Tuai ewu' aku' means 'Come follow me' in the language of the indigenous Penan peoples of Sarawak, Borneo. This blog is an invitation to you to follow me on my big adventure to learn about this tribe and experience the natural beauty of Borneo. Tuai ewu' aku' ! x

Friday, November 12, 2010

Eating - Penan style.

This blog is quite long because its about something very important.  Food!!  Nothing makes me feel further from home than different food and resultant tummy aches.  On the other hand, I can be surprised at the new food that I enjoy.

As my close friends might know, my diet back home in Oz generally consisted of stir fries (tofu & veg), possibly veg soup, the odd pasta and of course, my staple meal- muesli and yogurt.  Well, that diet has been completely turned upside down by my stay with the Penan.  Now, I get hungry if I haven't eaten rice in the morning and I've started putting chilli sauce on all my food. I've even gotten used to the taste of MSG.  I've discovered that its possible to eat the same thing everyday.

When the Penan were a nomadic tribe living in the jungle, their staple food was 'Uvut', which we know as Sago.  They also hunted the wild boar, 'Babui' and other animals like monkeys and Civit cats.  They still hunt but now that they live in settled villages, their diet has changed somewhat.  They grow and harvest rice and therefore it a major part of their diet.  While staying in the villages, I would usually eat rice three times per day, often more.  Did I reach my rice limit?  I feel like I reached that limit and came right out the other side.  I had no idea that my body could take so much rice.:)

The rice is served with a variety of dishes. Here are some of their main ones;

Tapioca
The Penan often eat their rice with a Tapioca.  They take the young leaves and crush them and stir fry them with MSG, sauce and salt.  This was one of my favourites.:)
Serena tears the leaves with her hands
Then crushes them to a pulp
After frying, this is the result

The closest thing I had to fries while I was in the village was the fried Tapioca root.  Delicious!

Also the fried sweet potato.  Yum:)
Here are some other common vegetable dishes.

Fern
Cooked fern
No idea what this is!
This Papaya was from the tree outside our house
Cooked Papaya
Uvut (Sago)
The Penan no longer eat Sago as often as they used to but they still know how to collect the root and make it into different dishes.   The plant itself is a scary, spiky palm tree-like thing which they have to cut open to get the food from. It takes skill not to get spiked!
Issac cutting the Sago
Soft Sago inside
The Penan make the Sago into a powder and then add water.  Like magic, the Sago turns into a gluey-like food which they can eat instead of rice.  To be honest, this wasn't my favourite dish.  I couldn't get over the globby texture.:)

They also fry the Sago and make 'Seego'.  They put sugar on it and it becomes a chewy sort of sweet/biscuit. Quite good actually.
I'm holding this with the Penan version of a fork
Selawan (Fish)
The Penan are excellent fisherwomen and fishermen.  They use nets to catch the fish in the rivers.


Snails
I got a bit of a shock when I came to breakfast one morning and saw this next dish.  I had no idea how to eat it!  The Penan were sucking on the shells nothing came out when I tried. (lol!)  In the end I had to grab my pocket knife and lever the snails out.
Babui (Wild Boar)
The Penan have been eating wild boar for many many generations.  It is a favourite part of their diet.  When someone hunts and kills a wild boar, it is cut up and shared throughout the village.  I got used to seeing bits of wild boar in the kitchen; sometimes head, sometimes legs, torso.  It takes alot of work to cut up, skin and cook a wild boar and there is plenty for all.
This is actually someone's 'pet' babui but I've put it in to show you what they look like.  As the Penan would never eat a pet, this is one lucky Babui.:)
Babui fritters

After eating some Babui, I had a terrible tummy ache.  The Penan gave me a watery porridge-type food called Babil and I was all better. :)

Monkey
Imagine this; you come home after a walk and the father in your house asks you if you'd like to see a monkey.  You say 'Yes' and look up in the trees to see if you can spot it.  Instead, he reveals a big furry male monkey that is also clearly dead. If you can imagine that horrible moment, than you have a taste of how I felt when I saw this.
Its quite normal for the Penan to eat Monkey, though it might seem gross to us.  Here is what the monkey dish looked like.

The answer is yes- I did try a little piece of monkey....and almost retched.  It had a very strong smell and dark, soft texture.  Also, it just seemed too....human.

Some favourites;
All in all, eating with the Penan has been one of the more challenging aspects of my travels.  I found myself craving fruits and veggies that I had back in Melbs, not to mention good chocolate (which you can't find anywhere in Malaysia).  Every morning, lunch, afternoon and night, my family would invite me to 'Mesep Ba', which literally means 'Drink Water', but in this case meant drink very very sweet Milo with condensed milk.  For someone who never drinks Milo, this was hard.  At other times, a meal would be served without any vegetables.  For instance, after a Babui was hunted, I was served a breakfast of three dishes, all Babui cooked in different ways.  Back home, of course, I rarely eat meat, so my tummy didn't like this.  On one occasion I was served cooked Monitor Lizard, fresh from the river.  It tasted fishy. Another thing, they love MSG flavoring.  Its in absolutely every dish (in Malaysia, not just the Penan areas). Not good.

Still, I had my favourite dishes.  Apart from the Tapioca I mentioned, I also loved these floured and fried banana pieces.
 Also, the pancakes they made were very nice.

Despite some difficulties, one of the things that I really appreciated about living with the Penan was being able to see where the food came from.  The basic fact that all food, both plant and animal, was once alive is so much more apparent when you see an animal that has just been killed or even when you pick leaves off a plant for food.  I know it sounds obvious but for me, it seemed a revelation.

Bon Appetit Penan style!




5 comments:

  1. Hi Angela! Wow, all that food looks so intriguing. I must admit I have tried snail a couple of times and it wasn't bad! The pieces of green vegies floating in the broth I believe is Okra. I really like it when it's chopped up more finely and stir fried, yum! I did a blog on vegetarian dumplings I made with Tammy once and you can see it in a bowl in the background. Now I know what sago originally looks like, amazing! The monkey definitely was off-putting, you were brave to try it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh darling, u are indeed very brave. The dishes do sound quite a challenge. I suppose that is the whole point of this trip to see different things and experience life in a different way. It makes me feel that their life is still rather natural and down to earth. The traditional agricultural society dreams a world where men hunt and plant while women cook and weave. Your monkey part is quite a story. I think I will be in shock as well. Love these snails. They ware freshwater food and can be quite delicious, not at breakfast though. All sound a great adventure. Put more on.

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  3. Just a brief comment from an anthropologist who have stayed with the Penan on several occasions: This food is absolutely delicious and far, far, far beyond the reach of the average Penan. Most Penan are deprived of foods like this. They are very poor and subjected to all kinds of threats: 1) Deforestation, 2) Pressure from Sarawak's autorities and, not least, 3) they are facing cultural destruction as a consequence of Christian missionary work designed to take the Penan out as a selfsustaining culture.
    I would hope for my Penan friends that they could have meals such as this every now and then, but they simply can't.

    Best wishes

    X (Sorry, but I have to remain anonymous to protect my friends in sarawak)

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  4. Thanks Anonymous, for making those important points. Unfortunately my experience with the Penan is limited to those living around the Solungo river, in the villages of Long Kerong and Long Speigan. Their lifestyle may not resemble that of other Penan in the region, although I have been told that most of the Penan have settled into villages and very few are still nomadic. I would be very interested to hear more of your time with the Penan - perhaps you could email me, roxangella@hotmail.com.

    Ang

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