Eating in Borneo is never boring. Located right near Southeast Asia's historical trade, immigration and colonisation routes, the island's cuisines include Malay food, dishes from various provinces of southern China and even food from southern India, as well as delicious indigenous (Dayak) fare based on ingredients that grow wild in the rainforest. KK, Kuching and BSB have the most diverse dining scenes in Borneo.
Borneo's indigenous peoples are remarkably diverse, expressing themselves with a rich variety of languages, traditions and artistic forms. But when it comes to cooking, they all turn to pretty much the same uniquely Bornean selection of leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, vines, ferns, fish and meats that the rainforest shares with all who know its edible secrets.
Each indigenous tribe has its own ideas about the best way to combine, season and prepare the natural bounty of the forest. Some dishes are tangy, others bitter or surprisingly spicy, and yet others characterised by peaty, jungly flavours unknown in other Asian culinary traditions. Many dishes are cooked and/or served in leaves (such as daun isip, used by the Kelabits) that add delicate flavours in addition to serving as ecofriendly packaging and plates. Parcels of glutinous rice wrapped in a leaf – sometimes with meat, too – is a typical 'packed lunch' to bring with you when hiking from longhouse to longhouse in the highlands.
Some ingredients, such as ferns, are so perishable they have to be eaten within a day of being picked, so exporting them – even to Peninsular Malaysia – is virtually impossible. As a result the only way to experience the mouthwatering, eye-opening and tongue-tickling world of Dayak cuisine is to come to Borneo.
But even on the island, sampling Dayak cuisine – naturally organic and MSG-free – is rarely as easy as walking up to a hawker centre (though there's a bona fide indigenous food stall at KK's A-Square Night Market). There are a handful of restaurants in cities such as Kuching, Miri and KK – of special note is Dyak, a pioneering gourmet establishment in Kuching – but otherwise the only way to savour indigenous dishes is to dine at a longhouse or be invited to dinner in a family home.
A dozen or more varieties of Borneo-grown rice can be found in the markets, often in clear plastic sacks that let you see the colour, size and shape of the grains. Dayak groups traditionally grow rice using swidden (slash-and-burn) techniques.
Hill paddy, grown by upland villagers mainly for their own use, is generally unpolished and unprocessed. Red rice is generically known as beras merah (in Iban and Bahasa Malaysia), but other varieties of Bornean rice are white, light brown, dark brown and even reddish orange. Bario rice (from the cool Kelabit Highlands), Borneo's most prestigious rice variety, is famous for its small grains and delicate taste and aroma.
Glutinous rice (pulut in Iban and Bidayuh) is sometimes combined with coconut milk (santan), vegetable oil and a bit of salt and cooked in a length of bamboo lined with a banana leaf to produce lemang.
Other ingredients you're likely to encounter in Dayak cooking (some are also used by Borneo's Malays and Chinese):
- Bamboo shoots (puluh in Kelabit) Made from very young bamboo and often grown in people's gardens; in the Kelabit Highlands, puluh are sliced thin, boiled and then stir-fried with salt, pepper and small local fish
- Bitter beans (petai) Bright green beans that grow in long pods; they appear in dishes such as petai gulai kechala (stir-fried with wild ginger flowers, onions and anchovies)
- Cassava leaves (pucuk ubi in Iban) Young leaves are often stir-fried (eg with chicken, or with anchovies, garlic and onions) and eaten with rice
- Chicken (ayam in Bahasa Malaysia) The tastiest kind comes from the kampung (villages), rather than from large-scale commercial producers
- Chilli paste (bua' ladah in Kelabit) Extremely hot, this condiment is made with chilli peppers, ginger, onion, garlic and salt
- Daun bungkang A leaf that grows on a fruit tree and, like bay leaves, is used to add flavour
- Doray (in Kelabit) A dark green goop that tastes a bit like spinach, made by boiling a leaf that grows along river banks with salt; said to be rich in vitamins and especially healthy for children, who often eat it with rice or porridge
- Eggplant (terung in Iban and Bahasa Malaysia) Bornean eggplants, which are the size of a peach, are often planted together with the hill rice and harvested before the rice stalks mature
- Fish (ikan in Bahasa Malaysia) Small fish grow in paddy fields, larger fish are caught in streams and rivers and, along the coast, in the sea
- Ginger flower (bungai kechala or tepus; busak luduh in Kelabit) Grows wild along river banks, has a lemony flavour and tastes a bit like artichoke heart; often chopped into very fine slivers, boiled and then fast-sautéed with onions
- Hot chilli (cili) Hot peppers used by all the various tribes
- Lemon grass (sorai in Bidayuh) The Bornean variety, which grows in the jungle, is more herbal and less sharp than the Thai variety
- Midin ferns These wild fiddlehead ferns (so called because their curled-up tips resemble the scroll of a violin or cello) were once eaten mainly by the rural poor, who collected the young fronds in forest clearings. Recently, though, they have been rediscovered by foodies and are hugely popular among Dayak, Malay and Chinese cooks. Tasty and nutritious, they're often lightly stir-fried to preserve their crunch. Midin ferns grow wild in drier areas of the forest and in peat, and are now produced commercially on a small scale.
- Paku ferns A type of fiddlehead fern that grows wild in moist parts of the forest
- Pumpkin (bua' tecak in Kelabit) Bright orange on the outside and, when cooked, soft and creamy inside. Can be stir-fried, steamed or puréed to make cream-of-pumpkin soup
- Salt In upland Borneo, mineral-rich saline spring water is boiled in huge vats to produce high-iodine salt; it's sold in markets in leaf-wrapped 'sausages'
- Tempoyak Preserved durian; the Bidayuh recipe (there are also Malay versions) calls for mixing deseeded durian pulp with coarse sugar, leaving it to ferment for a day or two, and then draining off the juices
- Tumeric leaves (umiet in Bidayuh) Used to wrap fish for steaming so that the flavour infuses the fish, or to seal the bamboo tube used to make bamboo chicken; contains minute quantities of cyanide, which the Dayaks remove by shredding the leaves and washing them before pounding them into a pulp
- Venison (payo in Kelabit) Deer are still hunted in the forest in places such as the Kelabit Highlands; after the animal is killed, the meat is immediately smoked (to preserve it) and then brought back to the village, where it is pounded (to soften it), boiled and finally stir-fried, often with lemon grass, ginger and onion. Before refrigeration, smoked meat was hung above the family hearth, where it would remain edible for months.
When members of Borneo's indigenous groups get together for a celebration or to entertain visitors, festivities are traditionally lubricated with tuak (rice wine). Almost always home-brewed, it comes in two main versions: tuak laki (gentlemen's tuak), which packs an alcoholic punch of 18% or more; and tuak induk (ladies' tuak), which is sweeter and has somewhat less alcohol. Tuak (known as burak to the Kelabits), made from glutinous rice, sugar, yeast and water, is fermented for somewhere between two weeks and two or three months (the longer the better). Some versions are infused with fruits or wild herbs.
Each Dayak group has traditions associated with tuak. Before drinking a bamboo cup of the potent liquid, bottoms-up style, the Bidayuh say 'tra-tra-tra-tra-ooooh-ah', with a rising tone on the 'ooooh' and a falling tone on the 'ah', while the Orang Ulu say something that sounds like 'ooh-weh-weh-weh-weeeeeeh aah-ah-ah'. To make the merry-making merrier, the Iban, at their festivities, send around a sadong, whose role is to sadong (pour) shots of tuak and cajole everyone to imbibe. The catch is that every time he asks someone to drink, they have the right to demand that he do so as well, with predictably mirthful results.
Other wines you may encounter at Dayak festivals include sugarcane wine (tuak tobuh in Bidayuh), which tastes a bit like port. To make it, sugarcane juice is boiled (to increase the concentration) and then fermented with a kind of bark the Bidayuh call kohong. Palm sap wine (tuak tumbang in Bidayuh, ijok in Iban), yellow in colour, is slightly fizzy, with a fruity flavour.
Thanks to the spice trade, Malay cooking has absorbed ingredients and cooking methods from a variety of culinary traditions, including those of India, China and mainland Southeast Asia. Malay dishes are often made with hot chillies, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, turmeric leaves and, to add a rich, creamy texture, coconut milk.
Some of the Malay dishes and condiments widely available in Borneo:
- Belacan Fermented shrimp paste
- Bubur Rice porridge; often eaten for breakfast
- Ikan bilis Tiny dried anchovies
- Kangkung belacan Water spinach quick-fried in a wok with belacan
- Kari ayam Chicken curry; one of many Malay kari (curry) dishes
- Mee goreng Malay-style fried noodles; usually made with wheat-and-egg noodles
- Mee sapi Noodles with beef, either served in a hearty broth or with a light gravy
- Nasi campur Rice served with a selection of side dishes, sometimes buffet-style (pricing is by weight); known as nasi padang in Indonesia
- Nasi goreng Malay-style fried rice is distinguished from Chinese fried rice by the frequent presence of belacan and by the absence of pork
- Nasi lemak White rice cooked in coconut milk and served with side dishes such as salted fish or egg; Malaysia's unofficial national dish, it's popular for breakfast
- Pulut Glutinous rice
- Rendang Spicy beef or chicken stew made with coconut milk
- Roti canai Grill-fried Indian-style bread, often with a savoury or sweet filling; popular for breakfast
- Sambal Any of a wide variety of spicy condiments or sauces made with hot chillies
- Sambal belacan Ubiquitous condiment made with belacan, hot chillies, limau kasturi (calamansi lime), sugar and sometimes other ingredients
- Satay Skewers of ayam (chicken), kambing (goat, also used for lamb and mutton) and occasionally ikan (fish), cumi (squid) or udang (shrimp), grilled over an open fire and served with peanut sauce
- Soto ayam Chicken soup made with rice vermicelli.
The ancestors of Borneo's ethnic Chinese population migrated from a variety of provinces in southern China (Kuching's Chinese History Museum spotlights nine different dialect groups). Their distinct culinary traditions – Hokkien, Teochow, Foochow, Hakka etc – are alive and well to this day, especially in the cities and larger towns of Sarawak and Sabah and in Singkawang (West Kalimantan), where many of the foodstalls and restaurants are run by Chinese.
Near the coast, keep an eye out for Chinese fish and seafood restaurants that display the day's catch either alive, swimming in tanks, or laid out neatly on ice. Diners point to the creature they'd like to eat and specify the mode of preparation; the charge is by weight.
The flavours in Chinese cuisine tend to be muted compared to Malay cooking, and it has fewer complex spice combinations – the taste of the primary ingredients is usually foremost. Another defining aspect of Chinese food is its heavy reliance on pork and lard, both assiduously avoided by the Malays, though these days some Chinese eateries have stopped using pork in order to receive halal certification.
Chinese food stalls often serve up the following dishes:
- Bee hoon Rice vermicelli (very thin rice noodles)
- Bubur Rice porridge (congee), often garnished with minced chicken or pork; popular for breakfast
- Chicken rice White rice cooked with chicken stock and served with slices of non-deboned chicken breast, sambal and cucumber slices
- Fish ball soup Fish balls and stuffed tofu in a broth that's often made from pig bones; usually made with tang hoon (mung bean noodles)
- Kam pua mee Foochow-style thin noodles soaked in pork fat and served with a side of roast pork; Sibu's signature dish
- Kolo mee Wheat noodles tossed in a mixture of oil and light soy sauce and garnished with barbecued pork and vegetables; a speciality of the Kuching area
- Kueh chap Tasty soup made with various spare piggy parts
- Kueh teow Wide, flat rice noodles, served stir-fried or in soup
- Lok-lok Deep-fried or boiled skewers of fish, bean curd etc that are eaten with sweet, sweet-and-sour or satay sauce, or with belacan (shrimp paste)
- Lui char Traditional Hakka soup, bitter in taste, made of finely chopped herbs and vegetables; served with rice and roasted peanuts
- Mee goreng When this Bahasa Malaysia term appears on a Chinese food stall, it's referring to Chinese-style fried noodles
- Mee sua Wheat vermicelli; served by the Foochows with chicken and mushrooms in a large bowl of broth laced with Chinese wine
The Chinese and Indians have venerable vegetarian traditions, and all of Borneo's gastronomies include plenty of dishes made with vegetables such as daun ubi (cassava leaves), cangkok manis (a dark green leafy vegetable often fried with eggs), sayur manis (often called 'Sabah veg') and kangkong (water spinach or convolvulus). Soy beans (dao or tau) are widely available, often in the form of tauhu (bean curd) or tempeh (fermented whole beans). Chinese establishments may be able to whip up cap cai (mixed vegetables) and you can always order a soup without meat, fish or seafood. At Malay places the rice part of nasi lemak and nasi campur is vegetarian, though some of the side dishes they're served with are not.
That's the good news. The bad news is that unless you specify otherwise, Malay-style stir-fried vegetables are often made with belacan (fermented shrimp paste), and Chinese stalls usually make their soup stock with animal bones, and slip small quantities of pork (minced or ground) or lard into all sorts of dishes. These ingredients may also make an unnoticed appearance in Dayak dishes.
If you're vegetarian, say, 'Saya hanya makan sayuran' (I only eat vegetables). If you're a vegan, you may want to take it a step further: 'Saya tidak makan yang di perbuat dari sayur, telur, ikan atau daging' (I don't eat dairy products, eggs, fish or meat).
- A splendid array of delicious cuisines are cooked up by Borneo's many ethnic groups.
- During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are forbidden by sharia law to eat or drink from dawn to sunset.
Borneo has a fine range of dining options, and reservations are not necessary, with the exception of top-end hotels in KK, BSB and Kuching.
- Restaurants These range from dirt-cheap places that specialise in one dish, to high-end fusion restaurants. The latter appear only in KK, BSB and Kuching.
- Cafes Open from early morning until the evening; good for coffee or a light meal. Traditional kopitiam (coffee shops) often partner with food stalls.
- Hawker centres Open either from early in the morning until mid-afternoon, or in the evenings. Some of best-value meals in Borneo, from freshly grilled seafood to soup.