Borneo's indigenous and migrant peoples have produced a unique, combined cuisine that draws from the island’s abundant local resources. The sago palm produces ambuyat and butod; rice yields the heady tuak liquor; and the seas provide the fish necessary to make hinava and pinasakan.
These dishes listed here represent a diverse roundup of favorites from all three Borneo countries (Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia). A good number of these foods are ceremonial dishes from the Kadazan-dusun, Melanau, Iban, and other indigenous communities—who now kindly prepare these dishes for tourists all year round!
This Brunei and Malaysian Borneo staple doesn’t look like much—it’s a gooey white paste that has very little flavor of its own. But locals swap this out for rice, especially during celebrations; ambuyat’s blandness partners well with strongly-flavored local dishes with plenty of sourness or spice.
To eat ambuyat, diners pick it up with pronged bamboo utensils called candas – bite-size wads of ambuyat are rolled around the prongs, then dipped into a nearby sauce called a cacah. (The varieties of cacah available deserve several pages of their own!) Fresh vegetables are also eaten with the ambuyat to provide a contrast in textures.
The capital of South Kalimantan Province in Indonesian Borneo has its own take on the Indonesian noodle soup soto (pronounced chotto). And the people of Banjarmasin throw everything but the kitchen sink into their namesake soup: shredded chicken, half-boiled eggs, potato pancakes, spring onions, and a unique local spice paste.
To add body to the dish, diners enjoy soto banjar with perkedel (potato patties), lontong (compressed rice cake), or chicken satay on the side. Several famous soto banjar restaurants can be found throughout Banjarmasin—ask a local to recommend one.
The Melanau of Sarawak and Kadazan-dusun of Sabah prize this strange protein source: palm weevil larvae that inhabit dead sago palm trunks.
Called “butod” in the local language, sago worms have a fatty texture that may fascinate brave eaters who don’t mind eating invertebrates. D’Place Kinabalu, Sabah’s pre-eminent Kadazan-dusun restaurant, serves butod sushi and butod pizza, while daring visitors to eat the worms raw. (Hold the live butod by the head, and put the body in your mouth—then yank the head away and eat the rest.)
Kadazan-dusun folklore believes that butod are a powerful aphrodisiac if eaten with honeycombs and rice wine (tuak)—though one guesses it’s only the tuak talking!
Linopot is a staple of Kadazan-dusun wedding ceremonies: a cake of rice or mashed yam wrapped in tarap leaves. Unwrapped before serving, linopot pairs well with Kadazan-dusun dishes like pinasakan or hinava.
The tradition of wrapping rice in leaves can be seen throughout Southeast Asia, using wrappers local to the area. In Sabah, tarap tree leaves are preferred due to their broad size and the subtle flavor the leaves impart to the rice. (The tarap tree also produces fruit with meat that melts in the mouth!)
If you visit during the Kadazan-dusun harvest festival known as Gawai Dayak, you’ll find linopot in abundance on every buffet table.
If you’ve eaten South American ceviche or Filipino kinilaw, you’ll have an idea of hinava’s appeal. A traditional fish dish of Sabah’s Kadazan-dusun people, hinava consists of sliced raw mackerel mixed with lime juice.
The juice “cooks” the mackerel, and the additional ingredients (birds’ eye chili, onions, and ginger) give it an added flavor dimension. Squid and prawns can also be substituted for mackerel.
The Melanau people of Sarawak have their own version called umai, but it uses an indigenous sour fruit called asam paya to “cook” the fish to the desired doneness.
The citizens of Kuching, Sarawak, are intensely proud of their take on laksa: a rich noodle creation bathed in a broth flavored by shrimp paste, tamarind, coconut milk, lemongrass, red chilies, and local herbs and spices. Omelet slices, fresh prawns, and shredded chicken give laksa Sarawak an added body that explains its popularity as a breakfast dish.
The balance of flavors and textures have made this simple noodle dish an international favorite. Sarawak laksa is consistently on international foodie lists, earning plaudits from the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who called it “just a magical dish,” praising the complexity of the laksa broth, saying “the wisdom of the ages is contained in there.”
This dish is served all around Kuching, going for less than a dollar per bowl. Be like Bourdain, and order two!
In the days before refrigeration was invented, Kadazan-dusun folk would cook dishes like pinasakan to go for days without spoiling. Fatty ikan basung fish would be slowly braised over a low fire, together with a sauce made from turmeric, lemongrass, ginger, chilies, salt, and dried slices of a wild sour fruit called asam keping.
Done right, pinasakan can go for up to two weeks without going bad—handy for traders who’d walk for days between settlements to barter. You can get this dish now at any homestay in Sabah, served alongside rice or ambuyat.
It looks like a giant brown mango, grows wild in the jungle, and is a favorite pickled relish for Sabahan dishes. The bambangan fruit’s remarkable odor makes it a questionable candidate for eating fresh; that’s why it’s more often an ingredient in dishes like boiled river fish.
As a relish, bambangan is chopped, combined with grated seeds, and fried with chili and onions. This condiment is served on the side with rice-based dishes—a sour and spicy counterpoint to savory meats like chicken.
The local tribes of Sarawak cook chicken in bamboo tubes over hot coals. Covered with tapioca leaves, the bamboo turns into an effective cooking vessel that imparts a subtle flavor to the chicken.
No two families make manok pansoh the same way; subtle variations in the levels of turmeric, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, or other ingredients make manok pansoh different from home to home. Everybody agrees that only using authentic “kampung” (village-grown) free-range chicken does justice to the dish.
Iban and Bidayuh families prepare this dish in abundance for Gawai Dayak to serve guests during the yearly harvest festival. Luckily, many restaurants around Sabah serve manok pansoh as a matter of course.
A chewy cake with a hint of the pandan herb, kuih pinjaram is a favorite snack in Brunei and Malaysian Sabah, and is a common souvenir for tourists to take home from Borneo. The shape gives pinjaram its common nickname “kuih UFO” (UFO cake), and its delicious contrast of textures—the crisp edges give way to a chewy, airy center.
To make pinjaram, cooks make a dough of rice flour, water, coconut milk, palm sugar, and pandan, then fry briefly till the edges crisp to the desired doneness. Pinjaram cost mere cents per piece and can be bought at many markets around Sabah and Brunei.
Kek Lapis Sarawak
The name translates to “Sarawak layer cake,” and is a geometric, colorful marvel. Layers of richly-colored cake are sliced and bound together with jam or condensed milk to produce kaleidoscopic repeating patterns.
The cake originally came from Jakarta, Indonesia, derived from the layered kek lapis Betawi influenced by Dutch baking masters. The Indonesian original only had varying brown shades; the confection got psychedelic only when the Sarawakians introduced their own take in the 1970s.
Today, kek lapis Sarawak enjoys a protected geographical indication similar to Champagne or cheddar cheese in their namesake locations—the government fiercely protects the right of Sarawak-made layer cakes to claim the name.
The Dayak of Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan embrace rice wine (tuak) as part of their rites of passage, like marriages or cultural festivals. Traditionally, Dayak women brew tuak from sticky rice, water, sugar, and a starter base called ragi; the resulting drink tends to be sweet and slightly cloudy with an alcohol content of around 20 percent.
The craft of tuak-making almost died out as Christian missionaries tried to stamp out alcohol consumption among the Dayak in the early 20th century. Tuak is now making a comeback, as younger Dayak create artisanal brews with additional ingredients like pineapple and green tea.
To drink like the Dayak, go bottoms-up on a glass of tuak and say “oohaa!” (Cheers!)
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Free Malaysia Today. "Sabah’s traditional sago grub now a popular delicacy." February 21, 2020.
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CNN (via YouTube). "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown: Sarawak." April 2016.
Tech Monitor. "Relevancy of Geographical Indications for SMEs." October-December 2013.
TimeOut. "Guide to tuak." July 5, 2017.
The Borneo Post. "The creative tuak maker." June 3, 2018.
Malay Mail. "Celebrating the Harvests of the Field." September 7, 2013.