Dinner with the headhunters


The last time Derek Guthrie had dinner with headhunters it was in The Four Seasons, New York, for a job offer he didn’t take up. This time it’s in Borneo

Valley of the headhunters

The clue was in the transfer at KL.

I’d flown into Kuala Lumpur on one of Malaysia Airline’s enormous new Airbus 380s. Both floors were packed ­– that’s nearly 500 passengers on one plane – but I was the only transfer onto the 737 bound for Sarawak, two hours away on the island of Borneo, the eastern part of Malaysia.

The capital, Kuching (exclamation mark optional), sprawls with suburbs and too many cars running on locally sourced petrol, 50p a litre. Its old centre is part fishing village, part colonial throwback from the “White Rajahs” who ruled for a century. Here it’s the river traffic that’s busy: dozens of little sampans – bot tambangs – scurrying to and fro in a landscape of ornate multi-coloured Chinese temples, equally grand Mosques, and civic buildings, flamboyant confections with pointy hats in hues of gold or bright blue. India Street has sarongs and takeout curried stuff for one ringit (about 30p), while Chinatown has moped spares cheek by jowl with noodle stalls, biscuit bakeries and old-style coffee shops. No Starbucks, just Maccy D’s for the mall kids in their Man U and Chelsea strips.

Collecting the severed heads of their enemies was commonplace until the “White Rajahs” outlawed it in the 1930s

The street food is delicious: steaming bowls of creamy, spicy laksa; tomato soup with noodles called kway teow; and midin, a bright green curly fern from the jungle served with everything, a dozen different ways. Top Spot is where to go first, the roof of a multi storey car park set with dozens of fresh fish stalls and plastic tables. You choose, they weigh and cook to order. A half kilo of giant prawns fried in garlic with a bowl of rice, a great plate of steaming, chilli spiked midin, and a Tiger beer costs less than ten quid. Even when it rains it’s still packed with families scarfing everything the sea has to offer.

What few tourists there are – Australian backpackers, a few Germans hiding in eco resorts, and adventurous Chinese – come to visit the rainforest, home to hornbills and orangutans, a magic kingdom where multicoloured butterflies as large as your hand airily skip from one exotic flower to another.

It’s also home to the headhunters.

The umbrella term for the native peoples here is Dayak, which lumps together dozens of indigenous tribes such as Iban and Bidayuh under one slightly insulting colonial nickname, now reclaimed and celebrated. Collecting the severed heads of their enemies was commonplace until the “White Rajahs” outlawed it in the 1930s, only to see it reappear again during the Second World War in guerrilla campaigns against occupying Japanese forces. Today, tribes who still live in “Longhouses” – communal buildings that can accommodate as many as 200 families – share the facilities that any village might have: a shop, a blacksmith, a small hall with iron caskets brimming with human skulls. That kind of thing.

At the tourist end of the spectrum you can set up a demonstration where one of the natives will change out of his work overalls into full hunting gear – i.e., semi-naked – and, after cursory instruction, allow you to blow his two-metre blowpipe. A six-inch sharpened spike shoots out the business end and, if you’ve aimed correctly, will embed itself in a tree. Innocent fun, but as a demo of lethal marksmanship, you’ll get the point, if you see what I mean.

But this is 2013, and it’s safe to enter the jungle without fear of a dart splitting one’s cranium or decapitation by machete… isn’t it? The practice has been outlawed for decades, certainly, but as recently as 2001, rioting in the Indonesian part of Borneo resulted in several deaths and, well, decapitations.

I find such jolly folklore is best explored at table, where the fashion is for conviviality rather than physical violence, and the.Dyak (the original spelling of the word) is the restaurant to do just that. Don’t imagine some native bamboo shed: this is a smart space in a crescent of smart shops. The patron, Vernon Kedit, is descended from the Iban, one of Borneo’s headhunting tribes, but his idea of culture is collecting and commissioning contemporary art, and although the recipes are inspired by ones made by his great grandmother out in the jungle longhouses where the Iban still live to this day, he has created a menu of taste, texture and exactitude. Although I’d guess his is the only Facebook page sporting the enticement “Real Headhunter Food”, a statement the other good restaurants in town – Absolute Tribal, Junk, Bla Bla Bla – possibly wouldn’t see as customer bait.

Those ornately carved mandaus on the wall –  ceremonial knives used in tribal rituals for you-know-what – weren’t bought at Sotheby’s with a note of provenance

It’s a square room hung with valuable artefacts; after ordering from the menu you’re given a laminated description of each piece and invited to wander around studying pictures of semi-nude women working the paddy fields, the owner’s late great grandmother (fully naked, but covered in tattoos) ceremonial machetes (gulp), and original art commissioned locally – not the shrunken head art available in the knick-knack shops, but grand, brightly coloured statements of tribal culture. In Paris, such ethnicity would be the sensation of the 19th; in Manhattan, the West Village would be swooning. But this isn’t a pastiche, it’s the real deal. Those ornately carved mandaus on the wall –  ceremonial knives used in tribal rituals for you-know-what – weren’t bought at Sotheby’s with a note of provenance. They’re family heirlooms.

We don’t have an auspicious start: the waiter informs us that we can only have red rice – oh, and there’s no wine tonight. (Boo!) However, the patron produces a bottle of Tuak, the insanely strong rice wine of the tribes. We have a small glass and then a little later we try another one. Then another, then another. You get the picture. Moreish.

The rice is fine, much like brown rice, but it’s the parade of multi-coloured dyak dishes that has us applauding. Three-layered pork sauteed with pickled durian, chicken and tapioca leaves cooked in bamboo, jungle ferns sautéed with wild ginger flowers, chilli and dried shrimp, sweet potato with garlic, coconut and more dried shrimp, whole tilapia steamed in turmeric leaf. Every individual taste sings, there’s an array of unfamiliar herbs and spices at work here, but nothing is overused, nothing is either too hot or too spicy. It all tastes fresh, because it is. The stream of dishes, after a pause, reaches a climax with dessert: ice cream with lumps of cold fermented rice, drizzled with nuts, and a strong but sweet glass of Tuak. It sounds decidedly unappetising, but I’d crawl back there for another one. It was a taste of something very special.

The waiting staff are all tattooed and descended from tribespeople – headhunters all – but they’re more interested in checking out Facebook likes on their iPhones than sharpening those glinting mandaus.

If you’re an intrepid explorer, then by all means charter a boat and head off up the river into the rainforest to find the hidden tribes of Borneo who may, or may not, tell you tales of headhunting. Look out for a squiggly tattoo on the backs of their hands – that’s the sign of someone who’s taken a head.

But frankly an evening with Vernon and his family recipes from the jungle was enough for me. Plus we got a taxi back to our hotel. I hate all that scything through the undergrowth after dinner, don’t you? C