Food is sacred. Every Iban will acknowledge this. Their lives revolve around food but not in a gluttonous way. In fact, they are always very generous with food. Food is part of their culture and tradition. It is a topic of a conversation and in greetings. If you hear a conversation between two Ibans, it will first start with food.
If a European starts a polite conversation about the weather, an Iban will start a conversation about food as a gesture of politeness. When you give an Iban a container of food, believe me they’ll return the container, washed, of course, filled with food as a token of appreciation. They have this very strong affiliation to food. “Udah makai?” is the thing you hear an Iban asks a fellow Iban, be it in a phone conversation or a face-to-face interaction. If you walk on a ruai of a longhouse close to time for a meal, it is very common to hear the udah makai question which simply means “Have you eaten?” in Iban. If your reply is a yes, then anticipate the next question, “Nama utai kelauk?” which means “What was the dish?” It is a polite gesture when an Iban asks about the food that you had. It means they care.
The conversation about food can go on and on before they even get to the main point. If you tell them you had fish, chicken or pork for lunch and you will likely hear this, “Apu… mayuh mai utai ke lauk!” translated as “Wow! That’s a lot of dishes!” If you have more than one type of protein, then it is a sumptuous, luxurious meal you had. If you have vegetable, meat and another side dish, you are considered to have a nice, decent meal.
Gawai is the main celebration for the Ibans. The celebration of a bountiful harvest where they serve all the delicacies that are not restricted to only their traditional food but a showcase of food influenced by other cultures as well. At my longhouse in Betong, they serve buffet three times a day during Gawai! Food can also reflect social statuses.
During Gawai festival, the more expensive the alcoholic beverages served, the higher the social status the person has and food offering for the gods is a must. A ceremony for the Ibans is a community event and food that they serve during the festival, during a wedding or a wake is significant.
It reflects how much effort they put into the event. Whatever it is, the Ibans will always make sure that their dining table is full. Please don’t take me literally, a full dining table means, they must always have a decent meal each time.
They can be farmers in the kampung or labourers in the city but they make sure they have decent meals for their families.
Other things do not really matter to the Ibans but to have them is a surplus. It is no surprise that they have a lot of taboos when it comes to food.
If you don’t walk carefully near one who is sitting and eating on the floor, just make sure you don’t tread over their food. It is an insult. If an abusive husband does that to his wife who is eating, that is the ultimate insult as if she is not worthy to enjoy the meal. It is a taboo when a member or a visitor of an Iban family goes out without waiting for the food to be served.
Sometimes, when one has to leave over an urgent matter, usually the elderly will ask the person to quickly take a bite of what is already cooked in the pot and if it’s not possible, someone would quickly rush to the rice pot and pinch a bit of the rice and touch the person who is leaving. Well, that will do too as long as you come in contact with the food.
Otherwise, it is best to just say dahki ni, a short form of udah aki ini, which means ‘already, grandfather and grandmother’ as a polite gesture in informing the elderly that you have sampled the food. The Ibans believe that if you go out without eating, something bad might befall you, such as an accident or you might trip and fall.
Such strong belief about food is what makes it a significant part of their culture. So next time you see your Iban friend, be polite and ask ‘udah makai?’