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Arise the 'rice connoisseurs': Passionate Indonesians are reviving appetite for long-forgotten varieties

Channel News Asia - September 10, 2023

Nivell Rayda, Jakarta – When a friend asked her to do pro-bono legal work for farming communities in a number of villages across Indonesia, lawyer Helianti Hilman, who loves to travel, jumped at the opportunity.

For three months in 2006, Mdm Hilman visited one remote village after the other, providing free consultations to farmers who found themselves in a variety of legal woes and business disputes.

The experience opened her eyes to the plight and hardships endured by people in rural communities with little access to legal aid. But one encounter with an elderly farmer in Central Java named Mbah Suko proved to be life changing.

Growing at the front and back yards of the now-deceased farmer's home were rice varieties which Mdm Hilman, 52, never knew existed.

One rice variety has fibres jutting out from one end of its husks, she learned, while the other is so resilient it requires very little irrigation. She also discovered that one variety has a tough texture and another is soft and exudes a pleasant smell when properly cooked.

"As someone who loves cooking, I was like a kid in a candy store," she told CNA about seeing dozens of rice varieties which many older Indonesians had forgotten about, let alone still preserve.

And so began an insatiable obsession to rediscover these long-lost Indonesian rice varieties from all over the country and introduce them to the masses.

Two years after meeting the farmer, Mdm Hilman left her lawyer world and established Javara Indonesia, a company specialising in selling Indonesia's rare, heritage food and ingredients for the domestic and international markets.

Rice varieties facing extinction

Scientists believe that thousands of indigenous rice varieties have disappeared completely while hundreds more are on the brink of extinction in Indonesia.

Among the now rare rice are the blackish cempo ireng and the centuries-old merah putih rice with its distinctive half-white-half-red grain.

Some were lost to natural disasters and there are those which were abandoned by farmers because they simply do not taste good.

But the biggest contributor to their disappearance was the so-called "green revolution", a controversial global movement which made its way to Indonesia in the 1970s and 1980s.

During the period, farmers in the country were mandated to plant high-yielding – but fertiliser and pesticide dependant – rice varieties developed through the use of modern technology.

"The green revolution has a direct impact towards the disappearance of thousands of Indonesian rice varieties," Indonesia's Bogor Agricultural Institute biotechnology professor Dwi Andreas Santosa told CNA.

And so local varieties began to disappear from plantations, stores and markets across the vast archipelago and over time the public consciousness.

These forgotten local rice, Prof Santosa said, include varieties which are very resilient to extreme weather and harsh environments and could hold the key in our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and prevent a global food crisis.

But there is hope.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the emergence of a new trend: more and more Indonesians are becoming more conscious of what they eat and how their food is grown and produced.

And people like Mdm Hilman and Prof Santosa are hoping that this phenomenon could serve as a momentum to save these endangered rice varieties.

According to a 2022 study by the firm, Alvara Research, 41.4 per cent of the consumers surveyed said they were more conscious about what they eat compared to before the pandemic.

Indonesians consumed 35 million tonnes of rice last year, 429,000 tonnes of which was imported, according to Indonesia's Central Statistics Bureau.

The most widely consumed rice in Indonesian, with a market share of 30 per cent, is the IR 64, better known by its brand name Setra Ramos. The high-yield variety was developed by the International Rice Research Institute in 1986.

A land of diversity

For thousands of years, humans have been cross breeding plants and animals to get the desired qualities out of their crops and livestocks.

Hybridisation also happens naturally as one variety pollinates or mates with another.

Prof Santosa said that in the past it was common practice for farmers to plant a wide variety of rice on a single stretch of field.

"A single farming community could have around 40 different rice varieties," he said.

The practice of planting different varieties helps prevent diseases and pests spreading from one section of the rice field to the next.

More importantly for scientists like Prof Santosa, the practice keeps the genetic diversity of the plant alive, but the green revolution brought an end to this practice.

"Everyone was ordered to plant rice seeds provided by the government," the 60-year-old professor said.

Indonesia, at the time, was ruled by the iron-fisted president Suharto and farmers who insisted on planting local varieties were seen as obstructing the country's food self-suffiency programme.

"The farmers had no choice but to abandon their old varieties. When you don't plant seeds of a certain variety for more than two or three years, they will not grow again and these varieties go extinct," he said.

Today, these local varieties exist only in a handful of rural communities and defiant individuals who used to grow them in secret. The professor says he is bent on finding all of them.

In the Indonesian part of Borneo, the professor discovered a rice variety which grows in swamps while on the northern tips of Sumatra, there are rice plants which are resilient towards salt water and grow on coastal areas.

"Local varieties have gone through hundreds of years of natural selection to survive different kinds of conditions and environment," Prof Santosa said.

These varieties could have the genetic makeup suitable to withstand the effects of climate change, which includes receding coastlines and more extreme temperatures and weather.

This is why Prof Santosa now keeps a collection of 600 rice varieties at the Indonesian Centre for Biodiversity and Biotechnology (ICBB), which he founded and runs, where they are studied and experimented on.

In 2019, the ICBB introduced its own variety, the IF-16, which Prof Santosa said is developed from cross-breeding a number heritage rice varieties.

A trial run involving a limited number of farmers is still being conducted, but results showed the plant to be resilient towards pests with higher yield compared to other varieties in the market.

"Our goal is to produce rice that are resilient like these old rice varieties but have the high yield qualities of a modern rice," he said.

Resurrecting forgotten varieties

For more than a decade, Mdm Hilman has been persuading farmers to regrow these forgotten rice.

At the same time, she has been busy attending trade shows, speaking at seminars and staging cooking classes to drum up interest towards these local rice varieties.

"If there is demand there will be sustainable production. Without a market there will be no incentive for people to grow them," she said.

But despite her best efforts, interests were limited to a handful of elderly locals longing for a taste of rice from their childhood and expats curious to try authentic Indonesian ingredients.

It was instead the European market which responded well to these forgotten varieties.

"In Europe, there was a big demand for organic food grown by artisan farmers with great social and ecological impacts," Mdm Hilman said. "But at home, the respect towards our own heritage was not yet there."

Celebrity chef, Bara Pattiradjawane says he has become something of a "rice connoisseur" ever since Mdm Hilman introduced him to different rare local varieties a few years ago. He has been incorporating a few heritage rice into his dish ever since.

"For a lot of people, rice is rice. But when you really taste it, focus on the texture, flavour and aroma, they are vastly different," Mr Pattiradjawane told CNA.

Each variety has its own distinct character, said the 59-year-old.

Some have hard textures and their grains do not stick to one another which work well with soup. Others are soft and sticky and more suited as lontong and ketupat rice cakes.

There are even varieties which taste good on its own, like the chef's personal favourite, menthik wangi.

"The texture, taste and aroma are already perfect. You don't need to do much. Over processing will only ruin the otherwise perfect taste. Menthik wangi, I can enjoy with just one simple dish which is not overly strong (in flavour)," he said.

Mr Pattiradjawane said he has been trying to educate others about these local varieties.

"The only thing I'm able to do is educate others. If a friend comes to my house I will serve them my menthik wangi and it becomes this dinner conversation in the hopes that they will be interested in it too. I'm hoping for this domino effect. Later on they will transfer that knowledge to their friends."

The same goes with young and aspiring chefs he meets and mentors along the way.

"As chefs, it is our job to reintroduce people to our culinary heritage, our diverse ingredients," he said.

A shift in attitude

Efforts to educate Indonesians about these forgotten rice varieties are starting to bear fruit.

Mdm Hilman said up until 2018, 80 per cent of her sales came from the international market but today that figure has shrunk to 35 per cent while the rest are sold locally.

"In the last five years, more and more Indonesians are becoming more aware of what they eat. They want to know what they are eating, where it is from and how it is grown," she added.

The COVID-19 pandemic also made an impact towards this trend, inspiring people to make healthier choices in food.

"We are not only preserving local varieties but also the traditional farming techniques and knowledge," she said, adding that for centuries these rice varieties thrive without the need for fertilisers and pesticides.

30 year-old Wahyuning Anggrias told CNA that she came across Javara as she was searching for low sugar rice for her diabetic mother.

"I bought the red rice andel abang and then I found out about the history of that rice and how it first became popular in Java in the 14th Century and so on. Then I bought another type of rice and learned the story behind that too," Ms Anggrias said.

"Now I only cook these heritage rice (varieties) at home. Not just because they are healthy but the history behind them too."

Some varieties are also rich in minerals which have certain nutritional benefits while others have lower calories and sugar contents.

Every year, Mdm Hilman's Javara sells around 80 tonnes of rice from 48 different varieties.

The figure is a drop in the ocean compared to the 35 million tonnes of rice produced nationally in Indonesia but the market is big enough for farmers to keep preserving these heritage rice.

"The whole world is busy with genetically modified foods which scientists say can withstand climate change, extreme weather conditions and this and that. People claim these foods have more nutritional values which in truth are added artificially. We don't need all that," she said.

"Whatever global health diet challenges, whatever climate crisis we are facing, the answer lies in our diverse food. We just need to preserve them." – CNA/ni(kb)

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesia-rice-connoisseurs-near-extinct-varieties-food-373750