo pots, unidentifiable plants and every part of the pig...
Eating Iban food is a lot of fun.
The Iban people, and their food, actually fit within a broader ethnic group known as the Dayak.
This is often used as a hold-all term for tribes in Sarawak, however this is incorrect. In actuality the Dayak are just the largest group of tribes in the area. Many other distinct groups exist, including various tribes within the Orang Ulu group and specific tribes such as the Lun Bawang, Bisaya and Melanau.
That said, from a culinary perspective they are generally grouped together. This is probably largely due to similarities in cooking technique and dishes; however it could also be due to business reasons i.e. why open a restaurant that just caters to a tribe of a couple of thousand people.
Generally, this cuisine is identifiable through its use of simple ingredients, many of which foraged from the surrounding forest, cooked using techniques that would be feasible in the jungle. However, there are also significant influence from Malay and Chinese Malaysian food such as belacan (shrimp paste) and soy sauce.
Here I'll try take you through some key aspects that make Dayak food so delicious...
It's funny how the most primitive form of cooking is also the most delicious.
The Dayak know this.
Though a necessity until relatively recent times, despite the introduction of gas and electric, this is still a core part of their cuisine (I'm assured on a day to day basis).
A very popular choice is to go to your local Rumah Asap which translates as "smoke house".
This is essentially a Dayak hawker centre which will sell a number of delicacies, however at it's centre meat that is cooked on fire.
That meat is overwhelmingly pork as Dayaks tend to be Christian rather than Muslim. Furthermore, every part of the pig available because, as with most non-western cultures, they realise 2 things:
Wasting any part of an animal is a crime
Every single part is delicious!
Simply seasoned, cooked to crispy perfection, dipped in sambal belacan (chilli shrimp paste sauce) and soy sauce, served with a cold beer... that is perfection.
This is the technique of cooking within a bamboo stalk.
Most commonly Ayam/Manok/Chicken Pansoh, however you'll also see Pork/Babi and Fish/Ikan.
Meat is marinated in local herbs and aromatics. Some common such as garlic and ginger, others common to Malaysian cooking such as torch ginger flower, and others completely alien such as "Daun Bungkang" (AKA Borneo bay leaf) and Tepus (the succulent stalk of a plant related to ginger and torch ginger).
This is stuffed within the bamboo, topped with water and plugged with cassava leaves before being placed diagonally over the fire (so not to spill). The bamboo is rotated as it cooks, this ensures no part dries out and splits. At first the steam and bubbles will be visible and push the leaves out, however as the water evaporates and readiness is achieved the leaves will sink into the stalk.
The resulting dish is fragrant yet savoury, light yet smoky, and really delicious.
I would love to produce a recipe that could recreate this taste outside of Borneo, however I think any efforts would be futile. Even in West Malaysia where you might be able to get a lot of the main ingredients it would only come to 60%. So much is added by those additional forest aromatics and the bamboo married with fire.
When I first moved to Malaysia the produce in the local markets blew my mind. Utterly alien and seemingly endless.
But I worked at it and even felt like I was getting somewhere... then along came Borneo.
Bananas the size of my arm. Bizarre fruits ranging from the unassuming to on that appears to be covered in snake skin. Various unidentifiable stalks and tubers. Bamboo flowers. Palm hearts. Umpteen different leaves and herbs.
And fern shoots.
Weirdly I can't even remember seeing, let alone eating, a fern in a market or restaurant before going to Sarawak.
Growing up, mucking about in the woods, the widely held belief was that bracken was deadly poisonous. Though this was likely due to some over active imaginations, it was weird to see the plant in this context.
The main varieties are midin and paku, the former slightly meatier stalks and the latter leafier.
The most common preparations were stir-fried in garlic and/or sambal belacan. However, I also had them with oyster sauce, and quite brilliantly with dried wild mushrooms at the Iban longhouse.
The taste isn't completely alien. It's relatively neutral, which is why it goes great with so many flavourings, and very satisfyingly meaty. If I had to push to compare it to something it's like a terrestrial samphire (a niche reference I know) and really tasty.
When it comes to energy, as with everywhere in Asia, rice is king.
More often than not this is straight up white rice from the ubiquitous family rice cooker, however there are a couple of notable variations - focused at increasing the energy availability and portability - perfect for hunting expeditions to the forest.
Asi Pulut Lulun is glutinous rice, cooked in bamboo (lulun is another word for pansoh). Once cooked the bamboo is skilfully hacked away so you end with a very thin covering that can be split over with your hands to reveal the rice inside. Great for eating with your hands as the glutinous rice sticks together to form a malleable utensil for whatever else you're eating.
Nuba laya is a rice dish from the Lun Bawang and Kelabit tribes. This is essentially "mashed" rice. Cooked and vigorously stirred to a still paste. Again, great for eating with hands. Very filling.
There are also non rice-based starches, one of the main ones being sago. This is a starch that comes from the pithy core of several palm trees.
I've come across this as sago pearls before, which when cooked, mixed with coconut milk, and topped with gula melaka palm sugar forms a delicious desert. However, here it's more likely consumed savoury.
I've heard of this being served as a dish called linut/ambuyat, which looks like wallpaper paste to be spun between 2 chopsticks, however was (un)fortunate enough not to encounter on this trip.
Instead I saw tumpik, which is a fairly bland but not unpleasant pancake made from sago and fresh grated coconut. Mine had prawns in it, however I imagine it's fairly delicious sweet with some palm sugar.
Star Dish - Umai
Umai is one of the best dishes I discovered on this trip.
A speciality of the Melanau tribe it is a salad made of raw fish that has been cured in lime juice and vinegar. Served with red onion, chilli, ginger and garlic - it is essentially a Malaysian ceviche.
In a cuisine that is very heavy on grilled meats, starches and simple veg it was really exciting to have this light and zingy dish to cut through all that heaviness.
I'm really happy to discover this dish... however I was a little annoyed as in one of my supper clubs I served a dish I called Malaysian ceviche, thinking I was being original!
The recipes were almost identical however I think now I'll amend mine to be closer to the original.
It's super basic, so here's how it's done:
- 500g of Snapper (or any meaty white fish), sliced thinly
- 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly
- 3 red shallots
- 1 cm ginger
- 1 medium heat chilli
- Juice of 5 limes
- 2 tbsp vinegar
Pound the shallots, ginger & chilli to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Fill with the lime juice and vinegar and scrape from sides. Pour over the sliced fish and onion. Season with salt, sugar and Ajinomoto (if you know, you know). Refrigerate and cure for at least 15 minutes (only if the fish is fresh enough to be eaten raw), or more likely up to 2 hours to let the acid cook the flesh through.
The environment is for a better word, f***ed.
Meat consumption undoubtedly contributes to this... so as a species we need to be on the lookout for new, less carbon consuming sources of protein.
I've discovered the next "miracle burger"... sago grubs.
Now I've eaten quite a few different creepy-crawlies through my travel (and toxic masculinity) but have never been a huge fan. Too bitty, too many hairs, legs and wings caught in your teeth, never enough actual meat to be satisfying.
However, sago grubs are different. They gorge themselves of the very simple and clean starch within the sago palms. As a result, they are unusually uniform in their texture with no discernible "bits" and actually pretty substantial.
The squirm will but people off, however one bit and that isn't a problem. That said, they were definitely better as a sago grub kebab. The charred outside complimenting the filling, weirdly reminiscent of cauliflower cream.
They're not even slimy... yet satisfying.