Nonsom: A Traditional Delight Reviving Age-Old Flavors

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Nonsom, known as Bosou or Tonsom in the native language, represents a cherished culinary tradition among the Kadazan-Dusun people, Sabah’s largest indigenous group. Created as a means to preserve food, Nonsom incorporates unique preservation techniques that were essential before the advent of modern refrigeration. The methods used in making Nonsom not only prolonged the shelf life of ingredients but also enhanced their flavours, creating a distinctive taste profile that has been passed down through generations.

This unique dish is made by mixing freshwater fish, a staple in the diet of the Kadazandusun, with cooked rice, and then pickling with salt, smoked and pulverised Buah Keluak or Pangi(nuts from the Kepayang tree (Pangium edule) used traditionally as a preservative. The mixture is then stored in a glass or plastic container to marinate for two weeks, developing its distinctive salty and tangy flavour. Traditionally, Kadazan-Dusun people made Nonsom by covering it with beeswax and preserving it in a small, gourd-shaped jar, locally known as ‘kakanan‘.

Cultural Tapestry on a Plate

Bosou transcends mere cuisine to embody the rich cultural fabric of Sabah’s indigenous communities. This dish is a testament to their deep connection with the land, showcasing their resourcefulness and dedication to preserving ancient traditions amid modernity. Passed down through generations, the art of making Bosou involves not only culinary skills but also a deep respect for the tribe’s heritage.

Health in Every Bite

Beyond its unique taste, Nonsom is a nutritional powerhouse. Rich in proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential minerals, it offers numerous health benefits. It’s particularly beneficial for heart health and brain function. Moreover, the fermentation process increases the bioavailability of these nutrients, making them more easily absorbed by the body.

More Than Just a Delicacy

Traditionally, Nonsom is enjoyed in various ways – either raw, paired with white rice or fried noodles, or cooked with meats and vegetables. To enhance its aroma and taste, it is often sautéed with diced garlic, pepper, and olive oil. The process of making and enjoying Nonsom is a communal and family-oriented activity, strengthening bonds and keeping the tribe’s culinary traditions alive. It is commonly served during significant events like the Kaamatan or Bambarayon, underlining its role in the community’s social and cultural fabric.

The Future of Nonsom

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, there’s a growing emphasis on preserving culinary heritage. Nonsom stands as a shining example of this effort. At the same time, the flexibility of Nonsom to adapt and evolve ensures its continued relevance in contemporary cuisine. Whether enjoyed in its traditional form or as part of a modern fusion dish, Nonsom continues to enchant palates and preserve a rich culinary legacy.

Article curated by Himavee Jayaweera.