Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

When open flames hit fresh, green bamboo, a distinct grassy fragrance emerges—one that reminds me of Borneo, an island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean that is split into Malaysian and Indonesian territories and home to the Bidayuh people, one of many indigenous groups in Borneo that are collective referred to as Dayak. Cooking in bamboo is the key to as-sam, a rustic, hearty Bidayuh dish made of rice and chicken, and spiced with garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and black pepper. The whole mixture is packed into a tube of bamboo, sealed with pandan leaves, and slowly roasted over open flames. The chicken juice infuses the rice, making them plump, moist, and fragrant, and the open flames lends each bite a hint of smokiness. 

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

As-sam is above all else sustaining, filling the belly and warming the heart with simple flavors and ingredients from the land. My grandmother, a no-nonsense personality quick with a sharp word yet soft with her hands, would stuff the chicken and rice mixture deftly into the bamboo and loudly clamor for someone to light the fire. In the traditional rural household of my mother’s childhood, there was always something to do, and my mother was often saddled with the task of assisting my grandmother with making as-sam.

Dayak Cuisine

Traditionally, Dayak communities—the indigenous inhabitants of Borneo—depend heavily on foraging and farming. In many rural villages, it is still a very big part of life in a land that, while fertile, can be merciless. Carbohydrates like rice, cassava, and sago, along with proteins like freshwater fish, feature heavily in Dayak cuisine, while meat like chicken and pork is considered a luxury reserved for special occasions and festivals.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Because meat is seldom used and highly valued, starches and vegetables often help to stretch meaty dishes further. As-sam is very much an example of this: Hearty bits of savory chicken meat and pungent spices enrich plain rice, and it’s all packed in bamboo, a convenient receptacle that doubles as both cooking vessel and storage container. It can be carried on long treks, for example, then split open and the food within served when desired.

Getting Bamboo-zled

For first timers, it may be—might I say—bamboozling to find that you can cook with bamboo, but nothing says indigenous Bornean cooking like it. Bamboo is a grass that grows like giant weeds all across the island. For as long as fire has been used to cook food here, the bamboo has been its partner, and over time, has become ubiquitous with so much of Dayak cooking, culture, architecture, and history.

If you’ve ever seen bamboo, you may have noticed that the hollow stalk—or “culm” in botanical terminology—is divided into segments by solid joints called nodes, each of which seals one segment from another. To harvest a bamboo culm for cooking, one cuts out a section with only one node still attached on one end to yield a tube that is closed on one end (where the node is) and open on the other. The result is a ready-made vessel that’s green and cylindrical.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

In Borneo, a type of bamboo called buru’ is used for cooking, though many kinds of bamboo can work. Different dimensions and sizes of bamboo are selected depending on the type of food being cooked. What makes buru perfect for cooking is its relatively thin walls, which allow heat to penetrate quickly. The perfect buru is neither too young nor too old, fresh enough not to burn when it is licked by flames, and mature enough not to rupture when heated. If seeking bamboo to try this cooking method on your own, look for plants that are a dark green shade with about a half-centimeter wall thickness and seven-centimeter diameter.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Beware though, some bamboo is covered in fine white hairs that will cause you to itch like crazy if they come into contact with your skin. To remove the hairs, vigorously wipe the culm with the bamboo’s own leaves. It’s also important to rinse the inside of the culm to remove any dust. If not used immediately, fill the culms with water up to the rim to keep them fresh for about five days.

In a rice cooker or saucepan, cook rice according to package instructions. Once cooked, set aside to cool to room temperature with the lid off, about 30 minutes, then fluff with a spatula or spoon.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, thoroughly mix together chicken, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Add the fluffed rice, black pepper, and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt to the chicken and rice mixture, stirring the filling well with a spatula or your hands to make sure everything is well incorporated and the rice is no longer in clumps.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

To Cook in Bamboo: Build a live wood fire. Rinse the bamboo culm. Using your hands, gently stuff the bamboo culm with the filling until either the bamboo is filled almost to the brim or no more filling remains.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Roll the pandan leaves into a tight ball and stuff them into the bamboo culm opening to plug it (it won’t be an airtight plug, but will help trap some heat).

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Carefully set the filled bamboo over the live fire, leaning it at an angle so that the open (pandan-leaf-stuffed) end is on top, the closed end is on the bottom, and the flames are licking the central section of the bamboo. Cook, rotating bamboo every 5 to 10 minutes for even heating and to prevent any section from burning, and shifting the bamboo as needed to also expose each end to the flames, until a steady steam escapes from the bamboo’s opening, about 1 hour; feed fire as needed to maintain a live flame. Remove the bamboo culm from the fire until cool enough to handle.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Using a heavy-duty knife or cleaver and tapping its spine with a heavy object, carefully split the bamboo vertically from the open end, then pry open the bamboo and scoop out the filling into a large bowl. Serve warm.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

To Cooking in a Baking Dish: Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C). Spread rice mixture into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, smoothing the surface without packing the rice too tightly. Tie 1 pandan leaf into a knot and place on top of the rice mixture. Cover baking dish tightly with foil. Cook until chicken is fully cooked through, 30 to 45 minutes.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Special Equipment

One or more bamboo culms large enough to hold filling (see headnote for more details) or one 9- by -13-inch baking dish

Notes

Feel free to use half of a roughly 4-pound chicken, or bone-in, skin on chicken legs or thighs. Use a cleaver or pair of quality kitchen shears to cut through the bones when cutting the chicken into smaller pieces, or ask the butcher to do it for you.

If desired, you can marinate the chicken and seasonings for 2 to 3 hours before mixing with the cooked rice to allow the flavors to meld.

Make-Ahead and Storage

This rice dish is best when freshly made.

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