Traditional Iban food

The Iban tribe are from Sarawak, Borneo. Their traditional foods are called Pansuh food, which simply means the cooking of food or dish in a bamboo stem. It’s naturally clean, easy and simple. The food (meat, chicken, fish, vegetables and even rice together with the spices) will all be put together into the bamboo stem, then directly placed over an open fire to be cooked. The uniqueness of using the bamboo stem to cook is that the bamboo will give a special aroma and texture to the food where it’s impossible to have using other methods such as using woks.

Since they settled in the Malaysian state of Sarawak over 400 years ago, the Iban have made the surrounding rainforest their supermarket and hardware store, tapping the tremendous variety of plants, animals and raw materials for their food, medicines, dwellings and rituals.

Forest ferns have a special place in the diet of the people, with the two most popular ferns used as vegetables being midin and the fiddlehead fern (pucuk paku). Midin grows wild in the secondary forests and is peculiar to the state. It has curly fronds and is very crunchy even after it has been cooked. Rural dwellers have always considered the fern a tasty, nutritious vegetable and the jungle fern’s rise from rural staple to urban gourmet green occurred in the 1980s with the increased urban migration of the Iban. Aromatic leaves from trees, such as the Bungkang, are also used in cooking to flavour food.

One of the best known Iban dishes is pansoh manok (ayam pansuh), which features chicken and lemongrass cooked in a bamboo log over an open fire. This natural way of cooking seals in the flavours and produces astonishingly tender chicken with a gravy perfumed with lemongrass and bamboo.

A visit to the longhouse will usually see guests welcomed with a glass of tuak, a home-brewed rice wine. The brew has a sweet fragrance and is highly alcoholic – a small glass is enough to send the unaccustomed to euphoric heights.

The numerous riverine areas of Sarawak provide the state’s inhabitants with abundant fresh water fish, with the Tilapia being the most widely cultivated. There are sago grubs, bamboo clams and temilok (marine worms) to try. The bright yellow, round eggplants and turmeric flowers are also found in Iban foods.


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