Known locally as “black olive”, “Borneo olive” or “Sibu olive” in English, “ga lang” 橄榄 in Chinese, or “buah Dabai” in Malay, this is a native variety of olive, found only in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, a region recognized as having one of the highest bio-diversities in the world.
The scientific name of the fruit is Canarium. Slightly larger than the Kalamata olive (which is native to Greece and is named after the Greek city Kalamata), these indigenous olives grown on tall trees (over 20 – 60 meters in height) which historically thrived in Sarawak’s lush tropical rainforests, and the fruits harvested are known locally as “wild dabai”. Believed to be highly nutritious (rich in antioxidants, carbohydrates, proteins and fat), the popularity of the dabai olive has resulted in the cultivation of the fruit in small plots of land by landowners, however the taste and quality of their produce is no match to wild dabai and consequently they generally command a lower price in the market.
When mature, the fruit is white, however it transforms into a deep opaque black hue as it matures, hence the moniker “black olive”. Dabai is a seasonal fruit, appearing in markets in Sarawak only once a year, between November and January. The fruit is rarely found in the rest of Malaysia.
The fruit cannot be consumed raw – its flesh is extremely tough; it is not possible to simply bite into it. The flesh is usually softened, either left to soak in some warm water (not hot and not boiling) or soy sauce after which it is consumed. It is sometimes eaten right away as a snack with a dash of soy sauce and sprinkling of salt or sugar, or it is served as a side dish to an everyday meal of rice.
Another popular preparation is dabai fried rice (known as “nasi goreng dabai” in Malay, “nasi” = “rice”, “goreng” = “fried”) which is a Sarawakian specialty, easily recognized by the purplish tinge in the rice, a color no doubt imparted by the black olives. In its simplest form, the dish sees boiled, de-seeded and roughly chopped dabai lightly fried in oil in a wok until aromatic. Then cooked rice (usually white) is thrown in. The ingredients are mixed, fried for a while and then seasonings such as soy sauce is added after which the dish is garnished with Chinese celery and served immediately.
More elaborate dabai fried rice variations see the addition of ingredients such as anchovies (known as “ikan bilis” in Malay), onion and garlic or anything else that the cook fancies such as oyster sauce and eggs.
Like most traditional dishes in Asia, there are no fixed recipes, with different families in different regions having different ingredient combinations and ratios.
Apart from the flesh of the dabai olive, the contents of within its large seed are also consumed. The seed is cracked open, and the contents are gently extracted out (a popular tool for this purpose is the toothpick) and eaten.