Of roast squirrel and bee maggot stew

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? So how did I get to this point? Well, I was living among the Rungus of Northern Borneo. These are coastal people and generally fairly poor. In this particular village, or Kampung as villages are known in the Malay language, the Rungus still head into what’s left of the jungle, now replaced by palm oil and rubber plantations to hunt for odd tidbits of meat.

If it’s made out of meat and is edible, the rule is to kill it. If it’s not edible, kill it anyway and find a way to eat it. Chatting with them, if a bird landed anywhere near, the locals would chatter, point at it and explain it was sedaap (delicious) and if a weapon was on hand they would take action.

So the women may head off with throw-nets to catch shrimps and small fish while the men usually go out at night with home made guns. These guns are cool, they are alcohol powered and shoot a marble with surprising accuracy. We have embedded marbles into coconuts, tree trunks and even experimented with one inch sections of steel reinforcement bar (you do not want to be in the path of one of those things!) One time a marble even made it through two and a half sheets of metal roofing!

The normal targets are the local planduk, a “mouse deer” (not a deer at all but similar in many ways – good meat but very little) and the kijang (barking deer – very chewy). On a successful night, the men proudly bring back the animals to feed their families. So far the populations of these animals seem to be stable.

Often, the men will take the guns out for a walk during the day. Mammals are smart, and I have watched experiments done on the intelligence of squirrels. I have also watched the Rungus hunting them which seems like an experiment in itself. Once relatively indifferent to humans at a distance, they now have every reason to be as nervous and jittery as a cockroach in a shoe shop. Out with one of my Rungus friends, he had his gun at the ready. Silently moving through the coconut plantations that the tupai, or squirrels prefer, he scanned every branch of every tree. As soon as a squirrel appeared on the frond of a coconut palm, he would raise the gun and fire.

CRACK! Down comes a dead squirrel. Although the men would often take a couple of dead squirrels to work, light a fire and roast them on the spot during smoke breaks, I didn’t eat squirrel for some time until one night there was enough left after a meal. My friend Olin came over, sat down next to me in the long house and offered up a small serve of squirrel. I did not expect it to be anywhere near as good. Did it taste like chicken? Well, for once, no. But what came next was a bit of a surprise…

A plastic bowl was full of some sort of stew. My friend Shane, an Australian living with the Rungus explained what it was:
These things are bee maggots from the giant honey bee. They build their hives high in the tallest trees, the nests hang down from the underside of the biggest branches. The locals climb these trees at night to harvest the honey, burning off the bees with a flaming torch. They then collect up to seven kilograms of pure honey plus any of the larvae. Try it, you won’t get any more Rungus than this!

So I dipped the spoon into the brownish stew, scooped up a spoonful of dead, cold and limp bee maggots. Pallid and baggy they looked like rice grains, though each one was nearly an inch long. Despite the fact they popped in my mouth like a multitude of ripe pimples, they were good. Very good in fact. With a slight nutty taste they were oily and had a strong hint of honey plus some had a beeswax coating from the cooking process.

So… bee maggot stew, anyone?

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