Head to Sarawak for a Gastronomical Experience.

By Izneil Nashriq
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Sarawak – With the pandemic shifting into endemic, Sarawak will finally open her border to visitors. And one of the best way to really understand a culture is by trying their delicacies. Sarawak state is known for its diversity from a wide range of ethnic groups. The uniqueness of Sarawak is reflected in their lifestyle, tradition, dialects, language, culture and cuisine.

Food represent cultural identities, especially for the native group in Sarawak with each ethnic having its own story of their delicacies. They differ in their styles of preparing, preserving, cooking and eating of food. For instance, the Iban is popular with “tubu” (stems), “tuak” (an alcoholic beverage made from rice wine) and “pansuh” (meat cooked with bamboo), the Melanau with “tebaloi” (sago palm crackers), “sagu” (extracted from sago’s palm) and “umai” (raw fish mixed with lime juice), Orang Ulu is well known with “garam barrio” (Highlands salt), “kikid” (broth), “tengayen” (local young leaves), and “urum giruq” (pudding) and as for the Malay “kek lapis Sarawak” (layered cake of Sarawak).

Gastronomic experience is one sought after by many people. Apart from doing strenuous holiday activities, visitors can enjoy great cuisine, surrounded by tranquil atmosphere and friendly people. Food tourism contributes to a massive impact on countries’ economies, because whether you are out and about for business or leisure, food will always be the main topic “Mana nak makan?”. So here, we list out some of the must try local gastronomic experience for the adventurous and to those seeking unique delicacies, and the preparation methods for each cuisine:

1. Ayam Pansuh

One of Sarawak’s most well-known delicacies and considered the food icon for the state. Ayam Pansuh is a dish made from chicken which is braised in bamboo over an open fire. In the older days, there is little luxury of having appropriate cooking utensil. Thus, the Iban ethnic group uses natural resources to use as cooking tools and food sources. Therefore, they have used bamboo as a pot for them to fill it with any raw meat item, vegetables and a little water to cook their meal. It is a straight forward cooking method with the enhancement of natural flavor from fresh ingredients, making the dish so fragrant and flavorful.

Ayam Pansuh, an Iban dish of chicken cooked in bamboo. (source: Sarawak Tourism Board)

There are only a few mandatory ingredients required to prepare: meat items, tapioca leaf and water. One of the main reasons this dish is unique mainly due to the unique flavor seeping from the bamboo and tapioca leaf. Usually served during Gawai Festivals, it is now widely available. The ingredients include any type of meat (chicken, pork, fish), tapioca leaf, bamboo, ginger, lemongrass, pepper and salt.

For the preparation, chicken is first chopped into small pieces and put it in the bamboo. Sliced Ginger along with rough pounded lemongrass is mixed in the bamboo together with the chicken to infuse the flavor. Water is poured until it covers the chicken surface and the end of the bamboo is covered with tapioca leaf. The tapioca leaf will act as the cover to ensure the steam produce during the cooking process are circulated within the bamboo. Then the bamboo is placed over an open fire and continuously rotated to avoid burning. Once it is cooked, the chicken mixture is poured into a bowl and season well.

2. Umai

Unique in Sarawak, especially in Mukah and Dalat, where many Melanau resides, umai has initially been a food of convenience for Melanau fishermen on fishing trips to the sea. Traditionally, umai is thinly sliced raw fish marinated with ‘assam paya’, sour fruit of a wild palm or lime juice, onions, chilies, and salt pinch. It was an ideal recipe for the fishermen as it would have been inconvenient and dangerous to cook anything in their boats.

Umai, thin sliced fish marinated in citrus. (source: Sarawak Tourism Board)

The method of preparation is similar to the Peruvian ceviche, where the seafood is marinated in citrus. Both umai and ceviche require no physical cooking, the citrus (in this case lime) does the “cooking” – the citric acid causes the protein in the seafood to become denatured, the same way as heat does. Watched as the fish turn from a translucent pinkish to white in a matter of minutes. Today, umai is on the menus of posh restaurants and is often the piece de resistance of dinners and lunches. The ingredients include fish flesh (sea-based fish), onion, red chili, shallot, lime juice/calamansi Juice, ginger, salt and sugar.

The fish, red chili, shallot and onion is sliced thinly and evenly. Then julienne the ginger. Squeeze the lime juice and dilute the salt and sugar. Once the mixture of the lime juice, salt and sugar has been diluted, the liquid mixture is poured into a bowl together with all the ingredients. Stir all together and marinate for approximately 15 minutes to 20 minutes.

3. Senamu’

The Lun Bawang were traditionally peasants who cultivated hill rice and wet paddy. They are well known for their organics. Their staple is rice cooked in banana leaves called Nuba Laya. With the abundant rice available, the Lun Bawang has a unique way of preserving their foods with their rice. In the old day’s wild game meat mostly, the wild board are preserved so that it can be to be consumed for a yearlong period. These meats are preserved due to unavailability of a refrigerator that can store the meats. In the older days, the meat is brined with organic spring salt and cooked rice and stored in hollowed bamboo stalk and buried in soil for a minimum of one month.

Fermented meat or Senamu’ (source: longsemadoh.wordpress.com)

To date, this method is not practiced among the newer generation of the Lun Bawang. Now the meats are kept in a container and placed in a darker area at a room temperature. The senamu’ is highly regarded as the finest cuisine from the Lun Bawang community as it is only served during important festivals and wedding ceremonies. The senamu’ is usually fried with sliced shallot, chopped garlic, slice chili and cooked to perfection. Ingredients include fresh game meat (wild boar meat commonly used), garlic, bird eye chili, spring salt, and Adan-cooked rice.

The meat is cut into bit sizes, marinated with salt and leave to room temperature to drain out the liquid from the meat for approximately two hours. Once the meat is done, cooked rice will be added to the meat and once again salt will be added to the senamu’, mixed thoroughly until the salt and rice are evenly mixed with the meat. The saltiness of the meat will depend on the individual. Once all this method is done, the senamu’ is to be stored in a glass container and kept under dark areas, which is not to be exposed to lights. This is to ensure that fermentation takes place. The senamu’ is ready to be consumed after a one-month process of fermentation.

4. Kompia

Well known among the local Chinese and other local community in Sarawak, kompia was originated from Qi Ji Guang’s soldiers during the anti-Japanese occupation war in China. To date, Kompia is consumed by all walks of life in Sarawak. Kompia is made by the Foo Chow community, which most of them resides in the Central region of Sarawak in Sibu. Due to the distinctive taste that made this food very popular among the locals, this humble pastry Kompia was voted as Sibu signature food and most popular pastry items in 2010 with the conjunction of Borneo Cultural Festival. The ingredients include all purposes flour, water, salt, yeast, baking soda and sesame seed.

Kompia (Foochow bagels) from Sibu. (source: reddit.com)

The flour, baking soda and salt is mixed and some water is added to make a dough. The dough is then cut into small pieces. Flour is sprinkled on the small pieces of dough so that dough does not stick together. Each small piece is rolled to make the round shape and poked in the middle to make a tiny hole. This dough can then be dust with sesame seed and baked using traditional oven using charcoal for 10 minutes until it is golden and ready to be consumed. It is best consumed with meat items such as char sio chicken or pork meat.

5. Suman Lemantak

Being the second-largest community in Sarawak after the Iban community, Melayu Sarawak has abundant traditional food available across Sarawak’s eating place. One of its unique delicacies is Suman Lemantak or prawn wrapped in mangrove palm leaves or Nipah leaves. The Malay community in Sarawak, commonly residing near the riverbank, makes seafood one of their essential source of protein. Suman Lemantak is widely found in the Malay community’s interior part, especially in Kabong, Pusa, Meludam and Saratok. The Suman Lemantak has become one of the sought-after cuisines because it is hardly available during a typical day. The Suman Lemantak only available and served during major festival and wedding ceremony. Ingredients include such as fresh river fish, cooked rice, sago flour and salt.

Different variety of Suman on display. (source: rindoksarawak.wordpress.com)

The river prawn is washed thoroughly, descaled and vein removed. Minced the prawn roughly and mixed with cooked rice and sago flour. The mixture is wrapped in a mangrove palm leaf and baked over open wood fire over low heat. It is ready to be served until there is no more water dripping from the Suman Lemantak.

In the past, ethnic food is consumed for survival purposes and traditional values. Whereas today, it is consumed for the appreciation of culture. Ethnic food could be considered as central to tourist experience and an important tourist attraction. The availability of fresh local ingredients and richness of flavor and sheer varieties combine, enables everyone who visit Sarawak would undoubtedly be amazed by the Sarawak ethnic foods.

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