Of mavens, connectors, salesmen and municipalities involved in obtaining status under Unesco Creative Cities Network
THE recipe for Kuching as a ‘gastronomic capital’ has taken thousands of years to perfect.
It started with a rich stock of everything edible in one of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, finely blended with the knowledge and experience of the indigenous people and then, steeped in an aromatic mix of multiple immigrant cultures, each with its own unique flavour before finally being plated with a dash of international influence and modern creativity.
The garnish for 2021 was a designation under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) as a ‘Creative City of Gastronomy’. While considerably shorter, this also takes a considerable time to stew, requiring numerous ingredients, perfect balance, excellent timing and the imagination to try something new.
First in Malaysia
Kuching is the first city in Malaysia to receive such an accolade, in any of the creative fields under the Unesco Creative Cities Network (UCCN). It joins 49 cities across the world, from Brazil to Australia. This includes a city of which name has become synonymous with a global ingredient and one with a food culture older than the Bible. It encompasses entire islands, coastal settlements, mountain towns and desert cities. It covers food cultures entirely embedded in their environment and those spiced by centuries of travel.
But all these have one thing in common – they have all agreed to share their combined wisdom on how gastronomy can contribute to cultural preservation and a creative economy.
Each of these cities has also demonstrated eight criteria, set by Unesco for gastronomic qualification. These run from a well-developed gastronomy that is characteristic of the region, supported by a vibrant gastronomy community, to indigenous ingredients and specific methods to cook them that have stood the test of time.
Beyond that, they take into account markets, festivals, awards, educational institutions, publications and general public appreciation of all things food.
One thing that is certain in Kuching is public appreciation – a city where the standard salutation is: “Have you eaten?”
Start of the movement
Kuching might not strike many as a gastronomic capital of the world at first glance. Its name will not appear on any international culinary curricula or inspire an entire vocabulary of techniques and tastes, our appearances on ‘The Great British Bake Off’ or Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’ notwithstanding. Even in Malaysia, it cannot boast the sheer scale of food provision in the nation’s capital or the established fame of places like Penang. In the end, however, Kuching’s food culture is ours and ours alone, unrepeated across the planet, a reflection of our people and the environment that sustains it, and this is what Unesco cares about.
It is food that binds us and defines us, as a people and a place, and that is considered worth sharing.
The designation itself was a prime example of Kuching’s ability to share, especially over a plate of food. It built on multiple relationships, developed over time, and also close connections characteristic of Kuching.
The writer, Malcolm Gladwell, states that all new ideas require three characters to truly create a movement. He talks of ‘mavens, connectors and salesmen, to identify, spread and embed each trend respectively’.
For Unesco, they talk of partnerships – the final flourish of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So it has added ‘the municipality’ to the list, the link between public and private enterprises.
In Kuching’s case, the movement started with its ultimate maven. For Edric Ong, creativity runs through every chromosome. He designed the Sarawak Cultural Village, one of the state’s most famous tourism draws, and is putting the ‘pua kumbu’, our iconic indigenous textile, back into high fashion. Architect, textile designer and artist, he headed up Society Atelier Sarawak, one of the state’s oldest associations, for several years. This society, founded in 1985, aims to uphold, impart and attain knowledge of Sarawak’s arts and crafts. Under Ong, the society had just designated Kuching as a ‘Craft City’ under the ‘World Craft Council’. So he knew his way around an application or two.
“It is food that brings us together. In Sarawak, we all sit down together to eat, regardless of background, race or religious beliefs. Our gastronomy is a unifying force and that is also its identity: a diverse and multi-cultural blend of history and culture into a singular, Sarawak flavour,” said Ong, who knew of the network through his Unesco links, and steered towards gastronomy for its broad reach.
One collaborator to the next
Nonetheless, food is not Ong’s core business; it is more of his side dish. So the connections had to be made and, in Kuching, this was an easy matter.
Enter the connector, Datin Dona Drury Wee, president of the Culinary Heritage and Arts Society Sarawak (CHASS). She had already overseen the publication of an award-winning cookbook with the Sarawak Eurasian Association. This combined the stories of Sarawak’s Eurasian families with their favourite recipes into a volume that wowed the judges at the 17th Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2011, winning the ‘World’s Best Local Cuisine Award’ in Paris that year. This has led Drury Wee to a decade-long journey of food festivals and awareness visits as the head of an association where the members represent around 80 artisanal food producers, craftspeople, artists and creative industry players.
So, in September 2020, another visit was in order, this time to a sympathetic mayor and a long-term friend and collaborator. Dato Wee Hong Seng, now at the head of Kuching South City Council (MBKS), also had a long-standing connection to creativity. At the helm of Fabriko, he brought Dayak design to a wider audience and created a whole new boom in traditional dress. But this was backed by a life of community service, with both councils and the India Street Pedestrian Mall Association. Wee could see the appeal of food as an economic driver and an agent of social change and so, he threw his weight behind the bid.
All that remained was to draft it. With the backing of the Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Sarawak and its permanent secretary Hii Chang Kee, two salesmen came in.
Marian Chin already had a long history of documenting the food culture of Sarawak through her magazine ‘Kuching In and Out’. One of her main contributors was Karen Shepherd, a writer and a content creator. Between the two, the elements emerged – application form, narrative report and bid video – the last fully realised by FilmCo and Momentum Studios.
As the movement grew its own momentum, more key figures emerged. Ong passed the mantle of Society Atelier Sarawak to another maven, Jaqueline Fong of Tanoti House, a social enterprise supporting a stable of weavers of songket and a burgeoning heritage food business.
CHASS included other connectors, events specialists and tourism players like Gracie Geikie, chefs from the Kuching Chefs Association, agroproneurs, entrepreneurs, researchers and ethnic representatives. One council grew to two, to cover the full range of Kuching food culture, as both MBKS and Kuching North City Commission (DBKU) stirred the stew.
A recipe for success
The final validation came from the federal side. The Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Malaysia Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri, herself a Sarawakian, had earmarked ‘Crafts and Folk Arts’ for her home state.
To her ministry, it was the ideal fit.
It was up to the Kuching gastronomy team, already halfway through the application process to change her view. A presentation on their progress to her permanent undersecretary, Dr Christina Yeo, ensued.
Also a Sarawakian, Yeo remarked on the passion of this established public-private partnership, a conglomeration of Kuching’s food enthusiasts. The federal minister was convinced and threw her support into the mix.
The rest is history – Unesco stood convinced too.