Three Pipers: Lada, Sirih, Kaduk

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.

Young peppercorns a-dangling

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.

green black pepper
Turmeric root, green peppercorns, terung pipit

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.

Sirih, the betel leaf
Sirih, the betel leaf

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 folded and tied for sale

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.

Sirih duduk, just sitting around.

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[1]
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

flowers of the kadok

All pantuns are sourced from the Malay Civilization project of the National University of Malaysia.
Translations mine.

Gurindam 12 Fasal 4

The 12 Gurindam of Raja Ali Haji


This is the Gurindam of the fourth issue:

Ini gurindam pasal yang keempat:

The heart over the body rules all;
if it oppresses, every part falls.

Hati kerajaan di dalam tubuh,
jikalau zalim segala anggota pun roboh.

Whenever jealousy has been sown,
shoot forth a multitude of arrows.

Apabila dengki sudah bertanah,
datanglah daripadanya beberapa anak panah.

In cursing and praising pause first to think;
it is there that many sink.

Mengumpat dan memuji hendaklah pikir,
di situlah banyak orang yang tergelincir.

When in anger, act not upon it;
that is how to lose your wits.

Pekerjaan marah jangan dibela,
nanti hilang akal di kepala.

The smallest lie or abuse of trust
is like a mouth dripping of pus.

Jika sedikitpun berbuat bohong,
boleh diumpamakan mulutnya itu pekong.

It is a sign of a man most cursed
who considers not his honor first.

Tanda orang yang amat celaka,
aib dirinya tiada ia sangka.

To miserliness do not give leave;
it is stronger than a pack of thieves.

Bakhil jangan diberi singgah,
itupun perampok yang amat gagah.

Whosoever has reached to greatness
should behave in a way free of coarseness.

Barang siapa yang sudah besar,
janganlah kelakuannya membuat kasar.

Those who love to speak filth
have a spittoon and not a mouth.

Barang siapa perkataan kotor,
mulutnya itu umpama ketur.

Yet our own faults we cannot know
if not to us by others shown.

Di mana tahu salah diri,
jika tidak orang lain yang berperi.


Raja_Ali_HajiGurindam Dua Belas is a 19th century Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift). I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.

Gurindam of the First Issue

Gurindam of the Second Issue

Gurindam of the Third Issue

Gurindam 12 Fasal 3

The 12 Gurindam of Raja Ali Haji

This is the gurindam of the third issue:

Ini gurindam pasal yang ketiga:

When we guard the eyes,
Idle fantasy is minimized.

Apabila terpelihara mata,
sedikitlah cita-cita.

When we guard the ears,
Evil gossip cannot come near.

Apabila terpelihara kuping,
khabar yang jahat tiadalah damping.

When we guard our tongues
We ensure good outcomes.

Apabila terpelihara lidah,
nescaya dapat daripadanya faedah.

Guard your hands carefully
from sins both light and heavy.

Bersungguh-sungguh engkau memeliharakan tangan,
daripada segala berat dan ringan.

When the belly is too full
What it produces is distasteful.

Apabila perut terlalu penuh,
keluarlah fi’il yang tiada senonoh.

Take heed of the middle part,
it is there that many men lose heart.

Anggota tengah hendaklah ingat,
di situlah banyak orang yang hilang semangat.

Guard well the feet
from walking the pathway to defeat.

Hendaklah peliharakan kaki,
daripada berjalan yang membawa rugi.



Raja_Ali_HajiGurindam Dua Belas is a 19th century Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift).  I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.

Gurindam of the First Issue

Gurindam of the Second Issue

Gurindam 12 Fasal 2

The 12 Gurindam of Raja Ali Haji

This is the gurindam of the second issue.

Whosoever grasps what follows here
Must know the true meaning of fear.

Whosoever neglects the prayer
Is like a home without a pillar.

Whosoever neglects the fast
Has lost in both this life and last.

Whosoever neglects zakat
Earns from their wealth no barakat.

Whosoever turns from pilgrimage
Has not fulfilled what he has pledged.

Ini gurindam pasal yang kedua

Barang siapa mengenal yang tersebut,
tahulah ia makna takut.

Barang siapa meninggalkan sembahyang,
seperti rumah tiada bertiang.

Barang siapa meninggalkan puasa,
tidaklah mendapat dua temasya.

Barang siapa meninggalkan zakat,
tiadalah hartanya beroleh berkat.

Barang siapa meninggalkan haji,
tiadalah ia menyempurnakan janji.


Gurindam of the First Issue

Gurindam 12 Fasal 1

Gurindam Raja Ali Haji terjemahan translation

This is the gurindam of the first issue.raja_ali_haji2

Whosoever to his faith holds not
Is a man whose name will be forgot.

Whosoever understands these four
Truly stands among the knowers.

Whosoever has knowledge of The One,
Command, forbid: he will not turn.

Whosoever has knowledge of self
Has knowledge of Allah, azza wa jal.

Whosoever has knowledge of the life of this earth
Knows it is deception of no true worth.

Whosoever has knowledge of the Afterlife
Knows this world is profitless strife.


Ini gurindam pasal yang pertama

Barang siapa tiada memegang agama,
sekali-kali tiada boleh dibilangkan nama.

Barang siapa mengenal yang empat,
maka ia itulah orang ma’rifat

Barang siapa mengenal Allah,
suruh dan tegahnya tiada ia menyalah.

Barang siapa mengenal diri,
maka telah mengenal akan Tuhan yang bahari.

Barang siapa mengenal dunia,
tahulah ia barang yang terpedaya.

Barang siapa mengenal akhirat,
tahulah ia dunia mudarat.


Gurindam Dua Belas is a Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift).  I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.

Cot Melukut

Cot melukut
Berambang gantang.
Mana tikus ‘nyorok?
Celah kangkang!

A popular nursery rhyme for youngsters. Begin by poking the bottom of the kid’s foot, then race up their leg to tickle the inner thigh. Conceptually similar to the American “This Little Piggy Went To Market”, the Malay version has the advantage of being certified Halal by JAKIM. It translates as:

Broken grains of rice
Scattered ’round the measure’s edge.
Where hide the mice?
Between your legs!

Gantang, translated as “measure” here, is an old Malay unit of measurement roughly equal to a gallon in volume, holding around 6 lbs of dry rice. For a hapless American, dealing with metric is bad enough. When you balik kampung and talk to the orang tua, matters get more complicated. Cupak, kati, ela, batu: the weights and measures from at least four different systems are still in use by my mother-in-law, if no one else.

Local measurements have traveled abroad as well: tael is the English word for a unit of weight or currency used by Chinese traders, derived from the Malay tahil. The value of the unit, and its use, comes from China. It acquired the Malay name from trading with the archipelago, and from there it spread to English.

I’m still trying to find out what a hun/hoon is. It appears to be a Chinese unit of length smaller than an inch and bigger than a… smidgen? pinch? millimeter? Any input appreciated!

UPDATE: Brother Musa informs me that a hun is indeed a Chinese unit equal to 3/16 of an inch. Thank you!

Other Malay contributions to English
Other Malay nursery rhymes translated

Traveler, the path is your footprints

By Antonio Machado

Traveler the path is your footprints and nothing more

Traveller, there is no path

You make the path by walking

When walking you make the path
And when you turn to look back
You see the path that you will never trod again

Traveler, there is no path
Only sparkling reflections on the sea

Why call paths,
That which are only the furrows of fortune

Every traveler walks,
Like Jesus on the sea


Translated from the Spanish by David Seaton

Found while Googling American’s lack of the tragic sense.

Two Murrayas

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.

Si tampuk manggis
Si tampuk manggis

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