Pesta Nukenen: Celebrating The Cultural And Culinary Heritage Of The Kelabit Highlands

Edited by Datin Nikki Lugun
Published by Rurum Kelabit Sarawak, non-fiction

Pesta Nukenen is a festival that aims to promote, celebrate and preserve the food and culture of the Bario Highlands. Conceived in 2005 and launched the following year, this three-day event showcases the unique foods of the Kelabit people and also introduces visitors to the traditional games, handicrafts, music, songs, dances and stories of this community, in their original and beautiful setting.

This book offers a tantalising glimpse of all that is in store for those planning to attend the annual festival, which will next be held from July 28 to 30.

Kelabit cuisine is at the heart of Pesta Nukenen and would naturally be the main attraction for foodies in search of new and exciting flavours. The most interesting thing about the food of this highland community is the ingredients used. Apart from the famous Bario rice, and the fruit and vegetables grown by the various longhouse communities of the highlands, a rich variety of jungle flora and fauna, unique to these highlands, are also harvested. This makes for a truly exceptional culinary experience, not just in terms of tastes, but also textures and appearances.

Datin Nikki Lugun edits a book that showcases the food and culture of the Kelabit community.  Photo: Filepic

Datin Nikki Lugun edits a book that showcases the food and culture of the Kelabit community. Photo: Filepic

The book features many colour photographs of the food on offer at Pesta Nukenen, and most of the images will appear unfamiliar to most readers because of the ingredients used as well as the cooking and serving methods.

For example, there is rice cooked and served in pitcher plants (several species are found in the Kelabit Highlands), which act as very convenient, biodegradable and edible containers. Rice is also frequently wrapped in isip leaves, as a dessert or a savoury; or cooked in bamboo.

Then there are a variety of wild vegetables, fungus and mushrooms, fried, braised or used in soups; there are river sails sauteed with ginger, garlic and chilli; mouse deer in clear broth; soft-shell turtle consomme; and juicy barbecued sago grubs.

Photo: Filepic

There are no recipes, but detailed descriptions accompany each of the pictures, which are divided into sections that indicate the source (eg “From the rivers and streams”), or the type of ingredient (eg “roots & shoots”). Although some of the descriptions may make less adventurous readers feel a little nervous, it all looks very delicious.

Pesta Nukenen and the cuisine of the Kelabit Highlands make their appearance only in the second half of this 180-page book. Before that there are chapters on various aspects of the highlands, including its history, heritage sites, the social and cultural practices, and various art forms of the Kelabit people as well ecotourism in Bario.

There’s a lot of information to get through, so be warned that this book is not solely about the festival or Kelabit food. However, it does offer anyone curious about the Kelabit community and the highlands a comprehensive overview of the people and the place. Also, it’s excellent prep for anyone intending to attend Pesta Nukenen.

I do think though that, given its title, the book could have been structured in a way that gives more prominence to the festival. For example, different aspects of Pesta Nukenen could have been highlighted, each in a chapter of its own, with the relevant historical, cultural and sociological details woven in as part of the narrative, and to provide context and colour.

This could be a consideration for future editions. The publishers should also ensure that the book is proofread more thoroughly, and provide captions for the captivating photos used throughout. At the moment, they raise many questions that the accompanying text does not always answer.

Unfortunately, Pesta Nukenen does not seem to be well publicised or promoted. Hopefully, this book will play a part in spreading the word about what sounds like a fascinating and very important event.

Pesta Nukenen: Celebrating The Cultural And Culinary Heritage Of The Kelabit Highlands is available from Silverfish Books at Lot 20-2F, Bangsar Village 2, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur and online at For inquries, call 03-2284 4837 or e-mail