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 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.

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.

International Poetry Translated

If you’ve enjoyed my feeble attempts to translate Malay poems and songs over the years, perhaps you’d like the Poetry Translation Centre.  Contemporary poets of Asia, Africa and South America are translated into English by a two-step process: a native speaker translates the words literally, then the poets of PTC render it in poetic English.  It looks very faithfully done, unlike how Coleman Barks does Rumi, where he “interprets” Rumi based on his own inspiration after reading Arberry’s translation.  There are no Malaysian poets translated by the PTC as yet.  If you are a native BM speaker, you should submit!

On Flunking a Nice Boy Out of School

A mimeograph of John Ciardi’s poem was waiting on each boy’s desk as we took our seats for the first class on the first day of 7th grade at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.  I nearly fainted.  Amazingly, my mother kept the sheet of paper all these years.  RIP, Wendell Hall: may God increase your reward with every word I write.

I wish I could teach you how ugly

decency and humility can be when they are not

the election of a contained mind but only

the defenses of an incompetent.  Were you taught

meekness as a weapon?  Or did you discover,

by chance maybe, that it worked on mother

and was generally a good thing …

at least when all else failed … to get you over

the worst of what was coming.  Is that why you bring

those sheepfaces to Tuesday?

They won’t do.

It’s ten month’s work I want, and I’d sooner have it

from the brassiest lumpkin in pimpledom, but have it,

than all these martyred repentences from you.

Brotherly Love

Two of my three amazing and talented sisters visited me a few months back.  To get here they had to layover in Jeddah for 8 hours.  I was worried sick they'd get harrassed by the Mutaween or just have an icky time in general and was working on my "we think they're crazy too" speech.  Turns out it's just like any other international airport, according to them, except more boring.  With little to do and eight hours to kill, they picked up a local newspaper and discovered an awkward and disturbing ode from an 8th grade girl to another big brother named Zayn:

Who was aged five when I was born

Who hid my toys and broke my dolls

Who avoids me at school all day

Who tolerates my teenage years in every way!

Who makes me laugh only once a year

But makes me cry every single day!

Who beats me for no reason

Who fights with me for every reason!

Who feels happy when he intercedes

Who feels sad when he has to cede!

He loves me the most anyways

He's my brother Zain, the best in every way!


Selections from the Hikam

Selections from The Hikam of Ibn Ata’Allah al-Iskandari:

If you want the door of hope opened

For you, then consider what comes

to you from your Lord, but if you want

The door of sadness opened for you,

Then consider what goes to Him

from you.


One of the signs of relying on one’s

own deeds is the loss of hope

when a downfall occurs.


Sometimes He gives

while depriving you, and sometimes

He deprives you in giving.


He who wishes that at a given moment

There appear other than what God

has manifested in it, has not left

ignorance behind at all!

Excerpted from the presentation by Sister Aisha Gray, Journey to Ihsan 2nd Internation Conference on Islamic Spirituality, Sept. 2, 2006.