Monday, July 07, 2014

Food hunting across Sabah

My eating adventure across the “neck” of Sabah (imagine the map of the state as a wolf’s head) involves an epic land journey from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau. It starts at KK with the famous Tuaran mee, one of Sabah’s “representative dishes”, and a 4am breakfast of nasi lemak. And now, it’s time to head deep into the interior of Sabah.

We – a mixed bunch of tour guides and travel writers – head south of KK along the coast, past the small towns of Papar and Kimanis, before swinging inland to cross the Crocker mountain range. Up here, the weather is similar to Cameron Highlands. But instead of a bustling highland resort, there is a modest national park headquarters with a handful of chalets. After a quick look at the small collection of mountain ferns (in a garden), we descend back to the lowlands.

Bittergourd Bath

Being insatiable gluttons, we stop for our second breakfast of the day at the town of Keningau, which is famous as the home base of the Kadazandusun’s “paramount leader” Joseph Pairin Kitingan. The Fook Loi coffee shop is probably one of the busiest in town, and we sink our teeth into some bak chang or dense glutinous rice dumplings with a rich filling of pork, mushrooms, beans and chestnuts, as well as packets of nasi lemak.

Those who feel that glutinous rice is too heavy for a morning meal can also try the excellent hum chin paeng. This version of the famous deep-fried Chinese pastry is light and fluffy, its aroma of freshly-fried dough/oil is complemented with spiralling strands of sweet tausar bean paste that make it look a bit like a cinnamon roll.

Speaking of the spice, Keningau was once famous for its cinnamon trees, known in the local language as “kendingau”. In the 1970s and 80s, it became something of a timber boom town until the supply of logs was exhausted, and the economy is now mainly based on agriculture.

A walk through the market reveals lots of fresh vegetables and also a curious remedy for a detox bath – bunches of dried bittergourd leaves. “Boil these in a pot and then pour it into a tub of water. It will clear your skin of any problems,” the lady selling them tells me.

Hunters’ Heritage

We pressed on further into the interior towards the town of Nabawan, moving from the Kadazandusun heartland into Murut country. “Be careful of the headhunters,” jokes Pat Lingham, our guide from Equator Adventure.

In centuries past, a man could only get married if he had proven his bravery and virility by chopping off an enemy’s head and presenting it (after being suitably preserved, by being smoked, that is) to the family of the desired girl. Indeed, the Murut were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce head-hunting, after many of them converted to Christianity.

Traditionally, they lived by shifting cultivation of hill paddy and tapioca, with blowpipe hunting and fishing to supplement their diet. They lived in communal long-houses, usually near rivers which served as their highways. Traditional dress for men was a jacket made of tree bark and head gear decorated with Argus pheasant feathers.

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