Dabai, the Sarawak Olive
Olives are 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 you 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.
Dabai 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.