The jungle supermarket

Lucy Barbour leaves her wallet at home to go shopping in the Kelabit Highlands.

I TRY avoiding supermarkets but in the Kelabit Highlands, in north-east Sarawak, Malaysia, I'm willing to make an exception. I'm here to taste the region's world-famous organic rice but am soon distracted by what locals call the "jungle supermarket". The aisles boast everything from wild boar to exotic ferns and fruits - but the best thing is it's free.

The main hub in the Kelabit Highlands is Bario, a sleepy, 900-person town 1100 metres above sea level, surrounded by flat, narrow rice paddies and jungle. There's only one road into Bario: it's unsealed, bumpy, not suitable for long-distance travel and was built last year for the logging industry. Before then, the place was free from the sound of whining chainsaws.

Town is a quiet place comprising basic stilt and long-houses, a school, clinic and a few coffee and souvenir shops. There's no loud music, cappuccinos or swimming pools and guest houses avoid catering for the "Western" palate.

The best way to reach Bario is by air, in 19-seat Twin Otter aircraft. The one-hour, tummy-turning flight from Miri, a bustling city in comparison, is an experience in itself.

I touch down to a delightfully large reception. It seems as though half the town has shown up to greet me. My host, Jaman, from Gem's Lodge, is Bario-born and a member of the Kelabit tribe. "Many people come here every day to welcome new people but more to just have a chat," he chuckles.

The Kelabit are a small ethnic group, numbering about 5000. More than a century ago, the Kelabits headhunted to prove bravery and to avenge their enemies. Nowadays, they're a hospitable, proud and friendly bunch, always keen to have a chat.

Ask any local and they'll tell you Bario rice (padi adan) is "the best in the world". In 2002, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini, invited Bario to become a Slow Food presidium, to support and help expand its industry. About 500 tonnes of rice is produced each year, with the help of intricate pipe systems and four-legged ploughs (water buffaloes), but without chemicals or pesticides. Planting occurs once a year and most families cultivate enough rice to feed themselves for 12 months.

It's two months before the July planting season. Docile water buffalo wallow in muddy paddies. Blue mats covered with dry golden husks lie sprawled beneath the sun. A short, rounded woman stands waist-deep in water, slashing through reeds with a curved parang knife.


Back at the local coffee shop, I'm invited to lunch with five local lads who've just returned from a hunt. Apart from poultry reared at home, the jungle is the only place to find fresh meat in Bario. Today, wild boar is on the menu. "We used to use blowpipes," one man explains. "But not so much any more."

The boar is served pan-fried, succulent and salty. We eat it alongside greens, pineapple curry, stir-fried mushrooms and boiled rice. The medium-grain kernels have a smooth, waxy consistency. Each grain is sweet, soft and slightly sticky. I'm told everything on our plates has been grown locally or sourced from the nearby jungle.

At the next table, a short man with interested eyes is fiddling with his coffee mug. "You like jungle food?" he asks eventually. The man's name is Reddi and he's an experienced trekking guide. Reddi feels hunting and foraging is becoming more difficult in Bario. "Now [the government] have put in the logging road, it means more logging and that means much longer to walk for food, especially for older people," he says.

Reddi thinks the best place for jungle food is Pa' Lungan, a four-hour trek from Bario. The following morning, I'm sloshing, sliding and wading after Reddi through thigh-deep puddles in pursuit of the jungle supermarket.

Pa' Lungan is a gentle 300-person village positioned at the base of a valley surrounded by densely forested mountains. With no road access, the threat of chainsaws is almost forgotten. "Welcome!" I'm greeted by Saupung, the large and lively matron, mother and master chef at Batu Ritang Homestay. Saupung and Nabu, her tall, slim and quietly spoken husband, are passionate about food. Saupung has been busy baking rice-flour cakes for tomorrow's breakfast. But her special talent is cooking from the backyard jungle and today I'm to help Nabu shop for her ingredients.

Decked out in trousers tucked into ridiculously long, leech-proof socks, Nabu and I depart. He carries a wicker basket on his back and a parang in his hand. Past the village church, we embark on a well-trodden narrow path beneath a dense jungle canopy.

"Welcome to our supermarket," Nabu smiles gently. It feels like we've stepped into a mysterious world - somewhere between Tarzan and Tomb Raider - full of bamboo forests, mossy trunks and tangled vines. Nabu stops at a fallen log. He crouches and slides his hand underneath to pull out a cluster of damp, chestnut-coloured mushrooms. "These are my favourite," he says excitedly.

Back on the path, he stops and all of a sudden starts slashing through swathes of banana leaves. "There!" He points to a spectacular pink flower shaped like a smooth-sided diamond. "Wild ginger - galangal," he reveals. Nearby, wild coriander, basil, parsley and mint grow in abundance. We pick a small portion of each.

I follow Nabu like a fascinated child. We cross the river to a clearing of river ferns. Nabu instructs me to pick their slender, curly tips. "They are tender and juicy when fried," he says.

Then he starts slashing again, this time through bamboo, before getting on his hands and knees to crawl, with nose to the ground. "Wild spinach," he says. Pockets of spinach grow among dainty, pinkish-red, ground-growing fruit named busaka, which we collect for its stalks. Our journey continues for three hours. We collect everything from wild mangoes and durian to mangosteens, duree (a green leafy plant for soups), bamboo, asparagus, ruby-red strawberries and more.

Before we leave, Nabu looks at me with a smile. "This is the cheapest supermarket in the world but we only take what we need," he says.

Back at Batu Ritang Homestay, the hunt has only just begun. We arrive to find Saupung barking orders at her two sons, who are dancing about in the backyard pond, trying to catch fish for dinner. Ten minutes later, they've manipulated one of the family-farmed snakehead fish into their net. "I love this fish," Saupung enthuses. "You like it steamed or fried?"

The kitchen stove is fired up and Saupung gets to work. Mushrooms are sauteed and salted, duree leaves are boiled into health-giving green liquid, busaka stalks are stir-fried with asparagus, spinach and galangal, mango is cooked into curry, a freshly culled chicken is marinated in soy and local honey, the fish is fried whole and a wild boar has been salted, smoked and pounded into fine, wispy shreds.

"The jungle vegetables have their own flavour," Saupung says. "You don't need sauce, just a little bit of garlic, salt and water."

The flavours are delicate, natural and wholesome. I can't say the same for the rice wine Saupung keeps pouring into my glass.

"You like our jungle supermarket?" Saupang asks me. Naturally, I do but I depart the next morning feeling concerned. If the threat of chainsaws eventually spreads to Pa' Lungan, I wonder whether the supermarket checkouts might one day be closed.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines fly direct to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney. AirAsia flies direct to Miri from Kuala Lumpur from about $135 return.

MASwings flies direct from Miri to Bario from about $55 return.

Staying there

Accommodation is limited to guest houses, which are also family homes. These are a great way to learn about Bario life and taste some authentic local food. Expect to pay 70 ringgit ($24) for a single room at Gem's Lodge (gems and about the same at Batu Ritang Homestay. Your guide or guest house can arrange for bookings for Batu Ritang from Bario.

While there

A guide will cost about 80 ringgit a day. Guides can be arranged through your guesthouse. The jungle supermarket experience at Batu Ritang Homestay costs 50 ringgit.

When to go

Sarawak has a hot and humid climate, with temperatures generally between 27 and 34 degrees. Temperatures in Bario are cooler. The heaviest rainfall occurs from November to February.

Further information