Fields of gold: The rural heritage of Sarawak rice

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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Karen Shepherd

EVERYTHING is early this year. Chinese New Year has come at the end of January and, with it, in the middle of the rains, the annual rice harvest. While Kuching lets off firecrackers and feasts on imported Thai grains in their millions, the Bidayuh kampungs of Padawan are not resting. Instead, they harvest, driven by the rhythm of a different new year, heralded by new rice. A short drive from the clash of cymbals and the rattle of drums, as lion dances ring out our global connection to one of the world’s most recognised and most widespread cultures, Sarawak’s own rural heritage is reaching its annual climax.

Kampung Mujat lies just on the Indonesian border. Its neighbour, Mongkos, lies at one end of a bumpy border crossing with Kalimantan; five kilometres of winding track linking the two sides of this great island through the mountains down its spine. Padi bukit (hill padi) is possible, along the sunny slopes of the foothills. But Mujat lies in a basin and everywhere you look, padi paya (wet padi) turns yellow in the morning sun. The grains have ripened and the stalks bow down with their weight.

Fig 1: The rice fields of Mujat grow padi paya.

The fields are filled with farmers, working swiftly and silently across the space. Conical hats bob above the tops of the crop; woven baskets slung crossbody to catch the collected padi. But traditional attire has a new twist. The baskets are now as likely to be made from practical plastic strapping as bemban and the hats are purchased from rural hardware stores, matched with bright yellow wellies, as synonymous with Phua Chu Kang as they are with Sarawak farmers.

Rice is the cornerstone of Sarawak’s rural heritage. The material culture is just one reminder. The sun hats and baskets sold to tourists in the antique and handicraft stores along Main Bazaar suddenly make sense as each is linked with original purpose. The woven mats come into their own as they are laid out in front of every kampung house to dry the grains in the sun. These mats might be attractive and ‘ethnic’ under the dining tables of Kuching’s urban elite, but here in Mujat, they are essential. Though now, often as not, they are replaced by gaudy tarpaulins for ease.

Fig 2: Woven baskets are shaped for a specific form and function.

But the rice cycle goes far beyond handicrafts in its shaping of Sarawak heritage. It is embedded in traditional cosmology, in ritual, in practice and in pantang (taboos). The organisation of most of Sarawak’s traditional communities is based on it, through both the creation of status and through their spiritual systems. In such communities, it is the centrepiece of every table, the heart of hospitality and the main course of indigenous gastronomy. These aspects of culture, even in the face of conversion and modernisation, have largely not changed. For most rural communities, the rice cycle remains the defining rhythm; the realities of a hard day’s work in the Sarawak sun are the core of their resilience.

The cultivation of rice is arduous. Experience is everything, and not just of the harvest. The adat (customary law) suggests that if you can live through the whole rice cycle, you can become part of the community. Each stage has its own demands, from clearing the land to raising the seedlings, from replanting in the paya (wetlands) to nursing the crop as it grows, protecting it against pests. This process is continuous, dating back hundreds of years, honed by family heritage and ancestral connection.

Fig 3: Greg and family harvest by hand.

For most of Sarawak’s rural communities, this focus is at least 500 years old. Greg Evi’gan anak Wilson plants pepper and padi—the first for cash and the second for sustenance. His father plants padi and his grandfather before him. Greg grows two varieties—padi hitam (purple rice) and padi Sanggau–each with their own distinct flavour, texture and aroma. Traditional landowners choose their own strain, selecting from a series of characteristics in height, colour and grain size, but usually based on some kind of familial tradition.

Historically, these strains would have been carried along with the community as they migrated for swidden cultivation. Thus, arguably, the map of Sarawak’s rice varieties is also a map of human movement, more evidence of how indigenous land tenure has shaped this environment throughout history. Greg’s padi Sanggau, in fact, comes from seedlings brought across the relatively recent political border with Indonesia. But this is where familial connections range in a border kampung like Mujat.

Fig 4: Greg follows the example of his father and grandfather before him.

This is heirloom rice, much of it specific to Sarawak where at least 100 varieties are actively cultivated. The strains are retained down the generations. Three of them—Biris, Bajong and Bario—are geographically indicated, but many more are unique to this landscape. Rice is the grain which sustains the most humans globally, its cultivation connecting us to multiple cultures across the planet. But it also remains specifically Sarawak, linked inextricably to this one landscape through the mix of culture, climate, and indigenous experience.

Sarawak varieties produce one harvest a year. These are not the high yield hybrids developed to answer food security. Though, as climate change impacts, some of these heirloom varieties might hold the answer to a changing landscape locked in their genes. Research organisations like the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, continue to collect examples from around the planet, looking for the next miracle grain. But in Sarawak, these are grown for different reasons. They are a long-held custom, a link to family, a familiar friend. In essence, these are Sarawak’s rural history.

Fig 5: Greg can immediately recognise a strand of a different strain amidst his own crop.

Greg had a long stint in Kuala Lumpur before returning to a farmer’s life. He intimately understands his crop, instantly recognising the odd stem of padi datang—errant stalks of an unknown strain amongst his own in his huge fields. Although he converted to Islam, this is his culture, he insists. Just as he knows which wood is best for charcoal and which for construction, he knows his rice and how to grow it. He uses no fertilisers; he harvests by hand and yet he can feed his family. His goal is simple—ten gunny sacks to see them through the year. He never sells.

In Sarawak, the cultivation of rice is still mingled with a hefty dose of the spiritual. Traditionally, it relied on a long series of rituals with a whole host of spirits, some helpful, some harmful, to harness or appease along the way. Rice had its own semenget/simungi (life force), which demands respect. The spirit of waste needs to be kept away. Greg admits that this is probably why precious little Sarawak rice is grown for sale. The community always aimed to keep it close.

Fig 6: Greg employs his material culture.

For the Iban, the links to padi were so complete, that it was at one time central to their identity. Sarawak historian, JH Walker, described how James Brooke was successful in bringing the Iban on side where so many others had failed. His actions against the Iban struck at their spiritual basis of power, destroying not just their ritual objects but also their padi pun, the sacred seedlings which each family maintained. With these gone, Walker says, the Iban had little choice but to transfer their focus of power to James himself and his own substantial semenget. Such strong bonds are hard to shake.

The residents of Kampung Mujat have all converted, variously to Christianity, Islam or Baháʼí. But the rice pantang remain. Almost every Dayak will tell stories of terms of endearment whispered to fallen grains or a swift clip round the ear for a failure to clear the plate. But whether this is still a homage to the spirits or to the hard work held in each grain is unclear. Regardless, the reverence is undimmed.

Fig 7: Handmade machines are evidence of a long-standing connection and clever kampung engineering.

Even so, the future of Sarawak rice still hangs in the balance. Subsistence farming becomes less common with each passing cycle. Young Bidayuh are turning to other forms of feeding their families. Across Sarawak, some attempts have been made to commercialise the heirloom strains, either through clever modern marketing to increase value or through increasing yield in the field. But the second has often been met with dismay as the quality of the crop in flavour and aroma is diminished. Regardless, with cheaper varieties imported from overseas still served in most Kuching kopitiam, even a domestic market is not guaranteed.

But Sarawak has a new weapon in its defence of its own strains. With Kuching listed as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, attention is turning to the more profane selling points of this Sarawak grain. Superior in taste, texture, aroma and range, the future of Sarawak rice might be won at the table. Stories of its sustainability, community focus and green credentials, twinned with science on its nutritional profile, might make the change, propelling it from expensive staple to gastronomic super grain. With this, an important passage of Sarawak’s rural culture and heritage could be maintained.

Fig 8: Lunch on the go includes wrapped rice.

Karen Shepherd is currently the Focal Point and Strategic Director for Kuching as a City of Gastronomy under UNESCO. A writer and content creator, she tells stories about Sarawak and its unique culture through a range of media, including her own website,

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily