Lelamaih worms: Once the Melanaus’ prestige dowry for engagements, weddings

Lelamiah worm. Photo credit: Boris Ling

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By Lian Cheng and Nur Ashikin Louis

Do you know that apart from the famous ‘ulat mulong’ or sago worm, the Melanau tribe of Sarawak has another edible worm dish named ‘lelamaih’?

Lelamaih, also known as lameh or lelamas, is a type of caterpillar that can be found on Nyatoh tree leaves in certain tropical rainforests.

Lelamiah worms. Photo credit: Boris Ling

According to Dalat resident Boris Ling, 43, Dalat experiences lelamaih season annually, mainly at the beginning of the year.

This year, the lelamaih frenzy started on January 26 and will continue for roughly a month.

“The lelamaih are usually found deep in the jungle. For this season, lelamaih has gotten the attention of many because this time round, the breeding ground is in the secondary forest along a road which is much travelled. It is at the secondary forest along the road from Dalat town to Kampung Hut Muara, about 7km away from Dalat town.

“Due to the location’s vicinity to the town, many people had stopped by and taken pictures or videos on the lelamaih. They then shared on their social media, thus catching a lot of attention.

“Before this, the lelamaih could only be found and caught in the deeper parts of the jungle. So only a handful of people will go there to catch them,” Ling told DayakDaily.

Fried lelamiah worms. Photo credit: Boris Ling

He said he met some visitors from Baram yesterday who went to the spot to see the lelamaih and was told by them that the edible caterpillars can also be found in Baram, except that the residents there don’t know these crawlies are delicacies which fetch good monies.

In terms of the price for the lelamaih, Ling said it depends on the availability. It can be sold between RM300 to 350 per kilogram, and when it is found in abundance, it may fetch less. Presently, he said, it is about RM250 to RM300 per kg.

On the saying that the lelamaih found on the ground or by the roadside are bitter while those found on leaves are sweet, Ling speculated that it is because the ones still moving and wriggling around looking for food are ones that have yet to reach the cocoon stage.

“These lelamaih are still not ready to turn into cocoons, meaning they are still hungry for food, and whatever they eat is still in their system.

“But those we find on leaves and curve themselves up to be ready to turn into a cocoon, they have stopped eating. Whatever is in their systems has already been digested. So the lelamaih at this stage taste sweeter,” he said.

Dato Sri Fatimah Abdullah

Ling’s theory seems to check out as Sarawak Minister of Women, Childhood and Community Wellbeing Development Dato Sri Fatimah Abdullah also confirmed that the lelamaih would taste bitter when eaten prematurely.

Fatimah, who is the Dalat assemblywoman and a native, told DayakDaily that she had tried the worm dish during her childhood years and gave similar tips on how to differentiate them.

“The sweet ones are rolled up and wrapped in leaves. Meanwhile, those still small and crawling are not yet mature, so they would taste bitter,” she said.

She also elaborated that back in the olden days, people did not have refrigerators, so they would opt for the smoking method to preserve the dish.

“We would cook lelamaih over a fire so that it would be dried and thus, extending its shelf-life. Since it is an exotic dish, people also use lelamaih as a prestige dowry during engagement or wedding ceremonies,” she added.

Fatimah further explained that the lelamaih is not only seasonal but the focus spots on where to get them also change.

This was proven when the lelamaih was found abundantly at Jalan Dalat-Sungai Kut recently when the previous presence of the worms was only found in the forest area of Kampung Balan and other specific areas.

She, however, pointed out that there is a belief that lelamaih would often migrate whenever there is thunder.

It is also worth noting that many Sarawakians were oblivious to the existence of lelamaih as an exotic delicacy, and this may be due to a lack of awareness and the fact that it is only available at certain times and places.

Therefore, Fatimah believes that more research can be done on lelamaih to learn more about the worm and, perhaps to an extent — its medicinal value.

“Maybe the researchers or universities can conduct a detailed study on lelamaih regarding its commercialisation potential. The study may also discover why the species can only be found during its seasonal period and in specific places.

“And even if we want to commercialise lelamaih because it now has a high price tag and rising market demand, we should also consider the feasibility of farming the worms, the implications and other factors.

“We must also look at whether lelamaih has medicinal or nutritional value so that it can be promoted as a sustainable product,” she emphasised. — DayakDaily

Lelamiah worms. Photo credit: Boris Ling
Lelamiah worms. Photo credit: Boris Ling