Sabah Traditional Food – The Local Dishes of Borneo

by | Jul 21, 2016 | 0 comments

Traditional Sabah Food is a one of a kind culinary roller coaster. These Sabahan foods include everything from jungle vegetables to the Butod worm. Read on to learn more.

Undoubtedly, your mom will always be the best cook in the universe. We know that. However, if you are in Borneo, you should venture to try something different with Sabah traditional food.  That being said, here is a list of Sabahan foods that should give you an idea of what to try when you visit. These foods are the must-eats and must-drinks…if you are brave enough.  Conversely, you might learn what to avoid in order not to get into any awkward situations.

The following are some beautiful illustrations of traditional Sabahan foods in drawn by Tan Sheau Ling (陈俏绫), a talented Sabah artist. Let’s get started!


Traditional Sabahan Foods That Will Make You Drool
Firstly, Bambangan, is a type of jungle mango that grows wild in Borneo.  Ling writes, “Bambangan flesh is sweet and sour in taste with pungent flavor, and more fibrous than ordinary mango. Bambangan pickle is made by mixing its flesh and finely grated seeds with salt. Leave the mixture pickled for a week and you will get a white and yellow appetizer called Noonsom Bambangan (Jeruk Bambangan). Noonsom means marinated in Kadazan language.”


Traditional Sabahan Foods That Will Make You Drool
Next up is Butod.  Butod is a worm that is found in the sago palm tree.  We want to point out that the sago palm is also the source of sago starch which is used for a gooey dish called Ambuyat (read about it here).

Ling has this to say when it comes to Butod, “You need extra courage to swallow a wiggling Butod (sago worm). At the first bite, it tastes like a capsule, and then the magic happens as it bursts and fills your mouth with protein fluid that is as creamy as cod liver oil.”


Traditional Sabahan Foods That Will Make You Drool
Hinava is a dish that is very similar to the south american dish of Ceviche and it is prepared in much the same way.  That is to say, the fish is not cooked with heat, but rather using the acid of lime juice.  So essentially, Hinava is raw fish, but it is cooked in a way that makes it safe to eat.

Ling gives the method of preparation in her illustration – “Simply cut the fish (fresh caught is preferred) into small slices, mix and marinate them with diced red onion, young ginger, red chili, bitter gourd, grated Bambangan seeds (for its sterilizing property and to make meat springier) and lime juice. Before serving, add cilantro as a final touch for this sour salad.”

Kuih Jala

Traditional Sabahan Foods That Will Make You Drool
Kuih Jala is a tasty and unique traditional sabah food that is similar in appearance to small fried noodles.

Ling illustrates the method of preparing it and describes the interesting matter in which it is prepared, “The traditional way of making this crispy little snack of Sabah’s Bajau people is by pouring rice milk into a coconut shells punctured with many small holes, gyrating the shell and drop the liquid on a wok of hot oil. Once it turns golden brown, scoop it out and fold it into fan or roll shape while it’s hot. It is a sweet and crispy snack perfect for high-tea.”

Sayur Campur

Traditional Sabahan Foods That Will Make You Drool
Regarding Sayur Campur, Ling says, “Sayur Campuran (Mixed Vegetables) is commonly sold in small packs at tamu (open air market/local). Just take them home, fry it with dried anchovy, salty fish and meat and you will have a yummy dish ready in minutes!”


Traditional Sabahan Foods That Will Make You Drool
Tapai is one of the many styles of rice wine that are traditionally produced in Sabah.  As Ling points out in her illustration, tapai is an absolute must for festivals and celebrations.

“Tapai is an iconic Sabah wine made by traditional method with fermented tapioca, white rice or glutinous rice. Though Tapai is sweet and sour in taste, it’s high in alcohol. Tapai is a necessity during festivals, celebrations and banquet, where it is shared in a big porcelain jar for guests to take turn drinking it from a straw.”


Traditional Food in Sabah Borneo
This wild ginger is known as Tuhau.  The young shoots of this species of ginger are the part that is consumed.  Read more about it here.

“Tuhau is a traditional appetizer made from wild ginger. It’s very simple to make. Just mince it, then mix and stir it with a pinch of salt, lime juice, chili and scallion. Tuhau is sour and spicy with tangy flavor. You either love it or hate it due to its distinctive smell.”

Ikan Basung

Traditional Food in Sabah Borneo
Ling says, “Basung fish is a cheap but palatable seafood of Sabah. Pan-broil the fishes until they are crunchy. Dip into chili and lime juice and you can have the whole fish including the bones.”

This delicious fish is a mainstay of traditional sabah food.  Subsequently, you can find it just about everywhere.  You should definitely try it when you visit Sabah.  To clarify, Basung is a type of mackerel known as a Yellowstripe scad.

Finally, Basung is also used to make Pinasakan, which is another great traditional sabahan food.  Read about it here.


“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

Whew, I think that’s all for now. Are you a gourmet expert? Why don’t you join our Kota Kinabalu Cooking Class and let see how good you are in cooking.

Leave a comment below about your favorite traditional Sabah food.


If you want to know more about foods that you must try in Sabah, then check out our blog: Must Eat Foods in Sabah.

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