Dabai is a little fruit with a learning curve. It’s a favorite throughout its native Borneo, but if you bite into one without preparing it properly, you should expect an experience similar to biting into a rock-hard, pinecone-flavored olive. With a simple soak in hot water, those harsh flavors become milder and dabai develops a taste that people pay top dollar for.
The skin on the dabai fruit is black and shiny, while the pulp inside is a contrasting yellow. It’s easy to identify at a market by a distinctive yellow circle on one side from where the stem once attached to the fruit. To prepare dabai fruits, you clean them and place them in a bowl of hot water. After a few minutes, they will develop the consistency of softened butter. Eaten in this stage, they’ll taste like buttered carrots with a hint of olives and brie cheese.
Much of the olive-like flavor comes from its skin, so if you aren’t a fan you can peel these before soaking them. Some vendors will also sell the fruits already peeled or partially peeled (giving the fruits black and yellow stripes).
The pulp surrounds a large seed. If you crack this open, the kernel inside is also edible. It tastes much like the buttery pulp, but with a strong nuttiness similar to almonds.
In Borneo, these fruits often sell for about $3 a pound. Although this price is not terrible by Westervn standards, it is very high for a region where a giant bag of mangosteens costs about $1. Still, locals find these well worth the steep price. They are eaten out of hand, sometimes with a sprinkle of salt or soy sauce. Some dishes can be made with the fruit including the fried rice dish known as Nasi Goreng Dabai.
Need to Know
Dabai is available throughout the island of Borneo, but is most commonly seen in the state of Sarawak. It is a specialty of the city of Sibu (it even has the nickname Sibu olive) so the central market there is the best bet for finding these. They have two growing seasons, May-June and December-January, but can occasionally be found off season as well depending on the weather. The fruits are highly perishable and should be consumed shortly after purchasing. Jars of dabai paste can be purchased in the area (or make it yourself) for a long-term storage solution.