Date of Visit: September 17 2013
The Kelabit tribe is the smallest ethnic group in Borneo Sarawak with a population of only 6,600. They live in the remote highlands, only reachable Indiana Jones-style through a few hardy days of gruelling jungle treks or via a jolly ride on a Twin-engine Otter plane. Remote and inaccessible as they are, this tribe is the cultivator of the world famous Barrio Rice – don’t embarrass yourself by calling yourself a foodie, if you have never heard of Bario Rice – this special rice has been registered as a product of Geographical Indication (GI) with the Malaysian Intellectual Property Organization (MyIPO).
This is my second trip to Kuching in less than a week and I was put up at Hilton Hotel which is conveniently located opposite Tribal Stove. Thrilled to see a sign saying ‘Serving Kelabit Highland Cuisine‘, I headed straight into the restaurant for a quick lunch. My initial thought was: “What? Another indigenous restaurant capitalising on the name ‘tribal’?”. If you have been reading my posts, I have eaten at 2 indigenous/ tribal restaurants (here and here) in my last trip and whilst I’ve enjoyed the cuisines, I couldn’t help but think that these has been modified to suit the city folks.
The restaurant is bright and cheerful, but more importantly air-conditioned and equipped with wifi. Adorned with black and white photocopied photographs depicting the traditional Kelabits’ way of life and decorated with handicrafts, I am finding myself to be quickly immersed in their culture. The recycled salvaged metal chairs, galvanised tables, old overhead lights , give a rusticated eclectic edge to the scene, practically hitting all the right chords for the Inner City set (that is, if you are from the Sydney’s Surry Hills set or somewhere where SOHO, NOHO are fashionable areas etc).
While listening to the soothing enchanting ethnic music, I checked out the interesting wall decorations – a tinge of tropical jungle vibe, perhaps?
Since the 3 of us are Kelabit cuisine virgins, rather than navigating the menu and interrogating the waitress with questions, we decided to order a set lunch each, setting ourselves up for surprises. Each set lunch comes with a choice of main, soup of the day, barrio white rice or nubaq layaq, 2 types of organic wild vegetables and a drink.
Apparently all the vegetables are flown in from the Bario-Bakelan Highlands. If you are a Greenie, you’d be dismayed at the carbon footprint each catty of vegs produced but then again, this is only collateral damage for the ‘environmental destruction’ that pave way for development, meaning trees have to be cut down to build roads, thus ‘illegal’ loggings, etc. There are 2 sides to a coin, so just let’s stick with the idea of isolating the Kelabits as martyrs for the good of the environment. Do not pull me into the debate, I am only a gluttonous foodie.
And for once, as a foodie, I am experiencing what is meant by ‘food truly offers an interesting insight to the various culture’.
I had Labo Senutuq (Shredded Beef or Serunding Style Beef) RM17 as my set lunch. I looked on with awe at the warm package wrapped in Daun Isip (a large green leaf) arrived. Oh, it was Nubaq Layaq, red mashed bario rice. It had an interesting mushy texture of what a mashed up rice should be, except it is not starchy. Traditionally, the Kelabits wrap their rice in isip leaves so that they can bring their rice to the farm, to keep it warm and to also use the leaf as a plate – ode to waste not, want not. The accompanying soup of the day is Soup Tengayan (jungle leaves) from the Bario-Bakelan Highlands.
My salad is Bunga Kantan, which is wild ginger flower. A subtle blend of crunchy deliciousness dressed in lime juice.
I did not know that banana leaves can be eaten, and this is an interesting. The soft shredded banana leaves cooked in coconut milk was my vegetarian curry that went very well with my mashed red bario rice.
Labo Senutuq is akin to beef floss jerky. The pounded and shredded beef was cooked in dried chilli and spices. Some bits were tough, but overall very tasty. Surprisingly, a very filling dish since I could only finish half of it.
My other 2 companion had:
A’beng/ Luan Tunee (Fish cooked tribal style) $16 and Kari Buaq Kabar (Pineapple curry) $16
A quick run-down:
A’beng is deboned fish which has been shredded. Cooked in a traditional style, presumably smoked in bamboo with some spices. It had a mild taste and an interesting soft texture. One would not had known that this is fish if not pointed out!
The Minced Bamboo Shoots Salad was a very fresh and simple salad. I think only salt was added to it. In this point, I should mention that the Kelabits also produce their own mineral-rich Bario Highland organic salt, wrapped in dried leaf. This is available for sale at Tribal Stove.
The wild Jungle Asparagus was very tender and cooked in sambal.
The Jungle Ferns with Baby Corns was delicious, simply cooked with salt.
The famous Bario Rice – smaller, less starchy, totally organic (think about it, pesticides costs money! Duh!)
For dessert, we had Banana and Breadfruit Chips, which we had ordered as starters but the kitchen forgot. Nevertheless, it was coated in sugar so made for good crispy dessert (sans chili sauce, of course)
I have never met a Kelabit. From the photos I saw on the wall, they looked very fashion-forward making even the edgiest punkster look tame with their huge ear-rings collection and long elongated ear lobes.
Tribal Stove is truly unique. The real appeal of this establishment is its wholesome, healthy back-to-roots approach of letting the organic ingredients shine through without a need for a twist. If I live in Kuching, I will certainly make this my mess! By the way, anyone be keen enough to trek up the Bario Highlands with me in 2014? 🙂