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Sabah Travel Guide - Cultures of Sabah

Intro l Handicraft l Musical Instruments l Song & Dance l Traditional Cuisine l Costumes  l Keamatan Festivals

Traditional Cuisine

The 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.


TuhauThere 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.

Another unique 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.


Sayur ManisOne 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.

Karuk 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 treat.

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.

Durian 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

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