Six steps to improve our modern diet by looking to the Orang Asli
September 29, 2020
So often, we search for insights into the future of food by turning to dining trends elsewhere. But sometimes, looking to the centuries-old traditions of our homeland's own communities can yield even more meaningful observations.
In 2019, Rachel Thomas, a Sunway University lecturer and food technology specialist, spoke at the Food and Society Conference in Paris about 'Cooking Methods of Ethnic Food Among Aborigine Social Groups in Malaysia,' opening the eyes of academics to the advantages of eating like the Orang Asli. EDKL contributor BB talks to her about what we can learn from the culinary habits of Orang Asli families who live in the deep of Cameron Highlands.
1. Cultivate the land instead of grocery shopping
EDKL: How do the Orang Asli view growing your own food as opposed to buying groceries? Tell us about the farming habits that support their lifestyles.
Rachel: The Orang Asli are aware that putting chemicals into their food isn’t natural. As such, they try their best to not consume crops grown that way. They farm with the limited land they have. They either use it to grow wild edibles or domesticated crops. For the latter, they do use chemicals, as it is not meant for personal consumption.
2. Switch up our cooking techniques
EDKL: Would our diets be healthier if we started using the same cooking techniques as the Orang Asli? For example, eschewing deep-frying in favour of boiling, steaming and grilling.
Rachel: Definitely. As many of their wild edible plants are rich in micronutrients, deep-frying or excessive boiling would reduce their benefits. Light boiling is done to remove toxic substances found in the leaves before they lightly stir-fry their ingredients.
3. Use eco-friendly cookware
EDKL: Can you expand on the Orang Asli’s techniques of cooking food in bamboo for smoky accents and a softer texture? What do they use for food packaging?
Rachel: The Orang Asli attribute cooking in bamboo to reduced numbers in NCD (non-communicable diseases), especially among the older generation. This is because the technique requires no oil, just aromatic leaves for wrapping and spices for seasoning. The food is then allowed to roast over an open fire. They also believe that it adds extra flavour and improves the texture of their food. The type of firewood used depends on what’s available, but many villagers agree that the best comes from the rambutan tree; not only does the fire burn consistently, it also imparts a delicious flavour. Cooking in bamboo mimics using a pressure cooker, which has a short cooking time while preserving heat-sensitive nutrients.
4. Sharing surplus food with the community
EDKL: You've said that any extra food is shared among households, so there is rarely wastage. This puts our current way of eating (and tossing out food) to shame.
Rachel: The sharing of food depends on the location of the village. In remote villages, for example, hunted meat is shared among the Orang Asli. Otherwise, there is not much of a need to store food, as children are usually given the extra portions. In this sense, the Orang Asli have not really embraced the food storage concept, even if they have settled closer to urban areas. Their preference for fresh over refrigerated food represents their connection to the past and is something they still hold on to steadfastly despite the changing times.
5. Eating earlier dinners
EDKL: Do the Orang Asli practise the same eating hours as city folk?
Rachel: Their dinner times depend on the type of work that they do and where they are based. For Orang Asli living in remote villages, dinner is usually served earlier, because they are mostly engaged in subsistence activities - whatever is hunted or harvested that day is immediately cooked.
6. Employing gender-equal kitchens
EDKL: Could you also expand on comments that women enjoy the same social status as men in Orang Asli circles, in the kitchen and on hunting grounds?
Rachel: This point, too, depends on the village. In the past, both men and women were regarded as equals. Women stayed busy gathering food, and division of labour was unheard of as women worked together with men. Men could easily take care of children and cook food for them if need be. But things have changed, especially for villages closer to the city. The husband and wife still act as a unit to feed their children and there is some sort of flexibility as both are equipped with the knowledge for hunting and gathering, but most of the time it is the man who will do both the hunting and gathering.
All images are courtesy of Rachel Thomas.
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