Kelabit Fare, Bario.

sitting in the twin otter plane to bario often means sitting with goods of all sorts

Last weekend was spent in the tranquility that is Bario, a remote town in the Kelabit Highlands. Located on a plateau about 1000m above sea level (hence the invigorating climate), this town is only connected to the world by plane (a 19 seater Twin Otter to be exact) from Miri. Despite that, the Kelabit people here are quite self-sufficient as they have been blessed with the fragrant Bario rice, high potash salt and sweet, juicy pineapples. plus, they’re excellent hunters!

aerial view of Bario

there are no paved roads in Bario, save for the tarmac at the airport runway and the sole cement road along the secondary school. the primary transportation apart from your own two legs are some motorcycles. there are about 6 pick-ups (dismantled after days on logging trails and brought in by boat to be reassembled again!) which mostly belong to mini-market or guesthouse owners. the town centre has a small cluster of shops that see locals catching up over a cuppa when they are open (entirely at the whim of the owners, mind you). despite having no mobile reception or landlines, they are a few public telephone booths scattered around and an internet cafe!

Bario Highlands

it’s a haven if you’re looking for peace and quiet and wonderful hospitality. They do get an abundance of foreigners as the Bario Loop (jungle trek trail) offers any avid hiker quite the jungle experience. I haven’t had the chance to stay in a guesthouse but having met a few of the owners, they exude the same Kelabit warmth and friendliness I’ve enjoyed during all my trips there. With a warm handshake, their favourite form of greeting is asking you when you arrived.

My usual guide/driver is Harris and his wife, Nancy. They own Nancy Harris Homestay, a delightful lodge that was built and constantly extended by Harris himself. On one of our trips to Pa’Umor where the salt well is located, they prepared quite a lunch for us.

With white rice wrapped in big leaves (Daun Isip), the other dishes were stacked up in a tiffin carrier and a couple of tupperware. Harris himself made this yummy wild ginger flower stir fry, fragrant with the spicy belacan (shrimp paste). There was of course wild boar meat, considered quite the staple meat for the Kelabit people. And to top it off, there was hot dogs and an onion omelette.

the lunch may be simple, but eating it off the leaf, by the river was an experience to savour and enjoy. the wild ginger flower stir fry was so good that I could have that with plain white rice and be fully satiated. the wild boar meat is leaner than its city cousins and can be a bit tougher to chew but has a slight gamey taste which compliments the style of cooking very well.

On another occasion, we had dinner at Harris and Nancy’s guesthouse and they prepared quite the feast for us. The premium Bario rice and juicy pineapple of course were featured heavily, along with the ubiquitous wild boar meat and other jungle vegetables. The smaller grain Bario rice indeed lives up to its fame of being one of th finest in the market as it tastes and smells so fragrant. The rice is laboriously planted and harvested by hand using traditional methods, justifying the higher asking price.

Cubed pineapples placed in the middle of the serving dishes are to wash the palate after the meal. On the side, is my newfound favourite stir fry of wild ginger flowers. The other dishes are wild boar meat cooked in soy sauce and stir-fried wild eggplant.

Pineapple curry, stir-fried Paku (fiddlehead ferns) and Labo Belato (Wild Tapioca Shoots) make up the vegetable quota. The juicy pineapple seems a bit wasted to be cooked in a curry as I love it just as it is, but the sweetness does balance the curry spices used so I can see why some people love it. I’m told that the tapioca leaves are the staple vegetable dish for the Kelabit people and quite a lot of work is involved in preparing it. First, the leaves have to be boiled to remove the sap followed by a pounding to a pulp before it can be stir-fried.

Here, wild boar meat prepared in other ways, including a mince, which tasted lovely. I am not sure what seasoning was used but it certainly saw me taking seconds. Nancy told us that if we ever wanted to buy wild boar meat, we should always enquire the manner the boar died as that taste and texture of the meat is greatly affected if it was rounded up by hunting dogs or was hit by a blowpipe dart. The best tasting meat comes from an animal that was shot. Tense/frightened animal = tough meat theory. Go figure.

Last but not least, roasted wild boar, or known by the locals as labo bakar. A special soy sauce dip seasoned with sliced chilli, garlic and lime juice is the perfect accompaniment to this flavourful meat.

We were also invited to dinner by another local couple who also took great lengths to prepare us a homecooked meal. Instead of the white Bario rice, we were also served the red version, which has a better texture and tastes a little nutty. It’s also reputed to be rich in iron. Some of the dishes prepared were, clockwise; deer meat cooked with pepper and onions, stir fried bamboo shoots with chilli, mixed vegetables and stir-fried wild tapioca leaves with banana shoot.

What’s a Kelabit meal without the roasted wild boar? Our host has barbecued a whole ribcage and had it chopped up to serve us. Some parts of the meat, with the skin tasted crispy and not too different from the Chinese roast pork, albeit being a bit leaner. Once again, the chilli and garlic soy sauce dip with lime juice was the perfect accompaniment to this full-flavoured meat.

On Saturdays, more locals gather around the cluster of shops in the “centre” of Bario, and a makeshift market of sorts is formed. Wild vegetables gathered from the jungle as well as game may be sold according to availability. However I noticed that this stall selling porridge, or as the locals call it “Kikid” will normally be there. There have two versions, one that is “burnt”, the other not. As we were a bit late this time round, we managed to try only the burnt version, which had bits of minced meat (beef, I think) in it. It was quite good actually, despite being a bit on the peppery side. And based on my own experience, Bario rice is indeed perfect for making porridge.

At the coffeeshops of Bario, most serve simple fare like instant noodles or fried noodles along with tea or coffee. Even then, the noodles are mostly likely to be in the form of dried cakes instead of the fresh ones. Stir-fried with sliced meat and some vegetables, this simple noodle dish is still quite tasty, and is further flavoured with the small dollop of chilli paste.

We saw these wild mushrooms being sold at the market and I couldn’t resist. At only RM2 for the whole lot too! However, the bright orange colour faded after it was cooked. The mushrooms tasted a bit more earthy and complex in comparison to the mushrooms I’m used to.

Wild fiddlehead ferns which we bought at the market. Crisp and tasty, it’s one of my favourite jungle vegetables when I go back to Sarawak.

We were given this fish –Ikan Semah, a kind of river carp by a local. Apparently, this fish is truly indigenous to Borneo and cannot be found anywhere else outside this range as they inhabit the higher reaches of a freshwater river system. The local prices per kilogramme of these fish can be in excess of RM300 per kg! So we were really lucky to get it as a gift. We steamed it with some ginger and dried mushrooms as it was so fresh. The texture of the fish is softer than most, and it was similar to the Terubok fish as it has just as many bones!

i believe that this is quite the apt post as the indigenous tribes in Sarawak celebrate Gawai, a harvest festival this weekend. Gayu guru gerai nyamai!

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8 Comments »

  1. cumi&ciki (mei) said

    eating wild boar in rural settings .. jealous! good 4u girl ๐Ÿ™‚

    epicuriousgirl says: make a trip there!

  2. Envious as I would have loved to try roast wild boar. everything looks good – esp the wild mushrooms and those amazingly huge fiddlehead ferns.

    epicuriousgirl says: do make a visit there when you do pop by Miri. Just get your guesthouse owners to provide you with meals and you’ll be sure to have wild boar!

  3. C.S. said

    Great post. Like the pix, the slice of unique (food) culture and life, and the storytelling!

    epicuriousgirl says: thanks! for the comment and also for dropping by.

  4. Gina said

    Wah!! damn syok! What were you doing in Bario? For work? Great post!

    epicuriousgirl says: Went there to visit my dad who used to work there ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Joy said

    Take me with you the next time you travel! :p

    I was just looking at Fiddleheads last Saturday at the farmer’s market. Are they eaten raw? I didn’t get anything because I didn’t know how to eat/prepare them.

    epicuriousgirl says: i normally blanch them and eat it with a spicy dip or stir-fry them.

  6. ruzian said

    hey is that a maswings aircraft?

    your food pictures are great.. the ferns.. is it called “bidin” or something like that?

    epicuriousgirl says: yup, that’s maswings. those are just pucuk paku ferns. midin looks like this.

  7. […] here amongst some of the local Malay dishes. The purplish rice (usual of certain rice species in Bario/Kelabit Highlands) called to us and we were told that it’s fried rice with dabai fruit ( a […]

  8. Aganbalang said

    Hey I know this is late in the day, but just a little correction to an otherwise fantastic article.

    The pounded tapioca shoots which you referred to as “labo belatuh” is actually referred to as “udung ubi” in kelabit. “Labo belatuh” refers to the pounded ( or minced as you referred to it) smoked wild boar meat.

    Anyways great article, really starting to crave for that kind of fare again now!

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