Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Celebrate Sabah's Kaamatan Festival in Style

Hinava served in small china spoons is among the favourite appetisers both among locals and foreign guests. Photo Copyright © 2006 New Sabah Times

By Nazri Noor

Every May, Sabahans of every race and religion gather to mark the Kadazan Harvest Festival, or Kaamatan. The festival celebrates (and, through traditional rituals, ensures) good harvests of rice and involves much revelry, and tourists and locals alike are attracted by the plentiful drinking and eating and the various activities that Kaamatan has to offer.

Participating in the season’s joyous celebration is the Le Meridien Hotel’s Circle restaurant, which now offers a sumptuous Kaamatan buffet featuring many traditional Kadazan delicacies.

The selection begins with an impressive array of appetizers, giving an appropriate introduction to the intense diversity of flavors Kadazan food has to offer. One can opt to begin with bergadil sardin, or sardine cutlets, taufu sumbat, which is deep-fried tofu stuffed with fresh vegetables, chicken pineapple salad, grilled eggplant, and rojak.

Acar rampai (pickled vegetables), tuhau and bambangan (both preserved wild roots) serve as relishes, and accompany any combination of main dishes fairly well, with the hefty, flavorful doses of sour-spice bite they deliver.

A definite must-try is the famous hinava, or raw fish in vinegar, a delicious starter for every Kadazan meal.

A number of delectable Malay and Kadazan main courses follow. Seafood selections are varied and equally appetizing: steamed siakap in garlic soy sauce, sotong masak kicap, udang galah cili padi, or king prawns cooked in chili, and ampap, which is fish braised in a claypot with herbs and spices to the point that even the bones are edible.

Ayam dengan nangka lemak kuning is also recommended. Chicken is cooked in jackfruit, turmeric and coconut milk, the result being meat subtly infused with the sweetness of the fruit, offset slightly by a little spice. Kari daging dengan ubi kentang, or ox curry with potatoes, serves to round out the offering.

Vegetable choices include steamed long beans, kangkung cooked in coconut milk and ulam-ulam sambal belacan, a form of salad eaten with preserved shrimp paste.

And what would a Kadazan buffet be without an apt selection of rice dishes? Diners can choose from regular steamed white rice, fried rice in the local style, or a delicious and innovative take on the fried rice recipe, which uses red mountain rice in place of plain white.

One might question the seemingly excess emphasis on rice, but there are sound reasons for its prominent inclusion in any meal, for reasons both cultural and culinary.

Rice holds a place of importance for many Asian races, but this is doubly true for the Kadazans, who adhere to a legend that led to the festival’s celebration. The God Kinoingan and his wife Suminundu had a beautiful daughter, named Huminodun.

It was a season of drought and the people of Sabah were starving, so Kinoingan offered his daughter as a sacrifice. Upon her death, hundreds of rice seeds emerged from her body, growing into strong crops and providing a sustainable source of food for the people.

Huminodun is also the reason behind the many beauty contests held during this month. These contests, called Unduk Ngadau (literally translated as the Heart of the Sun), seek young women who share the same characteristics Huminodun had in life: strength, courage, beauty and grace.

As one would expect, rice is used in many aspects of Kadazan cooking. Lovers of Asian food may likely have only encountered white rice in their gastronomic explorations. Kadazan cuisine offers a unique reddish-brown strain of the crop called mountain rice.

It is prepared with plenty of water, and is thus very glutinous and surprisingly very filling. This rice is eaten with meals and also cooked into various native cakes, a number of which are offered as desserts at the buffet: kuih, bubur pingat pisang (banana rice porridge) and bubur kacang merah (red bean porridge), in addition to an assortment of fruit, puddings and French pastries. The Kadazan also prepare a specialized form of wine from rice called tapai.

Tourists are advised to monitor their intake of this excellent yet extremely potent beverage.

Join Le Meridien’s Circle in celebrating this occasion. Kaamatan is a rich festival that has maintained tradition for generations, and has much to offer for those interested in expanding their experiences with Sabahan culture and food.

The buffet is available daily from 6:30pm to 10:30pm, and is priced at RM56++ for adults and RM28++ for children under 12. The Circle Kaamatan buffet runs to the end of the festival, at the end of this month. Call 088-8332238 for reservations.

Courtesy of New Sabah Times

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