“White rice is lacklustre, lifeless, tasteless and irritating to prepare; brown rice is flavoursome, wholesome and easy to prepare.“
Maud Grieve F.R.H.S. (1858-1941) – A Modern Herbal (pub. 1931) (See notes)
Every society has a staple food: my London upbringing revolved around potatoes, varieties such as King Edwards in winter for baking and Whites for salads. We grew them in our back garden.
My mother also made a delicious rice pudding with sultanas and raisins; it was boiled in milk, then baked for a while with a sprinkling of nutmeg on the top.
Later, as an adult, I’d enjoyed the occasional Chinese takeaway with white rice, Indian meals with basmati rice and vegan meals with brown rice bought from the community wholefoods store. Yet, not yet being a traveller, I knew little about the other 40,000 plus varieties of rice – yes, there are really that many, nor that Indonesian alone has about 7,000 varieties, suitable for uplands, lowlands or tidal swamps.
Shortly after I arrived in Jakarta in pre-internet days and began the process of acculturation, I was somewhat taken aback by Indonesian’s obsession with food – meaning rice.
Sudah makan, belum?
I began to write a story ….
We took pity on Michael
He’s been with us a long time now, since he appeared out of the crags one moonlit night. He carried a canvas shoulderbag. In it, he said, were his flavours. His needs were small. Mother had told him when he was little that rice would suffice. That’s all. Rice. But what rice?
We knew from other rare travellers that there was rice to be found in Vesta, Bismati, Pilau, Saffron and in Jasmine. These we could not, did not want to know. Why should we? We made bread.
From the earliest moment of conception at pre-dawn, we were surrounded by the early morning comforting, wafting, familiar smell of rising yeast, of browning crusts, of carbonising toast, of croissants, cobs and cottages, of baguettes, bagels and buns. And best of all was bread pudding, made from the stale remnants of loaves and laced with the fruits of the seasons.
Our folk heroes were gingerbread men living in gingerbread houses eating bread and honey. The wicked witch let them eat cake.
And Michael came looking for rice. Our rice.
It grew, he said, in dew ponds, could only be gathered by the light of the new moon and he would show us how to gather it, make sheaves, stack it, winnow it, dry it, clean it, store it, boil it, fry it, can it, sell it, worship it, make babies’ rattles, flour, drinks ……….
It is thought that around 1000BC rice cultivation spread to the Malay-Indo archipelago from the Bronze Age Đông Sơn (Dongsan) culture centred in the Red River Valley of northern Vietnam. This brought irrigated rice-growing techniques, as well as husbandry skills, buffalo sacrifice rituals, bronze casting, the custom of erecting megaliths, and ikat weaving methods. Some of these practices survive today in the Batak areas of Sumatra, Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, parts of Kalimantan, and Nusa Tenggara.
By the 1st century AD, small kingdoms, collections of villages subservient to petty chieftains, evolved in Java*. The island’s constant hot temperature, plentiful rainfall and volcanic soil was ideal for wet-field rice cultivation. This largely self-sufficient organisation, with surplus rice being stored for communal use in times of drought or festivities, could explain why the Javanese developed a seemingly more feudal society than the other islands. Dry rice cultivation is not such a collective enterprise.
However, the population explosion last century – from c.50 million in 1900 to c.110 million in 66/67 – led to rice shortages. President Sukarno advocated the eating of corn, or rats from the rice fields – accounts vary but the populace were unimpressed either way – and the famine was temporarily and partially alleviated by USAID rice aid shipments.
In 1968, Suharto launched his ‘Green Revolution‘ aiming for food self-sufficiency. The government provided subsidies for fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation, which helped to increase yields and production.
By 1978, programs to build up the rural infrastructure, such as irrigation canals, water supply, bridges and roads, amounted to 12% of the national development budget, demonstrating the importance of rice to political stability. This worked for a while; in spite of a drastic drop in production due to the 1975–76 wereng (brown planthopper) plague, by 1984 rice production exceeded domestic consumption for the first time. Suharto was honoured for this by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in November 1985.
The Bureau of Logistics (Badan Urusan Logistik/BULOG), a government-owned company which deals with food distribution and price control, was originally established in 1967 to purchase rice for the provisioning of the armed forces, the civil service, and state corporation employees. It now monitors and sets prices for a much wider variety of foods. (Since its foundation, Bulog has raised the living standards of farmers, but it’s also proved a much larger source of illicit funding for its managers.)
However, Indonesia became a net rice importer once again in 1988 and the rural rakyat were advised to eat ubi (cassava) as their staple food. It wasn’t until last year (2012) that Bulog had “the highest ever rice stocks” with 2.3 million tons, having imported just 700,000 tons. However, there was once again a drive to wean the population off rice.
The ‘Green Revolution’ and the recent move towards genetically modified seeds has had several unfortunate consequences. Farming on an industrial scale with centralised distribution of insecticides, pesticides, fertilisers and ‘standard’ seeds has reduced the fertility of the soil, with chemicals leaching into the water table via run-offs from the fields. Farmers, who had localised and inherited knowledge of the terrain they were working, have been displaced, many becoming workers in the fields their families once owned.
In 2007, the government, through national seed company, PT Sang Hyang Seri
, launched a major hybrid rice programme
in association with such Indonesian oligarchs as Tomy Winarta and Jusuf Kalla. Since then, many farmers have experienced crop failures
because, as Prof. Dr. Kasumbogo Untun
g, an entomologist at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta said in 2010, hybrid seeds are especially susceptible to pests such as brown planthoppers.
Many farmers have reverted to more traditional methods such as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). This was developed in India and seen yields per hectare increase by as much as 40%. It is based on eight principles which are different to conventional rice cultivation. They include developing nutrient-rich and un-flooded nurseries instead of flooded ones, ensuring wider spacing between rice seedlings, preferring compost or manure to synthetic fertilizers, and managing water carefully to avoid that the plants’ roots are not saturated.
Another major advantage of SRI is that it relies on local knowledge, which increases the likelihood that the seeds used would be more resistant to prevalent infestations.
SBY, who has a PhD from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, supports SRI because “it increases production, yet does not damage the environment. We should think about the future of our children [and] the lives of the next generation.“(video with subtitles)
I’m with SBY on this: support local farmers, not the genetically modified conglomerates.
The bran in brown rice contains significant dietary fiber and the germ contains many vitamins and minerals. Because white rice involves the removal of the bran and germ, it has to be specially coated with vitamins B1, B3, and iron.
*Stamford Raffles, in his History of Java suggests that the name is derived from the Sanskit word ‘yava’, which means barley.
Did you know?
Rice farming is responsible for 14% of total global methane emissions.
Green Indonesia – blog
University of Michigan – paper
International Rice Research Institute
A shorter version of the above was published in issue 91 of the Jakarta Expat magazine