Disclaimer: Chia seeds are not native to Indonesia.
Just as people migrate, so have plants and their seeds. With Mother Earth’s magic, many of these plants become naturalized—acclimate to their new environment—and transform into new species themselves.
Some of these “new” plants have been in Indonesia for centuries—for as long as traders have sailed in and around the seas of Indonesia.
As we enter into a new year in the 21st century, this migration continues, but this time with more purpose than a stowaway seed.
It is important for the health of the environment and local economy to diversify crops. Crop rotation allows soil to replenish its nutrients and remain healthy for subsequent plantings. This also allows small-holder farmers to maintain a consistent source of income through the seasons by harvesting sellable produce all-year round.
In Indonesia, a struggle persists with farmers to understand the importance of crop rotation. Changing behavior and practices is an expected challenge. But there is progress in the form of intrepid Indonesian small-holder farmers in both Sumatra and Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) that are testing a new crop—chia seeds.
Why chia seeds? For crop rotation to be adaptable, it is best to utilize plants that take to the soil inherently. That means two options—1) planting wild plants that naturally grow well in the area, or 2) introducing plants from regions of the world that match in climate and terrain.
The bulk of Indonesia’s landmass lies at the same latitude as South America. That is why crossover in plants between countries there and Indonesia is common. Cassava = singkong. Maize = jagung. Piña = nanas. And now, chia seeds are being experimented for their viability.
For the farmers in NTT, their introduction to the seeds came from the founders of biji bali, a start-up food business launched in 2017. Their ready-to-eat line of products made with chia seeds were an instant hit, and as word spread, they received inquiries regarding whether their chia seeds were available for purchase wholesale.
At that time, their seeds were sourced from either Australia or South America, but these requests sparked their curiosity, and soon, conscience. Do chia seeds grow in Indonesia? Can it grow in Indonesia? Why not grow it in Indonesia?
Before long, the founders discovered a band of farmers in NTT that were looking for alternative crops to grow in their arid and hot region of Indonesia. In September 2017, they sowed the seeds for a small batch crop in order to measure the growth pattern and yield rates, and are currently analyzing the results.
It is still a learning process for both farmers and suppliers, but as of now, Indonesians can begin to purchase chia seeds grown in their own country. Let’s encourage these farmers’ tenacity and support their profitability by buying local.
The following recipe is dedicated to this mighty, little seed.
It was inspired by my time at Restaurant Daniel in New York City with Pastry Chef Ghaya Oliviera. She was developing a gluten-free and vegan alternative to bread served with the cheese course, and chia seeds were the answer.
When bloomed—liquid absorbed into the seeds—they become an excellent substitute for egg whites as a binder, or glue. The high protein content in the seeds accounts for this adhesive quality, because protein will coagulate when heated or acid is added. That is why, when baked, this recipe produces a perfectly crisp layer, without flour or animal products.
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are used for their slim size, which makes it easier to spread the base in a consistent layer, but can be substituted with anything else, as long as it is small and thin.
This recipe also adds a sprinkle of sea salt for seasoning, but additional spices can be used as well. Chef Ghaya was partial to sumac, but andaliman pepper from Sumatra—a close relative to the sichuan pepper from China—with its lemon notes and spicy, slightly numbing sensation, would be a great complement.