Dabai, the Sarawak Olive


Olives Dabai in cross sectionare a food I miss from back home. In Detroit, you can get a dozen different kinds of imported olives from the Lebanese grocery stores. My favorite are the dehydrated Turkish olives that you reconstitute by soaking in olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic. Mmmm. But I’m not complaining! Sarawak has its own version of the olive: Dabai. Properly Canarium odontophyllum of the family Burseracea, it bears no relation to the olive botanically, but the resemblance is uncanny. They look a lot like olives, black and oblong, and only a bit larger than your average kalamata. Dabai tastes a lot like an olive too, bitter and oily. Like olives, you only get a bit of meat on each dabai; the rest is a large, smooth, three-sided seed.
Dabai are only found in Sarawak, and then only in one place, the Rajang River basin, the watershed of the largest river in Sarawak. Since the upper reaches of the Rajang are not easily accessible, a lot of trade moves along the river to the town of Sibu, which sits at the mouth of the Rajang. It is a seasonal fruit, with two crops per year following on the heels of Durian season.

If Dabai for sale at a roadside marketyou should find yourself in Sarawak, you’ll need to know how to cook them, as they can’t be eaten raw. Put the dabai in a bowl, boil some water in a kettle, and pour it over the dabai. Let them stand in the hot water for ten minutes or so. When ready, the flesh should separate from the seed when you pinch it. Drain off the water, toss in a dash or two of salt and shake them around. The flesh is creamy like an avocado, but bitter like an olive. You can eat them alone, but the flavor is a bit strong. I prefer them as a side dish to a rice and fish meal, where the rice can cut the bitterness.

If you’re not here in season, you could always try nasi goreng dabai or dabai fried rice. You can get it year-round since they make it with dabai that has been preserved by salting. At least, I think that’s what they do, from the taste of it; a bit too salty for my taste.

DabaiDabai with a rare variety of mata kuching is listed as a rare fruit in the wild, and to my knowledge the fruit in the market is wild-collected. If you’re interested in growing it, or want more botanical information, you could try the Borneo Collection. Extra Bonus Fruit: In the picture to the left is a rare variety of Mata Kuching also from Sibu. To me, it seemed identical to the common mata kuching, except for the green bumpy skin. Cool to look at though! That in a nutshell is why tropical biodiversity is doomed, but that’s a subject for another post.


22 thoughts on “Dabai, the Sarawak Olive

  1. Those things, if they were here, would be considered exotic. Just the other day, I saw some durian at the vietnamese market. My Iranian-American asked, “is it good” I looked at him and said, “yes…but..I don’t think you’re gonna like it.” Lat, the Malaysian cartoonist always depicted Mat Salleh as those who have this severe aversion towards this king of fruits… Have you tried any??? 😛

  2. Ahh, Durian. I’ve refrained from posting about it thus far out of reverence. I’ve been patiently gathering good photos so I can really do it justice. Coming soon…

  3. SM – Thought I replied to you a few days back, now I see that it didn’t post. Anyway, my answer would be, not really anymore. Nowadays, due to new hybrid varieties that reach maturity earlier and bear more consistently, the price of durian has come down. The highly seasonal nature of the crop also means that the price bottoms out in the peak times of the season. There have even been reports of farmers cutting down their trees in frustration because they are unable to sell their durians at a decent price due to market glut.

    As far as the land itself goes, You can buy an acre of mature durian for RM 10000 or thereabouts. That’s a good chunk of money on local incomes, but land is expensive in Malaysia in general, and prime agricultural land would sell for about the same amount whether it had durian on it or some other fruit crop. Still, If I owned an acre of durian, I’d feel like a wealthy man, that’s for sure!

  4. Assalamualaikum Br Bin Gregory,

    Sorry .. this comment is not related to your post. But I’d like to thank you for sharing those old photos on flickr. They’re very nice. You do have your mother’s eyes!

  5. My friend who lived there said she made her kids eat the durian outside, because of its stench. Smelly fruit? Am very intrigued.

    I’ll try anything (foodwise!) at least once!

  6. Salam brother. Please don’t tell me you are one of ‘hantu durian’. I myself, keep my mouth away from it, but in the form of ‘tempoyak’.

    Thank you for telling me what Dabai is. A sincere thanks from a truly Malaysian citizen. LOL 😀

  7. Salaam Brother.. news on Ustaz Wan Mohd Shaghir..

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  8. ASA,

    Man, you just conjured up some old visages of Dearborn and the Lebanese markets I used to go to. ar-Rizq market and then off to Cederland for a gut-stuffing throw down. Hmm…, now where can I go to get good dates like that in Philly… Sounds like I need to go home!

  9. WASWR,

    Cedarland, the home of the drive-thru shawarma… I need a visit home too, Marc. Strictly between you and me (and the rest of the world), I may be heading back for a vacation in May! I can hardly wait. Olives will be a serious priority.

  10. assalamualaikum

    it’s nice reading how much you have accepted and embraced life here. warm regards to your family.

    wassalam

  11. Bin, I am interested with the Mata Kuching. Which month in a year i can get this, and which part in Sibu..Regards.

  12. Hi I’ve just come across your post and i must say it’s really helpful! I studied in kuching until this year and i’ve come across, not the fruit, but “nasi goreng dabai” or dabai fried rice. It’s delish! I was wondering how to prepare raw dabai since i’ve got like 1 kilo here with me (i know, a LOT), and i had no idea what to do with them. Thanks so much for this 🙂

  13. Sorry I’ve been on vacation so quite late in replying. You want to soak them in lukewarm to warm water until tender, then pour off the water. You add some salt and shake them around until the salt dissolves and then eat straight or with your rice as a side dish. Enjoy!

  14. Thanks for the info on ‘Dabai’. I love the fruit very much but only to know little about it including it’s real name. We name it as ‘Gan Lang’ in Chinese which basically translated as ‘Olive’ in English. Now I know more about this little delicious and exotic fruit. By the way, the way we prepare it is actually the same, to soak it in hot water til it softens. But usually I prefer to add black soy sauce and some sugar to it, and just enjoy munching it with or without other foods altogether. Y(^_^)Y

  15. Interesting article. Now fruiting dabai trees are found not only in Rajang area but in many other places in Sarawak: Miri, Bintulu, Limbang, Sarikei and Kuching. I have 20 fruiting trees now in Kuching area. The best varieties are very good to eat and are very much more expensive .Seedling trees come in males and females. Budded trees are costly as they are difficult to propagate vegetatively, but worthwhile to have as the fruit quality is ensured and such trees produce fruits much earlier at about 4 years old.
    An exotic way to taste dabai is to put one in the mouth and allow it to slowly soften, savouring the delicate flavours as it softens and melts in the warmth of your mouth. Enjoy it.

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