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The rainforest butter – seeds from Engkabang tree

Seeds from Engkabang tree have properties like those of butter

The most expensive and sought after fresh water fish in Sarawak or Malaysia, for that matter, is the empurau (Tor Tambroides) an indigenous species found in the wild rivers of the State. Locals believe that the delicious, delicate flavour of the flesh comes from its diet of Engkabang seeds that fall into the river.

Engkabang tree

“Engkabang trees are one of the biggest trees usually found along river banks and alluvial plains in Borneo. Its botanical name is Shorea macrophylla, belonging to the meranti family of trees which are also much priced for their lightness and toughness, especially in wood based industries. Incidentally, the meranti species of wood is no longer being exported from Sarawak as the State Government has encouraged the development of local wood based industries by introducing the export quota of only 40% of harvested wood for export only,” said Haji Hashim Bojet, Deputy General Manager, Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC).

Engkabang fruits

Engkabang fruits

Not many people, even locals, have actually seen Engkabang trees and you have to venture into rural settlements to see one today. The tree is one of the dipterocarp family of trees (Greek for two-winged seeds) of lowland areas and most dominant species in tropical rainforests. Those lucky enough to see a fruiting Engkabang tree will get the chance to see how these winged seeds spin around like a helicopter propellers as they drop down from the canopy and usually into the rivers. Unfortunately, the Engkabang trees do not bear fruits every year, some only bearing once every four or five years, according to botanical records. Furthermore, the gestation period of the seeds is also long which means that the species is slow to reproduce itself. Due to the long and slow growth of the species, Engkabang trees are difficult to find nowadays and is one of the protected species of trees in the State.

Another interesting aspect of the Engkabang seeds (or illipe nuts) is their usefulness to rural communities as a source of ‘butter’. This ‘butter from the rainforest’ can be kept for years without going bad and no refrigeration is needed too!  The seeds are collected and left to dry or smoked after which they are pounded to squeeze out their oil. The oil is then cooked and left to cool in bamboo stems until they harden, usually yellowish in colour and ready to be eaten.

Engkabang fruits

butter from engkabang fruits

“Most people put some of the hardened oil on their hot rice where it melts and has a butter-like taste. A little salt is usually added to enhance the taste sometimes. In the past, these bamboo stems of Engkabang oil could be found in the local markets but is now hard to find,” he said. One reason was the low price of the fruits and also small market for the rainforest butter which discouraged locals from engaging in the trade.

Another use of Engkabang oil is that for massaging where it is said to be soothing and good for the skin. There have been researches done on the Engkabang oil for beauty products but commercialising of these have yet to be developed. With the growing emphasis on natural based products in today’s market, it is likely that the Engkabang oil will one day be sourced for such uses.

While it may not be possible for many to actually see an Engkabang tree in the wild, those interested can actually come to the Museum of the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation in Kuching to see the many samples of wood species available in the State. There are ample resources to learn about all these different species including the Engkabang and even get to touch some of these woods! It is also a place to gather information for research on trees found in the State and visitors can also learn about the many different types of industries, including wood based ones, that are currently cooperating with STIDC to reach new potentials.

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