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5 things I learned through my gastronomic experience at Kapuas Hulu

As a Kayan from the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Kapuas Hulu is a place that feels familiar and foreign at the same time.

First of all, the Kapuas Hulu region in West Kalimantan is home to a wide diversity of indigenous communities such as the Iban, Silat, Sejiram, Seberaung and Kayan.

Hence, some of the dialects, architecture and of course, food are so familiar making a Sarawakian like me almost forget  that I was in another country.

It seems only natural since the north of Kapuas Hulu borders Sarawak. The differences in Malay dialect and vocabulary as well as infrastructure, however, did remind me that I was no longer in Malaysia.

Thanks to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia, I got to visit several districts (kecamatan) under Kapuas Hulu  such as Putussibau, Semitau, Suhaid, Badau and Batang Lupar from Sept 25 till 28, giving me the opportunity to explore what made us similar yet different.

Indonesian nasi goreng.

Here are five things I learned from a Sarawakian perspective through my culinary experience at Kapuas Hulu, Indonesia:

1. You can take the girl out of the village, but you sure can’t take the village out of the girl
You can pick which side dish to go with your rice. 

Terserah kedayakanmu, asyik-asyik makan daun ubi, (You are obviously a Dayak since you keep on eating cassava leaves).”

This was what one of my travelling companions, a local reporter from Pontianak said to me.

Malaysian-style ‘nasi campur’ is also common in neighbouring Indonesia. It is our local buffet style where you pick two or three mains – vegetable or protein – to go with your white rice. The price of your meal will be based on your dish types and portions.

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While other types of vegetables such as long beans, bean sprout, cabbage and cangkuk manis (Sauropus androgynus) are available, I guess the Kayan blood flowing through my veins led me to pick out the cassava leaves over the rest.

Locally known as daun ubi or sometimes daun bandung in Sambas regency, the leaves are pounded and stir-fried to perfection, just how Sarawakians would enjoy it.

Instead of the stainless steel canteen style setup we have in Malaysia, the nasi campur stalls across the border lay out their food in this attractive and ingenious way.
2. Chicken rice is called ‘ayam goreng’, not nasi ayam.
How an ‘ayam goreng’ would look like in Indonesia.

Ayam goreng means fried chicken in Malay. To order ayam goreng in Malaysia will bring you a piece of fried chicken. Meanwhile in Indonesia, ayam goreng comes with a bowl of rice and other side vegetables.

3. Tea is life, not coffee
Try es jeruk tambah susu which is lime juice with condensed milk.

Most of us in Malaysia love Indonesia’s famous and iconic beverage Teh Botol. Unsurprisingly, tea is a more preferred beverage in the country, compared to coffee.

Indonesia is just like Malaysia where ordering drinks can be tricky and different depending on which state you are in.

But here are key points to remember; it is called ‘es’ not ‘ais’ if you want to order an iced drink. Jeruk in Malaysia means pickled while in Indonesia, you can order ‘air jeruk’ which basically is a lime drink.

Interestingly, you can also order a cup of cappuccino in any common eatery. However do not expect it to come as a double espresso with steamed milk foam. It is equivalent to premixed Malaysian white coffee.

4. The fish is delicious in Kapuas Hulu!
Fish cooked with asam pedas (spicy tamarind).
Salted fish roe.

My visit to Kapuas Hulu revolved around Danau Sentarum. It is a magnificent-looking floodplain with plenty of  biodiversity treasures and resources especially fish. Hence, the star of my gastronomic experience is none other than the fish. At one point, it was hard to keep up with the types of fish I tried or which is which but I remember I have tried toman and biawan.

The only type of fish I tasted before during my trip was baung fish. It is a type of catfish which can also be found in Sarawak such as in Bakun or Belaga. In Kapuas Hulu, it is more common to cook these kinds of fish with asam pedas (spicy tamarind).

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Fish may not be everybody’s favourite kind of protein, but in Kapuas Hulu,  you might find yourself enjoying it as the freshness adds to its tastiness.

5. Kerupuk basah is a must-try snack
You must dip the kerupuk basah in the accompanying peanut sauce to enjoy it completely.

Kapuas Hulu’s kerupuk basah is reportedly Indonesian President Jokowi’s favourite food in West Kalimantan and I have to agree with the president because it was delicious. To this day I regret not buying some to bring home.

What might come to mind when you see kerupuk basah is how much it looks like the Malaysian keropok lekor, a traditional fish snack originally from Malaysian state of Terengganu.

The main similarity between kerupuk basah and keropok lekor is that both of them are made of fish but that’s where it ends.

Freshly cooked kerupuk basah in a steamer.

Kerupuk basah has a spongy and smooth texture, almost like a crossover of textures between siu mai and fish cake.

Apparently the most delicious type of kerupuk basah is made from belidak fish. The one I tried was made from toman fish, but it is still tasty.

Most of the time, the kerupuk is served straight from a steamer, although some people prefer it fried.

What makes kerupuk basah extra tasty though, is the peanut sauce that comes with it. Made from fried peanuts, salt, chilli and sugar, the peanut sauce that goes with kerupuk basah is sweeter than our typical peanut sauce here in Malaysia.

So if you ever make your way to Kapuas Hulu, especially its administrative centre Putussibau, do not leave the regency without trying this iconic snack.

Kerupuk basah.
A view of Kapuas river from Semitau.
A view of Kapuas river from Suhaid.
Danau Sentarum of Kapuas Hulu.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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