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Sunday December 24, 2006

Forest feast


AT Bario, the deer will not be pulling Santa’s sleigh but will be on the dinner table! According to Maran Radu of Pa’ Lungan, the locals will hunt barking deer and wild boar in the surrounding forests.  

Sylvester Kalang will hunt for wild boar or barking deer for his Christmas dinner that may also include wild ginger flowers (below, left) and the ultimate delicacy, kelatang - cicada larvae (below, right).
It’s more difficult to get monkeys and pythons, adds Sylvester Kalang, who is going out hunting from Pa’ Ukat, “but monkeys are not tasty anyway!”  

The forest is like a huge vegetable warehouse. Some leaves, called tengayan and dure in Kelabit, are collected, as are fern and bamboo shoots.  

At lunch, I initially thought they served mushroom stems only to be told I was eating rattan shoots! They tasted slightly bitter and smooth. Superb. Flowers? Stir-fried purple ginger flowers (called ubud sala) are fair enough since we eat bunga kantan in tomyam, too.  

But how about thinly sliced stir-fried orchid stems? These, called ubud aram in Kelabit, are slightly bitter and supposedly good for blood pressure.  

And for the ultimate delicacy, try kelatang – the larvae of a cicada – extracted from the barigulad tree and barbecued on a stick. It tastes like ginger flowers!  

In short, there is a complete organic food larder from the forest. If logging comes to Bario, much of this will be lost and locals will have to fork out hard cash to buy meat and vegetables, which would probably be laden with growth hormones and pesticides.  

As for Ba Kelalan, Martha Tagal says there’s always catfish, tilapia and biawan from the rice fields. And a village might slaughter a buffalo, cow or pig for Christmas. We tried the buffalo at her father’s Apple Lodge. It turned out to be on the tough side.  

The Lunbawang also cook banana stems with wild boar and the famous bitterr – rice broth with vegetables such as cucumber or pumpkin leaves. At times, minced meat is thrown in.  

There’s also penupis, a steamed roll of pulut flour with salt or sugar, the Lunbawang version of lepat pisang minus the banana. And its deep-fried version is called benak. In Bario, they have beraubek – the Kelabit version of Cantonese ham chin peng.  

Above all, there is the famous highland rice of Bario and Ba Kelalan. With its soft texture, fine grains, pleasant mild aroma and exquisite taste, it is regarded as one of the world’s finest.  

The quintessential festival dish for both the Kelabit and Lunbawang is nubalaya, rice wrapped in paddle leaves (daun itip), so called because the leaves look like paddles.  

The rice is laboriously planted and harvested using traditional methods –without pesticides and chemical fertilisers (which are expensive to fly in anyway).  

Bario rice is planted elsewhere, in the lowlands of Miri for example, but only in the highlands does one get the “real taste.” A crucial ingredient up here is the surrounding forests – which provides pollinating insects and pristine water (the same reason why Scotch whisky is so good – because it’s made with water from unpolluted Scottish streams). 

Related Stories:
Noel joy in the mountains
Salvation and miracles
 

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