Organic produce and eating local might sound like modern trends but for the people of Sarawak in Borneo (Malaysia), it’s been a way of life for thousands of years thanks to the rich biodiversity of their 130 million year old rainforest.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo is estimated to contain more than 15,000 plant species, over 5,000 of which are found nowhere else on the planet. Sarawak state alone boasts an incredible array of edible plants, some indigenous and some transplanted, a reflection of the broad spectrum of cultures the region has been influenced by over the centuries. And yet, despite being host to recognizable flavors like cocoa and tapioca, most of the Malaysian rainforests’ bounty remains unknown to the international community.
This may be partially because it’s not as easy as it sounds to separate the edible plants from the inedible. Although Sarawakians occasionally refer to the rainforest as their supermarket, keep in mind that Borneo is also home to the incredibly toxic strychnine tree (strychnos nux-vomica) and the cyanide-packed buah kepayang fruit. But similar to Japan’s infamous fugu, the locals found a way to transform the poisonous seeds of buah kepayang into a salty, creamy delicacy.
StraitsJourneys expert Marian Chin, editor of KINO: Kuching In and Out magazine and a Sarawak native, foresees the relative anonymity of the region changing. She commented: “Sarawak has long been a melting pot of cultures, but in culinary terms, that pot has recently been stirred by a reawakening in the F&B business. Fresh flavors are being imported, old traditions revived, and new combinations tested to create a new culinary landscape for Kuching.”
With the goal of teaching both locals and visitors about the potential hidden among the trees, Marion leads workshops on cooking with Borneo’s wild vegetables, such as lanau (also called Bario asparagus), which tastes like classic asparagus. This tuberous herb is found along rivers in the Bario Highlands of Sarawak and is a mainstay in the cuisine of the Kelabits, an Orang Ulu ethnic group. Marion recommends picking the young shoots and trimming off the leaves before stir frying with garlic, onions and chicken. Yum.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.