More food from the jungle: bamboo chicken, ferns, and a bilingual pun

6 Jan

If you’re not in the mood for noodles, Borneo has a lot of other unique cuisine to offer. On our first night in Kuching, we decided to cross the river on a sampan — kind of like the traghettos in Venice — and have dinner in the kampung. We found a shack (strategically located next to the jetty) advertising “traditional Borneo bamboo chicken,” so we decided to give it a try.

We were pretty hungry — it had been 5 hours since the kolo mee — so we started in right away with an order of a very aptly named Sarawakian specialty, umai. (Umai means “delicious” in Japanese; it’s the root of umami.)

Shrimp ceviche, Malaysian-style

It’s basically a Southeast Asian version of ceviche: seafood “cooked” in lime juice and salt, with copious amounts of ginger, onions, chili, and Sarawak pepper. We later had a version with tilapia at our hotel in Batang Ai, a large man-made lake (resulting from a dam) in the middle of the jungle. Because the water is so clean, and the fish so fresh, it didn’t have any of that muddy flavor I usually associate with freshwater fish.

The specialty of the house, being grilled over charcoal

It’s a good thing we had an appetizer, because the bamboo chicken was not what you’d call fast food. Pieces of chicken and a variety of secret jungle herbs (15 types, according to the menu) are stuffed into a piece of bamboo, then steam-grilled over live charcoal. The bamboo adds its own unique woodsy flavor, kind of like planked whitefish or salmon.

The Reveal

Alas, the bamboo doesn’t hold a lot of chicken. It actually reminded me of Hawaiian food, like lau lau or chicken luau (chicken cooked with taro leaves and coconut). I don’t know a whole lot about the anthropological background of the indigenous Borneo tribes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re related to Polynesians in some way; so much of the food reminds of Hawaiian foods (except for all that chili, of course).

Jungle fern

A lot of what’s in the jungle will kill you (according to our guide), but there’s still plenty that can be foraged for eating. Ferns are highly prized; come to think of it, ferns seem to be beloved in every culture that has a chance to eat them. If you’ve never had ferns before, give it a try; they’ve started popping up at farmers’ markets in the springtime. The flavor is like a cross between asparagus (the thin kind) and kale stems…sort of. The above ferns were stir-fried with sambal belacan, because honestly, what else are Malaysians going to do with a green? Make a salad?

Ferns, fusion-style

Oh, wait.

We had dinner the next night at a fusion restaurant, and since I hardly ever eat salad here, I was craving greens that weren’t doused in oil. These ferns were blanched, then tossed with vinaigrette, and topped with “powder cheese.” I love belacan greens, but it was a nice change.


One Response to “More food from the jungle: bamboo chicken, ferns, and a bilingual pun”


  1. Borneo: Long Spiegen, Long Kerong and Long Lamai « Travel Musings - June 26, 2011

    […] times. I’ve bought back Meden (an edible jungle fern, a picture can be found on this travel blog), tapioca leaves and wild pineapple. All pretty tame stuff. There are loads of foraging trails in […]

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