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Kuala Penyu is a small town in south-west of Sabah, and majority of the population there are Dusun Tatana, Orang Brunei, and Bisaya people. Personally I call Kuala Penyu a “quiet corner” of Sabah because it looks like an ordinary countryside of Sabah, but they do have some special food.
This translucent and sticky sago paste is almost tasteless, so the locals usually eat it together with side dishes such as fishes and curry, or dip it in sour sauce or fish soup.
The people of Kuala Penyu use Candas, which looks like Chinese chopsticks but is thinner and made from sago leaf stalk or bamboo stick, to scoop the slimy ambuyat.
They twirl the soft ambuyat around the prongs of candas to bite-sized, and then dip it into a sour or hot sauce. That could be a fun experience if you try this food the first time.
Ambuyat is one of the staple food in Kuala Penyu. Due to its popularity, some hotels also have ambuyat on their menu, so tourists can try it out. There is a joke that says, “If you are poor, you eat ambuyat at home. If you are rich, you eat it in a hotel.” LOL
With a population of 6,000, Dusun Tatana is a unique indigenous group which is influenced by Chinese culture, because there were groups of China merchants who traded and married the locals in Kuala Penyu more than 250 years ago. For example, they also celebrate Chinese New Year.
My first impression of Tinimbu (or Tinimbuh) of Dusun Tatana is – it looks like a miniature version of Chinese dumpling, and I also wonder if they learn this from Chinese in the past. Tinimbu is made from glutinous rice and wrapped in triangular shape by pandan (or bamboo) leaves and tied with lamba vine. Unlike Chinese dumpling, Tinimbu has no filling.
Tinimbu is served during occasions such as Chinese New Year. To eat, dip it in coarse sugar and enjoy the aroma of sticky rice and pandan in each bite. I’m sure children like it.
Sago Grubs (Butod)
The last and the least appetizing food is Sago Grub (locally known as Butod), which can be eaten raw or cooked. I have tried both. The live worm tastes like coconut milk and the fried butod is like dry fish skin.
Though many Sabahans struggle with eating Butod, some people really love it because it improves hair growth, increases sex drive, and reduces obesity. These health benefits are quite powerful motivations to eat sago grub (even if it tastes bad which it doesn’t).
There are still many Kuala Penyu food that are not introduced here. To learn and sample traditional food of Dusun Tatana, you may visit the Kuala Penyu house in KDCA Penampang during Kaamatan Grand Finale (Harvest Festival) on 30 and 31 May every year.
Or you can try these food in Kuala Penyu homestay. For more information, please contact Dr. Monih Epin (Tel: +60 19-8106786) or Ms Monica Gualin (Tel: +60 13-8517633), the operator of Borneo Kuala Penyu Homestay.
Photos taken in Kuala Penyu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo
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Known as Butod locally, Sago Grub or Sago Worm is a delicacy, as well as the most disgusting food of Sabah. Junk food always look good, but it does ugly things to your body. Sago Grub is the opposite, it’s an ugly but nutritious food. However, it’s a test of bravery to put this wriggling bug into your mouth.
Butod is the larvae of Sago Palm Weevil, a species of snout beetle that consumes sago palm during its infancy. Sago Grub can grow fatter than the little finger and looks like a giant maggot. This creamy yellow color and fat worm is rich in protein and sold at US$0.25 each (RM40 – 45 per Kg), quite expensive, but still a hot selling item in local market.
According to Dr. Arthur Chung, an insect expert, adult Sago Palm Weevil is also consumed in Sabah. The rusty red colour adults are usually grilled or roasted, with the hard and spiny parts, and unsavoury guts removed before eating.
The best place to collect sago grubs is in sago palm, as they feed on starchy pith of decaying sago palm tree, before they are mature and transform into beetle after 2 months.
Just chop the sago trunk to look for butod in the spongy internal of the palm. Farmers also deliberately cut some opening on fallen sago tree, to attract female weevils to lay eggs inside. They could harvest up to 100 butod per trunk after 1 to 3 months.
Sago Grub is white. I notice it’ll turn yellowish or brownish after being exposed to ultraviolet. Sago grubs can die fairly quick under direct sunlight and dry place. Keep them in shade, preferably with pieces of damp sago wood, and they can survive for a few days.
Sago Palm is an important crop of Sabah. Sago Grub is supposed to be a pest because it burrows and eats voraciously into the heart of sago palm, and cause the tree dies. However, sago grub is a highly sought after food that brings good money. You can see the statue of Sago Palm Weevil at the entrance of Rumbia Information Centre. There is no other insect in Sabah that is “commemorated” by such a big statue.
In Sabah, though everyone knows about Sago Grub, not many are actually eating this soft-bodied larvae. Bugs seem to be doing filthy things all the time. Just look at fly and cockroach that make people sick. So it might be a bad idea to eat bugs. Anyway, sago grub is very clean because it only feeds on and live inside sago pith.
According to what I read on the Internet, sago grubs have been described as creamy tasting when raw, and like bacon or meat when cooked. I wanted to try out the live and cooked sago grubs and see if it is true. Now I can tell you that the taste of both is not bad, and I can assure you that sago grub has no funny smell or taste. No, it doesn’t taste like chicken.
Tasting Live Sago Grub
Every human has insectophobia to some degrees. We can’t never be friends with bugs. Even if I love to photograph bug, that doesn’t mean I want to lick it. Anyhow, I always want to experience eating live sago grub at least once. Probably I think this is a big achievement as high as the Medal of Honor.
To eat live sago grub, hold its head with two fingers, because you won’t eat its hard chitinous head, and to avoid its pincer biting you. I squeeze its head to kill it first, so it won’t wriggle in my mouth later and to suffer from a painful death. Then I take a bite at its neck and chew. You can watch the following video if you want to see action:
In first bite, the juicy worm “bursts” in my mouth, and I can feel its creamy gut flows all over my tongue. OMG, that’s so gross! I just try not to think that I’m eating a bug, or I would throw up. The taste of raw butod is like coconut milk with a bit of sweetness. The skin is tough and chewy. Though I don’t think that it’s delicious, the taste isn’t terrible at all. In fact, it’s quite bland.
Cooking Sago Grubs
Swallowing squirming sago grubs may look way too savage. No problem. You can fry, boil, or grill it, then eat it with knife and fork. Personally I think cooked butod tastes much better. It’s so easy to cook butod. You will know how after watching the video below:
According to a research by Oxford University, Sago Grub contains significantly more vitamins, unsaturated fat, and minerals, but much less cholesterol than other common meat such as chicken and beef. Therefore, Butod is an excellent alternative source of protein.
The simplest way to cook sago grubs is to stir-fry them in a pan, until they are totally dry and turn crispy. The first step is to wash and clean the butod with water.
Next step is quite cruel. You tear an opening on their bodies, with finger or knife, so they won’t expand and “explode” while being fried. The yellow soft stuff gushes from the cut is the fat. Butod is packed with oil like a natural energy bars. The locals believe butod oil can thicken their hair.
Then pour all the butod into the pan and stir fry them slowly with small fire. For better flavor, you may add a pinch of salt or MSG. If you think that is too plain, you can cook them with onions or other vegetables, basically it’s same as how you cook other meat.
Do you see the oil in the photo above? It’s all from the sago grubs! The smoke smells really, really good and appetizing, like butter.
Researchers describe insects as “micro-livestock” that emits 10 times less greenhouse gas than farting cows. The author of “Bug Chef Extraordinaire”, David George Gordon, says, “Insects are the most valuable, underused and delicious animals in the world.” Eating bugs comes with hundreds of benefits, but people don’t eat bugs for only one reason, it is disgusting. Well, I can give men a superb reason to eat Butod. It’s good for men. *wink wink*
After stir-fried, the butod becomes crispy and taste like fried fish skin, with a hint of prawn, quite nice. It goes well with beer. Dipping it with a bit of cheese would make it more yummy (I haven’t tried that though).
If you are interested in munching some sago grubs, you may visit Sago Festival (Pesta Rumbia in local language), which is held in Kuala Penyu annually.
During the festival, the ticket for Sago Buffet is available for a few bucks only. Buy one and you can try different kinds of sago food, which includes cooked sago grubs.
There are many tourists who are keen to try sago grubs. The ticket is always sold out fast.
Sago grub is also widely eaten by people of Sarawak, Southeast Asian countries, and Papua New Guinea. Sago grubs are commonly sold in weekly open air market (Tamu) in rural area of Sabah.
However, whenever I want to share butod with my friends, 9 out of 10 them would run away, and one passes out. Actually most Sabahans haven’t tried this delicacy yet. Hope the young generations will be educated that butod is great stuff and nobody should be afraid of eating it.
As one of the Four Asian Tigers, Thailand is far ahead in food industry. You can buy butod in package and tin from their supermarket and even order them online! Here are some product shots for your viewing pleasure.
Yes, you can eat worms like snack. Do share with your friends!
Let’s open a can of worms, shall we?
Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo
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