If you’re planning a visit to the Land of Hornbills this Gawai Festival, make sure you prepare your tummy for some unique, must-try dishes!
Photo © Tourism Malaysia
One of the most colourful, unique celebrations in the world, the Gawai Dayak (Hari Gawai or Harvest Festival) rolls around on June 1 every year, a day of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest while praying for another good farming season ahead. It’s definitely one of the best times to visit Sarawak as one would be able to really experience the tribal culture and customs of the Dayak communities as festivities come to life.
Gawai translates to ritual or festival and Dayak is a collective name for the tribes native to the interior of Borneo island (comprising Malaysia and Indonesia) such as Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut.
The festival, which kicks off early with the brewing of ‘tuak’ (a ritual drink part and parcel of Gawai) and the preparation of traditional delicacies such as ‘penganan’ (cakes from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk) and ‘ngelulun pulut’ (glutinous rice roasted in bamboo), may last up to several days, even weeks. It’s also a popular season for weddings.
On the eve of Gawai, a ceremony called ‘muai antu rua’ starts the celebrations – a ritual to cast away the spirit of greediness. This involves children or men going around the longhouse carrying a ‘chapan’ (winnowing basket) inviting each family member to throw unwanted items into the basket. These items will then be discarded as a “sacrifice” to keep bad spirits at bay.
Following the offering ceremony known as ‘miring’ accompanied by ritual music, the feast chief will express his gratitude to the gods for the good harvest, seeking guidance and blessings as he sacrifices a cockerel. Dinner ensues soon after and at the stroke of midnight, the sound of a gong invites everyone to partake in the ‘ai pengayu’ (tuak for long life) ritual whilst wishing each other long life, health and prosperity (gayu-guru, gerai- nyamai). Then a procession to welcome the spirits known as ‘ngalu petara’ ensues, and the celebration gets merrier with dancing, traditional music, ‘pantun’ (poetry) recitals. The following day, other activities are carried out including cock-fighting, blowpipe demonstrations and ‘ngajat’ (dancing) competitions.
What’s a festival without great delicacies, right? ‘Ayam pansuh’ or ‘manok pansoh’ (pic below) is a MUST-HAVE dish during the Gawai festival. This unique Iban delicacy involves stuffing all the ingredients – such as cut chicken pieces, lemongrass, garlic, red onion, galangal, ginger and chillies – into a bamboo stalk and letting it cook over an open fire. This method of cooking locks in the flavour, resulting in juicy and tender chicken with naturally flavourful gravy.
Traditional cakes such as ‘sarang semut’ (ant nest cake), ‘cuwan’ (moulded cake) and ‘kuih sepit’ (twisted cake) complement the savoury dishes, along with ‘penganan iri’ (pic below), a deep-fried discus-shaped cake made chiefly from rice flour and palm sugar.
Other Top Sarawakian Dishes
Being the largest state in Malaysia, Sarawak comprises multi-racial communities making way for a huge variety of ethnically-influenced dishes as well as cooking styles. The following are just some of the MUST-TRY specialties that will certainly enhance your stay in the Borneo state!
This one has even won a special place in the heart of the late great Anthony Bourdain. A vermicelli rice noodle dish, Laksa Sarawak’s core is the thick shrimp-based broth made from sambal belacan (dried prawn paste), tamarind, garlic, galangal and lemongrass – thickened with coconut milk.
Springy egg noodles make up the carb portion of Mee Kolo, tossed in a light sauce. It is characteristically dry; ‘kolo’ in fact comes from the Chinese Cantonese translation ‘gon lo’, which means ‘dry mix’. This is a non-halal dish as it’s topped with sliced barbequed pork (char siew), minced pork fried in lard, fish sauce and shallots.
Umai is a traditional native dish of the Melanau people of Sarawak. A dish of sliced raw fish with a mixture of onions, chillies, salt and lime juice, this exotic salad was invented by Melanau fishermen who were reluctant to cook aboard their fishing boats for fear of fire hazards.
One of Sibu’s signature foods, the Kompia is an iconic pastry which has been a part of the Foochow community traditions for centuries – hence known as Foochow bagels. It is traditionally baked in charcoal ovens, they’re slightly crispy on the outside and stuffed with meat cooked in a special gravy.
Kek Lapis Sarawak (Layer Cake)
Believed to have originated from Indonesia, Kek Lapis Sarawak Layer is a striking snack/dessert. ‘Lapis’ means ‘layer’ in Malay, and the cake must at least consist of two colours. Ingredients include flour, butter (or vegetable oil), milk, eggs and other ingredients required for the desired flavour.
Photos © iStock by Getty Images (unless otherwise specified)