Mengapa rebung adiknya buluh

Bamboo thrusts dramatically out of the soil, clean, symmetrical, very sharp. The shoots grow fast, shooting over my head within a matter of days. Only once they have reached their final height, long slender swaying canes 25 feet tall, will they leaf out and send stiff woody side branches out from the nodes. They can grow so fast because all the structures of the full grown cane are already mostly present and developed inside the rebung. They only need to expand. Rebung is the term for the bamboo shoot, and it pops up in surprising places in Malaysia.


Sarong field
Stylized rebung in the kepala sarong.


Maybe for its power, maybe for its unique conical shape, rebung has been inspiring folk art for a very long time. The beautiful batik sarongs[0.5] worn by Malay women have two parts, the majority pattern or [tooltip text=”body” trigger=”hover”]badan[/tooltip], and a contrasting band of a different pattern or color, the [tooltip text=”Head” trigger=”hover”]kepala[/tooltip]. A very common pattern for the kepala is of two opposing rows of cones reminiscent of a backgammon board but which are in fact stylized rebung.


Rebung has been inspiring pantuns[1] too, like this one that is not afraid to ask the hard questions in life:

Dragging a shield while shaking in fear
Holding a telescope and flashlight too
How can Moustache be big brother to Beard
Why is Rebung’s kid sister Bamboo[2]]?


Bawa perisai terhinggut-hinggut
Bawa teropong sambil bersuluh
Kenapa misai abangkan janggut
Mengapa rebung adiknya buluh?



Umbut Nanas
Umbut Nanas – pineapple shoots


Rebung is edible. You might say rebung is a type of umbut[3] (although Malay grammarians may disagree). Umbut refers to the soft, tender growing shoots of basically any plant. In that early growing stage, the meristems of many plants are edible. Coconut is the most common. Maybe we could say it is the default umbut, but pineapple, gingery-type plants like lengkuas and tepus, even banana all have edible umbut, if you are hungry enough. Umbut of lengkuas and tepus is delicious in oxtail soup, or steamed and eaten with sambal. Banana umbut I found to be watery, fibrous and without flavor, a vegetable of desperation. Maybe I just haven’t had it cooked right yet. Pineapple umbut I have never tried, but there it is for sale in the market. Someone’s eating it.


Rebung cut in half
Rebung cut in half


Cutting away the outer scales of the rebung reveals all the nodes and other tiny plant parts waiting to enlarge. On the authority of my mother-in-law, after the rebung has been chopped, it should be soaked in salty water for a time. The light pickling gives it a slight yellowish cast, softens and removes some of the bitterness. Some only. Rebung is a bitter vegetable, and maybe for that reason it is often cooked in santan[4], whose creaminess can further take the edge off. On this occasion, she made rebung cooked in santan with summer squash, dried anchovies and turmeric leaf.


Rebung masak lemak
Rebung masak lemak


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Leave them be to prepare rebung
where the awful tiny hairs reside[5]
Leave those who are boastful and proud
Disaster is only a step behind pride
Biarlah orang memasang rebung
rebung itu banyak miangnya
Biarlah orang berlagak sombong
Sombong itu banyak malangnya


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0.5. Sarongs are more commonly known locally as kain batik for women and kain palikat for men. More on Malay garment technology previously.
1. Original malay pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.  Translations to English mine.

2. Bamboo comes from the Malay word bambu, but for some reason it is no longer commonly used here, having been replaced by buluh. Malay contributions to English previously.

3. Umbut kelapa previously.

4. Santan, or coconut milk, previously.

5. The base of the bamboo nodes has tiny fiberglass-like hairs that irritate the skin, called miang.  Miang buluh previously, in the context of harvesting coconuts.

MRE: Botok and Pulut Udang

Mengkudu, Morinda citrafolia

As Ramadan winds down, I race to give credit to local foods that got me through the month. These MREs, Malaysia Ramadan Essentials, are practically complete meals in one package. Add rice as needed.

Pulut Panggang Udang

Pulut Udang
Pulut Udang


Wrapped in banana leaves held in place by bamboo pins, pulut panggang udang is beras pulut, sticky or glutinous rice, cooked with a bit of santan, stuffed with a spicy shredded coconut filling cooked with tiny dried shrimp.  The whole package is grilled on a skillet to impart the banana leaf flavor to the rice.  The size of a large cigar and selling for a ringgit a piece, one unit is equivalent to a light meal.




Botok tenggiri
Botok tenggiri


Botok is a huge favorite of the adults of the household.  It is a Sarawakian favorite not well known in other parts of the country, and it is basically unavailable outside of bulan puasa, the month of fasting. The package looks fairly unappealing: a moist black leafy lump of organic matter.


Botok dissected
Botok dissected


Open it up though, and you find a piece of tenggiri fish surrounded by a shredded coconut preparation.  It is said the best botok is made with fish past their expiration date.  The fish has absorbed the nutty oils, the coconut is pungent and fishy and the whole shebang is given a fresh, bitter taste by the leaf it is wrapped in, something akin to mustard greens or collards.


Mengkudu, Morinda citrafolia
The botok wrapper: Mengkudu, Morinda citrafolia


That leaf comes from the Mengkudu tree, Morinda citrafolia.  Westerners may recall it as the source for Tahitian Noni Juice, an MLM miracle food craze big around the turn of the century.  Mengkudu is a weedy tree in the mulberry family, popping up in cracks in the pavement just like mulberries do back home.  The fruit gives a hint of the relationship, but mengkudu fruit tastes utterly vile and smells nearly as bad as it rots on the ground.  The juice is strictly for medicinal purposes, whatever those may be.  Consult your bomoh.  But in our house, we eat the leaf wrapper along with the fish, just the sort of veggie dish to keep you regular through the fasting month.

Morinda growing beside the river
Fruits ruined by a fox in hunger
Wait til I collapse in death my lover
Fallen into the hands of another
Batang mengkudu di tepi sungai
Putiknya musnah dimakan musang
Abang menunggu mati terkulai
Adik lah pindah ke tangan orang

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Malay pantun sourced from Malay Civilization.  Translation mine.

Tongkat tongkat ali

3 in 1 packets
An ad for Mega Power Energy Drink

It is well known amongst Malaysians that any illness on earth can be treated by drinking the appropriate 3-in-1 instant coffee. Diabetes? High blood pressure? [tooltip text=”Heart disease” trigger=”hover”]Sakit jantung[/tooltip]?  A few micrograms of goat’s milk, morinda, mangosteen, ginseng, or acai berry in with your morning coffee, sugar and non-dairy creamer will set you right.

Here in the tropics, we are surrounded by a wealth of biodiversity.  Researchers travel from afar to analyze this cornucopia of species, looking for novel compounds that may hold the cure to cancer.  Locals have also been combing the woods and identifying valuable plants, animals and minerals since time immemorial.  From durian to leach oil to gambir Sarawak, it would appear that the real contribution of the rainforests to humanity is less in treating mundane illnesses like AIDS and heart disease, and more toward preparations that give increased … energy.  Manly energy.  For masculine purposes.


CNI Tongkat Ali

No herbal medicine is as popular for boosting potency as Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia).  Every MLM in the country from CNI to Omegatrend has their own proprietary instant coffee tongkat ali blend.  In the grocery aisle too:  Longjack, Powerroot, Livita.  To be honest, it has a nice flavor and aroma, a bit like the taste of coffee brewed with chicory root famous in New Orleans.  But it isn’t there for the taste.  No.  The plant is felt to have its power from its long, hard tap-root that extends straight down, penetrating through even the hardest soil.  By the principles of sympathetic magic, drinking a concoction made from that root – well you get the idea.  Now you may scoff at the idea of sympathetic magic, but our newfangled scientists have determined that tongkat ali may indeed contain substances that can stimulate male properties [1,2]. Modesty prevents me from confirming or denying such things one way or the other. Look upon the glint in the eye of those two ancient Hajjis there and reach your own conclusions.


Kopi Jantan


Tongkat Ali is the Staff of Ali[3], but a tongkat simply means a staff, cane or crutch, as in the following pantuns:


Carry a staff in the field

With a basket to harvest your crops

How short this life feels

And yet how the day never stops


Simpan ubi dalam keranjang

Keluar kebun membawa tongkat

Hari terasa amat panjang

Dan hidup terlampau singkat[4]

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Timber is famous for its strength

A staff should be made of sturdy timber

Malays are famous for their culture

A culture of seeking out mutual consent


Terbilang kayu karena kuatnya

Kuatnya elok menjadi tongkat

Terbilang Melayu karena adatnya

Adatnya elok mencari mufakat



Tongkat Ali walking stick
I’m a hopelessly [tooltip text=”simple or direct, in a naive way” trigger=”hover”]lurus bendul[/tooltip] kind of guy, so when I came across a dead tongkat ali tree in the garden, I harvested the slender trunk to make a walking stick, a tongkat tongkat ali.  I’m turning 40 this year, you see, I need to make preparations.  After stripping the bark and working it with three grades of sandpaper, I gave it two coats of polyurethane.  I would have liked to treat it with tung oil first, which is supposed to be a traditional Chinese equivalent of linseed oil, but I can’t find either of those products here.  So there it is.  I now have a cane made of Michigan Musclewood, and a staff from the Staff of Ali, and yet somehow I remain the same soft-in-the-middle schlub as before.


The Staff of Ali


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1. The study is cited on WebMD.

2. A lot of “bioprospecting” is done on plants already identified as potent by locals according to their systems of magic and medicine.  The interesting point to me here is modern science feels it has a lock on what works and why, but traditional heuristics allowed people to identify and make use of these substances too.

3. It is likely that the Ali here is Sayyidina Ali Abi Talib, may Allah ennoble his countenance, since he was renowned as a paragon of manhood.  As the saying goes, “There is no manliness except in Ali, no sword but Zulfiqar.”  Such a man was Sayyidina Ali that in the heat of battle he knocked down his opponent.  As he moved to strike, the enemy spat in his face.  Immediately he sheathed his sword and raised the man from the ground.  He said, I was going to despatch you for the sake of Allah, but when you spat in my face I wanted to kill you out of anger. It is forbidden to fight except for the sake of Allah.  The enemy instantly raised his finger and entered Islam, declaring there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger.

4. Malay pantuns courtesy of UKM’s Malay Civilization database.  English translations mine.

Tapai ubi, tapai nasi

Tapai ubi


Fold the corners of the tapai leaf

that you may fill it with stale rice

If you want your knowledge to last

Don’t ignore your teacher’s advice


Lipat berbucu si daun tapai

Hendak diisi beras sekal

Pesan guru jangan diabai

Jika hendak ilmunya kekal



A banana leaf wrapped and held with [tooltip text=”coconut rachis” trigger=”hover”]lidis[/tooltip] could hold just about anything.  In this case, it holds tapioca root, ubi kayu, that has … crossed over.  Normally a dense, bland, starchy tuber considered poverty food or at best home cooking, it is transformed into a pillowy soft sweetness soaking in a fiery liqueur: tapai ubi.


tapai ubi flesh



The sweetness of tapai comes from the yeast

Honey from the bee is sweeter by far

Without faith a man is at loss

Like standing deadwood waiting to fall


Manis tapai kerana ragi

Lebih manis madu lebah

Tanpa iman manusia rugi

Bak kayu buruk menunggu rebah



Tapai refers to anything fermented with yeast.  Cooked rice can become tapai nasi, popular in Sarawak.  Glutinous rice, uncooked, becomes tapai pulut, the first step in the production of tuak or rice liquor. Muslims needn’t worry: although C2H6O is chemically present in the tapai, it does not intoxicate even in massive amounts and therefore is not khamr.  Discerning the halal and eating it is not something our forefathers needed a chem lab for.

The first pantun suggests the tapai is cooked in the leaf, and I assumed it was, till early one morning at Satok market I found my dealer taking tapai ubi from a large plastic tub under the table.  The banana leaf was just marketing!  You gotta admit though, a banana leaf is classy packaging.  Better that than a little plastic baggie, certainly, and environmentally friendly besides.  Sanitary?  Well I’m still standing here, ain’t I?  Other leaves are also used, like young coconut leaves[1] for tapai nasi, or less commonly, the unidentified swamp leaf below.



Tapai won’t cook without the yeast, or ragi, a dry crumbly substance sprinkled on top.  I’m unsure what species of creature it is or where it comes from and I decline to enquire further.  The last pantun suggests mysterious and distant origins and I’ll leave it at that.



The Javanese fellow is a maker of tapai

The yeast arrives from the shore over yonder

As long as my dreams remain unfulfilled

Let me die among strangers a trav’ler[2]


Orang Jawa membuat tapai

Raginya datang dari seberang

Selagi cita-cita tidak tercapai

Biar mati di rantau orang




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1. Also used for ketupat, previously on BGP.

2. Pantuns sourced from Malay Civilization, English translation mine.

Parang: the Malay machete



Take the parang beneath the stairs

Use the whetstone on an edge grown dull

That faith be kept safe in prayer

Prostrate daily five times in full.

Ambil parang di bawah tangga

Kalaulah tumpul asah di batu

Agarlah iman tetap terjaga

Laksanakan solat yang lima waktu


Gardening in the tropics is a constant battle against the jungle. Being properly armed means carrying a machete. From Brazil to the Congo to the island of Borneo, farmers wield some form of long, sturdy knife for slashing and hacking back the relentless encroaching green. The Malaysian machete is the parang.


Short parang with limewood handle.


Although less well known than the princely kris, the parang is a beautifully designed instrument, preferred throughout the tropics. Special features stand out:

  • The handle and blade are well balanced opposing curves, forming the shape of an “S”.
  • The parang is hammered by hand in workshops from superior steel rather than stamped out of sheet metal .
  • The blade is wedge-like, with a thick back edge giving it excellent heft and a powerful stroke.

A good parang can replace an axe for tree-felling, as in the pantun:



In the cut lies the art of felling

The parang blade afterward is ground

There are limits in the art of ruling

Cross the line and protest resounds.

Adat merambah ada tebasnya

Sudah menebas parang diasah

Adat memerintah ada batasnya

Melewati batas orang membantah


wedge blade
Thick, wedge-like back


An ordinary parang from the hardware store is finished by inserting a hot tang (puting) into a plastic handle (hulu) and sold as a naked blade. You can even buy the blades and plastic handles separately. Relatively lower cost parangs like the one pictured below are exported around the tropics from no-nonsense workshops like this one.  The blades can come loose over time, but they are easy to repair.  I’ve had the parang below for more than ten years, and I’ve had to reset the handle twice.  Just jam an old plastic shopping bag – or as much of one as will fit – into the slot.  Heat the tang over the gas stove till red hot.  Insert the tang into the slot.  The plastic will sizzle and fume, so do it outside.  Once it has cooled it’s as good as new.


ordinary parang
Ordinary parang with plastic handle


The discerning villager will prefer a more elegant tool.   At Hari Raya Korban time, all the men show up with gorgeous heirloom parangs with a wooden sheath (sarong) and wooden handle, secured by a metal band at the hilt.  Artisanal parangs like these are not available at the hardware store. In my area, a retired gentlemen produces them right in his driveway. The blades are fashioned from truck leaf springs. A variety of tropical hardwoods are worked into the handles and sheaths. Lime and other fruit trees are popular woods for the handles.


artisanal parangs
Unfinished parangs at the workshop


The most demanding way to make the sheath is to dig out a solid block of wood with an awl or pick. I’ve never seen one made this way, but the old guys talk about it. Another option is to saw a strip on one edge and dig in from there. I met an old craftsman in Sungai Pergam, Bagan Datoh, who still made some that way, the advantage being the sheath remains an entire piece of wood. It’s a whole lot easier to just cut the block in half and glue the two peices back together afterward. In the picture above, you can see the two sides of the unfinished sheaths held together by a strap. To prevent the two pieces coming apart as the blade is drawn, one piece is slightly deeper than the other, holding a groove that the edge of the blade rests in. Interestingly, there is no attempt to shape the sheath to fit on a belt. Instead, people will simply knot a nylon cord around the sheath and use the cord as a belt. It seems a poor match for such a handsome weapon, but it does get the job done.


Take a care when you fish for mackerel

A parang-fish doesn’t cut your hand

Take care when playing humble

Be not a slave to any man

Baik-baik mengail tenggiri

Takut terkena ikan parang

Baik-baik merendah diri

Jangan menjadi hamba orang

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Anyone interested in ordering a handmade parang can send me a private message.

Pantuns sourced from Malay Civilization, English translation mine.

Man Papaya

Papaya, betik, on the tree

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 [1]
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.

Papaya fruit, buah betik

[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:

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[2] merah berseri
Orang baik tak payah diajar
Duri di hutan tajam sendiri [3]
[/two_second]Mak Mertua

[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.

Papaya leaf

[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.

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1. Keranji previously on BGP

2. Rambutan previously on BGP

3. Pantuns sourced from Malay Civilization, English translation mine.

Eid Mubarak, Selamat Hari Raya

Two, three cat running
Not the same dog running
Two, three day more raya coming
Everything is ready huh??

Pandan Island far-far in the middle
Daik Mountain has three branches
During Ramadhan everybody struggles
So during Syawal don’t spoil the chances

Jump frog jump
Jump high-high
What knowledge u try
Ketupat rendang very delicious

High-high were the sun
Buffalo kid dead in tied
10 finger hamba susunkan
Fault & mistaken harap dimaafkan

A friend forwarded this to me just before raya. It is in the Malay poetical style of pantun; the first couplet establishes the rhythm and strikes an image, often totally unrelated to the second couplet, which delivers the meaning. It reads almost like a direct translation except for the malay in the last couplet, which would be “Your servant holds ten fingers together/ begging forgiveness of faults and mistakes.”