Tagaktak thoughts in Kota Kinabalu

Sabah after the quake

THE delicacy that the Badjau girl prepared for guests at the cultural village in Kota Kinabalu looked familiar.

“Tagaktak!”someone from our group exclaimed.

We watched in wonder as the tuft of thin noodle-like strands made from sticky rice, sugar and coconut milk turned golden brown in the pan. Another Badjau girl readied another batch: she pours the batter through a perforated bowl contraption over the pan. There was no doubt what the deep-fried triangular fritters were.

I looked at the snack with a sense of bemusement. The tagaktak is as Mandauehanon as delicacies can get. But here it was, a thousand kilometers away from my hometown, being deep fried with a local’s expert hands then carefully placed on banana leaves for us tourists to enjoy.

So the obvious had to be asked: Is this a Badjau delicacy? The two Badjau girls nodded. And in these parts, they call it “ kuih jala.”

Want some “tapai”? This fermented rice wine is served during rites and ceremonies in Sabah, particularly among the Kadazan-Dusun.

We took a few bites – yes, just like our good old tagaktak back home – before proceeding to the other demo areas and tribal huts at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. We got samplings of rice wine, honey and a complete meal cooked in bamboo (sounds familiar?), as well as participate in local customs such as shooting blow darts, getting (henna) tattoos, and partaking in a communal sport on a makeshift trampoline inside a hut.

The half day inside Mari Mari – “mari” means “come” in Bahasa – was quite an experience, far from the hackneyed tours one might associate with “cultural villages.”

Beehive in a Rungus home
Called the longhouse, this traditional structure of the Rungus, the fourth biggest tribe in Sabah, can host up to a dozen families. The word Rungus comes from Tomborungus, the son of Aki Ragang who, according to legend, lives on top of Mount Kinabalu.

For one, the Mari Mari village serves as an interactive outdoor museum that seeks to preserve Sabah’s culture and tradition by gathering five ethnic tribes – the Murut, Rungus, Lundayeh, Kadazan-Dusun and the Badjau – in one area, a forested terrain where a river runs through.

Hanging bridge over a river at the Mari Mari Cultural Village

The Kadazan-Dusuns, we learned during the visit, is the biggest ethnic tribe in this melting pot called Sabah, followed by the Badjaus. And the latter happen to be connected with the Badjaos in the Philippines.

Sabah, with a population of 3,117,000, has 450,000 Badjaus, many of whom migrated from Sulu in Mindanao due to armed conflict. And therein lies the irony: the Badjau in Sabah seem accepted in the community, if not more prosperous, than their marginalized counterparts in the Philippines.

A colorful traditional Badjau home in Sabah

A recreation of their dwellings in Mari Mari shows an interior of colorful and intricate designs, what a home of a cultured people looks like. Among the other tribes in the cultural village, the Badjau home seemed the most vibrant. It probably is.

On our way from Kudat back to Kota Kinabalu the previous day (the quake still in the back of our heads), we passed by a cluster of houses on stilts along the coast in Kota Marudu. We stopped – and this wasn’t part of the itinerary – to take a look, to get a glimpse of a Badjau community.

A Badjau community in Kota Marudu

What was striking was that the houses, though made of light materials, looked sturdy, and were clustered in clear surrounding waters where their machine-powered wooden boats with wooden anchors were docked.

Some boats were for fishing, while others were for transport (one had cargo of LPG tanks). In the backdrop was a mangrove forest, where the Badjaus harvested wood for their needs.

And this is what we saw, in Kota Marudu and Kota Kinabalu: the conditions of the Badjau in Sabah were in stark contrast to those of the Badjaos in the Philippines, from where their ancestors came, the same line of ancestors who probably introduced to us tagaktak, that intricately prepared crispy delicacy that brings joy and pride to all and sundry.

The tagaktak will never look and taste the same.

LPG containers on a boat in Kota Marudu