A Borneo Food Diary

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Lunch, Day 10

I should never write a blog post while hungry!

If you’ve been coming ’round here for a while, you might recall a post I did several years ago, A Rural Lao Food Diary. We’d just come off a nine-day trip to the hinterlands in Phongsali, way up near the Lao/China border, where we camped with a bomb-clearance group working in a small village. I posted a record of everything we ate—fresh, local, homemade, repetitive.

Now I’ll treat you to a rundown of our meals in Borneo—more variety, equally fresh, much of it plucked from the fields and forests surrounding the Kelabit villagers we visited (thanks to ICFJ!). I thought it appropriate to post this today, just as our multimedia piece, Supermarket Jungle, is now live on SciDev.net. Please check it out if you’re interested in more on the sustainable Kelabit diet and the twin threats of logging and cultural change.

Here’s what we ate:

-wild spinach soup
-fried rice with scallions and wild boar, a few cherry tomatoes, onion and tiny black beans
NOTES: The soup reminds me of others I’ve had in Myanmar’s Shan State and rural Laos, coming from kitchens so smoky that smoke IS a flavor. It makes the soup. The pineapple is a burst of sweet, then tart. Low acid. The boar is like pulled pork but very tiny pieces.

-wild boar fried with onion
-stewed tomatoes with a bit of sugar, like soup
-softened sautéed leeks
-thinly sliced green beans
NOTES: The boar has a rich, gamey flavor

-crispy twisted pastries
-thick rice porridge with green beans and spinach
NOTES: The spinach has a very earthy taste

-Rice vermicelli with boar & vegetables (eaten in the forest)

-deer (for sale from the back of the pickup that morning) with thinly sliced ginger
-the smallest and tenderest species of young bamboo
-a mess of curled ferns
NOTES: Hosts Stephen & Tine chop the flat-leaf greens into one-inch slices. “We call it grass because we don’t know what it is,” Tine says. Indeed, it has a grassy flavor. The bamboo, she says, is the youngest variety. It ranges in color from pale yellow to pink to mint ice cream green. It squeaks on the outside but it’s firm and sweet to bite into. The ferns taste rich with their funky furled texture.

-fresh pineapple, papaya, passionfruit
-cassava cakes – oval-shaped patties, sticky inside, crispy outside, fried in oil

-canned chicken curry
-Lara bar
(On hike in the jungle)

-fried chunks of boar
-clear soup with winter melon
-ginger and boar
-water greens fried with small dried anchovies

-rice fried with beans and boar
-greens with shallots, small dried anchovies & garlic
-more boar
-sticky rice packets

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Leaves used for wrapping rice  

-more boar
-melon soup
-leftover fried rice
-boiled wild spinach
-leaf-wrapped rice pounded to a paste

-sliced red mushrooms sautéed with garlic and salt
-wild asparagus with pineapple shoot slices
-boar fried with mild melon
-wild spinach soup with water and salt
NOTES: The asparagus is young, tender and small. The mushroom is meaty and rich, and it gives and incredible red burgundy sauce. The pineapple shoots are slightly bitter yet with a faint hint of fruitiness.

-sticky rice packets in laves
-tapioca fried and shredded like a hash brown pizza
-packaged rice crackers
NOTES: The tapioca tastes like thick, gluey, sweet, potato-y hashbrowns.

-pineapple curry
-tengayen (wild green) leaves
-pounded tapioca leaves
-pounded rice in leaf packet
NOTES: The tengayen is cooked soupy with rice and salt, sometimes with ginger flower. It’s mucilaginous, almost like okra. Leaves are chopped but not crushed. Salty, earthy like collards but not bitter. The tapioca leaf is pounded to a pesto consistency with added oil.

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Tapioca leaves

-fragrant ginger paste
-boar soup
-BBQ boar ribs
NOTES: I have no idea what the ginger is when I first taste it. It’s white and pounded to the consistency of rough curry paste. Turns out it’s just young ginger cooked with oil and salt. The ferns are thin, vine-like strips, red and green, giving the juice a vibrant cherry color.

-ferns (fried with garlic and small dried fish from the coast)
-wheat pancakes (made for tourists)
-red mushroom soup with onion

-fried rice (eaten in Bario town)

-pineapple shoots
-chicken curry
-onion leaves
-bamboo shoots

-pineapple, banana
-rice flour cakes

(Eaten in Bario town)
-pounded rice in leaf packets
“ayam kicap”
-melon with eggs

-wild asparagus with corn and carrots
-pineapple curry
-pulled boar (the local pulled pork)
NOTES: The boar is deliciously tender and smoky.

-steamed rice packets
-passionfruit, pineapple

-rice vermicelli
-tomato/potato/onion soup

-deer meat with ginger and wild spice berries
-cherry tomato soup
-young bamboo
-green beans

-rice packets from food market in town
-tomato soup

-fried mouse deer
-fried pork
-bamboo shoots
-tapioca wedges
-long beans fried with cabbage
-fried fish
-ferns with onion
-canned fish in tomato sauce

DAY 10
-pounded rice packets
-wild mushroom soup
-wing beans fried with long beans, tomato, onion
-chicken and lemongrass soup

-Leftovers from breakfast & dinner

-leftover bamboo
-leftover beans with bamboo
-leftover pork fat
-mouse deer soup
NOTES: The mouse deer: thick wads of unidentifiable meat and bones, but with incredibly rich flavor. Like lean venison steak, slightly smoky, tender. Very dark meat.

DAY 11
-cinnamon tea
-popcorn! (bought)
-mushroom porridge

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Cinnamon leaves used for tea. The trees grow wild in the jungle, and villagers move them to their gardens.

-rice packets w/boar (eaten in the forest)

-pounded rice
-deep fried little fish
-creek fish soup
-pounded tapioca leaf with chile
-spicy chile/onion paste

DAY 12
-mouse deer soup
-chile paste
-fried small fish
NOTES: The deer tastes fresh, sweet, muscular like it had an active life. Chewy. Our hosts’ son hunted it late the night before.

(On the road to the coast)
-coffee candies
-pounded rice in leaves
-durian snack balls, they taste like fruity Cap’n Crunch

And that’s it. On the evening of Day 12, we ate at a Muslim food stall in Miri, blinded by lights, shaken by noise. I hadn’t expected our departure from the jungle to be so jarring, but it was, even after 12 days. For a few days more, I felt an odd sense of mourning—the same sort of loss we feel when departing a loved one.

It’s a special place, the Kelabit Highlands.

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Supang Galih cutting wild asparagus.

3 thoughts on “A Borneo Food Diary

  1. Wow, what a wonderful experience. I’m not sure I could do all of those savoury breakfasts though, I would need something sweet after awhile. But that is what travelling is all about, embracing what is completely different from your normal life!

  2. Hi Mallory – very true. And after much time in Asia, I’m now more accustomed to eating savory breakfasts than sweet things in the morning! Sometimes I have big cravings for a bowl of spicy noodle soup to start my day 🙂

  3. Grew up eating these foods in Borneo. My favorites were the wild edible ferns, grass, and the bamboo shoots. Wild boars were hunted by my dad and his friends who later divided the spoils. Now that I’m living on the other side of the world, your blog reminds me of what I’ve missed. I still prefer savory breakfast to sweets in the morning. Glad you had a wonderful experience.

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