Traditional Kelabit Food 

PESTA NUKENEN, a book portraying the culinary and cultural heritage of the Kelabit Highlands was declared a winner at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2016, held in Yantai, China in May this year. The book was published in conjunction with the 10th annual Pesta Nukenen or the Bario Food and Cultural Festival. This book, provides a glimpse into the life of the Kelabit people, their unique culinary practices and offers an insight into their past and present culture.

The book which was nominated in two categories, won “Best in the World” in the Non-Profit category where it competed against authors from countries such as Canada, the united States, Caribbean, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lebanon and Singapore. Other countries in this category were Fiji, Sweden, France and Ireland.


The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau, honours the best food and wine books, printed or digital, as well as food television.

Books from 205 countries participate in these prestigious awards, the only international competition of the sector. Each year, Gourmand gives the awards in a very special location for gastronomy. The ceremony is always an opportunity to meet every important person in the world of food and books: hundreds of publishers, authors, chefs and journalists take part in these events.

The book was published by Rurum Kelabit Sarawak and brought together many people in the community who contributed towards the articles, photographs as well as local master-chefs who did a commendable job in preparing local cuisine.

Literally meaning “Festival of Food”, Pesta Nukenen is held annually during the last week of July. This year, the Festival is held from July 28 – 30th. Its principal objectives have always been to recover and preserve traditional processing methods of indigenous edible plants and safeguard local plant and animal species. It also serves to draw the close- knit community even closer. Over the past decade, Pesta Nukenen has evolved into an annual event that celebrates the rich legacy of Kelabit traditions and a unique and distinctive way of life.


      Old recipes and new ingredients were combined to create innovative cuisine built on tradition, knowledge
      and availability.

This unique community-hosted event is a pioneering endeavour with no parallel or precedent in the country. Its success lies in the hard work put in by dedicated volunteers and this brings pride to a community that is built on a strong work ethic and a tradition of working together.

Kelabit food alone does not represent a cuisine – it is the meaning and tradition surrounding the ingredients, the preparation, the cooking, the combination of flavours and the when and where of eating, that determines the makings of Kelabit cuisine. The second half of the book consists of bite-sized essays on the many aspects of cuisine and the cornucopia of wild food found in the Kelabit Highlands. Traditional Kelabit recipes tend to be very simple, often with just one other ingredient. This should be no surprise as the people were simple farmers and toiled the fields to produce rice. They did not have a huge range of exotic ingredients available to them.

    At the 21st World Gourmand Awards: From left, President, Gourmand International Edouard Cointreau, Pesta
Nukenen editorial team, Datin Esther Balan, Angela Asa, Datin Nikki Lugun (Project Head/Author) and Lila Raja-
Hodder at the awards ceremony in Yantai, China.

Traditional Kelabit food culture is driven by the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention”. Examples include using bamboo as a substitute cooking utensil, wrapping of rice in leaves to make them more portable, and the smoking of meat and fish as a method of preservation. Jungle produce like leaves, shoots, roots, fruits and flowers as well as wild grubs and honey are an integral part of the Kelabit diet.

Kelabit food has changed dramatically over the past few decades as the region opened up with the rural air service reaching the remote mountainous area. Preferences were imported and exported. Old recipes and new ingredients were combined to create innovative cuisine built on tradition, knowledge and availability.

In Kelabit culture, food is associated with hospitality and expression of friendship, demonstrated by the serving of food at any arrival of neighbours or visitors. This culinary heritage is at the very heart of the Highland community – its socio-economic fabric, culture and tradition.

Livan Luhat is a Mass Communications graduate and enjoys writing on a freelance basis. She was on the edtiorial committee of Pesta Nukenen.

Send this to a friend