Sarawak’s forests and rivers largely influence the lives of the indigenous people, who have a history of being very reliant upon the forest for food and medicines, as well as much of their building materials. Their forebears lived in or at the forest fringe, usually along rivers, fishing, hunting and foraging for food.
Forest ferns have a special place in the diet of the people, with the two most popular ferns used as vegetables being midin and the fiddlehead fern (pucuk paku). Midin grows wild in the secondary forests and is peculiar to the state. It has curly fronds and is very crunchy even after it has been cooked. Rural dwellers have always considered the fern a tasty, nutritious vegetable and the jungle fern’s rise from rural staple to urban gourmet green occurred in the 1980s with the increased urban migration of the Iban, Orang Ulu and other groups.
Today, the fern is widely available in markets and a fist-sized bundle costs less than RM2. It is enjoyed by all and many eateries have the fern on their menu, often stir-fried with sambal belacan. Unfortunately, the fern does not travel well as it only stays fresh up to two days after harvesting so Sarawak is largely the only place to try midin dishes. Only the tender tips of the ferns are used in cooking, usually in a quick stir-fry, or simply blanched and eaten with sambal as an ulam.
Aromatic leaves from trees, such as the Bungkang, are also used in cooking to flavour food.
Many of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples still live by the river and forest fringe, and cook over open fires using implements fashioned from Nature. Commonly found in the forests, the hardy bamboo is an essential cooking utensil. Rice, meat, fish and vegetables are stuffed into bamboo logs and stand in wood fires to cook, the bamboo infusing the food with a fresh aroma.
One of the best known Iban dishes is pansoh manok (ayam pansuh), which features chicken and lemongrass cooked in a bamboo log over an open fire. This natural way of cooking seals in the flavours and produces astonishingly tender chicken with a gravy perfumed with lemongrass and bamboo.
Sago is the staple food of the Melanau and the nomadic Penan. Sago palms are pounded to extract the starch which is transformed into granules or ''pearls''. The sago pearls are converted to flour which the Melanau use to make sago cakes, biscuits and other snacks.
The Melanaus, who are skilled fishermen, are also credited with creating umai, one of Sarawak’s best-loved dishes. The salad of raw fish, lime juice, shallots and chillies was created by Melanau fishermen who wanted to enjoy a meal at sea.
A visit to the longhouse will usually see guests welcomed with a glass of tuak, a home-brewed rice wine. The brew has a sweet fragrance and is highly alcoholic – a small glass is enough to send the unaccustomed to euphoric heights. Tuak is now sold in supermarkets, in fancy bottles for less than RM10.
The numerous riverine areas of Sarawak provide the state’s inhabitants with abundant fresh water fish, with the Tilapia being the most widely cultivated. Salted ikan terubok is sold in markets and is a Sarawakian favourite, especially among the Malay community.
At the markets, there are many curious discoveries to be made. For the adventurous gourmet, there are sago grubs, bamboo clams and temilok (marine worms) to try.
If midin has become too common for you, try the bright yellow, round eggplants and turmeric flowers (used in ulam or kerabu) and you can also add hill rice, live catfish and fresh bamboo shoots to your shopping basket.
If you are keen on local cakes, the weekend Satok market in Kuching is the place to head to as there is a wide array of cakes such as the rich, colourful Sarawak layer cakes and kuih celolot, made of rice flour, coconut milk and gula apung (local palm sugar).
Mainstream Sarawak cuisine is very similar to the cuisine in Peninsular Malaysia but it has its regional nuances and specialties. Overall, Sarawak food is not spicy and not many dishes will scorch your tongue.