Kasam Dihan In My Heart

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Growing up straddling the 2 worlds of the city and the jungle, with a mother who does kick-ass comfort food, I learnt a lot about jungle produce, its preparation, and the simplicity of taste.

If I was about to die and my executioner will grant me any food that I wish for, it would be…

Kasam Dihan.

Tempoyak as it is known in Malay, or fermented durian, is a delicacy that you will either love, or hate, at first smell.

When we were young, cracking open durians by the side of a small fire, smoke in our eyes, ears pricked for the sound of a THUD THUD yonder beyond the bush and mosquitoes, gorging on that custardy, sweet ambrosia. The pile of these spiky balls will grow as the sun sets, our bellies full, breaths stinking.

Some durians that are partially ripened, or bitter, or for whatever reason deemed inedible, will be skinned and deseeded. She would add salt, tasting it till the formula was good enough.

Then she scoops it into a payan, or giant ceramic jar. seals the direct surface of the salted durian with a sheet of plastic, and sealing it again with another sheet of plastic by tying the mouth of the jar with raffia string.

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Then we’d wait. At slightly less than room temperature, the mixture matures into a sourish, milky yellow and less pungent paste. For a few months up to a year, to be opened and fried, or added to a myriad of other dishes. Sometimes eaten raw with raw vegetables and chilli.

My favourite is the refrigerated kasam dihan, where the mixture turns greenish grey, salty and sweet. It won’t become too sour because the fermentation process is slowed down.

Dried anchovies, bird’s eye chillis, and shallots, thrown into a wok with hot oil. Heap spoonfuls of kasam dihan stirred in and caramelized to a darker shade of brown.

The piece de resistance would be pieces of tipurandu’, or deep fried pork skin (keropok babi) folded into the mixture at the end.

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Best eaten with yesterday’s rice, unheated.

Outsiders won’t understand the glorious taste of the sweetness from the caramelized flesh, spicy from the chillies. sour from the fermentation, crispy from the tipurandu’ and salty kasam, just like how I can never understand wine.

Warning: If you see people selling tempoyak at markets, sometimes it’s been mixed with flour or water so it will taste diluted.

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The tattooed man is the perfect and sacred man

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Tattooing is a major cultural aspect among the Dayak. Till today, many sport traditional designs beside contemporary ones, both men and women. It was not so back in the old days.

The Dayak believe that everything has a spiritual aspect, interconnected with each other. Man, bird, trees, all are different yet connected to one another in a universal balance. Spirits inhabit this Dayak realm, teaching and guiding the people on all matters pertaining to daily life. Farming, weaving and even tattooing was taught by these spirits. They provide guidance through signs like a particular bird call, or through dreams and intermediaries or ‘manang’.

The Ibans believe that the head holds a soul. So when a head is taken during headhunting, you also take their status and power. After the necessary rituals are perfomed, the soul/spirit becomes a part of the community, granting its power for its benefit and glory.

Like a rite of passage, headhunters were marked with tattoos to acknowledge their victory. The Kayan ‘tegulun’ were tattooed on their hands to represent the number of heads taken. Common motifs among the male Ibans were the ‘bunga terung’, Garing tree (believed to be immortal) and the hornbill, a sacred bird that acted as the messenger of the Iban god of war, Lang Singalang Burong. The betel nut palm motif running down the arms and shoulders were considered a protection against evil and mischievous spirits.

Among the women, tattooing was proof of their accomplishments in weaving, dancing, a rite of passage to womanhood. Also as a protective charm, women who were not tattooed were considered incomplete. Among Iban women, weavers were marked with tattoos before embarking on a new weave to appease the spirits she represents in her weavings. The Kayan womens’ ‘tedek’ were handtapped onto their fingers in motifs called ‘song irang’, or bamboo shoots, while some ethnic groups had parallel lines without any discernable designs.

According to Iban customs, certain illness were brought upon by evil spirits. If the ‘manang’, or witch doctor, fails to cure it, they might try a name-changing ceremony. A new tattoo is given to the patient near the wrist. The new name serves to conceal the patient from the evil spirit and confuse it, and to renew the patient’s body. Whilst for the Kayan, the aso’ and ‘tuba’ plants, ‘silong lejau’ or face of the tiger, were used to scare away evil spirits,

According to tradition, only the souls of tattooed women who provided generously for their families and headhunters who possessed hand tattoos – a token of their success – were able to cross the log bridge that spanned the River of Death. Maligang, the malevolent guardian of the bridge, oftentimes refused such passage forcing souls to descend into the river’s depths to be eaten by Patan, a giant catfish. However, if the lingering soul was properly tattooed, it was free to pass into the darkness that awaited it on the other side.

And in the darkness the tattoos will burn bright and become the light that will guide the soul through the darkness into the afterlife where it will join the ancestors in his or her final resting place.

A bit of culture

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What can we say of culture?

Who are we today?

What have we achieved?

What can we learn from our ancestors?

Does the feet that walk this ancient earth today remember the feel of soil beneath it?

Can we still hear the rustle of leaves and call of jungle creatures up in the canopy?

Are we proud of who we are?

The mark you put on your skin, what does it mean?

Your eyes that see the blacks and reds and golds, what can you discern?

Can you tell me who… you are?