WE’VE only been on the road for about an hour and a half, but this journey on unfamiliar terrain into Kampung Tanjung Rambai in Hulu Langat makes it feel a lot longer. The team of interns from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) led by anthropologist Dr Colin Nicholas are taking me into this small Temuan village to experience Orang Asal food cooked in the most traditional of ways.
“About 100 per cent of people in Kampung Tanjung Rambai rely on resources they find in the jungle for food. Other than rice, sugar and salt, the Orang Asal here very rarely need to go out and buy anything else for food,” explains Jenita Engi, a Temuan from Negri Sembilan, who is coordinating the traditional cooking exhibition at this year’s national level World Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in Taman Botani Negara, Shah Alam.
The event, which will take place from Aug 6 to 9, is co-organised by Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS), Tourism Selangor and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP). It will see the largest gathering of indigenous peoples from Malaysia and around Asia celebrating their heritage in dance, music and food.
‘Back to the Roots #landrightsnow!’ couldn’t be a more fitting theme for this year’s celebrations. All over the world, indigenous people face bitter and often painful battles over their land rights, an issue related directly to the food they consume and their intangible cultural identity.
WE THE PEOPLE
Small homes with zinc roofs which dot the narrow Semenyih road become less and less visible as large swathes of trees start to frame the road to Kampung Tanjung Rambai. Jenita is telling us about the little Orang Asal villages we see on the way, when suddenly she exclaims excitedly “Stop here! We need some ginger!”
While the others and I are perplexed as to why we are stopping at what looks like jungle and more jungle, Jenita whips out her parang and walks straight into the knotted mass of green. Without hesitation, she swiftly chops off a few branches of a plant. “Ah, this is the ginger we need,” she says smiling to herself.
When relating the incident to Siwan, one of the Kampung Rambai villagers later that day, he lets out a laugh and reminds me that it is perfectly normal for them to go into the jungle for days without anything but a parang and a bottle of water.
“We know the jungles; which plants or fruits can be eaten, which ones can’t, what branches to use to build makeshift huts for a night’s rest or which bait we need to hunt a certain animal down,” he says, adding that knowledge has been handed down from generation to generation.
Siwan, a father of two, says it’s important for him that he bring his children with him when he goes into the jungle. “I want them to know their heritage, our land,” he confides.
HOME FOR LIFE
“RM50 is a lot for us to spend on things. Many of us grow crops here or find what we need in the jungle and sell them at the market to earn a living,” Siwan shares as his nine siblings start preparing the meal they are about to cook for us just outside this old but sturdy wooden house we sit in.
“If we lose our land, where will we find food?” he asks.
His question is one that indigenous peoples all around the world find themselves asking as tussles over land become more pressing. “A keystone of poor conditions for indigenous peoples is the continuing depletion of their natural resources, mainly through the expropriation of their land,” writes Lidija Knuth in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Right to Food paper.
“Many indigenous peoples have been pushed onto the least fertile and most fragile lands, where it is difficult to grow enough food for sustenance, let alone earn a living while overserving their cultural identity,” Knuth continues, while observing that encroachment of land often prevents the indigenous people from pursuing a traditional way of life, which is related to sufficient food security.
Knuth also adds that traditional livelihoods have shaped the cultural identity of indigenous peoples. “Indigenous people continue to derive self-worth individually or collectively from traditional livelihoods such as hunting, fishing, gathering, shifting cultivation or rotational agriculture, pastoralism and high mountain agriculture.” Knuth notes that these are practices that also define their cultural identity.
BACK TO BASICS
The Tok Batin welcomes us into his humble home, a land surrounded by fruit trees and a myriad plants that they use for everything, from cooking to medicating. The old home is part plank, part thick branches, part attap. Beneath its four stilts on the hard tangerine-coloured earth, dogs and chickens roam freely. A group of villagers gather around a fire they have built. Simmering in the flames are stalks of bamboo filled with rice wrapped in banana leaf.
“We’re cooking several dishes today,” Jenita informs, showing me a bucket full of live catfish swimming restlessly in the pail. “We usually find these by the river,” she says before squatting down to clean them.
Together with Kampung Tanjung Rambai villager Tina Esat, they set up their makeshift kitchen with banana leaves. “It’s really simple food with simple cooking,” Tina explains, adding that her people have been cooking this way for centuries. With no measuring of any sort, she throws in the catfish (now in slices), a gravy made of fermented durian and a pinch of salt into bamboo and adds a fragrant leaf the Orang Asal of the country call ‘the secret ingredient’.
“Semomok leaves are what gives the food its flavouring. We don’t use garlic here but semomok leaves,” says Jenita, who shares that the jungle leaf is nowadays hard to find.
She does the same with a reddish-browish batter made of water, flour and brown sugar to produce a sticky, glutinous rice-like cake which we later learn is an option if you don’t feel like having yet another indigenous favourite, lemang. “Nowadays, we hardly use the bamboo to cook unless it’s a special occasion,” says Tina who has her kids to help retrieve banana leaves or help with the cooking in one way or another. “Cooking is a community thing, so everyone gets involved, even the men and the children. That’s how we learnt how to cook these Temuan dishes and that’s how our kids will learn.”
The other dishes served up included an insatiable sambal made of anchovies, onion and fermented durian as well as an ulam (salad) which had raw petai and boiled papaya leaves, all sourced from within their own land area.
“We are a self-sufficient community” Siwan says. “It is heartbreaking to think that we may one day lose this land. For many other Orang Asal who have had to be relocated, they just continue to go deeper and deeper into the jungle to live their lives,” he confides. “The land is part of who we are as Orang Asal.”
As the afternoon sun hides behind rainclouds hovering over us, Jenita and Tina place the spread they have prepared on wide banana leaves from the tree nearby.
“No plates here, guys,” she says with a grin to the city-slickers, the COAC interns and I as we all sit to share in the communal meal using our fingers. “We keep things simple, basic and natural. This is our culture.”