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How salt was obtained in the olden days of Borneo

Salt plays an important role in not just Sarawakian cuisine, but in Borneo overall.

Besides seasoning, every community, whether they were Iban, Bidayuh or Kadazandusun, used salt as a means to preserve their food.

Here are just five ways how salt was obtained in Borneo back when there were no supermarkets:

Salt is such an available commodity for us today; we can simply buy it from any grocery store or supermarket. Have you ever wondered how the olden communities of Borneo used to get it back in those days?

1.Nipah palm

Nipah salt or garam attap is salt processed from the mature leaves of the nipah palm, Nypa fruticans.

Here in Borneo, nipah palm grows wild and abundantly along coastal areas, especially in Borneo.

The palms are constantly washed by saltwater daily and this salt can be processed from the leaves.

Unlike conventional salt, it has a smoky flavour as well as the aroma of dried nipah leaves.  

Here is how Reverend Andrew Horsburgh in Sketches in Borneo described nipah salt processing:

”The chief condiment of the Dyaks is salt, which they procure from the nipah palm, and which they much prefer to that obtained by evaporation from seawater. The boughs of the nipa are cut, dried, and burnt, and their ashes washed in water, so as to dissolve the salt contained in them. This water being then allowed to run off clear is evaporated in pans, the salt remaining at the bottom of the vessel. It is a dirty grey and often black-looking substance, processing a slightly bitter taste, which is grateful to the palate of the Dyaks; and it is generally produced in a masses of considerable size and as hard as a stone, it has much the appearance of a mineral that has been dug out of the earth.”

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2.Seaweed

According to Captain Thomas Forrest in A Voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas from Balambangan (1780), the Bajau would gather seaweed, burn them, make a lye of the ashes, filter it and finally form a bitter kind of salt.

Salted fish, a common delicacy found in Sabah and Sarawak.
3.Mangrove roots and nipah palm

Meanwhile, Spenser St John recorded how salt was processed at the foot of Mount Kinabalu.

“They burnt the roots of the mangrove with those of the nipah palms as well as wood collected on the sea-beach and therefore impregnated with salt.

In one place, I noticed a heal, perhaps fifteen feet in height, sheltered by a rough covering of palm leaves, and several men were about checking all attempts of the flames to burst though by throwing saltwater over the pile. This doubtless, renders the process much more productive. In one very large shed, they had a kind of rough furnace, where they burnt the wood; and suspended around were many baskets in which the rough remains of the fire are placed, and the whole then soaked in water and stirred about till the salt is supposed to have been extracted from the charcoal and ashes. The liquid is the boiled, in large iron pans purchased from the Chinese.”

4.Seawater and ashes of driftwood

In The Gardens of the Sun, British explorer and tropical plant collector Frederick William Burbidge detailed how the Kedayans used a combination of seawater and ash to obtain their salts.

“The ashes of driftwood are placed in a tub and seawater poured over them. To evaporate the water, receptacles are neatly made from the sheaths of the Nibong palm, fastened into shape by slender wooden skewers. Two logs are then laid parallel to each other, and a foot or fifteen inches apart, and over these the pans are placed close together, so as to form a rude kind of flue, in the which a fire of light brushwood is lighted, and very soon afterwards the salt maybe observed falling to the bottom of the evaporators.”

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5.Salt springs
Salt spring in the Krayan Highlands.

Even to this day, the people of Bario and Ba Kelalan Highlands (Malaysia) as well as Krayan Highlands in (Indonesia) still use salt springs to make salt.

The water from these natural springs is boiled and evaporated for an extended period of time before it is dried to form salt.

An example of how saltwater is processed traditionally these days.

Read how salt springs are processed in Long Midang, Krayan in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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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