Batang jati kangkung

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.”


Malay pantun courtesy of UKM Malay Civilization Database

English translation mine.

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.

Hidupnya Insan

Wak Som in the doorway

My favorite definition of poetry is “Compact Emotion”. So when I found that my translations are mulitiplying the word count at least three or five times, I knew right there I’m losing something. This is the last of the lyrical pieces on the “Pelita Hidup” album, and for me it was the hardest. I think I’ll go back to nursery rhymes after this; it’s more at my level. Anyone know where to get lyrics for “Bangau O Bangau”?

Hijjaz – Hidupnya Insan

Hidupnya insan
Tiada yang abadi
Menunggu saat panggilan azali
Hilanglah nafas tak bergerak lagi
Tanah perkuburan kita bersemadi

This worldly life
Is not forever
Waiting for the moment of the call to eternity
Lose your breath, no more movement
In the cemetery soil we rest

Continue reading “Hidupnya Insan”