An Undiscovered Gourmet World Within Our Backyard


“The moon on a clear starry night casts a dim light on a narrow and bushy pathway that leads to a rundown wooden hut, deep within the jungles of Borneo. An old man clad with ancient tattoos over his almost naked body sits at the corner of the hut, with the aid of a flickering candle by his side he sharpens his spear for the next hunt. Surrounding him is his arsenal of traditional hunting blowguns, darts, parangs and a stack of natural cigarette wrapped with tobacco leaf.

At the other end of the hut, his family and relatives lay in deep slumber on traditional weaved mat. The wall are decorated with clusters of human skulls and spears of native designs, seen as precious and respectable décor symbolizing bravery and might of his ancestors. Smoke from the natural cigarette fumes the area, the sounds of the jungle and the snores of his family keep him working further into the night in preparation for the dawn to break.”

This is how the people from west Malaysia perceive the livelihood of the indigenous Malaysians; a rough sketch of this mysterious land that is beautiful and full of potential, a land we call East Malaysia.

This is a land of milk and honey where natural resources are bountiful on both land and sea but on the ugly side of things, it happens to also be a place where greed looms among those who couldn’t care less, even from those of power. The land stands powerless and being violated by ruthless people who only seek to satisfy their lust for money. The sympathy from international communities that made attempts to recover her is to no help as her tomorrow is no better as the situation seems to drown her in a losing battle.

Recently I picked up a voice of a Malaysian regarding this land, just take time to digest the foodie aspect.

– Many Sarawakians think food in Peninsula Malaysia is a bit too spicy. They like their spice, but in a more balanced way – food with sweetness and sourness, with a tinge of spice. “Personally I have had to suffer every time I eat at the mamak stalls there, before my stomach can acclimatize to the food. Chili here and there! Sayur pun ada kari kah? (vegetable also has curry?)”, says journalist Dennis Wong. He adds though, that Sarawakians love nasi lemak from West Malaysia, as he thinks its much better there.

– East Malaysians take pride in the fact that they are of various ethnicities and tribes who can live with each other peacefully. Homes in Mukah, the Melanau heartland, for example, often have two kitchens – one halal and the other, non-halal. “No big deal,” they say, as they have been living like that for centuries. Malay stalls operate inside Chinese-owned coffee shops, next to the other stalls selling non-halal food, and it’s no cause for hysterics.

– Kuching in Sarawak is not named after cats, despite what tourism brochures say. Kuching was named after a small tributary that no longer exists – Sungai Mata Kucing – which refers to the Dimocarpus longan growing in the area. Cat in the Sarawak Malay language is called pusa, not ‘kucing’.

– If many West Malaysians already think filling the ‘Melayu/Cina/India/Dan Lain-Lain (others in Malay)’ box is a pain, it is something more resented by East Malaysians. With 32 ethnic groups and Muslims who do not identify as Malays, these boxes are hard to tick. “My husband for example, is a Muslim who is a pure Bisaya from the Kadazandusun stock,” says Jaswinder. “If forced to, he would have to tick ‘Dan Lain-Lain’. At my husband’s kampung, they all wear the tudung and baju kurung, but they mainly speak Bisaya and enjoy sago as a substitute to rice.”

The voice is loud and clear in driving a point.

It has been 50 years since the union of the east with the west peninsula, forming a world today we called as Malaysia. But sadly one thing that struck me most is the question, how well do we know this world and her kind?

It is as simple as I can be, let me throw some basic questions about them.

How many races are there in Sabah and Sarawak respectively? Can you name at least one native food for each indigenous group of this part of Malaysia? What kind of flavours and taste are the people incline to?

I could only hear faint whispers coming from a small percentage of West Malaysians who could give me the correct answers. If one cannot answer all these questions, is it possible for one to declare publicly that “you aren’t smarter than a fifth grader”?

Admittedly I am one of the many west Malaysians who for the past years did not give a hoot about the Malaysians across this ocean of South China Sea. I missed those little precious and valuable details of her which created the identity of who she is today.

A local video with the same line of thought appeared around the time of the publication mentioned earlier, which happens to be around the period of Malaysia Day celebration.

References to the food of indigenous East Malaysians are scarce. Food blogs are mostly from the urban Malaysians, for example EatBah is a food blog from Sabah covering mostly the food found in urban areas. The Sarawak Tourism Board’s blog does highlight their Top 10 iconic food.

I hope to see more food expo about east Malaysians on indigenous communities happening in west Malaysia for a change and vice versa. Perhaps schools teachers and children should have more trips to east Malaysia to learn about the nature and the people.

It would also be nice see more media coverage of East Malaysians indigenous food – food trip documentaries, food movies, cooking shows, television commercials, how to videos from the Internet, food blogs contributed by the locals of east Malaysia and etc. These are ideas for a start, it’s better late than never.

Taking a vacation to East Malaysia is one of the best ways to get to know and understand the people. Not just a vacation to the major towns and cities but a vacation in the jungles, a holiday package to “the indigenous way of living”; camping, jungle tracking, rafting, fishing, hunting, dining – experiencing the raw nature.

To wrap up, it is a sad and pathetic state for Malaysia when we call ourselves union for half a century yet we live separate lives and not really knowing each other. What an irony of life it is!

As with the title, this land of opportunity could hold treasures that unlock a gourmet paradise.

Quick Note: About East Malaysia

The people: There are 26 indigenous groups of people in Sarawak and 38 in Sabah. The Iban and Kadazandusun make up the majority in Sarawak and Sabah respectively. (Source)

Sidebar: Latest news: While the ruling government pledge to bring development to this land, my heart still yearns and hope to see her beautiful and natural self remains as a wonderful ecosystem for the establishment of flora and fauna. Destruction is quick and easy but rebuilding a destroyed ecosystem takes years. Let’s just hope the government know what they are doing in maintaining the tourism industry of the land. We can only act within a limited capacity to assist the situation. Some things are beyond us, as helpless as we, west Malaysians are. We can only allow time to determine it.

Distance separates East and West M’sia

Who’s behind logging in forest reserve?

UN hears of ‘atrocities’ in Sabah, S’wak

Fed govt must be genuinely inclusive

New party backs Najib on East M’sia vision

Najib: Sabah ‘correct’ to join M’sia

Scholarships for S’wak, Sabah hijacked?

When will Malaysians learn to fly?


  1. But compare this to other countries, where people admit to considerable levels of corruption, having paid bribes, etc. Are we implying that Russian’s simply have no idea what it means to pay a bribe, or that they are suddenly lying about it after whining about wide-spread bribes to the researchers? There’s something weird going on here. Not saying that nobody in Russia is paying a bribe — just wondering how reliable the data is in general, and what to make of it.RM

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