Ubi re vera

20 Feb 2008

Pak Adi Kharisma is a worried man. Statistics tell him that his country is facing a serious food security crisis. The thoughtful Rotarian leafs through a bundle of newspaper clippings to point out some disturbing facts. Food security means having enough food. By the year 2030, Indonesia’s population will have grown from 230 million to 425 million. Per capita consumption of rice is about 139 kilograms per person per year. Multiply 139 kg by 425,000,000 people to arrive at the amount of rice Indonesia will have to produce every year to feed its people — just 23 years from now. My calculator doesn’t have nearly enough zeros to do the job.

An insightful newspaper article written by a journalist named Hermas puts the problem into perspective. Solution One: Double the area of land under rice cultivation from 11 million hectares to 22 million. We all know the combination of population pressure, ever increasing industry and the occasional villa development ensure that every year will see less land under cultivation, not more. (Please don’t get me started on the insanity of taking agricultural land out of production to build houses for foreigners.) Solution Two: Double rice production from 30 million tons a year to 60. Sadly, even if the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is widely adopted, Pak Adi feels that less than 25% of farmers are industrious enough to undertake the more intensive cultivation needed for this method. Solution Three: Zero population growth. This is just not going to happen. Solution Four: Reduce the 100% dependency of rice as a staple food by replacing 50% of it with locally grown alternatives.

Bingo! Pak Adi, thinking out of the box as is his habit, began to research how this could be done with sweet potato (ubi), his favourite traditional food. He was further inspired by a visit to Turin in 2006 as a guest of Terra Madre – World Meeting of Food Communities as a representative of Indonesia and the humble ubi. With the enthusiastic support of international food experts and proponents of the Slow Food movement, he launched his little restaurant and line of food products in Denpasar last year.

After some experimentation, he found that cooking and mashing purple and yellow ubi and adding this paste to the rice during cooking made a palatable staple. Gently tinted mauve and yellow, it has a pleasant taste and a texture not too different from white rice. ‘By using 30% ubi and 70% rice, the nutrient value is increased,’ Adi explains. ‘Ubi is a gluten-free antioxidant with high fibre, beta-carotene, prebiotics and a low glycemic index. If we then replace another 20 percent of the rice with locally produced legumes like pigeon peas, soy beans, long beans and peanuts, we will have a really nutritious staple.’

Pak Adi is in fact re-inventing the wheel here. Back in the 1960s, then President Sukarno introduced the concept of mixing rice with sweet potato, taro and corn to make it go further. My staff remembers that when they were young their staple was still a combination of 70% ubi and 30% rice except during Galungan, the only time in the year when they tasted unadulterated rice.

Pak Adi’s products are slowly gaining popularity as a novelty, especially after ten local TV stations featured them early in 2007. His restaurant serves his trademark mauve and yellow nasi campur, tasty ubi juice, ubi ice cream and vacuum-packed fresh paste that can be mixed with other food at home — all bright purple of course. He also produces moist and really delicious brownies made from local cocoa beans, coconut oil, ubi flour, sugar and peanuts. None of his products contain preservatives or artificial coloring. In fact it’s hard to imagine an artificial agent that could compete with the vibrant natural purple hue of his favorite ingredient.

It would be helpful to have government support on this important initiative, but as in every other country bureaucrats can hardly think 23 months ahead, never mind 23 years. So Pak Adi is undertaking his project single-handed.

His goal of working toward a sustainable local staple food has taken him in some interesting directions. He has a program that trains local senior high school students to be productive and successful farmers. He’s about to launch a project that trains village women to make food products for sale locally using the tiny ubi tubers that are left over after harvest. ‘This will empower women by helping them generate income, and the children will grow accustomed to the taste of ubi early in life; they’ll also be healthier!’

Pak Adi is aware of the critical importance of educating women in nutrition, hygiene and basic economics. He also plans to start throwing birthday parties for young children, serving his tasty purple treats instead of McJunkFood. Although he wants to sell his products, he’s mainly interested in socializing the addition of ubi to the local diet in any way he can. Pak Adi is also working with the East Bali Poverty Project to introduce the growing of ubi in remote and impoverished villages.

Of the 20 varieties of ubi he’s found, he selected four — white, yellow, purple and orange — for his products. He starts the young plants himself and gives them to farmers in the mountains to grow for him along with pigeon peas, soy beans, pumpkins and peanuts. If intensively farmed, 20 to 40 tons of ubi can be grown on one hectare.

Sweet potatoes grow all over the world, from Papua to Okinawa and Hawaii, and were already being cultivated in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492. Most of the world’s sweet potatoes — about 80% — are grown in China. Around 600 varieties are known, some growing up to two meters in length. Purple ice cream has long been popular in Hawaii and Japan, and I’ve sampled bright purple desserts in Manila.

It’s not often that someone comes up with an achievable solution to a big problem. Pak Adi’s mission is worth supporting, especially by helping bring it to the attention of officials who can help popularize his tasty, nutritious and very colorful products and the concept behind them.

Next time you’re in Denpasar, drop by the little purple Warung Sela Boga at 238 Jalan Teuku Umar, call Pak Adi at 0811 397 590 or email him at [email protected] for more information.

Ibu Kat is an Indonesia journalist

Blog & news

Change the world through food

Learn how you can restore ecosystems, communities and your own health with our RegenerAction Toolkit.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Full name
Privacy Policy