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Foraging for Forest Food in Borneo

On this Malaysian travel adventure, I test my survivor skills on a forest forage for food in the jungles of the Kelabit Highlands in Borneo

"This is not what I consider to be Grade One fern." Joseph, our cooking instructor, informs us at Kuching's wet market. "It's too thick and slimy, but if you aren't Bidayuh you don't know the difference and buy it anyway."

Ferns are pretty common where I come from, but not as food. We continue to forage through the wet market, trying various other forest foods before finding our No.1 Grade fern: a thin stalked fiddle head of moss green colour that is apparently more fresh and crisp to taste than the Grade 2 or 3 ferns. It looks a little different to the other grades but I'm not sure I could tell the difference in the forest. Or even find the ones that aren't poisonous.

A Matter of Survival

A week later, in the Kelabit Highlands, I get my chance to test my survivor skills when Uncle takes us on a foraging mission into the jungle.

How is it a Chinese from Kuching knows the ins and outs of forest food? Well, he followed his Kelabit wife and other locals into the forest, watched, asked questions and read books. After a few decades of visiting and living here, he knows what is edible and what isn't. He has to; it's a matter of survival. The nearest "tuck-shop" is a four hour walk, or 12 hours by car if you want anything more than 2 minute noodles and toilet paper. It's no exaggeration to say most of their food comes from hunting or foraging in the forest behind their village.

We're barely into the woodland supermarket before Uncle starts pointing out edible sources. According to the Sarawak Agriculture Department there are over 150 edible plants and herbs in the state. Not all would find their way onto a dinner plate but if you were lost and desperate they would keep you alive. Some, like the ginger flower and snakeskin fruit I recognise from the wet market. Others, like taro, I know as common crops in the Pacific.

We pick, smell and try different nuts, shoots, herbs and fruits. Some have familiar tastes and others are unique and...nasty. There is a sour fruit whose flesh resembles the white and black dragon fruit. Uncle calls it 'ladies fruit' because only the women of the village seem to like it. And I like it too.

It's not all about food. The forest is a virtual pharmacy. The seed of the giant bean plant relieves pain when rubbed on the skin. Women who have just given birth drink the tea of boiled up bark. The stem of the red taro plant is rubbed on bites and stings. But the money prize goes to the Tongkat Ali root, a sort of natural viagra for men with anti-cancer properties the government hopes to replicate synthetically as they diversify the economy into the pharmaceutical sector. An industry they could base on Borneo's plants alone.

From the Jungle Market and the Wet Market

Back at Uncle's house the breakfast table bows under 150kgs of rice they are getting ready for sale. Bario rice is considered one of the finest in Asia, perhaps the world. It's noted for its fine, soft grain and the organic taste of the highland paddies. It's only here, in the village of Pa Lungan, that locals claim to grow it better than their neighbours in Bario. Aside from the forest, the highland families depend on their paddy (the wet market) to supply them with their staples of rice and fish.

The jungle vegetables are given English names prefaced by the word 'wild'. For dinner we eat wild 'asparagus', wild 'eggplant' wild 'spinach'. They aren't feral varieties of these vegetables, in fact I'm not sure how they got those translations at all as the flavours are completely different. Wild asparagus tastes more like beans, their eggplant has a slight lemon zest to it and the spinach - which looks a bit like matted seaweed - is sweet with the texture of cotton. The freshly picked, organic taste of 'the wild' is unsurprisingly good.

After dinner, we help Uncle's wife, Supang, and her relatives prepare lunch for tomorrow's feast. There's an awful lot of fern to snap. For his part, Uncle pulled around 40 fish, one by one, from his rice paddy for the lunch. "Why didn't you use a net?" I ask, but he doesn't have one. Besides, he enjoys fishing. It would have taken most of the day but in the highlands time isn't watched so closely. There is day and there is night and that's about all they need to know, Uncle explains. People go tend their farmland as they need to and they forage for food when they feel doing like that too. Breakfast is at dawn while the mist is still covering the paddies; dinner appears once the sun has set; and lunch is anytime between.

So it's not really any bother when the people coming for lunch are over 2 hours late. Nor is it surprising why they are late. 40 Mitsubishi executives and related media have driven their 4wd convoy from Miri, 12 solid hours on a logging track that passes as a road out here. Actually, it's the only road that connects these highland towns to the city.

Emily and I score a lift back to Bario with Terence, one of the organisers from Kuching, and his driver, Nick from Sabah. It saves us a 4 hour hike through the jungle with nothing more than the hand-drawn map that's got us lost once already. Nick is a little disappointed the weather's held off and the tracks aren't more muddy and challenging. But it's enough of a challenge being bounced around the backseat. I can't believe the locals have to either do this or fly for any grocery that can't be foraged, made or bought in the "tuck shop" in Bario.

And yes, that is the English word they use for the food store.

Do you want to try THIS?

COOKING CLASS: Bumbu Cooking Class is in Kuching city centre, Sarawak, Malaysia. Minimum 2 people. Reservations required.

FOREST FOOD FORAGE: Ask Uncle when you turn up at his and Supang's homestay at Pa Lungan, a 4hr walk from Bario in the Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak which is a 1hr flight from Miri (or 12hr in 4wd SUV). There are no streets or house numbers but Uncle will probably out be fishing in his rice paddy.






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