What’s Cooking in…Sarawak, Malaysia

By Sandra Scott
This item appears on page 58 of the September 2011 issue.

by Sandra Scott

A Melanau tall house at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. For me, the image of Borneo was one of wild jungles with unique wildlife and people still living in a very primitive manner.

When my husband, John, and I visited in January 2011, I found Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, to be a lovely, modern city. Outside the city it is possible to observe orangutans in the wild, but most of them are rescued ones that stay close to the reserve even though they aren’t caged.

Less than an hour from Kuching is Sarawak Cultural Village (Pantai Damai, Santubong, Box 2632, 93752 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia; phone [6082] 846 411), a “living history” destination with houses of some of the country’s 27 ethnic groups.

One of the houses we visited was a Melanau tall house, which is entered via a log notched with steps — easy to pull up in order to prevent unwanted people from entering. However, it didn’t keep the macaques away, as they were cavorting in the rainforest next to the house and on the tall poles supporting it.

Making raw fish salad.

The large house was home to several related families. Inside, one lady was deep-frying thin slices of manioc root, making Melanau-style “potato” chips.

The Melanau were among the earliest settlers of Sarawak, calling themselves a-likou, meaning “people of the river.” The Melanau lived mainly along the rivers in the central-coast area, where they built stilted houses 30 to 40 feet above the ground. Unlike other people in Borneo, they ate sago (a starch from the stem of the sago palm) instead of rice.

At the village’s folkloric show, during the Melanau dance one of the men was twirled atop a long bamboo pool. The performance had evolved as a diversion while using the long poles to build their houses.

Just a short walk from the cultural village is Damai Beach Resort (Teluk Bandung Santubong, Box 2870, 93756 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia; phone [6082] 846 999), where we stayed. Cooking classes are offered once a week as part of the resort’s cultural presentations. Ours was held on Thursday.

At the beginning of the cooking demonstration John and I attended, Chef Sumardi greeted us in local fashion with his hand over his heart, indicating that his greeting was heart felt. One of the several recipes demonstrated was Melanau-style raw fish salad (which I found yummy — and I’m not usually a lover of fish dishes).

Umai Ikan (raw fish salad)

½ inch ginger

1 stalk of lemon grass

salt to taste

roasted sago pellets (also known as sabudana in ethnic food shops) for garnish (optional)

½ lb fish, preferably red snapper fillet (cubed)

½ cup lime juice or calamansi juice

4 bird’s-eye chilies (tiny green chilies)

1 turmeric leaf (optional)

2 shallots

2 cloves garlic

Marinate fish in lime juice for at least 10 minutes. Put aside. Finely dice three bird’s-eye chilies and partially cut and splay the remaining one to look like a flower. Thinly slice the turmeric leaf, shallots, garlic, ginger and lemon grass. Remove fish from the lime juice, place it in a serving bowl and toss with the rest of the prepared ingredients. Garnish with the flower-shaped chili and sago pellets.