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Good food the common bond at Kaamatan, too
Published on: Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Good food the common bond at Kaamatan, too
Asnih, last year winner (left) and Juslin (right) has tasted some success by selling’marang’ in small bottles through word of mouth or WhatsApp.
Kota Kinabalu: All holidays and celebrations have one common element – food, and plenty of it.

The annual Pesta Kaamatan traditionally celebrates a bountiful harvest by the indigenous communities in Sabah and this usually comes with lots of foods and drinks to be shared among families, relatives, and friends.

But behind all the merry making, there are the hands of many who chop, stir, knead, season and clean.

They are the cooks, the unseen heroes, who play an important role in not just feeding the crowd but also creating a meaningful experience of the true meaning of the harvest celebration.

The cooks can be anybody, from professional chefs, food caterers, mothers, and fathers, to anyone who gathers and puts together all the ingredients to create something edible for others to enjoy. 

Wrapping ‘linopot’ rice packs.

While some treat cooking as a chore, for others, it is more than that.

While cooking is a daily responsibility for 40-year-old schoolteacher Asnih Yusuf, it sometimes makes her reminisce about the moments with her late mother.

“She inspired me a lot,” she said. “Whenever she cooked, I could see that she really put her heart into it. To me, she cooked with love.”

Asnih, who lives in Sandakan, said one side dish that always reminds her of her late mother is a raw fish salad, which is called ‘hinava’ in Kadazan. 

“We, the Bugis people, call it ‘lawa’. My late mother loved to make it. Sometimes she made it for a special occasion. Sometimes, she made it just because we were craving it. And it was always delicious every time. “Now, each time I make it for my family, I think of her. Until now, I missed her. And I miss her ‘lawa’ too,” she said.

The annual harvest festival of the indigenous peoples in Sabah is celebrated throughout the month of May by all other races as well. Its cultural and spiritual significance to the Sabahan identity, which respects all races and religions, is given prominence with a two-day official public holiday.

Although Asnih is a non-indigenous person, the key messages of the Kaamatan festival, such as gratitude, sharing, and community spirit, resonate with her.

She also incorporates the spirit of Kaamatan into her teaching practices, where she educates her students about the festival’s significance to their lives.

She wants children to learn the values of gratitude, sharing, and appreciation for cultural diversity, and foster a sense of unity and belonging in the classroom.

Asnih was last year’s winner of MAGGI’s ‘Jom Masak & Menang Bersama’ contest, held in conjunction with Pesta Kaamatan.

MAGGI is hosting the same event this year with lucrative prizes and recipe inspirations. It also pays tribute to Sabahan cooks who keep the traditions alive, infusing their home-cooked dishes with love and bringing families and communities together in joyous celebrations.

More meaningfully, MAGGI will be supporting a local non-government organisation (NGO)—PACOS Trust Sabah—that supports indigenous communities and women in need, providing them with opportunities for income generation through cooking and crafting. Its support will contribute to creating sustainable solutions for food security and educational advancements among these communities.

One of the indigenous women, 48-year-old Juslin Tikson, who comes from Pacos Trust’s wide network of communities, may benefit from such support.

The single mother of four from Kuamut, which is a six-hour boat ride to the nearest centre of administration at Bukit Garam in Kinabatangan, has been depending on forest resources all her life to sustain herself and her family.

“Our lifestyle has always been from the garden, forest, and rivers to our table. We won’t have life without the food that nature provides us with from our land, the forest, and rivers. For this, we’re always very grateful,” she said. Celebrating the harvest festival has always been a simple and meaningful event in her village.

“Everyone would come together and bring food to be shared among us. On an occasion like this, the elders would remind the younger generation where our food comes from and why we must protect the source, like the forest and rivers.

“Our land is our life,” she said.

She said that for this reason, food, including the cooking process, is treated with the highest respect and care.

“We only take from nature what we need. Nothing goes to waste. This has been our way of life. We have lived sustainably for generations,” she added.

To earn a bit of extra income, Juslin has learned to be entrepreneurial. She has started a small cottage business selling’marang’ that is made from red durian, which grows wild in abundance in certain areas of Kinabatangan.

“What makes this dish so special is that you don’t get the red durian easily. It’s a seasonal fruit. Sometimes, some trees don’t bear fruit at all for several years. We don’t know why. Maybe the climate has changed or something. But we trust that nature will continue to provide for us. It always has,” she said.

The red durian is a special dish during a special occasion like the harvest celebration. It is creamy and delicately sour, she described. “If you want an extra zing, just sprinkle with salt crystals.”

Juslin has tasted some success by selling’marang’ in small bottles through word of mouth or WhatsApp.

Some of her products have been sold as far as Johor in West Malaysia. “I want to expand, but I don’t know how. Maybe I need some mechanisation to help me increase production and have a have a better way of marketing,” she said.

Another indigenous woman, Nurmawati Parisah, who is a Murut from Kampung Balantos in Nabawan, also has her own recipe that might benefit from any kind of support she can get to have a better market reach. 

Her product is called “Sambal Lada Cuka Aafiyah,” which is a product made from ingredients that she grows in her garden. She said she and her husband had worked in West Malaysia for some years, but the pandemic forced them to return to Sabah.

“We went straight into farming. It was a blessing in disguise because, not long after, we learned how to add value to our farm products. That’s how we came up with this Sambal Lada Cuka Aafiyah,” she said.

During the harvest festival season, Nurmawati sells her products in bazaars. But she knows that at some point she must scale up, and to do so, she needs all the help she can get.

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