To know Sabah is to know her food—traditional food, that is. When it comes to traditional food, Sabah has many simple yet delicious dishes which are mainly pickled or preserved, due to the
absence of refrigerators and gas kitchens until these recent decades.
Nevertheless, traditional cuisine continues to be favoured by the younger generations until today. If you’re a foreign tourist, a visit to Sabah will not be complete without sampling one or two of traditional Sabahan dishes. It will definitely be a gastronomic adventure of a lifetime!
Ready to eat now? Here’s introducing the six most popular traditional dishes in Sabah:
Bambangan is a type of wild mango that comes with a distinct (not necessarily bad) smell. Unlike the normal mango, Bambangan has a thick brown skin. While it is delicious when ripe,
Bambangan is normally harvested raw to be pickled using salt mixed with grated Bambangan
seed and slices of chili. Other than pickled, raw Bambangan can also be cooked with basung
fish, as the Kadazandusun people of Sabah like to add a little bit of tang to their food.
Bambangan can be found at most tamu market or vegetable markets. Pickled Bambangan goes
really well with plain white rice and deep-fried fish, while sliced Bambangan with fish in clear
soup is delicious to be eaten alone with white rice or accompanied with a dash of sambal. Want
to know the best way to enjoy? Eat with your hands!
Pinasakan sada or sometimes known simply as Pinasakan is a traditional Kadazandusun dish of braised basung fish mixed with takob akob (a tangy wild fruit mainly harvested for its skin),
fresh turmeric, salt and slices of Bambangan (optional). Pinasakan is another type of preserved
food and is good to be eaten sans heating for days.
You can find Pinasakan at most traditional cuisine restaurants; otherwise, preparing it is very easy as well. All you need to do is to braise the basung fish together with all ingredients and boil until the broth reduces to half the original volume (pasakan means cooking with very little water). Pinasakan goes well with white rice or ambuyat and a dash of sambal.
Ambuyat is a traditional Bruneian dish that is derived from the interior trunk of the sago palm. On its own, the Ambuyat is simply a bland starchy blob which is similar to the tapioca starch, but it goes well when eaten with tangy, spicy or salty accompanying dish such as the Pinasakan and Bambangan.
Ambuyat is prepared by mixing the sago starch powder with boiling water. As the sago starts to coagulate, use a pair of bamboo fork or wooden chopsticks to roll the starch around the prongs, dip into accompanying dish and munch. Voila!
Hinava is most probably the most well known traditional dish in Sabah. Popularized by the Kadazandusun community, Hinava is made of fresh raw tenggiri (mackerel fish), which is filleted and thinly sliced; mixed with sliced chili, ginger, diced red onions, grated Bambangan seed, salt and set with a few squirts of lime juice. Sometimes, slices of raw bitter gourd are also added.
If you don’t like fish, you can also substitute the mackerel with either prawn or squid. Hinava can be found in most traditional Kadazandusun restaurant, but of late, it has also been making its way to hotel buffet tables or served during special events and functions. Have it with white rice or on its own as a salad dish.
Most people, even locals, would have a love-hate relationship with the Tuhau due to its distinct pungent smell, which is not unlike that of a stink bug. However, once you’ve tried it, you may easily overlook its unpleasant smell.
Originating from the interior parts of Sabah (Tambunan, Keningau and Ranau) Tuhau is made of a type of wild ginger that is thinly diced, mixed with diced chili and diced scallion, and pickled using salt and vinegar. Tuhau makes a great accompanying dish for anything and everything. You can find it at tamu markets or vegetable markets all across Sabah.
Another popular traditional Kadazandusun preserved dish is the Nonsom, or sometimes known as Bosou. It is made using raw freshwater fish mixed together with rice and pickled using salt and pangi (a type of local herb). After the mixing, the mixture is stored in a glass jar and marinated for two weeks.
Like most preserved traditional food, the Nonsom / Bosou is salty and tangy in flavour. It goes well with white rice or even fried beehoon. For a nicer aroma, sauté the Nonsom / Bosou together with diced garlic, a dash of pepper and olive oil—marvelous!