The clapboard-walled kitchen in Fitriyah’s (40) house, in Lipursari Village, Central Java, was incredibly noisy that evening. This mother of two children is cooking leye or rice from cassava. After only 30 minutes of steaming, the leye is cooked and ready to be served.
Instantly an aroma like boiled cassava bursts out and spreads across the kitchen as soon as Fitriyah opened the lid of the steaming pot. Her kitchen is small and humble, but not uncharacteristic for the region, measuring only 2.5 x 4 meters wide.
- Read part 2 of this story: Instant cassava: Targeting Indonesia’s millennials
Meanwhile, in another corner of the kitchen, cassava leaf vegetables and fish peda have just been drained from the pan, and are ready to be eaten as side dishes, accompanying a plate of leye. The bland taste of steamed leye will be covered in savory and salty fish peda.
Every day, Fitriyah cooks one kilogram of leye for six people to eat, namely her husband, their two children, their mother and father and herself. Fitriyah’s family has been consuming the dish for decades. Even her youngest child, Zafa (8) looks to be voraciously enjoying their plate of leye with fried noodles.
“Since the children were small, I cooked leye every day. So far they have not refused. Leye is like rice, even consumed by our parents and grandma since childhood,” she said.
In the village of Lipursari, leye has been a substitute for rice for generations. Cassava, which is the raw material for leye, is abundant around the village, which sits just above 500 meters above sea level. Once planted, her husband, Mukmin (55), can easily harvest tonnes of it.
Cassava is simply cheaper, and can be harvested multiple times a year. Rice, in contrast, can only be harvested once a year, as their rice fields depend on rain for irrigation.
According to Fitriyah, the process of making leye is certainly not easy. It involves between 5-7 days of intensive preparation, depending on the heat of the sun. The Cassava needs to be cleaned, peeled and cut into small pieces, then soaked for two nights straight, to remove the toxic cyanide content. Then it is dried in the sun, a process that results in what is commonly called, “gaplek”.
“The dried gaplek is then rubbed (grinded) roughly. If you want to eat it, just steam it like rice,” she added.
While waiting for the leye to be ready, Fitriyah and her family nibble on rice. Sometimes the rice comes from their local crops, but more often it has to be purchased town. She would usually cook leye twice each week.
Besides making cassava for leye, cassava farmers sell it as a raw material for instant Tiwul. Tiwul is a staple food substitute for rice, made from cassava. It was used as a substitute for rice when the price of rice was not bought by the public during the Japanese colonial era in the 1960s. In contrast to leye, the grains of tiwul are finer. And now many are sold in instant packaging with various flavorsThe root vegetable can be grown for up to nine months a year around the village.
Mukmin usually sells harvested cassava to a local trader in Lipursari Village, called Siti Maryam, but commonly known as Maria Bo Niok. Prior to Covid-19, he would be able to sell between 4 to 5 tonnes of fresh cassava every harvest season (every 9 months). However, this has all changed unfortunately due to Covid-19.
“For the time being, Mrs Maryam does not take cassava from farmers. The demand for instant tiwul has fallen due to the pandemic,” said Mukmin, looking down languidly.
As a result, more and more cassava is being used to supplement daily consumption within the village. While not their first preference, Gaplek can last up to six months if stored in dry temperatures.
“It’s not that bad. In a month, we can save up to 10 kilograms rice we would have to buy in town. Here, the cheapest rice is Rp 10,000 per kilogram ($0.70/kg).”
Qoniah (59), another Lipursari resident, is the mother of three children who cooks leye once a week. According to her, leye is delicious eaten with cassava vegetables and green lombok tuna.
“You can even eat more than one plate of leye if you eat it with tuna,”,” said Abdul Madjid’s wife (60), smiling.
Fortunately for Qoniah, “The price of leye is now even more expensive than rice.”
Mukmin, Abdul Madjid is in a similar position. During the pandemic, he lost his ability to make a small profit selling cassava, seeing his returns drop by two-thirds.
But now, leye has grown in popularity, and is being sold at double the price of rice. A part of the reason is that it is not being sold as a healthy substitute to rice, amidst growing diabetes rates across Indonesia.
“The price of leye at the farm level is Rp 13,000/kg. In the market it can be Rp. 18.000/kg to Rp. 20.000/kg. For rice, Rp. 9,000/kg,” confirmed Tarwiyah (53), a mother of two who has been making leye for more than 30 years.
One of the main reasons is that the process can take between three to ten days, depending on whether you’re starting from raw cassava, or have already processed it into flour.
In a day, Tarwiyah is able to process 100 kilograms of cassava into 10 kg-13 kg of leye, depending on the quality of the cassava. When his eldest son, Akhmad Hidayatul Koir (34) was still studying at a Islamic boarding school, Tarwiyah regularly sent leye. The routine lasted for 15 years, until Khoir graduated from the Islamic boarding school.
“Since Khoir entered the Islamic boarding school at the age of seven, I sent leye once a month. The kiai (Islamic boarding school caretaker) at the boarding school soon began sending orders of their own, and even orders regularly until now,” she said.
For Santri in the Islamic boarding school, consuming leye is part of the “Ngrowot” or a religious effort to refrain from certain kinds of foods. Ngrowot is a local term which can also be interpreted as an effort to refrain from all kinds of food ingredients made from rice, and replaced with tubers, corn and so on.
According to the Central Java Province Statistics Agency, Wonosobo Regency was among the top 6 provincial producers of cassava in Central Java, supplying 290.51 quintals/ha.
In that year, 115,186 quintals of cassava were produced across the region’s 4000 hectares of farmland. However, leye is confined to Lipusari village, as it is still routinely consumed by the people of several villages in Kaliwiro and Wadaslintang sub-districts.
Dicky Senda, a local food activist from the Kujawas Lakoat Community, has often advocated against Indonesia’s dependence on rice. According to him, foods such as leye would play a far more prominent role across Java, had it not been for government incentive schemes developed in the 1970s that have led to an over supply and demand for cheap, imported rice.
“People are being encouraged to eat something that comes from outside rather than utilising local knowledge and products. The wealth and contents of local gardens are extraordinary.”
This shift occurred in line with the desire of the New Order government in the 1970’s, aiming to achieve food security. At the time, farmers were given incentives and subsidies to grow rice, and replace their local, traditional crops.
Civil servants throughout Indonesia, which is the largest employer in the country, were then supplied a hefty ration of rice every month. Cassava was looked down upon and rapidly replaced across the country.
Before this shift, Indonesia was able to meet domestic food needs without importing rice, even up to 1984. Since this shift, rice has become the most common food staple across almost all of Indonesia, even today.
Meanwhile, Head of the Center for Diversification of Consumption and Food Safety, Food Security Agency, Ministry of Agriculture, Yasid Taufik did not deny that so far there is still a stigma that cassava is considered an inferior food among the people.
“It is sad that people who consume cassava are considered poor. In fact, if you look at the potential of cassava as a source of carbohydrates for rice substitution, it is very large. Cassava has advantages over rice,” he said during a webinar entitled “Eating Cassava Makes us Healthy”, August 12, 2021.
Across Indonesia, cassava consumption is limited to simple snack foods. However, the government is now hoping to revitalise the crop, and aiming to increase cassava consumption nationally by one third to 12.4 kg per capita this year, and 14.3 kg per capita in 2022.
“We want to increase cassava as a substitute for rice up to three times. We need innovations in processed staple foods that are practical, tasty, healthy, contemporary, and have social values,” he added.
In terms of nutritional content, Yasid assured listeners of the webinar that cassava can be a healthy substitute for rice, and in fact has many nutritional benefits. “The glycemic index content of cassava is much lower than that of potatoes and rice. Cassava is also rich in fiber.”
However, this nutritious food culture has not been lost in the village of Lipursari, Wonosobo, despite the continuous penetration of national and global food trends. If the government is to truly re-ignite the love of cassava, they may need to look how villagers in Lipursari have kept their food culture so vibrant, as it is still being passed down from generation to generation.