Kasam ensabi — the Iban kimchi

Preserved or fermented ensabi.

by Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, Feb 22: For some people, ‘Ensabi Iban’ or ensabi, and wasabi (Japanese wasabi or mustard) don’t just have similar sounding names, but also taste similar.

Raw ensabi is said to taste almost the same as Japanese wasabi, but it also has some distinct differences.

Whether eaten raw or cooked, ensabi does not have the pungent smell and taste of wasabi paste which can deliver a punch up your nostrils and induce tears in your eyes.

Despite belonging to a species of mustard greens and having a little of the spicy, pungent taste of wasabi, ensabi is also a little bitter.

Ensabi is not difficult to prepare. It can be as simple as stir-frying the fresh vegetable with onions and garlic, a little salt and pepper to taste and finally topping the dish with crispy, fried ikan bilis (anchovies). Another way is to preserve it in salt (kasam ensabi).

Washed and cleaned ensabi, ready to be cooked.
Stir-fried fresh ensabi.

These days, some locals who preserve the vegetable have taken to calling it ‘Iban kimchi’ to popularise it.

You never know, perhaps preserved ensabi could become as famous as South Korea’s iconic preserved dish, and earn itself a place on supermarket shelves all over the world.

If you have culinary skills and love to preserve the dish, then you can make your own ‘Iban kimchi’ which can be enjoyed as ‘kerabu’ (herb salad), in soups, stir-fried on its own or with meat and vegetables, or as an appetiser.

This reporter’s preference it to add preserved ensabi to an omelette with other ingredients, to get a savoury taste.

Omelet topped preserved ensabi.

Over the years, the vegetable has grown in popularity among locals. It is sold commercially in most vegetable markets.

In the past, locals, like the Iban community, used to plant the vegetable in abundance during the paddy planting season.

This leafy vegetable is resilient and grows well, especially in soil surrounding the remnants of charred logs, the result of hill-padi farming practices which clear the land through controlled burning. Farmers would eat the ensabi, preserving any excess in jars for future consumption.

It is commonly preserved by first wilting fresh, clean ensabi with roots trimmed off in the sun before mixing and crushing it with a generous portion of coarse salt. The ensabi is then placed in an airtight container or jar, and covered with rice water. It is then stored at room temperature for about a week before it is ready to be used. Rinse excess salt from the preserved ensabi before use.

Due to commercialisation and it being easy to grow, farmers started to plant ensabi systematically, making this vegetable easily available almost all year round.

At farmers’ markets, it is often sold for RM2-3 a bundle. — DayakDaily

Fresh Iban ensabi for sale.