Forest plants in watercolours: Malaysian artist documents Orang Asli knowledge and culinary practices

KUALA LUMPUR: Seated at her residence studio, Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman rigorously utilized totally different shades of inexperienced watercolour for a daun semomok portray.

Harvested from the forests, the plant’s leaves are utilized by the native Orang Asli tribes to season meals. When cooked, its insect-like scent disappears and is changed by a pungent, appetising aroma. 

“The communities I talked to also said that daun semomok only grows in certain parts of the forest where there is the right soil conditions and humidity, so they take it as an indicator whether the forest is also healthy or not,” she stated. 

Around her work space, extra watercolour work and pen sketches of indigenous plant species had been unfold out to dry beneath the air-conditioner.

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Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman placing the ultimate touches on a plant illustration. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

Syarifah Nadhirah, 27, launched “Recalling Forgotten Tastes” in November final 12 months, an illustrated guide that includes forest edibles and the normal cuisines of Orang Asli communities in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. 

The guide is the results of a year-long pursuit, in which she adopted the indigenous individuals on their foraging journeys in the forests, and realized concerning the totally different qualities and makes use of of every plant. 

In addition to the watercolour illustrations, the guide additionally incorporates excerpts of conversations together with her Orang Asli guides, detailed explanations of how their meals are made and descriptions of her foraging journeys. 

Her intention in publishing the guide was to protect the Orang Asli communities’ knowledge concerning the forests earlier than each forests and knowledge disappear. 

READ: Isolated and short of supplies, Malaysia’s indigenous groups depend on aid to ride out movement control order


Syarifah Nadhirah, who runs a design studio by career, attributed her fascination with totally different cuisines and their elements to her mom. 

It was her mom’s curiosity in cooking that sparked her curiosity in culinary practices. The thought to deal with documenting the totally different herbs and plants utilized by Malaysia’s indigenous Orang Asli communities happened after a dialog with anthropologist Dr Rusaslina Idrus at Universiti Malaya.

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Learning to prepare dinner Orang Asli dishes after a foraging journey. (Photo courtesy of Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman)

“The idea for this book project started in 2019 after I was inspired by the conversation I had with her. She had been working with the Orang Asli communities for a really long time, so she introduced me to her contacts in Negeri Sembilan,” stated Syarifah Nadhirah.

During her go to with Dr Rusaslina to 1 neighborhood’s Christmas celebrations, one of many native girls introduced them on a backyard tour.

READ: Malaysia’s indigenous people flee into forests to escape coronavirus

“Most of what she told us was never recorded, or just an unwritten oral history of the plants they use and their cuisine, so it just triggered me to start documenting all these stuff,” Syarifah Nadhirah defined. 

In addition, she stated, having associates learning botany and different ecology topics undoubtedly helped feed her thirst for knowledge.

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Edibles harvested from the forest – asam keping, torch ginger, daun kulim, daun semomok and sayur meranti. (Photo courtesy of Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman) 

Along the way in which, she made associates with members of totally different Orang Asli communities. The Temuan tribe in Selangor, as an example, introduced her and her associates to go to the Kuala Langat forest reserve space, which is now in hazard of being degazetted for improvement.

“They really changed my perspective on plants and the natural environment,” she defined. 


“Indigenous food is quite different from what we know. What you’ll eat that day is determined by what plants you’ve foraged from the forest, and the season of the year.

“For example, during the dry season, some plants can’t be found and the community will farm a certain type of paddy or starchy roots for carbohydrates. If it’s the wet season, it’s harder to find animal protein because animals will not go near certain areas,” Syarifah Nadhirah recalled her foraging journeys with the Orang Asli.

In a visit to Pahang, Syarifah Nadhirah was launched to a sort of bamboo dish, which incorporates not simply the bamboo shoots but in addition the beetle grubs feasting on the shoots.

“It was something like the sago worms in East Malaysian cuisine, and they ate it raw or fried, because the grub was quite fat and juicy and non-toxic. I just watched the rest eat them,” she recalled. 

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Illustrations of the indigenous edible plants’ by Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

Another edible she was launched to was daun kulim from the kulim tree, which was primarily used as an accompaniment for fish dishes.

“It smelt a little like turmeric, but much stronger and aromatic,” she defined. 

Then there was sayur meranti, which regardless of its title, is just not derived from the meranti or Shorea tree. 

“It’s something like spinach, but much more bitter, so what they do is to steep the leaves in water for a few days to leach the bitter flavour away, then dry-fry the leaves with some ikan bilis (anchovies) as a dish,” Syarifah Nadhirah stated.

READ: How will Malaysia’s environment fare after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions?


Working on her guide took longer than anticipated, because of Malaysia’s motion management order instituted in March final 12 months to management the unfold of COVID-19 and journeys exterior of Selangor had been virtually out of the query. 

“When I go for foraging trips, of course my friends or the guide will point out different things that are there, not just the edibles. It’s become a nature education guide in fact,” Syarifah Nadhirah stated.

Some of the plants have medical makes use of for the indigenous communities. 

“Like this plant, it’s called setawar and it grows along rivers and soaks up a lot of moisture. My guide would point out that it has an ‘umbut’ – the young shoot.”

“The plant itself can’t be eaten, but you can squeeze out the moisture inside the shoot and it’s good for treating coughs and fever,” she stated.

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Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman (second from proper) studying about totally different edibles throughout a foraging journey with a Temuan information in Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve, which is now below risk of improvement. (Photo courtesy of Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman) 

In the course of archiving the plants, Syarifah Nadhirah additionally realized concerning the communities’ battle with disappearing forests. 

“Like the Temuan community in Kuala Langat, their forest is being threatened and already diminishing at the edge. Certain plants like mengkuang (screwpine leaves) are disappearing, and it’s an important part of their weaving craft, which they now can’t practise as much as they used to,” she stated. 

She contrasted the Kuala Langat folks’s predicament with one other Semai neighborhood in Pahang, which may nonetheless entry conventional forests.

“Their (the Pahang tribe) cuisine is still pretty traditional, but for the Orang Asli communities closer to the city, either they eat like us, or their indigenous knowledge is slowly disappearing, because the forests are also disappearing,” she stated.

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Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman renders meals into detailed watercolours with descriptions on how the meals, akin to catfish cooked in palm leaves, is made. (Photo: Syarifah Nadirah Syed Abdul Rahman, Vincent Tan)

READ: Malaysia’s indigenous tribes fight for ancestral land and rights in a modern world

Syarifah Nadhirah found that as she spoke to the indigenous individuals, they have a tendency to recall extra conventional knowledge and share together with her. 

“That (knowledge) is still embedded, just that they don’t have a chance to practise them,” she famous. 

Having achieved about 50 illustrations of the indigenous plants, solely 30-odd illustrations made it into her guide.

“Some of it was difficult to identify, and others, my Orang Asli friends and guides asked me to exclude to prevent these plants from being poached and overexploited,” Syarifah Nadhirah stated, recalling the insatiable demand for roots akin to tongkat ali and kacip fatimah, each popularly used as reproductive tonic, or agarwood for aromatics. 


For Syarifah Nadhirah, the selection to depict these plants in watercolour got here naturally to her due to her artwork and design work, and additionally as a result of it felt extra significant than simply taking {a photograph}.  

“It also harks back to the old-style naturalist and botanical illustrations,” she smiled.

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An Orang Asli meal consisting of ubi kayu (cassava) grains, yam, sayur meranti and bamboo-cooked rooster (left) and Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman’s depiction of the meal in her guide. (Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman/Vincent Tan)

Continuing the trouble from “Recalling Forgotten Tastes”, Syarifah can also be engaged on two different related archival initiatives, one in all them is to show the analysis from the guide into visible maps of edible plants.

The different is to finally construct an interactive web site which supplies visuals and sounds of the forests roamed by totally different Orang Asli communities all through the peninsula.

READ: With movement restrictions eased in Malaysia, reforestation efforts pick up momentum again

Underpinning these efforts is the realisation that it is a race towards time earlier than the forests diminish as improvement progresses additional inland, and the knowledge thereof disappears. 

“We’re already really late, actually all of these plant illustrations are really just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure if you talk to more communities, you’ll unearth even more plants that each local community uses,” Syarifah Nadhirah stated.

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Syarifah Nadhirah Syarifah Nadhirah Syed Abdul Rahman going by the finished watercolour work of indigenous plants. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

For instance, the Kuala Langat and Pahang Orang Asli communities she labored with instructed her that a few of the medicinal plants they used to depend upon had been getting rarer and rarer. 

“The Orang Asli have really strong physical and spiritual ties with the forests, even to the point they bury their ancestors in the forests, hence why they call these ‘ancestral lands’, hence the issue of indigenous land rights is tied to this disappearing knowledge too,” Syarifah Nadhirah ruefully famous.  


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