By Henry & Stephanie Yuen
Before we were told by Agnes, the Canadian liaison for Tourism Sarawak, that we were to spend 4 days in Kuching (2-hour flight distant from Kuala Lumpur), including an overnight trip to an Iban longhouse, we have not heard of Kuching or Iban. But Agnes did a very good job convincing us it would be a very worthy trip for nature and food lovers. Once we witnessed 11 almost extinct wild orangutans including 2 sets of mom and baby in Semenggoh Wild Life Centre, a wild life conservatory managed by Sarawak Forestry, and stayed for lunch prepared by the rangers, we were totally sold on the nature part.
Under the warm tropical sun, the lush green hills of wild forests and slopes of palm trees, banana groves and peppercorn farms, and the meandering Sarawak River laid before our eyes.
In the city, we had a beautifully prepared seafood dinner in a large open-style dining zone called Top Spot where a number of restaurants gathered. Top Spot is located on the roof-top of a 5-storey parkade where seafood is the main attraction. In front of every kiosk is an array of fresh seafood: King prawns, Crabs, Shaver clams, and varieties of fish including Stingrays, Red snappers, Pompfrets, Grouper, Soles and huge catfish. Next to the seafood display are local vegetables: Fern Shoot (long stem fiddle head), Red spinach, Brinjal (aubergine) and other Asian greens.
Though served in plastic wares, the quality of food was top-notch. We had a 1.5lb very flaky and tender red Pomfret, steamed with ginger, garlic and scallions; 1 lb. of succulent shaver clams; an order of sweet and crunchy wok-fried fiddle heads plus an order of home-style egg fried rice. With tea and beer, the bill came to $20 Canadian; but the dining experience, definitely priceless!
After 3 hours of driving from Kuching and another 45 minutes of a longboat ride upstream, we arrived in a longhouse where an Iban tribe of 14 families lived. This is one of the 5000 longhouses in Sarawak. Iban was once known as the long-eared native tribe, and is the largest tribe. The long ears, caused by the weight of heavy ornaments pulling down the earlobes, were seen as a form of beauty.
Today, Ibans head-hunt no more and long ears are gone. They have become farmers trying to adapt and welcome modern day living into their lives. The longhouse that hosted us for the night was led by Chief Juan, a young chief with a forward thinking of how his longhouse tribe should operate during this transitional period. Juan stressed that every tribe members, except for the very young and old, must contribute. His “No work, no food” philosophy provides them with good supply of hill rice which they grow up the slopes; income from selling the peppercorns and rubbers they harvest; and revenues generated by working with the tourism bodies and welcoming visitors into their longhouse, their home.
Home is a long wooden hut mounted on beams and studs built alongside the muddy river. Out front is a stretch of bamboo patios. The front portion is the community hall where meetings and festivities take place. The back rooms are living quarters for families, where they cook, eat and sleep. Families take turns to host visitors, meaning that they will throw a welcoming party and cook for the guests.
Dinner was served at nightfall in the hosting family’s quarter. Plates of stir-fried local vegetables and deep-fried plantains spread out on the mat near the kitchen where family members gathered. The only meat for the evening was chicken, brought in and cooked by our tour guide Leslie and the driver as a token to the family. Chicken feet cooked with ginger in soup was considered ‘gourmet’ here. Whole chicken chopped in pieces and pan-fried was the meat entree. The tiny, grainier and drier hill rice was the main starch. We ate our dinner with home-made rice wine they kept pouring into small glasses passed around the circle. Communicating with them through Leslie and the driver, along with broad smiles, body languages and hand signals was often pleasant and full of laughter, thanks to the sweet and very tasty rice wine we kept sipping whole night long.
After dinner was the tribal welcoming ceremony with music, ceremonial dance performances and yes, more wine. We presented our gifts to the chief who distributed them to the 14 families graciously.
Breakfast in the following morning with bread, eggs, bananas and leftover was simple, nutritious and functional, since tribe members had already been up and working since dawn – they all came hungry. But the preparation for a BBQ lunch by the river, from the moment freshly cut bamboo sections were brought into the kitchen, was riveting. This last meal before our departure was indeed a culinary highlight.
Aubergines mixed with bell peppers and moistened rice wrapped in palm leaves were stuffed into the different bamboo tubes and sprinkled with water before putting into the open fire to cook. Marinated beef strips and chicken filets were thrown onto the grill barrel fueled by tree branches and sticks. When the meat was ready, they removed the bamboos from the fire and poured the aromatic contents into serving plates. No BBQ sauce from a bottle, no fancy herbs and spices, but mother nature’s gifts and known-how of the native women, who have been preparing and cooking food the same way for generations. Truth is, this delicious BBQ lunch prepared and enjoyed in such unique ways was not available in fancy hotels or Michelin-star restaurants!