February 23, 2010

Food : Nibong - the forgotten palm

Oncosperma tigillaria
(Nibong Palm)

I will never forget the dinner in a small longhouse several years ago. The host went out with us to cut down a nibong tree just before the sun reached the top of the hills. He said it was time to prepare for dinner. He did not wear a watch. He then went to the small river which at that time was in pristine condition. He raised the traps he had put in earlier on in the morning and out came several prawns in each trap. He already had a few fish in his little boat when he came in from the padi fields. By the time we settled down for our bath in the river he had already cleaned the nibong and the prawns. He had all these in the bamboo canisters (pansur) over the fire on the rocks as we enjoyed our bath. The setting sun cast gentle shadows on the fire and the fragrance of the boiling fish and prawns filled the air. As the fire wood crackled and the charcoals spitted when liquid dropped on them I could tell that the cooking nibong was sweet and delectable.

His wife already had the rice cooked (in bamboo) and some nice vegetables stir fried  as we dressed . When we gathered on the mat (lampit)  he took out the bamboo canisters and poured out the food into the bowls.

We thus had a meal almost all from nature. How bountiful the earth was! Each morsel of food was appreciated by young and old. Very little cooking oil was used for our meal and I was amazed! The rise in price of cooking oil would not affect the financial status of this family.

Recently  during my land trip along the coast of Sarawak I came across some clumps of nibong trees and reminisced the pleasant longhouse dinner which have not been forgotten. This time round I had the opportunity to take photos of the nibong. That memorable trip was neither videoed nor digitally  photographed . But every image was imprinted on my mind. The fragrance of cooking nibong palm shoot would always trigger off the images in the future.

The Nibong Palm is often called the forgotten palm because in size it is nothing compared to the coconut which is very stately and ubiquitous. It is not as financially rewarding as the oil palm which fetches about 400 ringgit per ton. The nibong is slim and slender and often found in difficult terrain in the equatorial jungles.

In fact the Ibans have long woven its pattern into their pua kumbu. And this palm pattern has been  mentioned in "Iban Ritual Textiles" by Traude Gavin. Otherwise no many non Ibans would know of its significance in indigenous life.

The nibong wood is hard and very lasting. It can withstand the saline conditions of the open sea. On land the nibong is used as a building material like beams and posts. Many longhouses have been sturdily built in this way. Even termites cannot bite through the hard wood. The famous kelongs of Singapore and Selangor have been built using nibong. I have the opportunity of staying in the kelong when I was younger and had enjoyed life amongst the fishermen and their families. It was a memorable experience and the support from the nibong stilts/foundation was amazing. The sea was all around us and yet nothing would tilt or shake in the room!! At night we were safe as we watched by pressure lamp lights the fish and squid coming to the nets. Even when the wind blew there was nothing to be afraid of. I often wonder why the tourism industry would not make a kelong type of homestay to attract both foreign and local tourists.

For the women the nibong has proven its worth as good wood for utensils like ladles and scoops. Some are even custom made into special water containers and other decorative items for the stylish homes in the city.

Beautiful carved nibong trays for example have been specially ordered from the inner most parts of Sarawak for use in stately homes in Kuala Lumpur and even in London. Most of these become conversation piece for guests.

The two pictures show the slim nibong trees along the lowlands of Sarawak between Miri and Bintulu.

In Sabah the Bungkau (jaw's harp) is made from the bark of a nibong palm called bongkala)

The nibong also provides one of the tastiest palm shoots for the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak. The palm shoot is taken from a young sapling of the nibong. In fact when the nibong palm shoot is sold in the native market it is usually taken up as quickly as it is laid out for sale. For weddings in the longhouse the bridegroom's family members would go right into the jungle to cut some umbut nibong for the wedding feast. Thus is is a celebration food. Nibong palm can be cooked with coconut milk to make a nice soup. It can be cooked with ikan bilis to make a nice stew. Stir fried with meat and other vegetables it can appear in the choicest five star hotel restaurant as a specialty dish. The palm shoot can be cooked in as many different ways as the chef's imagination can bring.

The nibong should not be forgotten at all.


Uncle Lee said...

Hello Sarawakiana, Always educational read your interesting postings.
I am glad I have eaten the nibong, several times when I visited Sarawak back in the 80's....as well stayed in an isolated Longhouse, ate the rice cooked in bamboo.

Really nice....but I have learned not to fool around with 'Tuak'. It's got a kick like a sex crazed water buffalo! Ha ha.
I drink Whiskey, but the few times I had tuak in Longhouses....after 2, mistake old women for young, ha ha. Just kidding.

I miss seeing these beautiful nibong palms....and practically forgotten what grass colour is, as we have ice and snow outside past months, and right now its snowing like crazy, can hardly see outside. Temp -7'c.
You have a nice day.....enjoyed this posting....makes me dream of eating that nibong, make lemak, very nice. Lee.

Uncle Lee said...

Hi again, when and if I balek kampong, I would love to have the pleasure of buying you and family dinner where they serve this nibong dish.
By the way, I remember there's a famous fish dish called 'Kapit fish'....it was one of the most delicious fish I have eaten, in Sarawak.
Take me to eat this too, ha ha.
You stay young, Lee.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Uncle Lee
I am surprised you have eaten nibong shoots! This means that you have indeed travelled up country and it must have been quite difficult then.

I have read about the cold snap..how the White House is whiter than before.

-7 degrees C is not something I truly fancy....

But I am sure you are keeping your sense of humour.


Sarawakiana@2 said...

Uncle Lee
I sure hope to see you in East Malaysia. If you play golf there are a few good courses here. Sabah especially.
Nibong shoots have to be pre-orded ...Kapit fish or
Tengadak...or another type Empurau are more readily available in Sibu and Kapit. And of course Singapore has plenty of them in the best restuarants. I shall make some enquiries. Tapah is in season in July when they spawn.

I am sure you will enjoy Malaysia again. And we will fill you up with tuak...but won't make you mistake an old lady for a young lady....heheheheh.thanks for the laughter.

Daniel Yiek said...

I have that nibong palm spatula. I used it for scooping rice. Bought from an Indonesian hawker at Sarikei's roadside tamu

Sarawakiana@2 said...

That's a good thing to have. Very lasting. Chinese and Melanaus know that nibong can withstand water....so let's see how long our rice ladle can last...


Superman said...

Sad to tell I never try those before. If I can find it next time, I will try it for sure.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Happy Chinese New Year! Brunei folks love this upah...and I am sure Bintulu has lots of nibong shoots. According to most of my friends nibong shoots are still the best of the wild and organic shoots available in Sarawak. Oil palm shoots have too much fertilizers...so be careful. You need to soak the shoots for sometime before cooking.


wenn said...

very interesting!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Perhaps in West Malaysia Nibong is not used as wood for building homes and for craftswork.

Over here the Indigenous make full use of thishardy wood. Ladles and spatulas and some very fancy sculptures are sold commercially.


Anonymous said...

Upah Nibong of course is a greatly valued food for us....I love my grandmother's cooking. Just something simply boiled with fresh water prawns...my sisters cook with kunyit and belacan....

When fresh it is just so good. We normally get one tree and share with our relatives...thanks for featuring the food.

Good day.


Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Justin
Yes the nibong is an upper river tree and it is provided by God for free! How wonderful it is an organic food.

A friend said that it is the best ingredient in the Philippines for lumpia (popia).

I am sure the Ibans will be able to find nibong in West Malaysia .....must check it out in the JB Iban Market.

Thanks for visiting.

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