Sunday, May 18, 2014

Miri boasts exotic native cuisine


VISIT MALAYSIA YEAR 2014 is a national multi-million ringgit campaign to woo foreign tourists from near and far to our exotic, culturally rich and beautiful shore.

Tourism is one of the nation’s best industries.With several thousand visitors expected in Miri and also onward to Mulu this year, perhaps it’s time to ponder on Sarawak native cuisine, particularly in Miri.

Magdalene Kong, a frequent west Malaysian visitor to Miri, is happy to note there are now more locally-operated eateries.

“I normally come to Miri to enjoy food like midin cooked with belacan, a good fish like tapah braised in soy sauce and brown beans, seafood and perhaps some authentic native dishes.

“I have eaten some fantastic food cooked in bamboo while visiting longhouses during my two Gawai trips. They were fabulous,” she said.

She thoroughly enjoyed her back-packing journeys into the interior where she ate organic ferns and rare fruits.

This satiated her thirst for knowledge “never before known to the outside world” – like unknown foods of the equatorial rainforest.

She is particularly excited about glutinous rice cooked in pitcher plants which she even packed to take home when she last in Sirikin.

Some travellers have blogged about their journeys in Sarawak and, indeed, exhorted the special delicacies of the jungle like rare mushrooms, fungi, honey and fish.

Questions have arisen even among Sarawakians who have not tasted fish like empurau, semah, tapah or birds like wild Sarawak chicken or pheasants.

And Sarawakian urbanites have also asked: “What are the indigenous staple dishes? Do the natives eat a lot of chillies? How are vegetables cooked in the interior? Can native dishes be found in hotels and restaurants?”

In Sarawak, we use the terms native, indigenous and ethnic rather loosely.

Native and indigenous would be closer in meaning. The two words refer to those originating from Sarawak.

Ethnic would mean sub-tribe or sub-group based on culture, language and other anthropological identities.

First, we need to identify some essential staple foods of Sarawak natives like the Ibans and Orang Ulus.

These would be maize, upland rice, pumpkins and yams planted interdependently. Maize is grown almost at the same time as padi while pumpkins around the tilled rice and maize fields. Yams are also grown on the peripherals of padi farms.

The natives fish in all the rivers and their tributaries. Semah, ikan keli, baong, empuarah, prawns, river turtles are what they can catch.

The jungles yield mushrooms, fruits, meat from deer, wild boars and even bears. Birds can be shot with blowpipes. Guns are not often used because cartridges are beyond the means of many indigenous people.

Originally, the natives were food foragers. Today, many exotic and even native wild fruits are still available. The more common ones are durians, dabai, langsat, rambai, engkili, buah ma, rambutans, isu, lutong, pinang, engkala, pedada, meram (asam paya), illipenut or engkabang and pulor.

Many natives still enjoy going into the jungle during the holidays or fruiting season to forage for these fruits which are all part of their diet. There are many more rare and exotic wild fruits like the angled tampoi or the equatorial figs. The list is really long.

When foraging for food –  both fruits and meat – in the forests since moving to Ulu Limbang in the 1920’s, the late Jiram Pengiran (who lived up to 93) would look for empidan (now listed as an endangered species) and a certain type of tree ants among other wild vegetables and fruits.

He used to say to his children and grandchildren: “Empidan is the best jungle chicken one can get. There were plenty in the 1930’s.”

He caught three or four a few years ago and encouraged his grandson Sebastian Kudi to breed the jungle fowl. It was a successful effort.

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