My first thought was,
“These open-toed Birkenstocks were not the right choice of footwear for this afternoon walk in the jungle.”
While my eyes were quick to track the mosquitoes swarming me, the eyes of the Dayak minas leading me were quick to track something else.
I squinted my eyes. “Dimana?”
They pointed and I spotted a menacing vine covered with thorns suspended mid-air between trees.
How the first Dayaks came to see this plant — the same source of material for outdoor furniture and handicrafts — as edible is beyond me.
The Kalimantan rainforest provides an innumerable source of edible plants, such as rotan, and many of them have natural defenses to keep people away, such as thorns or bristles that cause itchiness.
Dayaks ignored these warnings long ago.
Using the jungle as their only food source for centuries, their ability to identify what plants were safe to eat came from years of observation. Clues were gathered from monitoring what animals grazed on and if they survived as a result.
Not surprisingly, much of their original diet consisted of roots, shoots and leaves — sayur alam, which I heard many times. A number of them are bitter in flavor, but when focused on sustenance, taste did not matter. However, that is not to say Dayaks do not care about the enjoyment of their cuisine. Over the years, while their taste buds acclimated to the bitterness, they also learned how to coax it out in the cooking process with the balancing of flavors from other ingredients and usage of spices.
When it comes to rotan, thanks to the biodiversity of the rainforest, several varieties are found and used, such as singkah irit, singkah umbut, singkah rua and singkah nange. Rotan’s most valuable quality, especially in this time of Kalimantan’s environmental fragility, is that it needs to grow in a healthy ecosystem where it can spread itself across other trees. This makes it a modest, yet significant alternative to what farmers can profit from other than oil palm trees, while sustaining the existence of this island’s remaining rainforest.
The edible portion of rotan is the white, inner core of a young vine or stem. Dayaks remove the thorns with their mandau and peel off the tough, outer layer. The texture is like bamboo or heart of palm after it is boiled until tender. It is often paired with sour vegetables like terong asem or tomatoes to offset the bitterness. The most common methods to cook rotan are into soups, sautéed or roasted in the fire.
Unfortunately, after centuries of cooking with rotan, it is starting to lose its prominence in everyday Dayak cuisine. As generations of Dayaks assimilate to city life, and as the rainforest continues to be reduced deep into the island, the cultural and physical distance of rotan as a food source is expanding at a rapid rate. For example, in Palangkaraya, the capital city of Kalimantan Tengah with a majority Dayak population, only a handful of restaurants incorporate rotan in their daily menu.
Therefore I share this recipe as a tribute to Dayak cuisine, because it is still alive in villages far from the city. I valued the moments I have had to walk side-by-side with locals on their land — their rainforest — and observe how it remains an integral part of their lives. These plants and dishes are not yet lost but vulnerable, and exemplifying Asli Food Project’s purpose.
Note: If you live somewhere other than Southeast Asia, you will have a difficult time sourcing ingredients for this recipe. However, substitutes are available to recreate this dish. Use heart of palm or bamboo in place of rotan singkah for its texture. In this case, you can forego the first step of the recipe. Keladi is taro and can be substituted with another starchy root, such as cassava or sweet potato. Instead of terong asem, use tamarillo, tomatillo or green tomatoes; the sour flavor is important. And finally, daun salam can be substituted with bay leaf.