Black pepper is the quintessential spice of the Spice Route, the ancient trade routes across the Indian Ocean that have brought merchants and travelers to the Nusantara since antiquity. Pepper was once as valuable as gold, and even now, it is the world’s most traded spice. Piper nigrum is well suited to cultivation in Sarawak: pepper represents roughly 5% of total agricultural exports, and virtually all of it comes from Sarawak. Sarawak produces more than 90% of the world’s supply of white pepper. White pepper, like red and green peppercorns, comes from the same plant as the common black corns. The difference is in the processing: with white pepper the peppercorns are submerged in running water for a period of time. That bleaches the color and gives white pepper it’s milder flavor.
Anak rekan pergi ka pantay
Masak ikan berkua lada
Chukop makan chukop pakay
Mau di simpan tidak kan ada
Down at the beach, a band of youths
In black pepper sauce they fry their fish.
From hand to mouth, enough to get by.
Enough to save? A distant wish!
Black pepper is used in Malaysian cooking, as the pantun suggests, but it isn’t a particularly distinctive ingredient. (I’ve often wondered how KFC could win over Malaysians so thoroughly with their 11 herbs and spices, when any Malay woman would need 11 herbs and spices before they even considered what to cook.) The fresh green peppercorns are a lot more exciting. At our house, we like to grind them up for sambal with fermented durian paste and anchovies.
Black pepper isn’t the most important Piper around either. A close relative of black pepper is Sirih, the betel-leaf, Piper betel. Chewing the leaf together with lime and the nut of the Areca palm yields a mild buzz while quelling the appetite and staining the teeth red. It is among the oldest shared cultural practices across South and Southeast Asia, with evidence of it’s use going back thousands of years. Chewing betel is still very popular in Sri Lanka and India, where it is called paan. Paanwallas sell chews by the side of the road, with extras like honey, tobacco and spices. Like hot dog vendors! Ask for one with everything.
Burung jentayu terbang beriring
Mati dipanah gugur ke lumpur
Sirihku layu pinangku kering
Sudikah dimamah barang sekapur?
Together take flight a flock of Jentayu
Felled by an arrow one drops from the sky
Would you care to sit for a chew
Though my sirih has wilted, my betelnut dried?
In Malaysia, the habit is waning. It’s considered country, unsophisticated. Old grandmothers will still chew surreptitiously, but men have turned to cigarettes instead – a very bad trade, constant spitting and tooth decay notwithstanding. Still, even now, the betel leaf has some cultural cachet. Sirih appears in pantuns, proverbs, and in the classic phrase “sekapur sirih”, used as a literary preface or for opening remarks. Exchanges of wedding gifts may be sent on platters of betel-leaf, or for the very old fashioned, a quantity of leaves may be stipulated in the gift exchange. I’ll know the habit is gone for good in Kuching when my neighborhood grocery store stops stocking them. Folded bundles tied with vines: 50 sen a packet!
Sirih and pepper are climbing vines, but there is another Piper that just sits around: Kadok, or Sirih Duduk, Piper sarmentosum. It makes a lovely groundcover, a tasty raw vegetable, and the name of the archetypal village idiot, Pak Kaduk.
Hinggap merpati di dahan senduduk
Gugur pinang ditiup badai
Jangan seperti malang Pak kaduk
Ayam menang kampung tergadai
A pigeon rests on a bough of senduduk
Down fall areca-nuts blown by the wind
Don’t be a fool like old Uncle Kaduk
Losing the village a hen for to win
Kaduk is eaten as ulam, the Malay answer to the vegetable platter. Instead of ranch dressing, the kaduk – already hot and bitter – is dipped in sambal and eaten with rice. Since it is a perennial shrub, there are always leaves ready to eat. If the kitchen is empty, you can step outside and graze.
Kijang menghantuk di rumpun buluh
Makan kaduk di dalam padi
Tuntut ilmu bersungguh-sungguh
Kerana hidup tunangnya mati
Upon grazing the kaduk from fields of paddy
The drowsy deer stands amidst the bamboo
Surely the bride of this life is death
So seek ye knowledge in all that you do
Makan berulam si daun kaduk
Sambal belacan asam kelubi
Dulu nyaring bunyi beduk
Kini azan lantang di TV
All pantuns are sourced from the Malay Civilization project of the National University of Malaysia.