One of the many indigenous tribes of Borneo, the Kelabit tribe is from the Orang Ulu ethnic, bear in mind that some of the delicacies mentioned are not unique to just the Kelabit people. As usual, I am not alone when I say I love Borneo! I love the people, the history and culture and mostly the food! Read on to find out some of the best traditional Kelabit food of the tropics you might not have heard of before..
The kelabit tribe originate from Bukit Bario (Mount Bario). Bario meaning wind, also known as the “land of a hundred handshakes” as to depict the hospitality of the local people, is a village located close to the Sarawak-Kalimantan border, on the Kelabit Highlands within the division of Miri. The kelabit people are known for their highland lifestyle. Due to living in the highlands, they are especially known for producing bario rice and bario salt collected from naturally occurring braskish (saltwater) river.
Made from bario rice. This traditional Kelabit food is a local favourite and must have. Nuba’ laya is also known as ‘Fragrant Bario rice’. Unlike your typical wrapped rice, nuba’ laya is made from mashed rice or red rice, wrapped in daun itip (scientifically known as Phacelophrymium Maximum). Nuba’ laya is eaten like you would with rice, normally eaten during festive seasons or in local restaurant nowadays.
Another edible wild worm, kelantang is popular among the orang ulu tribe especially kelabit people. Kelantang is used as toppings on their rice porridge, which adds sweetness to it. Now, let’s put aside the fact that we’re talking about worms in our porridge, like another similar worm called the lelamas eaten by the Melanau people, kelantang is apparently very nutritious. I can’t seem to find a picture of kelantang in rice porridge, but I’ll make sure to add one once I find it.
A traditional kelabit cuisine, mango fruit mixed with kantan (torch ginger), sometimes also chives, chili and red onion are added for extra flavour. Eaten as a side dish, bua’ laam is the orang ulu version of a salad. A little sour, but surely an appetite kick-starter.
Belabo belatuh, is shredded fried meat, marinaded with Bario salt and highland cinnamon beforehand. The meat is tasty and soft, belabo belatuh is eaten with nuba’ laya (mashed rice) or rice, along side other dishes too like how the locals normally would.
This soupy hotpot dish is grated tapioca mixed with cucumber leaves and local mushrooms, thrown into one pot. Senamo’ is kampung style mix veggie. It’s a healthier alternative and does not have an overwhelming taste to it. Give this a try if you’d like. Just as the famous Malay saying goes ‘belum cuba, belum tahu’ (if you never try it, you’ll never know).
One of my mom’s favourite traditional Kelabit food! Luang senanum, is shredded fish meat stir-fried with kantan (torch ginger) seeds. A unique tasting dish. Luang senanum is stir-fried until dry and without bones. It is best eaten with rice accompanied with other dishes of your choice.
Young bamboo shoots stir-fried with belacan (shrimp paste) and dried shrimps or anchovies. A pungent dish, sweet and salty. Urum ubih can sometimes be stir-fried with a little (or a lot) of chilies. How I eat urum ubi is with anything. I mix them in my rice or instant noodles.
Abpa Tabat Borak
A hot beverage made with wild highland cinnamon also known as tabat borak among the locals. Tabat borak is boiled in water and served as drink or tea.
Not a food, I know, but this is so worth the mention I couldn’t miss it out. Garam bario also known as Bario salt, made from a naturally occurring saltwater river called Main Kerambut. Water from the river is collected, and boiled for 24 hours over an open fire, then transferred into bamboos to be boil over the fire a few more hours until all that’s left is the salt. It is then wrapped in a leaf, and distributed among the village people to be used or sold locally in open markets in Miri usually priced at RM15 – RM20. It’s slightly cheaper if bought at the village itself, RM10 – RM15.
If I’ve missed out on any traditional Kelabit food that is worth the mention, feel free to leave me a comment or maybe a question. To end, here is some notable Kelabit dish that is also seen in different tribes within Borneo:
- Udung ubi – fried cassava leaves
- Urum ubek – fried rice flour fritters
- Bua Petar Sena’aq – stinky beans fried with shrimp paste
- Kelantang – lelamas worm stir-fried or as condiments on rice porridge