They say it takes a village to raise a child and this phrase is true for cook and festival-organiser Rita Enar and her family, who are part of the Indigenous Berawan tribe in Malaysia in Southeast Asia.
She and her nine siblings were raised in a longhouse with other tribe members in Sarawak, Borneo. This tribe is part of a larger grouping called Orang Ulu, meaning upper-river dwellers.
Life in the longhouse was a simple, communal experience. While each family had their own room, daylight hours were spent in the fields or eating together on the veranda or ruai.
Living in the jungle meant no access to electricity and so the Berawan tribe ate from the land. Men were taught how to fish and hunt for wild boars and deer, and women were taught how to harvest rice, grow fruit and plant vegetables.
The women were also responsible for cooking three meals per day for their families. Rita's mother would wake at 3am or 4am to prepare, often beginning by cooking rice over firewood.
"It's all about rice," Rita says. 'We have breakfast rice, we have lunch rice, we have dinner rice. But you don't feel tired of it because that's the thing you live on." The rice was accompanied by whichever meat had been caught and vegetables in season.
"Because we don't live nearby the town area, we don't have any shops to go and buy things, so it's all fresh from the jungle," she explains.
Rice was not only the first ingredient Rita learnt to cook, but a staple of her favourite dish called lemang.
"Lemang is where you soak the glutinous rice with coconut milk, wrap it into banana leaf and then cook it in the bamboo," she explains.
"During the festival, glutinous rice is very important because it's like an offering to the God to say thank you for the harvest."
Rita would always look forward to the annual Harvest Festival, held on 1 June each year, to celebrate an abundant harvest. Her tribe would cook lemang, along with many other traditional foods for the festival.
"During the festival, glutinous rice is very important because it's like an offering to God to say thank you for the harvest," Rita explains.
Food preparations for the festival would take place over multiple days. Dishes included ayam pansuh (chicken cooked in bamboo), whole BBQ pig, kuih loyang (honeycomb biscuits), penyaram ('Mexican hat' biscuits) and kuih jala (crepes with a lacy appearance). These foods are typically eaten with tuak, also called borak, which is a homemade rice wine offered to spirits.
"Each family will bring the food out to the ruai," Rita explains. "Then everyone sits on the floor in a long line and just shares the food together."
Given Rita was constantly surrounded by her community in Malaysia, she found her move to Australia in 2010 challenging. She didn't know anyone in Sydney and missed her home greatly.
To find comfort, Rita cooked traditional Sarawakian food. But it was her dream to find a way to share her cuisine with locals and use it as a way to meet other Malaysians living in Australia.
"I love cooking because food connects me to people and [it represents] what I experienced and the journey that I've been through," she says.
Rita was lucky to have a Malaysian neighbour who shared Rita's traditional cakes and biscuits with their friends. Through her neighbour, Rita was introduced to other Malaysians living in Australia. She even received requests to cater for their weddings, birthdays and full moon celebrations.
"I never thought in my lifetime that I would go and share the food that I cook with so many people," she remarks. "You open a shop selling the food, but there's no connection. What I'm doing, you get to know people and then people get to know each other."
Over time, Rita became a key member of Sydney's Malaysian community where she's helped make it stronger. In 2017, she hosted her first Harvest Festival celebration to provide Malaysians in Australia an opportunity to meet new people and for Rita to introduce her cuisine to locals who may've never had the chance to try it before.
"It's to let people know that this is the food that we had when we were young, where I came from and where we live," she explains.
Between 50 and 70 people attend Rita's Harvest Festival celebrations each year and she hopes that their Malaysian community will continue to expand. She loves involving her children and providing them with the opportunity to understand the stories behind the cuisine.
Her two kids love their mother's lemang and she hopes that one day they'll be able to cook it for their children.
"The reason why I keep running the festival here is because I want my children to know about our traditions," Rita says. "Both of them are interested and I am so proud that they want to keep that tradition alive."
Chicken cooked in bamboo (ayam pansuh)
- 1 whole chicken (around 2.2kg), cut into pieces
- 1 hollow bamboo stick
- 3 cm ginger
- 3 cm galangal
- 5-6 shallots
- 5 cloves garlic
- 4 stalks lemongrass (white part only)
- 2 stalks bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), shredded - you can find bunga kantan at some Asian grocers.
- Cassava leaves
- Salt to taste
- Pound the shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal and lemongrass together
- Mix these ingredients with the chicken, bunga kantan and salt
- Clean the bamboo stick. Stuff the chicken mixture inside it. Cover with cassava leaves.
- Cook on an open-fire stove for about 30–40 minutes over medium heat.
- To serve, remove the cassava leaves. Extract the chicken and arrange on a serving dish with the juice.
Note: If you can't get any bamboo, you can bake this dish in the oven instead. Place the mixture in a casserole pot, cover with a lid, cover with cassava leaves and bake for 45 minutes at 160-180°C.