Tuesday, December 1

Engkabang – the ‘tree butter’ from the forest


Villagers sorting out a bumper harvest of engabang seeds.

THE engkabang or shorea macrophylla is a Borneo dipterocarp species, locally known as kawang, engkabang, jantong, kawang jantang and tengkawang hantelok. It can grow to more than 50m tall with a 4m-5m girth.

Also known to many timber merchants as a variety of red meranti, the engkabang wood is hard and durable.

Engkabang trees have been secretly felled and stolen by outside foragers, according to the locals.

The fruits, also called illipe nuts, can be used to make lipsticks, moisturisers, soaps and cooking oil – and even as a substitute for cocoa butter. The fruits have a high vegetable fat content but the trees flower and fruit irregularly – more than five years apart – with Jan and Feb as the special months of ripening.

Dried engkabang seeds are crushed with a wooden pestle and mortar.

When the fruits start to drop on the jungle floor or the rivers, the Ibans would start gathering them as they wing down like helicopters – hence their nickname helicopter fruits.


Engkabang in Limbang

Robert Entalai told thesundaypost: “My great grandparents made minyak engkabang from the few engkabang trees they found on their newly-settled area in Ulu Limbang in the 1920s.”

This was the only oil they knew besides the occasional lard they got from hunting.

He said while growing up in Ulu Limbang, he loved the taste of this “special tree butter” which added flavour to his plate of rice.

“My grandmother and my mother planted rice. My mother was a good provider while my father worked as a timber logger in Indonesia.”

Robert and Laman Mambang grew up in Ulu Limbang together with several peers who are now working mostly in West Malaysia and Singapore. They share stories about collecting engkabang fruits in the jungles and from the rivers.

Boiling engkabang seeds on the longhouse compound.

The Ibans grew engkabang trees when they first moved from Skrang to Ulu Limbang. If not sold to the timber companies, cultivated engkabang trees as old as 100 years can still be found among the original forest engkabang trees in Ulu Medamit and Lubok Lellang,

“These big trees can easily yield about 30 tons of sewn timber. My grandfather’s engkabang trees near Lubok Lellang can fetch a lot of money but many of them are now found on the property transferred to my uncle. If they belonged to me, I would make sure they are protected for future generations,” Robert said with a faraway look.

In the past, engkabang trees growing near the rivers attracted a lot of fruit-eating ikan semah and ikan empurau. Many still remember the times they collected engkabang fruits and trapped the fish, known for their succulent flesh, together with their parents and grandparents.

But today, the number of engkabang trees has dwindled due to logging.

Engkabang oil is extracted with a crude oil-press called pitan.

Laman’s father, Mambang, now in his ’80s, continues to collect engkabang seeds and process them into tubes of “tree butter,” using a special oil-press called Pitan in a shed near the river.

In the old days, the pitan was usually found near the jetty or pengkalan where the villagers alighted after collecting their farm and jungle produce or visting Limbang town.


Chief port

A Miri businessman who used to live with his grandparents in Lanang Road, Sibu, remembers a retail shop called Chop Ching Chiong, renting his grandfather’s jetty with a big floating platform for drying engkabang seeds.

In the 1960s, that was the usual way to dry the seeds before shipping them to Singapore. Back then, Sibu was a thriving port and centre of engkabang export and collection.

After processing, the engkabang oil is poured into a bamboo stem.

The businessman remembers as the engkabang season approached, Chinese merchants and Iban engkabang collectors- sellers would gather to do business in Sibu. There were usually plenty of bargaining and back-slapping amidst brisk negotiations the best deals.

The motor launches, plying between Kapit and Kanowit, would be over-laden with huge gunny sacks of engkabang fruits as red-scarfed wharf labourers waited anxiously for their arrivals with four-wheel pull carts at the ready.

In those days, the proprietor of Chop Ching Chiong, Mr Sia, was known as the Foochow engkabang king.

At that time, engkabang was valued at about 50 dollars a picul. On record, in 1961 only $10,000 worth of engkabang fruits were available for export. In 1966, the amount rose to $4.6 million! In the 2000s, Sarawak registered erratic prices of the dried fruits and in 2013, engkabang was 0.80 cents per kg.


Limbang traders

Retired teacher Uncle Nanta remembers a group traders and their assistants coming to his longhouse in Medamit, Limbang, to buy dried engkabang seeds in the late 1950s.

Engkabang butter ready for the market.

When told by the traders during the transaction that the seeds weighed only 50 katis per gunny sack, his family were quite shocked because from experience, they knew it was more than that.

Nanta was then only a teenager but he was lucky his uncle came along and took the gunny sack of engkabang from the longboat to the Nanga Medamit shop where the towkay weighed the seeds and found the weight to be 100 katis.

Nanta said although shocked by the incident, he was, nonetheless, glad his parents got double the amount from their harvest.

The ‘helicopter fruit’.

He added that he didn’t know what happened to the traders but they never came back to buy engkabang from the Ulu Medamit Ibans again.

When there was a bumper harvest, the Ulu Limbang Ibans would take their crops to Limbang town to sell to middlemen. Many of Nanta’s relatives were able to buy their first outboard engine from their earnings.


Engkabang in Pakan

To many people, engkabang cannot be planted commercially but recently, some investors had been known to exploit the idea by turning some of their land into mini engkabang forest.

Regina Ranti who maintains a temporary residence in Pakan, told thesundaypost: “The fruits are shelled, then dried under the hot sun in large rattan trays. After that, the dried fruits are pounded to extract the oil.

“The oIder Ibans have the pitan for crushing the seeds to funnel the oil into a bamboo tube. I hope the younger generation will continue collecting engkabang to make oil. They are gifts from our jungles.”


Engkabang in Bintulu

A prolific writer and blogger, Mahmud Yussop of Bintulu, has written about how much he loves eating rice with engkabang butter.

Engkabang put out to dry in the sun.

“I have a ravenous liking for rice with illipe-nut-butter. For those not familiar, I’d just like to describe the illipe nut taste as being close to the cashew nut’s. Whenever I have the chance, I will keep a stock of engkabang oil cake which can last for years,” he said.

He also takes the illipe nuts with rice. First, he removes their thick coverings, then soak the nuts in water for two to three days, after which, the nuts are boiled and re-boiled about four times to remove the bitterness. After the final boiling, they should taste like cashew nuts.

“The nuts are soft and you can eat them with rice and some tempoyak or fermented durian paste. The meal is happiness in itself.”


Engkabang in Bekenu

Before the lockdown, I chanced upon several women in Kampong Trinnah along Miri-Bintulu Road out looking at engkabang fruits which were starting to fall.

While driving on the off-road, I saw the women walking home with baskets of engkabang fruits. They led me to the kampong and showed me the older fruits put out to dry on their yard.

The women indicated they would be making engkabang oil but would need to use their friend’s pitan. After processing the oil, they will sell it in bamboo tubes at the tamu.

The engkabang have been providing “forest butter” for the Ibans, Malays, Kedayans and now Malaysians in general for half a century. It was a cash crop for the Sarawak natives before Malaysia but today, its commercial value has waned drastically.

This delicacy should be made a heritage food. Others which have been suggested include  umai, pansuh, linut, sago, sagun, belacan, nasi lemak, ketupat kosong, Penang Laksa, Kelantan’s nasi kerabu and tempoyak.