The way they have been asked to change will always put them at a disadvantage. The houses that have been built for them are insensitive to their needs. – Ramli Ibrahim
The plight of the Orang Asli has touched a chord with Ramli.
“When we went to visit the Orang Asli, we saw that the devastation from logging is total. A lot of biodiversity has been lost. The Orang Asli who are still foraging for food have been affected by the loss.
“Out of necessity, they have started to incorporate mainstream cuisine into their diet but I can see that they cannot afford our lifestyle. They are putting on weight due to the change in diet and lifestyle and it is not a change for the better.
“The way they have been asked to change will always put them at a disadvantage. The houses that have been built for them are insensitive to their needs.
“But we must have hope,” said Ramli, who also desires that something good come out of the dinner event.
He had invited to dinner, architect Ng Seksan, Chef Isadora Chai of Bistro a Table and Masterchef Malaysia judge Chef Adu Amran of Champor Champor fame in London and Langkawi, and industry movers and corporate big wigs like property magnet, Low Yat Group, among other vested personalities.
“I don’t like appropriation,” said Ramli firmly. “There is a kind of neocolonialism going on. We are forever looking at new things to commercialise – there is a danger in that. And I challenge that.”
Among the unofficial sponsors of the evening was prominent architect Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat. “Many people with good intentions are helping them, but this event is frankly staged; it is not the reality,” he said.
“The sarong they are wearing is not in character. Even the cooking … they don’t cook like this every day. But Ramli is looking at the cooking traditions that can be encouraged so it is fairly pioneering in that sense.
“Cooking in bamboo is fairly tribal and crossborder; common to people who have bamboo. The Temiar cook anything they want now; they have some nice dishes using maize – which is not native.
“But they must be able to differentiate between the genuine people who want to help them from the exploitative. Ramli and Sabera are doing it from their urbanised point of view, trying to bring them into the cultural mainstream. But tomorrow, when they go back, it will be just as before,” said Lim, who has 15 Orang Asli working with him in botanical research.
“The urgent need is to get sustained development for them. Most of them are fugitives in their own culture as they can’t earn a living there. There are no jobs for them in the oil palm estates as these jobs are now done by foreigners.”
Underlining the noshing and partying is an agenda to call attention to the plight of the Orang Asli, whose habitat is being destroyed by logging and land clearing, leaving the community disoriented and displaced, uprooted from their ancestral land and traditional way of life.
Since the 60s, there have been efforts to integrate them into mainstream society, convert them from their animist belief and introduce agriculture to replace foraging and nomadic ways.
The idea now is that perhaps through food, we can provoke curiosity about the Orang Asli lifestyle and build solidarity with the indigenous people of this land.
The dinner started off with an appetising Belimbing Buluh Salad courtesy of Sabera, a fine cook in Ramli’s books.
This was followed by rice cooked in bamboo (nasi serempad), sweet potato cooked in bamboo and a variety of meats cooked in bamboo like chicken, deer and fish; a delicious palm pith curry (Umbut Bayas Masak Gulai), tapioca leaves cooked with ikan bilis, and fern leaf cooked in bamboo (Pucuk Paku Peno’ol). Dessert was a yummy corn pudding cooked in bamboo and served with syrup.
Appropriately, food was served on leaf plates – environment-friendly plates and shallow dishes from Falaleaf rose to the call – and fresh banana leaves lined the plates.
Set out in the garden, the long communal tables were decorated with handicrafts fashioned from dried fronds made by the Mah Meri. The nature-themed set-up was tasteful and quite beautiful.
But let’s be honest here – you can’t pluck a motley crew of cooks from the fringe of the forest with no tools and hope to produce a gastronomic affair. But chefs can help. Cooking in bamboo, when done right, produces delicious and juicy meats with a smokey taste that is on trend now.
The Orang Asli cuisine and art can serve as inspiration for gastronomic dinners that are truly representative of, and unique to, this land. The menu need not be authentic; it needs only be true in spirit.