Sabahan heirloom rice that should be in your pantry


Sabah Tourism Association representatives posing with farmers, Juala and Saimah after experiencing traditional rice processing methods, such as “mengomot” “mengogik” “menirih” “menumbuk”. -Photo by Forever Sabah

KOTA KINABALU: The Dusun communities of Kampung Tinuhan and Kampung Lapasan Ulu in the district of Tuaran have turned the plight of the Covid pandemic into not just an effort to revive the dying tradition of paddy planting, but also into a business opportunity.

Projek Padi, as this initiative was simply called, aimed to regain food sovereignty by re-planting paddy on abandoned lands.

Not only did it feed the villages, it ended up launching a new local artisanal rice brand, Wagas Dati.

Initiated and facilitated by Forever Sabah (FS), with a special grant from Yayasan Hasanah from Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance, Projek Padi involved 43 farmers from the two communities, producing 28 tons of rice on 38 acres of paddy land, using an amazing 34 varieties of rice.

Families delighted in sharing and eating the delicious types of rice they remembered from childhood that they had grown together with their own hands.

There was more than enough rice to meet their food needs and their sights turned to making sales with the surplus of over two tons. This is good because Sabah currently imports 77% of the rice it consumes.

Not all rice is alike.  There were several special qualities about the rice these villages had produced.

Firstly, many of the farmers were producing organic, in other words without using herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals.

Second, the farmers were experimenting with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a climate friendly approach that better manages water to reduce greenhouse gas emission.

Growing rice in Sabah also means avoiding the carbon footprint of transport from overseas.

Third, because the community is processing their own harvest, they can produce both polished and unpolished versions. Unpolished rice is less processed, retaining its outer bran and germ layer, making it rich in dietary fiber and essential nutrients (e.g. Vitamin B1, antioxidants, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and manganese).

All these characteristics attract Sabah’s increasingly environmentally and health-conscious consumers.

Even more exciting, the farmers grew heirloom varieties bred and past down for generations because of their different delicious and nutritious properties.

Each is unique in size, colour, stickiness, texture, fragrance, taste and more and suitable for preparing a variety dishes.

In association with Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the varieties are also being tested for their glycemic index to identify which would be suitable for people at risk of diabetes.

Project participants decided to brand their surplus rice as Wagas Dati – meaning “our rice” in the Dusun-Tindal language.

This name represents the heritage and identity of this community of farmers.

Katrina Ong of Forever Sabah, who designed the branding, explains: “The concept of Wagas Dati seeks to convey qualities so much more than just packaged rice.  It is a proud Sabahan product in the spirit of better valuing ourselves, our work and our heritage while taking practical steps towards regaining food sovereignty in Sabah.”

From this first harvest, Wagas Dati introduced 14 varieties to sell, with prices ranging from RM12 to RM21 per kg, depending on whether the rice is organic and its other properties.

To celebrate this special harvest and to launch the Wagas Dati label, a Covid-safe low key Pesta Padi was held at KampOng Campus in Tenghilan on March 23, 2021.

In attendance were Projek Padi partners from Sabah Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) and Kivatu Nature Farm, as well as guests from Sabah Tourism Association, Sabah Art Gallery, Hilton Hotel, Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort, local grocers and restaurateurs, media, and more, together with farmer representatives.

Guests got to taste 14 varieties of rice as well as innovative dishes prepared by local ‘kampung’ chefs using Wagas Dati.

Menycerislo @Nanak produced the stand-out “Kampung Sushi” using Wagas Dati, and others created a wide variety of main dishes and desserts to showcase their characteristics.

With live music and a poster exhibition, Forever Sabah and the farmers told the story of the project and explained the complex process of rice growing and harvesting.

The well-loved expert on Sabah basketry Jennifer Linggi, then director of the Sabah Art Gallery, illuminated the connection between Sabah’s crafts and our rice growing culture.

Pesta Padi was an incredibly meaningful affair, as not only were guests able to engage with the farmers directly, the farmers were also able to see how their work and produce was celebrated, valued, and shared.

Wagas Dati is currently available for sale at Day2Day grocer as well as through orders online and at KampOng in the community. 100% of farmgate prices go directly to the farmer.

Visit or @wagasdati on Instagram for more information.