Heritage culinary activist runs projects meant to show that they not only walk, but also ‘cook’ the talk
SARAWAK cultural aficionado Marian Chin has spent most of her adult life in New York and Europe, working with words and images for international magazines and major companies with a bent for culture.
“Often, when we live in another culture, we think it negates or replaces our own.
“Other cultures are additions — they never replace our own. When we’re solid in our own culture, the additions only make us stronger in it.
“I’ve always focused on cultures of other countries and finally, now my own, which I’ve never left,” she told thesundaypost.
After spending most of her time abroad, she returned to home city Kuching in 2012 to care for her ageing father, who passed on six years later.
“Those six years with my dad had blessed me with immeasurable inner strength and insights about life itself.
“I have learned that there is nothing more important than caring for one another. When we can do all that, all other things are made possible for us.”
Chin’s positive outlook and sensitivity for others are manifested in her work as she endeavours to preserve Sarawak’s culture, for the larger part, its heirloom food, and at the same time, contribute to the community primarily through food.
Upon returning as a filial child, Chin had to start afresh.
She envisaged another fulfilling and meaningful life in her beloved homeland. Whilst caregiving for her father, she took pride in the richness of Sarawak’s traditional and cultural heritage which is close to her heart.
She would reflect on their exceptional beauty with a sense of awe.
“Sarawak’s culture is so amazing and unique – it’s second to none. Just walk down the street for 10 minutes and you will find yourself speaking in different languages and dialects.
“We’re born that way. Speaking many dialects is no big deal to us. That, in itself, makes Sarawak’s culture unique.
“There’s an overwhelming amount of our tradition, culture and heritage that is not documented. Take our food, for instance,” she said, remembering that these were the things that frequently occupied her mind as she was looking after her frail father.
Seemingly, the occasional aloneness of a caregiver had turned her mind into a workplace, resulting in the birth of her personal project, ‘KINO Kuching In & Out’ – a bimonthly magazine highlighting the culture and heritage of her home state.
Her passion for Sarawak’s diverse cultural heritage never failed to find expression in her artful work. Featuring tradition, personalities and even bus, food trail and heritage trail maps, the magazine, which has been in circulation for seven years, is now well-established as ‘a window on Sarawak life, past, present and future’.
The pages on local culinary delights have found new meaning and life and with the opportunity created, they now earn their way to the dining menu to cater to the palates of the discerning connoisseurs.
From a small-scale and home-based venture, this editor-in-chief of KINO has decided to embark on a food-journey that would take her from the pages of her magazine to a new frontier, where the opportunity to market her products could be as much promising as it is challenging.
These products are essentially heirloom by nature and have their own characteristics that set them apart from many others. The culinary project is called ‘LIFESPANTREE’, which is an extension of her brainchild KINO.
“The idea came about when I was looking for something to go further with the magazine.
“Writing about food is one thing, cooking is another. I didn’t want to just have it in print, I wanted to walk our talk… and literally ‘cook our talk’,” she disclosed.
‘Hands-up or hands-on’
The last five years had Marian running her culinary project, which she aptly named ‘KINO Life Heritage Kitchen’, as part of her effort to help preserve Sarawak’s culinary culture.
With the slogan ‘Hands-Up or Hands-On’, she opened pop-up heritage kitchens where people could learn how to prepare traditional dishes.
LIFESPANTREE is meant as a sequel to that.
“Over the years, I have been interviewing and talking with village cooks, ‘neneks’ (grandmothers) and people who are authentic in their cooking, and I have learned that there are so many protected heirloom recipes out there – some are up to 100 years old,” Marian talked about the idea behind LIFESPANTREE.
“I have also realised then the ingredients are the most powerful factor that connects our past with the present, and also our culinary culture. The ingredients, especially from the jungle, never change.
“It is the trend, our taste buds, general commercialisation and of course, the lifestyle, that have changed. The ingredients are the link, the masterpiece.
“We’re losing it because we don’t even know the names of some of the natural ingredients anymore. This is partly due to our diverse dialects – one ingredient is called by another name in another dialect.
“Another reason is because some of our seasonal produce have short lifespans and are not available in the market all the time. It’s like now you see it, tomorrow you don’t.
“So how in the world can we cook with these ingredients when we know little of them? Of course, we would eventually find out if we’re persistent enough.
“Thanks also to the Internet, we can learn more about the ingredients albeit through different names,” said Chin.
Promotion via online platforms
Chin said with LIFESPANTREE, she could promote Sarawak’s culinary culture through local and international online platforms, local supermarkets, as well as domestic and international events.
Jungle products such as various edible seeds and ‘midin’ (wild fernbuds) and also the short seasonal fruits that have not found their way to the commercial outlets due to their short lifespan – ‘ciku’ (sapodilla) and ‘dabai’ (local olives), just to name a few – are given longer shelf-life through freeze-drying and dehydrating processes.
These should facilitate families with heirloom recipes to preserve their dishes.
As most of the recipes are guarded recipes, the family could keep their Intellectual Property (IP) and ‘own’ the labels that state the origin and history of the dishes.
The canned products could either be marketed or sold by LIFESPANTREE – or alternatively, they could be handed over to them for their own purposes, including the option to sell, said Chin.
“In supermarkets, we can find canned sardines, corned beef and the list goes on, but we can’t find ‘bubur pedas’ (local savoury stew), ‘ayam masak merah’ (Malay’s chicken in red gravy) or any of our local dishes there.
“I’ve been thinking – how wonderful it would be if we could send a few cans of ‘bubur pedas’, which we’d normally eat only during the fasting month of Ramadan, to our friends and families abroad at any time of the year,” she pointed out.
LIFESPANTREE would be the first in Sarawak, possibly in Malaysia, to preserve heirloom dishes through canning and in this respect, Chin had invested a handsome sum of money in food-processing equipment and machines for this project.
Charity drive to help urban B40
The emergence of Covid-19 had prompted Chin to shift her focus from commercialising the long shelf-life foods to corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. Supported by Yayasan Hasanah Special Grant HSG 2020-23, a grant specifically for those affected by Covid-19, she initiated a charity project, ‘Combat Malnutrition for the Urban B40’.
Consequently, the commercialisation of her long shelf-life products had to be ‘shelved’ for a while to give way to this charity project.
Since the beginning of 2021, this project has facilitated the distribution of around 18,000 cans of nutritious and traditional dishes to feed 285 families every month in various villages and areas.
The ‘Combat Malnutrition for the Urban B40’ drive has also been helping small stakeholderswho at the time of the pandemic, have seen significant reduction in sales, by buying fresh produce from them.
The canned dishes are popular local delicacies such as ‘Ayam Pansuh’ (Chicken in Bamboo), ‘Bubur Pedas’, ‘Rebung Rebus’ (Boiled Bamboo Shoots), ‘Ayam Masak Merah’, ‘Ikan Terung Asam’ (Fish with Sour Brinjals), Chicken With Green ‘Nangka’ (Firm-Flesh Jackfruit), Fish With Black Beans and Soya Sauce, and Chicken Curry.
Halal cooks are hired to prepare these authentic traditional dishes; thus, providing a helping hand for the food and beverage business during these challenging times.
Chin is collaborating with Dr Mohd Razip Asaruddin – a senior lecturer and researcher at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) and a multiple international award winner for his food and cosmetic products– to license LIFESPANTREE exclusively for the use of his ‘virgin coconut emulsion’ (VCI) in powdered form and encapsulated as a supplement to the food processed.
She also works with a network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to deliver her food parcels to the recipients. Each parcel would be filled with 10 different cans of her traditional dishes along with her freeze-dried fresh goat milk, local red rice, beans and dehydrated local fruits. These parcels are either delivered to the drop-off points in recipient villages on a monthly basis, or directly to the recipients once in three months where every family would receive three food parcels.
“We give 10 cans of different dishes to each family so that they could savour a variety of flavours as we hope not only to address hunger, but also to give the recipients a sense of comfort and pleasure through food,” she said.
Initially, Chin had been on the ground together with the folk representing the NGOs to deliver the food parcels. However, due to the restrictions under the Movement Control Order (MCO), set up to curb Covid-19, she has refrained from going into the restricted areas for now.
‘Poverty is beyond hunger, having no shelter’
In the course of delivering food to the targeted B40 group, Chin found that poverty was not just about hunger and having no shelter.
“It is heart-wrenching to know, through meeting with some of the recipients, that there are cases of abandonment, abuse, young single mothers with suicidal tendency and also mental health issues. They need help beyond food,” she observed.
This had behoved her to give her best toward the success of her charity project in reaching out to the needy folk in the long run. In doing so, Chin found the need for more volunteers to come forward and help further the good cause.
The concept of LIFESPANTREE and its ‘Malnutrition Combat’ initiative had caught the attention of some civil society organisations (SCOs) in Peninsular Malaysia – there were already indications that the concept mooted and successfully put into action by her, would be ‘borrowed’ by her counterparts in the peninsula.
Chin’s passion for Sarawak’s rich traditional and cultural heritage and the preservation of heirloom food has brought her closer to the people and indeed, made her stronger in her own culture.
“It also opens my eyes that while food is the most direct understanding of what poverty is, there is also poverty of empathy, of compassion, of love out there. Just by giving food may not be enough,” she stressed.
Food research centre
In addition, Chin has created a cosy environment decked with antiques and works of arts for her office, nestled on the first floor at one of the old shophouses along the historic Jalan Padungan. She has refurbished old dressing tables, cupboards and shelves belonging to her late parents, which she said ‘nobody wanted them’, for her office furniture.
Surrounded by what she loves, including the authentic old street where her office is located at, Chin envisions the setting-up of a food research centre in the near future, which is meant to be the extension of LIFESPANTREE.
For her, the ‘food journey’ is a colourful adventure of many shades that derives its beginning in the recipe and food pages of the magazine ‘KINO’.
The analogy of a journey is intentional as it seeks to breathe life and meaning to her food discovery.
It is as if the ingredients and recipes of the local culinary delights laid out on the pages of KINO had sprung to life and became a blissful journey of food discovery with her.
“In keeping up with the progress, KINO will morph into a food magazine. The first issue of its renewed series will be out this December,” she revealed.
Chin has set her sight on breaking new frontiers through creativity and innovation with trajectories that should place her food products on a finely-crafted platform that reaches out well to the target niches, locally and abroad.
Nonetheless, the food journey has gone beyond food production and promotion to embrace a charity act that extends care and support to the less-fortunate groups in the community, especially during the pandemic times.
Chin has found herself in a bigger crusade working, alongside Yayasan Hasanah and NGOs serving the community that needs help, and the food that she produces is an integral part of it.
Passion and compassion would remain an integral part of her food venture.