Salt is the difference between eating in Technicolor and eating in black and white.— Jay Rayner, award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster.
For the average Iban family in a longhouse or at their farm, salt is a “must-have item”.
This is parallel to my modern day family whereby our two sons have made chilli sauce a compulsory item for every meal — and caring less for the salty or non-salty taste of their dishes.
And there were times when chilli sauce was the sole item on the menu to go with rice and that did not perturb them at all, goodness me.
As far as I can recall, whether it was in the farm house, rubber garden during tapping process or going on a day-long fishing trip at a stream or river, the first thing my late dad reminded us to bring would be a knife and salt.
“You need the blade to cut, slice and dissect any item be it fish, animal meat, wild plants, trees and those useful implements for backwoods cooking (a method of cooking without the use of kitchen implements and commonly takes place in the backwoods, in the wild),” apai (dad) would say prior to any trip to the farm, rubber garden or trip to the jungle or stream and river.
Bringing salt was necessary for we needed it to give proper and edible taste to fish, prawns, crabs, meat, wild ferns, shoots and edible plants.
“Without bringing salt is akin to you going to battles without weapon,” apai would remind us children and our poor mom.
I bring in the chilli sauce factor as an attempt to compare the remarkable contrast between modern city life and its counterpart in the remote hinterland, well hidden by the canopies of trees in the ulu whose scenario has not changed much over the last five decades.
In the 60s, items such as chilli sauce were alien to us sons of the jungles. Salt and sugar were ‘must-have’ items for every household. As my family stayed most of the time away from our longhouse, at our dilapidated but comfortable and ‘free of stress’ residence, we used to have a good stock of salt, especially in the absence of any refrigeration. A large amount of salt was necessary in the event of any good hunting or fishing trip.
For example, during a day shooting trip, my late uncle Ngauh Narang (mom’s elder sibling) managed to shoot a honey bear that did not die immediately. He had to wrestle and strangle the wild animal before overpowering it to death. Uncle Ngauh was only able to carry the head. My brother Jon and dad had to follow him for another trip back to the creature’s remains to carry the rest. Mom had to preserve the meat with salt and then dried it. We enjoyed the salted meat for many days, sending some to my paternal grandpa Jembu at Munggu Embawang longhouse about 45 minutes on foot through the jungle path from our residence.
On a few other trips, especially during school holidays, he and Jon managed to take home a game of wild boar or deer. Without Jon, he would go far not for fear of the jungles or darkness, but more for the company and help, just in case a wild boar or deer got unlucky, I used to join dad for night fishing trip using the ‘pigo’ (special custom-made oil lamp with handle), a pastime that proved useful in providing us good source of protein as most of the time we took home good catches of fish, prawns and frogs.
During one of the trips, we caught more than 30 bull frogs, including seven that dad killed mating at one place — he used the forked spear to kill the top three and a machete to complete the job on four others. All of them ended up in the bamboo containers, numbering around six or seven in each. To me, frog cooked in bamboo then, was — and still is — the most delicious dish on the planet and it would not go well with chilli sauce.
While staying in the jungle edge between 1962 and 1974, I was usually left alone to wander in the jungle, Melupa River and streams on fishing and hunting trips (using blowpipe and catapult) — and making sure I brought some salt — during school holidays. At times, these trips lasted the whole day, making it necessary for me to pack up cooked rice in a leafy container. Salt was vital to add flavour to wild animals, ferns, shoots, plants, birds, fish, prawn and crabs caught.
It has remained so in the modern day scenario.