New Spin on Tribal Dining @ Absolute Tribal, Kuching, Malaysia

Date of Visit: September 10 2013

Eager to try umai, my friend recommended me to Absolute Tribal, a modern Thai-Dayak fusion restaurant attached to Sarakraf. Sarakraf stands for Sarawak Arts and Craft Center, a semi-private initiavtive setup to conserve and promote Sarawak’s heritage in arts and crafts through cultural workshops and demonstrations. There is an art gallery, craft shop and a budget accommodation in the compound which is very popular.

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Sarakraf HQ is an old Colonial Building

My friend and I had a little tour of the centre before lunch and met with Gerald, the brains behind Sarakraf, the artist-in-residence who is also the owner. All the paintings on the walls were painted by him.

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Mini Museum/ Art Gallery

The entrance to the restaurant is through here – the yellow frame with a hot pink portico.

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Restaurant

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Entrance

There are a number of dining spaces designed in different styles – chairs or floor seats, indoor or outdoor, modern or tribal – to suit one’s fancy and to accommodate specific functions and the number of people.

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Jungle pond with a monkey swinging in the middle of the restaurant

This is where we dined, at the ‘tribal’ room. The walls are adorned with bamboos and attap leaves. It is very private, away from the main dining area and has a dark rustic feel which I liked.

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Tribal Dining Room

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Woven mats on floor, bamboos and attap leaves on walls

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Pua (traditional weaving), spear and shield adorn the wall

As soon as we are seated, we were presented a very lengthy menu listing Thai, Dayak and local food at our table. The ‘Durian Inspired Menu‘ has just been released and I noted with interest that this menu is available from 7:30am to 9:30pm. Seriously? Durian at 7:30am, anyone? Certainly ‘takes your breath away’…as the tagline goes. *phoof*

Well,  it’s 1:00pm and I am digging to try tempoyak.   I am currently into fermented foods for the probiotics benefits and am  making kefir and kimchi at home.  But so far, have never tasted tempoyak.  Tempoyak is fermented durian, if you repel from the stink of durian, wait for this one!

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Tempoyak Menu.
Source: Absolute Tribal’s FB page

So without much ado, the first to arrive was Tempoyak Ikan Bilis (RM8).  The speedy arrival was due to the waitress’s mistake in delivery,  it was our neighbour’s order, oh well, we didn’t realise until half-way through.  The white-baits were deep-fried first before re-frying with lemongrass, chili, onions and tempoyak. Additional fish sauce was added for seasoning. I identified the faint stinky tempoyak smell straight away, it also has a distinctive salty fermented taste. This dish is good source of calcium since you eat the fish, bones and all.

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Tempoyak Ikan Bilis

Tempoyak Curry Fish with Terung Dayak (RM25). I quite enjoyed this dish – especially the terung dayaks (sour eggplants)  which I have taken a liking to  from my dinner at  the.Dyak  last night.  This  is a thick salty tangy dish with a creamy santan base,  sour terung dayaks and faint hint of  tempoyak.   A mild tasting dish which is very moreish.  I think I am a new convert to tempoyak now.  A trip to the central market to get a few of these is in order. Talking about my laziness, here’s an interesting blog on a couple who went on a durian hunting trail all over the world for a year (link here). Now, if  only I have the motivation…

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Tempoyak Curry Fish with Terung Dayak

This is my friend’s favourite – Deep fried Kai-Lan with Chicken Floss (RM15) which she has high praises for. She liked the crunchy leaves and sweet chicken floss while I preferred the stir-fried stalks. It was drizzled with fish sauce which imparted a light sweet taste. A dish that looked healthy but certainly not!

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Deep fried Kai-Lan with Chicken Floss

Smoked Duck Kerabu (RM20). Kerabu means salad (I googled). This is smoked duck strips that is deep-fried then served on a bed of slaw and garnished with a lot of lemon grass and shallots. A very salty, yet delectable dish, served with a drizzle of light fish sauce (again) 😊

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Smoked Duck Kerabu

Umai (RM25). This is the dish I have been waiting SO long. Raw fish cooked in lime or cerviche. The presentation was nice – raw fish on a bed of slaw surrounded by a few slices of cucumbers and topped with shallots and lemongrass. Unfortunately, not what I had imagined because it was not ‘cooked in lime’. I detected fishiness from the fish and relied heavily on the accompanying sauce of chili padi, garlic, lime to mask the taste. In fact, I like the hot sauce so much that I burnt my mouth!😳 Lucky I have my cold glass of lemon -mint infused water at hand and half serve of rice to bind me over.

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Umai

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Garlic, shallot, lemongrass, lime sauce

Overall, an hour of satisfying meal in the company of an old friend in a totally relaxing atmosphere.  A different experience from  the.Dyak  and a different way of cooking traditional Dayak cuisine.

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Orang Hutan

Dining the Headhunter’s Way @ the.Dyak, Kuching, Malaysia

Date of Visit: September 9 2013

As a foodie-culturalista, I am keen to find out what the Dayaks and their much feared forebears, the headhunters ate.

Although the indigenous tribe in Borneo collectively known as ‘Dayak’ comprises 40% of the population in Sarawak, it is perplexing to discover that there is only 1 fine dining restaurant in Kuching serving authentic Dayak cuisine – the.Dyak which opened in late 2011.

The restaurant is an attention-grabbing corner shop in a shophouse, with 2 big red pillars decorated in Dayak florid motifs. One enters the restaurant through the elaborately decorated gable entry into an Aladdin cave of Dayak treasures. Every single inch of the wall is adorned – mirrors, beadworks, weavings, family portraitures, blowpipes, sapes, just to name the few – totally making a cultural anthropologist swoon. One can truly chillax chief-of-the-longhouse-style in the air-conditioned comfort, perhaps even updating one’s Facebook status or write a review on TripAdvisor (which is a popular mode of advertising for the competitive restaurant market in Kuching) with the free wifi provided.

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Elaborately decorated gable entrance in traditional motifs

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Indigenous artefacts adorning the wall

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More artefacts towards the back of the restaurant

I am especially intrigued with the Dayak motifs and designs – each piece tells a story. (Some introductory background info here)

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R: Sape (3-string musical instrument)
L: Table cloth

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Motif of a Dayak man on the gable entrance

Navigating a Dayak menu of unfamiliar food is a breeze with a pictorial menu with English descriptions and an attentive waiter on standby to explain the intrinsics of the dishes. There are many items in the menu ranging from grilled, roasted and fermented meats; fermented durians, jungle shoots and vegetables, many of which I have never tried. I was disappointed to find that sago worms, puffer fish and raw fish which were the dishes I had especially came for needed 2 weeks advance notice.

Despite that, there are other interesting indigenous Dayak cuisine that impressed me.

First to arrive at our table was the Tilapia Terung Dayak (RM35). A giant fish head thrusting out from the platoon of aromatic lemongrass, fried garlic and shallots in a thick piquant yellow turmeric soup. The star here is the unassuming ‘terung dayak‘ or sour eggplant , an indigenous fruit to Borneo resembling tomato, socking a KO mouth-puckering sour punch to the soup. I am very drawn to the toughness of the terung dayak which did not disintergrate in the cooking process, thus giving me enjoyment in every bite. The fish on the other hand was so-so with lots of small bones, so best eat with caution. My dining companion who has strong aversions to fishiness told me that this is a farmed fish because she detected ‘muddiness’ in the fish. Little wonder, since fresh river fish is hard to come by due to water pollution and over-fishing of the past.

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Tilapia Terung Dayak

With the plethora of salty-tangy-aromatics, rescue came in the form of red unhusked rice (RM3 per person). Perfect for soaking up the gravies and soups to placate my over-worked taste buds.

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Red unhusked rice

The dish that I was looking forward to was Manok Lulun (RM23), also commonly known as Ayam Pansoh. This is traditional Dayak cuisine of chicken cooked in bamboo with ginger, onions, lemongrass, ginger flowers and tapioca leaves. However, the zingy soup is a tad too salty and I could not detect any bamboo fragrance at all, perhaps it was overpowered by the use of lemongrass.

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Manok Lulun

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Chicken pieces in Manok Lulun with ginger flower petal

In the hunter-gatherer nomadic tribes around the world, fresh meats are scarce and usually preserved for important events and festivals. With fermented foods all the rage at the moment, I am eager to test out indigenously cured meat dishes.

Jani Kasam (RM25) is fermented pork with fat and skin intact (3 -layered meat), sautéed with tapioca leaves and garlic. This is my favourite dish, unfortunately not for the uninitiated. It has the pungent smell of stinky beancurd, very salty and very sour – but for me – totally appetising!

This is the first time that I have eaten the slippery and mushy tapioca leaves. It has a very interesting soft textures which I enjoyed. Apparently, tapioca or cassava leaves were part of the Dayak’s staple diet. They have a lot of beneficial minerals and were foraged plants that grew in the wild. Nowadays, they are cultivated at almost all the longhouses.

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Jani Kasam with Tapioca Leaves

Another beneficial plant that I have never tried is the Daun Ubi Randau Guring (RM12) or Sweet Potato Leaves. This is a delicious sautéed vegetables with garlic and desiccated coconut, the original version has dried shrimps which I have asked to be omitted due to my allergy.

According to a new report from the University of Arkansas, sweet potato leaves has the world’s richest source of disease-fighting antioxidants and poised to become the next big health-food craze – Glad I’ve tasted it now!

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Daun Ubi Randau Guring

The finale to our meal is the much lauded Tuak ice-cream (Rm6.50). Tuak is fermented rice wine akin to Chinese rice wine. The alcohol content ranges from low 10% up to 50%. This is an easy to assemble dessert at home (provided one knows how to make tuak), a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on top of fermented rice or jiuniang, which happens to be my favourite dessert (my review of the jiuniang in Hong Kong here ), doused with tuak and finished with crunchy pralines toppings. A decadently refreshing dessert.

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Tuak ice-cream

My general verdict of traditional Dayak cuisine is that it is healthy food consisting of previously foraged (now cultivated) and fermented foods. I am sure that the.Dyak had modernised the menu to suit modern tastebuds, thus the afinity to Thai cuisine in the use of aromatics such as lemongrass, shallots and garlic. Taste-wise, I find the overall taste of the dishes to be quite similar and a bit salty. Food is on the expensive side, with a glass of warm water costing RM1.

While googling info on Dayak cuisine, I found this write-up on capitalising on Sarawak cultural food (here), the.Dyak’s proprietor is one of the restauranteur interviewed. Let’s hope for new Dayak restaurants openings!