Song & Dance l
peoples of Sabah are blessed with an abundance of seafood, their rivers providing
freshwater fish and prawn, with deer, wild board and other game, plus innumerable
wild plants, herbs and luscious fruits there for the taking in the forest.
The traditional foods of Sabah’s more than thirty ethnic groups vary, and
depend on available resources. Naturally, the diet of coastal peoples was-
and still is- dominated by all types of seafood, while those living far inland
relied on freshwater fish and wild game. Although both hill rice and padi
( rice planted in irrigated fields ) have been grown in Sabah for generations,
this is not always the staple food, and in the far north, corn and cassava
( tapioca ) are often eaten. In many swampy areas, the wild sago palm
flourishes. Just how long ago man discovered that it was possible to extract
starch from the grated interior of the sago tree is unknown, but the pre-
western name for all of Borneo, Kalimantan, comes from the word ‘lamanta’,
meaning sago starch. The Bisaya people of the klias Peninsula, near Brunei,
still make a gluey ‘porridge’ with sago starch, ‘ambuyat’, using a pair of
chopsticks cut from the rib of the palm to twirl it up into a sticky mass
for dunking in a tasty sauce.
The Muruts or ‘Hill People’ living in Sabah’s interior make a substance similar
to ambuyat, grating and washing the starch out of tapioca roots rather than
the sago palm. Both boiled tapioca and sago starch are enjoyed on occasion
by various Kadazan Dusun peoples, although rice- particularly hill rice grown
on the slopes of the Crocker Range- remains the number one favourite.
In the days before refrigeration and packaged foodstuffs, the peoples of the
interior developed ways of preserving game, fish and various wild roots and
leaves. Cleverly utilizing the preservative ability of a number of fruits
and seeds, together with salt, the Kadazan Dusun and the Muruts created many
types of pickles and preserves.
The Muruts are famous for their jaruk, made by packing chunks of uncooked
wild boar or river fish into a wide bamboo tube together with salt and cooked
rice. The bamboo is stoppered with leaves and the contents left to ferment
for several weeks or even months, finally being eaten in small portions with
rice or tapioca starch.
are a number of ‘fresh’ pickles where lime juice is the curing agent, and
which can be eaten immediately or stored for a few days. Most famous of these
is the Kadazan Dusun hinava tongii or pickled Spanish mackerel (ikan tenggiri).
This is an absolutely delicious combination of spanking fresh fish, red chillies,
shredded ginger and sliced shallots, the whole lot drenched with lime juice
which 'cooks’ the fish. The secret ingredient of this dish is the grated seed
of a variety of mango found only in Sabah, The bambangan.
An unusual hinava is made from a ginger- like plant known as tuhau. The pounded
lower stem of the tuhau is mixed with limejuice, onions and chillies, with
the optional additional of dried shrimp paste to make a wonderfully fragrant,
slightly astringent pickle redolent of the jungle.
flavour is found in the bambangan, type of wild mango with brown skin and
a somewhat pungent smell. This is not eaten fresh as a fruit, but made into
a pickle or cooked with fish for a distinctive flavour. Such is the
love of Kadazan Dusun peoples for a sour tang to their food that a number
of fruits are used to provide this accent. Apart from limes and the
pungent sour bambangan, the small carambola or belimbing assam, unripe mangoes,
and the skin of a small wild red fruit which dries to a brown colour (takob-bakob)
are flavored for an acidic touch to dishes.
Cooks from inland Sabah also add flavour to various
simmered foods with dried shrimp paste, dried prawn, tiny dried fish (ikan
bilis), ginger, chillies, fresh turmeric root and its fragrant leaves, and
fresh galingale or lengkuas root. In the days before cultivated vegetables
were widely available in local markets, and even today in more remote regions,
Sabahans made used of an enormous number of wild plants, including the tips
of wild ferns. The tender interior of various types of palm, as well as tubers
such as cassava (tapioca), yams and sweet potato are all eaten.
of the most popular leafy vegetables is sayur manis, which grows wild in many
parts of Southeast Asia. It was in the Sabah town of Lahad Datu that a vegetable
grower accidentally discovered a way to make the sayur manis grow so that
the stems were deliciously crunchy rather than inedibly woody, and the leaves
meltingly tender. As a result, the refined version of this vegetable is known
in Sabah as Lahad Datu sayur manis.
A huge vegetable- growing area on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu produces a
wide range of superb temperate climate vegetables, including asparagus and
sweet green pea pods. The fresh brown mushroom, usually known by its Japanese
name, shiitake, is also grown in Sabah, along with oyster and abalone mushrooms.
All of Sabah’s non- Muslim groups make various types of rice wine from steamed
glutinous rice and dried yeast. Perhaps the most delicious of all is lihing,
a golden brew is believed to be particularly good as pick-me-up for mothers
after childbirth, although you don’t need this type of excuse to enjoy the
Kadazan favourite, chicken soup with rice wine and fresh ginger.
The arrival of Muslim groups from what is now the southern Philippines over
the past couple of centuries has influenced the food found along Sabah’s coast.
As one might expect, the food of these peoples is dominated by the enormous
variety of seafood available. All kinds of fish, including sharks and stingray,
squid, prawn, lobster, crabs, oysters and many other edible shells found in
the estuaries make the question of what to cook today easily answered.
The food of Sabah’s coastal Muslim is similar to Malay cuisine, and although
dry spices are rarely used, chillies, and plenty of fragrant roots and leaves
more than make up for their absence. Food is often wrapped in banana leaf
after a liberal coating of pounded ingredients and a soak in sour tamarind
liquid- and barbecued over a fire.
Cooks on Sabah’s east coast often find an edible seaweed,
which resembles bunches of minute green grapes, in their markets, although
it is rare on the west coast. This seaweed is eaten raw, combined with shredded
ginger, chopped tomato and a dash of limejuice or coconut vinegar for a gourmet
All the favourite tropical fruits are found in Sabah, which also has a number
of specials found nowhere else. There are at least 14 varieties of local mango,
including the popular bambangan. Another unique wild fruit is the tarap, about
the sized of breadfruit (sukun) with a brownish-green skin. This breaks open
to reveal clusters of sweet flesh clinging to shiny black seeds. The flavour
is vaguely reminiscent of ripe jackfruit, but somewhat more astringent.
The ‘king of fruits’, the durian, flourishes in Sabah, which has 15 wild varieties.
One unique variety has red flesh, and lacks the distinctive fragrance of the
durian. This red durian is – sacrilege to durian lovers elsewhere- fried with
onions and chilli and served as a side dish or sambal.
Another fruit found in Sabah is the yellow-skinned passion fruit, packed full
of tiny black seeds swimming in a very fragrant, slightly sharp juice. Known
in Sabah by its Indonesian name, markisa, this fruit is usually made into
juice sold in bottles or packets.
Most traditional Sabahan food is today available in private homes or at festival,
although visitors may be lucky to find certain dishes at market stalls or
small stalls within a coffee shop or simple restaurant. Hotel buffets often
serve the popular Kadazan raw fish or hinava. Sabah has such an exciting variety
of both people and produce that the food lover can be sure of delicious new
experience, just one of the many charms of this “Land Below the wind”.
Source: Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation