Plants, pictures & pantuns from the Malay archipelago
We are all sons of the soil. Landscape, garden, tropical plants, horticulture, bonsai, tropical fruits, rainforest, chickens, bantams, ayam katik, ayam serama, bunga, pokok, taman, lanskap, tanah, kampung.
The Islamic Information Center of Kuching hosts the radio show IIC Speaks every Friday mornings on RedFM 91.9 at 11.30am. I was honored to appear on the show last month to speak about “Landscape and Environment in Islam.” Thanks very much to DJ Syerifah Farah who interviewed me in the studios of RTM Kuching, as well Vivie Abdullah, communications executive for the IIC. The book Green Deen by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an excellent resource on environmental responsibility from an Islamic perspective and was invaluable to me in preparing for the interview.
[two_first] As large as papaya, as small as keranji, Break a branch and the fruit falls down A face so lovely with manners so ugly Like rain falling murky and brown
Besar betik kecil keranji 
Patah dahan buahnya luruh
Muka cantik perangai keji
Bagai hujan airnya keruh
Growing papaya, or [tooltip text=”in Malay” trigger=”hover”]betik[/tooltip], from seed is easy enough – sow them on loose soil straight from the fruit and they’ll come up without trouble. The tough part is figuring out if your tree is a boy or a girl.
[dropcap background=”yes”]I[/dropcap]t sounds strange, but there are a fair number of plants out there that bear different flowers on separate trees, making the trees effectively male and female. Male tree flowers only produce pollen and can’t bear fruit, while the female trees won’t bear fruit without a source of pollen somewhere in the area. Marijuana is probably the most well known plant of this kind in North America. In the tropics it is a lot more common. Rambutans are also this way, for instance. Papaya and rambutan appear together in a traditional pantun:
[two_first] Rambutans hanging red and bright A papaya tree by the fence has grown Good men need not be taught the right A thorn in the jungle is sharp on its own
Batang betik di tepi pagar
Buah rambutan merah berseri
Orang baik tak payah diajar
Duri di hutan tajam sendiri 
[dropcap background=”yes”]I[/dropcap]f there is a way to sex papayas prior to flowering, I don’t know what it is. And so trees I spent months growing to maturity have turned out male: lots of flowers but no fruit. My mother-in-law’s not one to recite pantuns, but she does enjoy colorful language; she once cursed stylish, boastful, useless men as betik jantan, male papayas – all show and no results. I don’t curse them but they do get the axe. The trees, I mean, not the useless men.
[dropcap background=”yes”]I[/dropcap]f you are stuck with a male papaya, it’s not a total loss. The young leaves are edible if you boil them a while. They are tough and bitter like mustard or collard greens, but palatable with a dose of sambal. The fruits are just wonderful though, with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, and very soothing on the belly after a meal. Scientists will tell you this is because they contain the enzyme papain, contemporary woo says it’s because they are an alkaline food, while your [tooltip text=”Witch doctor/Spiritual healer” trigger=”hover”]bomoh[/tooltip] or [tooltip text=”Medicine man/Traditional medicine practitioner” trigger=”hover”]dukun[/tooltip] may have explanations that touch on the realm of the unseen. Go with what works for you.
Kangkung, Ipomea aquatica, is a crawling vegetable with hollow stems, allowing it to float on the water, from whence it gets the name water spinach. There’s no relation – in fact it is in the Convulvulaceae or morning glory family. It is a mainstay of kampung cuisine, growing freely in the canals and marshy places. Although peasant food, it has its etiquette: the stems should be cut such that each stem has a leaf, and the leaf should be uncut. The orang tua on my wife’s side will not eat kangkung that has been chopped indiscriminately. Its dignified lowliness, its crawling, floating wayside abundance, allows it to represent humility when evoked in the following pantun.
Batang jati kangkung
Tumbuh rapat di dalam taman
Suka dipuji gemar disanjung
Bukanlah sifat orang budiman
“Morning glory of the water / Growing thickly in the garden. Love of praise and pride in honors / Is not the way of the gentleman.”
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
Eating a dish of raw leaves of kaduk with shrimp paste chili sauce doused with kelubi Where once rang out the sound of the beduk [1,2] Now the azan is played on the TV
All pantuns are sourced from the Malay Civilization project of the National University of Malaysia.
Wandering into the Hills mall to get haircuts for my five girls, I stumbled upon the last day of the 10th Sarawak Bonsai Competition! I only had my handphone in my pocket so the images don’t begin to do justice to the subjects. But here they are:
A step-by-step illustrated guide to getting your hands on your coconuts.
Coconut water is the best remedy for the haze and heat we are struggling with this Sha’aban, as any Mat Salleh can tell you. When your coconuts are within easy reach, all is well. But they shoot up fast and before long they are far over head. How to solve this problem that so many of us face? I present a step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Plant some bamboo, or buluh. Most any commercial variety will do. I planted the “Bali bamboo” that has become popular in Kuching since the Airport Roundabout project a few years back.
Step 2: Wait two years. I admit this step is somewhat unsatisfactory,but bamboo only grows as fast as bamboo grows.
Step 3: Harvest a suitably long cane.
Step 4: Strip off the branches and sheaths and cut to the desired length. Careful here – bamboo has tiny fiberglass-like hairs at the base of each joint that can be very itchy and irritating to the skin. (I hoped these were called bulu buluh, but no, they are miang buluh.) I rubbed the hairs off the cane with some sandpaper. That way you inhale the tiny hairs rather than get them on your skin. This step may need some refinement.
Step 5: Obtain a sickle blade and a rubber strap. If, like me, your hardware store does not have a rubber strap aisle, one can be prepared by slicing open a bicycle inner tube.
Step 6: Affix the sickle to the end of your bamboo with the rubber strap. You are now ready to harvest!
Step 7: Don’t stand directly under the tree, or the coconut will repay your violence.
Black on black stack mangosteens
Pity the kemuning as its flowers fall
My dark-skinned beauty is sweet to behold
A light-skinned woman is no use at all
Hitam-hitam si tampuk manggis
Sayang kemuning luruh bunganya
Hitam-hitam kupandang manis
Putih kuning apa gunanya
A turn to the risque! Although this pantun is hardly, uh, progressive, it is interesting. In modern Malaysia, white skin is overwhelmingly seen as a mark of beauty. There is a huge market for skin whiteners, Malaysians with European heritage are all over the TV, family photos are retouched to bleach everybody out. But in this poem at least, taken from the Malay Civilization pantun database, it is the darker woman who is praised, by comparison to the mangosteen.
Mangosteens, or manggis, are fruits with a hard purplish-black rind and a sweet, juicy flesh that I have written about previously. Kemuning, Murraya paniculata, is a common flowering shrub with small, fragrant, creamy white petals with a yellowish center. Alas, the little flowers bloom for only two or three days before wilting and falling. Thus the light-skinned woman is described as trifling like the fleeting kemuning bloom.
Kemuning shows up in several other pantuns in a similar way, as a symbol for fickle or weak light-skinned women. It’s not fair to the kemuning! It flowers often throughout the year, it is pretty hardy, takes pruning well, and even makes a fine bonsai specimen. Even when the kemuning is not standing in for Si putih-kuning, it rarely comes out of a pantun looking good:
Kemuning wrapped ’round fence’s edge
A garden of tea with a thorny hedge
Boastful talk from scanty knowledge
Is a great big spoon for little porridge
Kemuning melilit di tepi pagar
Pagar berduri di kebun teh
Ilmu sedikit cakap berdegar-degar
Kurang bubur sudu yang lebih!
The pembayang here is less clear in its relation to the pemaksud, but the pairing still doesn’t reflect that well on the Kemuning. Don’t ask me why – I think it’s a lovely shrub. Its close relative is even more famous: the curry tree, Murraya koenigii.
Everybody knows curry the dish. It is practically a staple food for the British, I’ve heard. But Waugh’s Curry Powder contains no M. koenigii. Which is not to put anybody down: Malaysian curry powders are mixes of turmeric, coriander, cardamon, and more… but are also Murraya-free. Curry, like ketchup, has drifted far from its origins. The leaf of the curry (kari) tree is what gives South Indian cooking its special aroma. The leaves are thrown whole into curries and sambars, fresh, fried or pan-roasted. I don’t know that it imparts so much flavor, but the smell is very strong. The plant, shown here in my yard, can grow into a small tree, but I plan to keep mine shrubby. The pungent cloud of scent wafting downwind of a full-size curry tree can knock you over. Curry the tree has inspired no pantuns of record, but curry the dish shows up in a pantun in Sarawakian dialect:
Let’s cook lempah, pass me that pot
Pufferfish curry cooks up fast
I’ve told you before, have I not
Don’t waste time regretting the past
Ambik periuk memasak lempah
Ikan buntal dimasak kari
Agik dolok kamek dah madah
Jangan menyesal belakang belakang hari