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Pesta Rumbia 2017: Into the World of the Sago Palm

Published on 20 December 2017|
2 min read

My aunts used to always say this about our late grandfather, “No dinner will be complete for your Ingkung unless there’s ambuyat.”

And it’s true for many people living in Kuala Penyu. Made from the sago palm, ambuyat was a staple food for many in the district. So, going back to Kuala Penyu for this year’s Pesta Rumbia (Sago Festival) was a journey to rediscover my heritage.

It was also a chance for me to learn how the sago palm played an important part in sustaining the lives of my ancestors.

A tree of many uses


The 28th Pesta Rumbia was held last weekend (16-17 December) in Kuala Penyu town. The theme for this year was “Rumbia Menjana Ekonomi, Penyatu Budaya” (Sago Generates Economy, Unifies Culture), which was appropriate considering the impact of the plant to the locals.

The sago palm or rumbia (metroxylon sagu) plays a big part in the lives of the Kuala Penyu locals. They use the multi-purpose plant as construction material, animal feed and in local cuisine. I guess the coconut tree doesn’t hold the sole right to the moniker ‘the tree of a thousand uses’ anymore!


Traditional vs Modern

One of the main attractions of the fest was the sago processing demonstration. The exhibition, which displays the process of extracting sago starch, was definitely an eye-opening experience.

One of the people in charge of the exhibition, Yusuf bin Amat, told me that the current process of obtaining the starch isn’t as labour intensive as before. However, the luxury in using machines definitely come at the cost of its taste and quality.

“There is definitely a difference in taste between the machine-made sago and sago made traditionally,” said Yusuf, adding that the sago made by hand does not spoil as easily.


A gastronomic adventure

Visitors of the festival also had the chance to taste ambuyat, a dish made from the sago starch. Hot water is added to the starch, which is then stirred until it thickens. Ambuyat tastes bland, so locals will dip it into gravy or sambal using a chopstick-like utensil called candas.

Of course, if visitors feel a little bit adventurous, they can always try butod. Butod or the sago worm is the young version of a beetle that destroys sago plants. So, locals eat them as a form of pest control. It can be eaten alive, but it also can be stir-fried or smoked before consumption.

Live butod was served to those attending Pesta Rumbia. However, I only managed to eat the cooked ones (okay, I didn’t eat the live ones because the thought of having a squiggling worm inside my mouth was a bit too much for me).

I must say that the taste was not what I expected; it tasted like a prawn! Would I taste it again? Maybe not. But someone out there might like it. So, if you ever find yourself at the Sago Festival, definitely give butod a go!

Preserving the traditions

When I was walking around, I found that the festival this year was quite underwhelming. A local artist and teacher, Masni Muin, 57, agrees. “There are not many visitors for this year’s Sago Festival. Even the number of participants for the sculpting competition decreased. Last year, there were seven contestants, but there are only three contestants this year,” he said.

Looking at the bigger picture, it is undeniable that sago-based foods is falling out of fashion among the younger generation. As a cuisine, sago-based foods came at a time where rice was a luxury not many people could afford.

So, for many, Pesta Rumbia is a way to reintroduce the local tradition, crafts and cuisine to the new generation, younger folk and visitors. When I saw children trying to make their own ambuyat, I felt the festival had done its job.

As a young adult, it’s easy to see how different cultures and traditions can get lost in history. It is my hope that we will do our part to preserve our local heritage, dishes and foods so that the next generation can enjoy them too. Try to make next year’s festival; you may like butod more than you think!

Do you have any local events that you want us to cover? Write down your suggestions down in the comments below!

While you are at it, check out what Carrybeans did during World Vegan Day!

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