Third Coffee

Coffee beans spread upon a tray

Jasmine blooms on the ledge do rest

I’ve been dreaming till break of day

My sweetheart sleeping upon my chest

“Buah kopi di atas loyang

Kembang melati letak di bangku

Saya bermimpi hampirkan siang

Jantung hati tidur di pangku”

Coffee Flower Island South-east Asia produces a lot of coffee.  The word Java, now perhaps most famous as a computer language, came to English as a word for coffee because so much of it was grown on the island of Java, the home island of Indonesia.  This was before Juan Valdez came on the scene. Coffee lovers are probably aware of Sumatra Mandheling, the fine beans from the highlands of Sumatra island.  And if you’re a real coffee snob, you may even have tried the coffee prepared from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of an Indonesian civet cat: kopi luak.

And yet, local people are not drinking any of that.  All the really good stuff gets exported to the West and simply cannot be found in the marketplace even at export prices.  What we get instead are bins of greasy beans of uncertain provenance roasted in a traditional process: margarine and sugar are mixed in with the beans as they are stirred over a fire.  In the end you get a very black bean with a milimeter or two of oily sugar glazing on it.  Virtually all coffee you drink in Malaysia will be prepared from this stuff, usually by pouring boiling water over a pot of grounds.  This yields French press coffee or cowboy coffee, depending on whether you find this method sophisticated or crude.

The bean itself is almost certainly not arabica, which comes from the first species to be brought under human cultivation, Coffea arabica.  Originating in the highlands of East Africa, it doesn’t grow all that well here in the hot humid tropics.  An epidemic of coffee rust, Himileia vastatrix, wiped out the bulk of Coffea arabica several decades ago in SE Asia, and what is still grown in the cool uplands of Java and Sumatra goes straight to export.

Unripe berriesThe second species to be commercialized was Robusta, C. conephora.   Robusta is more productive, easier to take care of, and less picky about climate, but is considered inferior by discerning coffee drinkers.  Thus, most robusta enters the global coffee-stream mostly as powdered or instant coffee, or as a cheap filler for blends of beans.  At the moment, discerning drinkers turn up their noses at robusta, but it may be we’ll all be drinking it in the future.  Arabica production in the Americas is threatened by the same disease that wiped out most arabica plantations in SE Asia originally.  Industrial growing conditions are likely at fault, according to University of Michigan Prof Vandermeer. If there is an arabica holocaust in the Americas, what will we drink?

It turns out Coffea is a big genus, and there are apparently many species that yield caffeinated beans that are more or less untested.  In Sarawak, down in the sweltering lowlands where I live, robusta is grown together with a third species of coffee, Coffea liberica.   Liberica is a larger tree than arabica or robusta, with cherries larger than arabica and more oblong than robusta.  It is much more resistant to rust and has been used in hybrid breeding programs for hardier arabica.  As arabica wanes, selection and improvement of liberica varieties may well yield the coffee of the future.  If you want to try tomorrow’s coffee today, you need to head down to Carpenter Street in Kuching.
october07 032
One of the few remaining streets of the historic Chinese district in Old Kuching, Carpenter Street begins at a large red arch opposite the old courthouse complex.  The narrow one-way lane winds through several blocks of shoplots, including a large number of jewelers, before terminating at a Chinese temple and former Chinese open-air theater.  The best coffee shop in Kuching is the second to last storefront before the temple:  Black Bean Coffee Shop.
Black Bean Coffee Shop
Gracious and low-key, the cafe has been doing business essentially unchanged since I got here ten years ago, before the first Starbucks arrived, before our local Starbucks competitor chain, Bing! Coffee, opened up.  To the best of my knowledge, it is the only place in town you can find locally grown coffee, which the proprietor sources from individual growers in the area and roasts himself.  Several times I’ve walked in to find big bags of green beans in various stages of processing at the rear of the small store, someone picking and tossing defective beans by hand.

Coffee beans upon the shelf
Coffee beans upon the shelf

The key is the roast.  The same beans that produce one flavor roasted in sugar and margarine become something very different after a skilled dry roast.  The espresso drinks at Black Bean are made from two parts liberica to one part robusta, scooped out from the big glass jars in front of you.  The coffee is delicious.  And exceedingly potent:  Robusta and Liberica beans contain roughly double the caffeine of arabica.  Adjust your dosage accordingly.

Before a ring better a necklace

A necklace graces the entire body

Better mustached than cleanshaven

With a mustache you can strain your coffee

“Daripada cincin eloklah rantai

Rantai dibuat penghias diri

Daripada licin elok bermisai

Misainya dapat menapis kopi”

Gracious and low key
Gracious and low key

Pantuns courtesy Malay Civilization
Translations mine.

Ambil galah jolok keranji

Pulasan grows at branch’s end

Harvest keranji with a wooden rod

O Man! Do not seek to be praised.

Know that all praise is only for God.

Ambil galah jolok keranji

Buah pulasan di hujung dahan

Manusia janganlah suka dipuji

Segala puji kepunyaan Tuhan



As durian season peters out, a couple of marginal fruits make their appearance.  The brittle, velvety black shells of the keranji start showing up in February. Keranji season comes and goes so quick I usually don’t manage to pick any up; I rarely see it in the market longer than two or three weeks.  Beneath the shell is a very thin layer of tart and sweet flesh around a hard seed. The whole package is reminiscent of tamarind or asam jawa (they are in the same botanical family) but far fussier, yielding much less to eat and requiring much more time and care to pop open the shell.  Press to hard and you get fragments stuck in the flesh.  Keranji may be appealing compared to whatever else can be gathered wild from the woods at the same time of year, but it doesn’t hold up well to what you can find in the supermarket.  Frankly, it was only my devotion to my readers that made me buy some this year.

Upon further investigation, I wish I hadn’t.  It turns out keranji is of the genus Dialium, which is a valuable timber tree.  As such, it has become rare throughout the country and is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.  It is certainly the logging that is responsible, but eating the fruit can’t help.  Next year I’ll pass.


Duku fruit upon the shelf

Who knows where the langsat has gone

Who can measure how worried my heart is

All that I’ve done has come out wrong

Buah duku di atas para

Buah langsat entah di mana

Resah hatiku tidak terkira

Apa dibuat semua tak kena


Langsat is another tropical fruit that is unlikely to ever make it big on the world market.  The fruits only stay fresh a few days before the skins discolor and the flavor turns, and there isn’t much you can do with the fruits but eat them fresh.  When fresh, they are sweet, tart, juicy and delicious, without tasting very strongly of any particular flavor.  Each little fruit barely yields a full swallow, and with the bitter green seeds inside, you have to work them around in your mouth to strip the flesh off.  Between the peeling and the mouth work, eating a bag of langsat has the same kind of rhythm and pleasure as shelling and eating pecans, or working a handful of sunflower seeds in the shell.  I pass six or seven langsat stands on my way home from work so most days I get a 3-kilo bag to keep me company on the long commute.  Perhaps the trail of langsat skins on the roadway will help me find my way back to work again, Hansel & Gretel style.

Langsat, Langsium domesticum var domesticum, is orchard fruit, cultivated in Kalimantan and shipped over the border at the “inland port” of Tebedu.  I’m not sure what distinguishes an inland port from any other border crossing, but that’s what they call it.  Folks in West Malaysia may be more familiar with duku, which is L. domesticum too, but a different variety.  It has a thicker, harder rind and doesn’t weep latex when peeled.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to find duku in Kuching or langsat in west coast Semenanjung, although both varieties should be able to grow well in either place, as the pantun suggests.  Buah duku entah di mana…

Peeled Langsat
Peeled Langsat

Pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization

English Translation by Bin Gregory Productions


Country Ghetto Palm

Ailanthus was sold in nurseries across the country as the Tree-of-Heaven for many years, before its invasive qualities were recognized.  People planted them as ornamental trees not only in the cities but out in the rural areas as well.  And so it turned out that when my parents left Detroit to get in to organic farming, they wound up on a nature center that had a grove of decades-old Ailanthus growing right in the very heart of the sanctuary.   Twenty years later, the trees have still never spread off the island!  I find it all the more amazing because they are situated in disturbed, degraded old cattle pasture.  One would think if they can spread like wildfire through disturbed and abandoned urban sites they can do the same in an old field like this one.  But no, in the country, ghetto palm behaves itself.  Maybe it was just the crisp, clear fall sun, but this grove displayed a beauty I never appreciated in Ailanthus before.

New Stumps

My students and I dug up several promising new Duranta stumps from the same failing hedge I got my last one. Here they are, freshly dug. They’ve all leafed out by now but you can see the character of the gnarled wood better when they are bare like this. I have only the faintest idea what to do with them after this, but at least I have a year to think about it while they put on some growth.

Freshly Dug Ginger

Freshly Dug Ginger
Freshly Dug Ginger
It is often my job to gather ingredients for the meal from our garden. Our ginger has lately done well enough to allow some occasional harvesting. Considering we use it in virtually every meal I doubt we’ll ever be self-sufficient but it’s nice to eat from your own land when you can.

Little tiny trees

Duranta repens, pigeonberry
Durant repens, or pigeonberry, beginning its life as a bonsai

Living in Malaysia and not making bonsai is like living in Minnesota and not snowmobiling. You’re just not taking advantage of what is on offer. With a 12-month growing season, plenty of sunlight and rainfall throughout the year, the slow, slow pleasures of bonsai come just a little bit quicker.

It took me years to come around. I thought bonsai was for people who can’t appreciate the natural beauty of the plants growing all around them, that it was cruelty to trees, that it was kitschy. But really I just hadn’t seen the right bonsai. It was Harry Harrington’s site that did it for me. The images there are so sublime, so evocative, I thought if I could create something a tenth as beautiful one day, it would be worth it. Take the time to look through his galleries, they are stunning.

So far I’ve been puttering away at this hobby for about a year and a half. The picture above is the first piece I think has any potential, taken on the day I took it out of the ground, two days ago. Check back in three to five years for a finished product.


It’s a fact. According to the FAO, Americans waste as much food at the table as South/SE Asians lose in their entire supply chain from farm to table! Put another way, individual Americans throw away 10-15 times more food than South/SE Asians. And that wastage is one driver for the global rise in food prices. Reading articles like The New Geopolitics of Food, you find a lot of concern over for instance the masses of Chinese who want to give their children a taste of milk, and the effect of that on the food supply, but what of the American throwing out half a bowl of milk with the remains of his Froot Loops? Living As Muslims reminds us of the Holy Quran saying “…and waste not by extravagance. Verily, He loves not those who waste by extravagance!” [Qur’an 6:141] [via The Global Food Outlook]

Malay Spiral Ginger

Costus speciousus
The seasons on Borneo are so subtle, after eight years I still couldn’t tell you what month the rains end or when the dry season starts. But now that a shift is upon us, I relish the small differences. Winds are changing, rain falls harder, durians are appearing at the roadside, and the Malay Spiral Ginger is flowering again. Costus speciosus is a showy plant, thick canes holding giant red bracts throwing out a dozen white papery flowers one by one. It also one of two possible plants the Arabs call Qust and use for traditional medicine, the other possibility being Saussurea costus, some sort of Aster.