In Malaysian Borneo, local cuisine and eating habits are enjoying a renaissance

KUCHING, Malaysia — The lush jungles of Borneo have always been an exciting pantry for those who can figure out what to eat and how to prepare it. Indigenous peoples used to rely entirely on these jungles, one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, for their livelihoods. But as modernization spreads across the island over the past two centuries, tribal elders worry that many of their native cooking methods will disappear.

Now, to their relief, a revival of Borneo’s traditional food culture is underway.

In the face of the climate crisis and global supply chain disruptions, people around the world have been looking for more sustainable and local food sources, driving a resurgence in indigenous eating habits. Few other places have seen a renaissance as dramatic as that of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the northwest coast of Borneo, where about 40% of the state’s 2.5 million people have an Aboriginal heritage.

Malaysian chefs who dine at fine restaurants abroad are returning to Sarawak to set up shop, venturing into the forests in search of rare jungle produce such as the flowers of wild durian trees, which sometimes bloom in less than a week. Families inheriting the fading practice of harvesting sugar from mangrove palm trees have found new champions among environmental advocates.

An hour outside the state capital Kuching, a petite woman from the Kelabit, a hill tribe in Sarawak, hosts guests—chefs, researchers, amateurs—who are eager to learn what she knows about cooking with plants and insects found only in Tropical rainforest in Borneo.

The aromatic stems of wild ginger, called tepus; baskets of juicy sago worms, Known as ulat mulong; Mina Trang-Witte, 65, says the swirling bunches of jungle ferns (or midings) found in Kuching’s wet markets barely scratch the surface. Many of the plants she picked have no English translations; some have no names at all.

“I’m just a simple country cook,” she says, smiling coyly in her breezy house atop a forested hill. “Now, all of a sudden, everyone wants to see me.”

Now, that trend is turning: In the countries of the Amazon rainforest, indigenous chefs are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.Last year, four restaurants Lima, Peru, Among the world’s 50 best restaurants – credit, The chefs said, Give them local suppliers on Amazon.

In Sarawak, indigenous food culture got its biggest boost in 2021, with United Nations cultural protection agency UNESCO naming Kuching one of dozens of “Cities of Gastronomy” citing its combination of biodiversity and indigenous heritage . Since then, traditional food festivals and events have sprung up in the city. A new food center is under construction. Late last year, Antoni Porowski, the food and wine expert from TV’s “The Rescuers,” came to film part of a new National Geographic documentary series, “No Smell of Home.”

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The popularity of dishes such as asam siok (chicken marinated on a bamboo pole) and nuba laya – pureed rice from the barrio plateau that is steamed in a steamer – is growing in popularity Kuching-based writer Karen Shepherd, a UNESCO designated person of interest, said this marked a marked change from a decade ago, when the stories of Sarawak’s indigenous culture were mostly lost. “We are now not only in a renaissance phase, but also in a massive experimentation phase,” she said. “Really feel the uniqueness of existence [Indigenous] in a global context. “

More young Sarawakians – some with indigenous heritage, some without – are learning indigenous methods of foraging, smoking and fermentation. Many are also offering their own interpretations of the practices and looking for ways to commercialize them, sparking new and sometimes tense debates about the future of indigenous cultures.

In conversations with The Washington Post, more than a dozen chefs, winemakers, restaurateurs and tribal elders said they believed Sarawakians wanted not to restore the indigenous way of life but to incorporate aspects of it into contemporary solutions Challenges such as lack of investment in East Malaysia and the climate crisis where Sarawak is located.

In 2021, four Sarawakian millennials of different ethnic backgrounds who were stuck at home during the pandemic met on Zoom to talk about how much they love the food of their homeland. They started the Sarawak Food Incubator Program and last year organized the first tuak festival, an indigenous rice wine traditionally brewed by women at home for friends and family.

Organizers say the enthusiasm for the three-day festival that has gathered in a matter of weeks has exceeded expectations. Thousands of attendees tasted and purchased tuk made by elderly matriarchs in wooden longhouses in remote villages, many of whom had never sold tuk commercially before.

One of the longest lines is at the stall of 70-year-old Annie Tapak, who has been making tuak (called pangasi by her Bisaya tribe). —For thirty years she spent long afternoons alone, placing a large bucket under the clothesline. Relatives recalled that when she won two of the festival’s top awards for her clear, sophisticated beer, her face lit up bright red and then froze before being led onstage.

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Tribal elder Peter Sawal said that the brewing culture of the Bisaya tribe almost disappeared in the 1980s due to the influence of Christian and Islamic prohibitions on alcohol. no longer. “The pride is back,” Saval, 66, said.

Sarawak Culinary Heritage and Arts Association president Dona Drury Wee said while the pandemic lockdown has brought many businesses to a standstill, they have been “a blessing” as they have forcefully attracted young Sarawakians Return home where they have more opportunities to explore their heritage. “Everyone suddenly wants to have some form of deeper connection with their identity as a Sarawakian,” said Ehon Chan, 38, managing director of Food Incubator.

A young Bidayuh woman, fresh out of college, started a Duke business with her grandmother. Frustrated by a lack of research funding, a biotechnology professor began learning how to brew tuak through YouTube videos.

More home breweries are popping up and plans are underway for a larger tuak festival in 2024. But the bigger test, Chen said, is how long the momentum can be sustained. Unless Duak Brewery and other businesses built around local cuisine can appeal to a mainstream audience, they risk being viewed as a “fad,” Chen said.

In 2017, John Lim from Kuala Lumpur, the capital, married a Sarawakian and opened a restaurant in Kuching, serving high-end European cuisine and using 80% locally collected ingredients and local cooking methods. Although the restaurant, called Roots by Food Journal, has been praised for its creativity, it is a “break-even restaurant,” said Lin, 36.

Even now, items like brioches made with buttery nuts from the local engkabang struggle to raise prices. Tree or oysters, topped with a reduction made from jungle star fruit. Lin admits that this is unconventional and not what people are used to when looking for European or native food.

However, he said he has no intention of changing his approach.

On a recent afternoon, Lin walked into his walk-in refrigerator and sniffed one of his favorite ingredients—pickled wild garlic, or buah kulim, which has an oaky aroma similar to truffles. He says he forages in the jungle every few weeks and thinks more chefs should come and smell and taste Borneo’s delicacies for themselves.

“There’s too much stuff here,” Lin added, “for just a few of us.”

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By Ali Raza

I am a dedicated and skilled News Content Writer with a passion for delivering accurate and engaging stories to a diverse audience. With a solid background in journalism and a keen eye for detail, I bring a commitment to excellence and a deep understanding of the evolving media landscape.

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