Borneo’s Forest Food

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Borneo’s Forest Food

Article and Location Photos by Victor Paul Borg





Steamed Red Snapper with Spices
Deep Fried Fish in Pineapple and Tomato Sauce
Bamboo Shoots in Spices,
Wild Mushrooms in Spices and Dried Anchovie
Barking Deer in Curry Masala





They need half an hour to gather the food in the forest for our dinner,” said Riddi, my guide, to impress upon me the necessity of arriving before dark at the longhouse where we would spend the night. “They don’t know we’re coming, and there is no way to inform them in advance.”

Part of the exterior of the Padallih Longhouse, with the
solar panels that provide electricity in the foreground.

Half an hour? That’s less time than going to the supermarket in the West, and on arrival at the longhouse in Longdano, I was full of dread at the prospect of dinner — the bland weeds that I imagined would be picked in the forest. So I followed my hosts, husband and wife, as they gathered the food. The man waded into the river with a hand-held net to catch a fish, and the wife hurried into the forest, with me in tow. Within fifteen minutes she had ripped a bundle of ferns, the root and flower of wild ginger, and plucked some wild mushrooms.Back at the longhouse we found her husband gutting a fish the size of a large red snapper, near the fire he had started. The meal, sometime later, constituted a true achievement, given the effort: steamed fish, sauteed mushrooms, sauteed ferns, freshly-made chile sauce, accompanied by steamed rice, and pineapple — the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted — for dessert.

The beautiful mushrooms that grow on rotting wood

The meal was the denouement of my first day of a four-day trek in the Kelabit Highlands, the mountainous interior of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo. The region, about the size of Crete, was inhabited by the Kelabits, a separate race of longhouse people numbering 2,000. Two-thirds of them lived in the main trailhead village of Bario — it had one dirt road, two longhouses, some individual houses, three guesthouses, a few grocery and tool shops, a health clinic, and an airstrip — and the rest were scattered in the longhouses in the jungle. I was doing the classic trek, called the Bario Loop, passing through Longdano, Padallih, Murudi, then doubling back to Bario.

Rustic bridge over a stream in the village of Padalih

That first day eventually proved to be the hardest and longest, an eight-hour slog through the forest — this being the wet season, the path was muddy, and infested with leeches and deadly cobras. Our first briefing that morning had been on the avoidance of cobras: Riddi, a forty-year-old father who lived in one of the longhouses in Bario and had been making some money guiding Western trekkers (about a hundred visited every year), told me that the cobras only attacked if you stepped on them or if they were laying eggs and they felt threatened.

But I soon forgot about the cobras, enchanted by the fantastic jungle around me, the best I had seen in Asia. Near Bario, theKelangawas full of pitcher plants, whose tubular containers lure insects searching for shelter onto a soupy glue of enzymes that quickly dissolves them. TheKelangais a type of marshy forest formed when silt or sand from the mountains settles in the valley over a non-porous bed of clay; plant life roots in the peat that builds up on the surface. It is moody and eerie, a haze of dark-greens, the trees tufty, the ferns tangled, the moss thick and spongy. Then, in the hush, sudden movement: moorhens, thrushes, green imperial pigeons, pheasant-tailed jacana, all colourful birds squealing out of the underbrush as we approached. Further on, in the closed forest, I had spotted eagles circling overhead, macaw monkeys muttering in the trees, and a cobra coiled on the path, slithering away as we approached. Furthermore, Riddi alerted me to the calls of hornbills (calling loud or assertively, or yelping morosely — these birds are thought to be messengers from the spirit world), woodcocks (rambling sombre chattering), and pheasants (short staccato hoots).

A Borneo Boar

Many of these species, except the venerable hornbills, were all game for the cooking pot. Common foodstuffs included two species of fish caught in the rivers, barking deer and reindeer, wild boar, macaw monkeys, cobras and pythons, pheasants, woodcocks, doves — and water buffalo, on special occasions such as births and marriages. Vegetables included various species of ferns, various species of mushrooms, bamboo shoots, lansas, jackfruits, palm hearts (the local delicacy), and the flower and stalk and root of the wild ginger, which was used ubiquitously to spice up meals. These were complimented by cultivated vegetables such as rice, tobacco (for smoking), pineapple, garlic, onion, tomato, red chile, lemon, and cabbage; additionally, chicken were reared for meat. During my visit, ducks had just been introduced into the rice fields, so that they would eat the slugs and snails, and then the ducks themselves could in turn be eaten. Some things were bought in Bario’s diminutive grocer — such as flour, cooking oil, salt, curry masalas, and sometimes more exotic things such as coconut milk — and hauled in rattan bags to the longhouses.

“Pythons are very good. We cut them in round crosswise steaks and fry them,” Riddi said. “They are rare, but they completely ignore humans, so you can approach to within a few metres to shoot them. The thing is, if you miss the shot, or just wound the snake, then you’re dead: it would jump at you, coil itself around you, and strangle you within minutes.”

The favoured and commonest meat belonged to the barking deer, which typically yielded 20kg of tasty meat, enough to feed a whole longhouse. The men hunted barking deer at night with the aid of powerful torches, locating the barking deer by the thrashing or rustle in the underbrush, then slowly approaching within shooting range, shining the torch towards the deer to blind it, and shooting it. Their meat is tender and lean, either cooked in a curry sauce, or sauteed in chile, ginger and garlic.

What struck me, all throughout, is the diversity of the Kelabits’ cuisine, much richer than other remote tribal parts of Asia I had visited. The answer lay partly in the richness of the forest, and partly in the Kelabits’ cultural achievements. There was little economic activity — some trading in forest delicacies, some income from the trekkers, some bribes from the logging companies who had encroached almost as far as Murudi — but government subsidies filled the gap. A few years before my visit, the government had given solar panels to all the households, enough power for electric lights; some households had TV and stereo. The government also subsidised the flights on a twin-otter plane, which made a round trip every day, linking Bario to Miri, the nearest large town an hour’s flight away. This gave the youngsters the opportunity for schooling in Miri, and most of them never came back; in the ten years since the flights were launched, the population had dropped by a third at least.

Yet, despite the TV — the old men liked to watch American wrestling — much of the Kelabits’ cultural traditions remains intact. It is a culture that gave rise to the way of life in the longhouses, based on the ethos of egalitarian harmony. Each longhouse functions as a self-generating and self-sufficient community, a complete village. There is no concept of private ownership.Even now, with the arrival of the trekkers, an egalitarian system had been devised. A price to be charged had been fixed — 30RM (US$8) daily for accommodation, three meals, unlimited tea and coffee — and, moreover, every day guests had to rotate among households in the longhouse, so that each household benefited equally from tourist money.

It was this social system that had given rise to the legendary hospitality of the longhouse peoples. The hospitality was immediately evident: on arrival at the longhouse, many people approached to welcome me and shake my hand, and the rest of my time would was spent in the company of my hosts. It was an arrangement that made me feel more like a distant relative or friend than a paying guest.

Borneo’s Forest Food Recipes

To make them usable in the West, the recipes below lack the Kelabits’ most ubiquitous and important spice: wild ginger, particularly the flower, which is used widely. It has a tangy, salty taste, its tang deep and textured and dominant on the palate.So strong is the flower of wild ginger that it can lift, for example, a simple dish of sauteed ferns into something explosive. The dish with the bamboo shoots is normally spiced with wild ginger flower — below, I have used dried salted anchovies as a substitute. Dishes in the Kelabits are simple, but then a few dishes often comprise a meal. The steamed red snapper, for example, is often served alongside ferns sauteed with garlic, chile, and wild ginger flower, and fresh mushrooms are also sauteed with wild ginger flower. Steamed rice is served as a base dish, and chopped pineapple as a separate dish for garnish, or for use as one desires, to mix into the rice.

At lunch in a family house, the rice served in
banana leaves in the traditional way


Steamed Red Snapper with Spices

Red snapper is the closest, in size and texture, to the fish that is caught in the rivers in the Kelabit Highlands.Also, because of its delicate, flaky meat, red snapper cooks well by steaming. The Kelabits eat this dish alongside other dishes with plain steamed rice, and serve the chile sauce separately for people to use as desired: normally, you mix some of the chile sauce with the rice in the plate.

  • 1 large red snapper
  • Salt
  • 3 red chiles, seeds and stems removed, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, cut in strands
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise
  • Salt to taste.
  • Four cloves garlic, roughly chopped, to deep fry for garnish
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Chile sauce, to serve (see instructions below)

Gut the fish and scrape off any scales. Then make four diagonal slashes on both sides of its belly, and in the slashes rub in salt, and then put the red chiles, ginger, and garlic in the slashes.

Steam the fish on low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until just cooked (although cooking time will depend on the contraption used for steaming; be aware that it is very easy to overcook the red snapper).

Deep fry the chopped garlic in hot oil — but not smoking — for a minute, until brown. This is used in the end to sprinkle on the fish.

To make enough chile sauce for about four people, in a pestle and mortar pound or crush 10 red chiles, 4 cloves garlic, then squeeze in about 2 lemons, and mix. You can add a drizzle of water if you want the chile sauce to be less intense, and even a drizzle of Thai fish sauce.

Yield: 2 servings

Heat Scale: Medium but varies with chiles used


Deep Fried Fish in Pineapple and Tomato Sauce

The best fish to deep-fry are small, and it can be any kind of delicate, flaky, white flesh fish can fry well. Time is approximately 10 minutes, but it could be more or less.

  • 2 small whole fish, cleaned and scaled
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 red chiles, chopped
  • 2 small tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 small can pineapple chunks or rings (if rings, chop into chunks)
  • Salt to taste

Make diagonal slashes on the fish, rub salt into the slashes, and deep-fry the fish.

In a separate frying pan, heat the oil until hot, then fry the ginger, garlic, and chile for one or two minutes on medium heat. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, and the liquid in the can of pineapple, then lower heat, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until the sauce is thick and creamy. Then add the chopped pineapple, and heat through. Serve the sauce over the deep-fried fish, and serve with steamed rice.

Yield: 2 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Bamboo Shoots in Spices, Mushrooms, and Dried Anchovies

In the Kelabits, the main spice is wild ginger flower; in the recipe here, the dried-salted anchovies replace the salty and tangy ginger flower.

  • 1 tablespoonvegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
  • 2 red chiles, finely chopped
  • 1 small can bamboo shoots (or the fresh equivalent)
  • 1 cup of dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked overnight before use, then sliced
  • 1/2 cup dried-salted Asian-style anchovies
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon Oyster sauce
  • Salt to taste


In a wok or frying-pan, heat the oil, then put in the ginger and chiles, and after 30 seconds, add the bamboo shoots, Chinese mushrooms, and anchovies, and fry, stirring, on a medium-high flame for about 2 or 3 minutes. Then add the water and oyster sauce and continue cooking for another minute.

Yield: 3 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

Wild Mushrooms in Spices and Dried Anchovies


In this recipe, the dried-salted anchovies replace the wild ginger flower.


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
  • 2 red chiles, seeds and stems removed, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ cup wild mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dried-salted Asian-style anchovies
  • Salt to taste


In a wok or frying-pan, heat the oil, add the ginger, chiles and garlic and stir on a medium-high flame for 30 seconds.Add the rest of the ingredients, lower the flame to simmering, cover, and cook for 4 minutes (this process will allow some water from the mushrooms to form in the dish).

Yield: 3 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

Barking Deer in Curry Masala

If you can’t find barking deer, lean beef could be a substitute.

  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound barking deer, chopped into 1-inch squares
  • 3 red chiles, seeds and stems removed, finely chopped
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Bengali or Malaysian style meat masala
  • Salt to taste

In a wok or frying-pan, add the oil on a medium flame, and, when hot, put in the meat and chiles, and fry for a few minutes. Then add the water, and the meat masala, lower flame, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

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