Celebrating Gawai in moderation

The Gawai Dayak celebration in Sarawak is just around the corner. However, since last year, festivals has not been the same because of the pandemic, and this year looks very much the same. As we look back to pre-pandemic days, memories of past celebrations become much more vivid.

It is the thought that matters

Gawai celebrations was not of the usual last year because of the pandemic and this year, it is looking to be very much the same. Gawai is usually one of the major celebrations in Sarawak but due to the Covid-19 restrictions, it has been unfortunate that the merry occasion could not be celebrated. As I sit back and read through the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of celebration released recently, I reminisced back to the time when my late Inik (‘grandmother’ in Iban) was still around.

When she was still with us, Gawai was always the biggest thing we celebrate each year. Sometimes we would celebrate it in Kuching, but for the most time, we would return home to my father’s hometown in Kampung Semabang, Simunjan.

The family enjoying Gawai eve with my late Inik.

Like most Dayak during this time of year, days leading up to Gawai would often be the busiest. Dishes after dishes will be whipped out by our main chef Inik, and there will be a make-shift barbecue hut in our backyard made especially for barbecuing pork, chicken and the much-loved pansuh — meat cooked in bamboo.

Kuih Jala Photo: Facebook

Apart from the main dishes, Inik would also prepare several types of traditional Iban kuihs to serve guests on Gawai day. The lingering taste and textures of kuih jala, kuih sebana and kuih cuan rank high among my favourites. Today, these delicacies can hardly be seen, especially in city areas.

Nothing could match what Inik prepared for us. Before her children and grandchildren’s arrival, she would make the sweet treats earlier and keep them in tin containers. I don’t know much these Iban biscuits, let alone make them, but I do know how I felt when eating them — gluttony as there were addictive and I was reluctant to share it with others.

Kuih sebana. Photo: e-Majalah2u

Inik would usually lay newspapers in front of us before handing us these biscuits. Otherwise, crumbs would be all over the carpet of our kampung house, and it would be messy.

uih jala is the hardest one for me to eat. It would break at each bite, spilling crumbs all over. A super crispy kuih that features a slightly roasted flavour with tinges of sweetness, Inik would often make several extra containers for us to take home afterwards.

Meanwhile, the crunchy kuih sebana has a mixture of sweet and salty taste. It is also one of the few traditional kuihs that can be found in city areas. It is not only a delicacy for the Iban, but I believe many others too as it a versatile treat that can be enjoyed any time of the day.

Kuih cuan. Photo: Astro Awani

On the other hand, kuih cuan, also known as kuih goyang or honeycomb cookies is something to die for. Sweet on the outside, it is usually made using rice flour, coconut milk and sugar. It is slightly crunchy in texture, and becomes chewy inside the mouth. I missed this kuih so much. 

Among the many things I missed the most during Gawai is the aroma of the dishes that wafted through my nose. The smell of barbecued pork and chicken, with slightly burned skin and the sizzling juice from the meat, can really put you in the mood for a feisty family dinner and merrymaking.

The smell of the cassava leaves is also a trademark of my family’s Gawai celebration. While there were a lot of other dishes served, a dish that is embedded in my memory will always be the pansuh.

Pansuh is a dish synonymous with the Dayak community in Sarawak comprising the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. The fillings can be anything — chicken, beef, pork — which is added with cassava, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, salt, torch ginger flower and tapioca leaves. The savoury dish will then be slowly cooked in bamboo, over wood fire or ember. It is best eaten with steaming hot white rice, or as is.

Ayam pansuh. Photo: Reddit

As there were many of us at the house during celebration, the dinner table could not hold everyone. But this did not hinder us from enjoying our meals together as we sat down on the floor to enjoy the food.

In the morning, as many of us woke up at different times, early birds would often occupy the wooden dining table and drink tea. I can’t really explain it but somehow, kampung tea tasted different. It was tea, yes, plainly stirred with sugar, but the taste were much different.

Another Gawai staple not to be missed is the tuak. As the essence of Gawai celebration is to celebrate a year of harvest and hard work, tuak is a must as. Before the celebration, my kampung elders would prepare tuak in a plastic bottle. Though it is not feasible to keep tuak in plastic bottles, it is not an issue during Gawai as the moment a bottle is filled, it would then be immediately empty.

The table on the right was where inik would usually put food offerings for spirits passing-by. I accidentally ate from the plate once.

At midnight, everyone in Inik’s house would hold a glass of tuak. Children were also allowed one quick sip of the ‘lucky drink’. It was a funny moment because looking back at the time when I was a kid, me and my cousins would brag about how ‘drunk’ we were afterwards. After a drink, it is time to wish each other for fruitful days ahead. ‘Gayu guru gerai nyamai, lantang senang nguan menoa’ (Wishing you a long life, health and prosperity).

As we brave through another Gawai in the midst of the pandemic, I encourage everyone to celebrate in moderation this year, by celebrating only with close family members and in moderation. Celebrate the moment you have with your family now, and don’t take the moment for granted. Lastly, I wish we can all celebrate Gawai in full spirit next year, free from the threat of Covid-19. Selamat Ngintu Ari Gawai everyone!