Eating live sago worms may not be your cup of tea but that's what's on the menu in Mukah
(facing the river, the first stall left of the fish market)
(umai for two: 5 RM)
Unable to make it to the rice-growing region of Bario we short circuited our trip, heading straight for Mukah, promised land of Melanau specialities umai (local raw fish salad), and see-ut (sago grubs, eaten fried or live). The road to Mukah is a bumpy one and, after 2 hours on the main highway we turned off, enduring a further 1 1/2 hrs of bum bruising road, winding our way past grove after grove of oil palms.
Arriving in the early afternoon, we found a room at the Mukah Inn situated between the old and new town in a brand spanking new Chinese strip mall. The room was small but clean and bright and dumping our bags we made straight for the fish market. Three weeks before a waiter in Kuching, native of Mukah, had assured us that this was the best place to try both local specialities, and it wasn’t long before we ended up riverside at the Gerai #1 Masakan Melanau food stall, ruled over by the grandmotherly Dorothy. Although there is a whole line of food stalls, Dorothy has about a dozen trophies on top of her fridge, from local and regional awards. What’s more she deserves them, as the umai was absolutely delicious, impeccably fresh white fish cut into fine strips and mixed with lime juice, onions, chillies and some special sambal. Toasted sago balls offer a textural contrast to the softness of the fish and the whole thing comes together in a fabulously fresh and light treat, not dissimilar to South American ceviche. Dorothy came out to chat and we were won over by her charming smile and gentle manner, regretting that we didn’t have more time to give to Mukah and more of her cooking.
With umai conquered that left see-ut. Drawing blank stares and a few quizzical looks we searched in vain and then searched some more. Assured by the few that there was indeed “sago grub” available at the local market we pushed on but were rapidly loosing hope.
No matter, the umai more than made up for a partially failed food mission.
But then, on our third and final trip down an aisle of vegetable vendors we spotted them. About the size of a small thumb, the white maggots were sealed into plastic bags, still live and wriggling. And wriggle they did, appearing extremely anxious to avoid whatever fate they thought awaited them. Despite being offered both the chance to purchase a bag of grubs at 5 RM a pop, and then a free grub as ataster, we unfortunately had to decline. In fact at the thought of eating them we both turned a bit green and retreated to the hotel.
Raw seafood I can handle, even live shrimp I could enjoy, but large wriggling maggots with black heads? Just thinking of it now only one word comes to mind: “Ewwwww.”
by Michael Elliott
Award winning Dorothy, owner of Gerai #1 Masakan Melanau food stall photo by Tandy Sean
sago worms for sale, eaten fresh out of the bag or fried.