Harvest festival, or as we say it in Iban Language “Hari Gawai Dayak” is a festival celebrated by the Dayak. Dayak is a large community consisting of many different tribes under it. With that being said, Gawai Dayak is celebrated in many ways according to each tribe. However, there is one thing that is always similar; the food during the festival. In our tribe, we, the whole members of the longhouse, cook everything together for Gawai Dayak. We, the Iban tribe really protect our tradition. Some of the food vary according to time but there are some that will always remind me of the old days. After all, traditions are how people can travel back in time and reminisce the good memories behind it such as these.
1. Sarang Semut
Sarang Semut is one of must-serve food (or rather snack) during Gawai Dayak. Simply made from rice flour mixed with water and sugar syrup, fried till it is crispy and golden, one bite literally melts in your mouth. It is as crispy as crackers but it disintegrates (or rather melt) with ease with every bite. This is the reason why not many can eat it without it falling on their clothes or floor. Normally served as snacks when the villagers are conversing with each other. The elderly loves to eat it while drinking coffee. One fun fact about Sarang Semut; the English direct translation is ant’s nest.)
A favourite among the sweet toothed, Acuan is that one biscuit that they will always search for during Gawai Dayak. As simple as Sarang Semut, it is made from the combination of rice flour, egg, coconut sugar, coconut milk, and some edible limewater, fried to perfect golden brown. It is very addicting where one bite leads to more bites. For me, each bite reminds me of the old days when I used to fight with my brother over the last piece of Acuan. Up until now, hearing “Nyau abis acuan kitai ney” (We’re out of Acuan) will never get old as it is everyone’s favourite.
This is the dish that Dayak people consider as their main dish. This scrumptious dish is made by first marinating the meat (chicken or pork or fish) with shallots, garlic, a bit of ginger, lemongrass and salt for seasoning overnight so that all of the flavours absorbed by the meat. Then the marinated ingredients, together with tapioca leaves, are put into thick bamboo stick before being slowly cooked under hot flaming charcoal which adds up the aroma that can be smelled from afar. What makes it special is that it is cooked without adding water or cooking oil. Despite that, the dish itself has gravy which comes from the steam produced in the bamboo while it is being cooked, which adds up to the distinguishable taste that can make anyone fall in love with it upon one tasting.
These three dishes are among the things that completes Gawai Dayak celebration. As the saying goes, “Food brings people together”, these dishes did no little than uniting everyone who lives in the same longhouse even before the celebration starts. In Iban, everyone in the longhouse is a part of our family. Hence, we keep the tradition of preparing dishes together for the celebration makes everyone bond with each other. My late grandfather once said “Rindu meda bala orang begempuru maya berapi kena gawai, mulaika pengingat lama.” (It’s fun seeing everyone together for Gawai Dayak, just like the old days). It does brings me back to my childhood which sometimes made me smile myself just thinking of it.
By John Anak Ramsay, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia