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.

Menjelang 1 Mei

Approach to Mukah

A rousing poem in Bahasa Malaysia from student of agriculture Chairil Aswad, on twitter as @schwarzenmann.  First published in E-Sastera Sajak Facebook group, 30 April 2015. Translation into Inggeris mine.  Views expressed are not etc etc.

Celebrating May 1


(For Lia)

The city is no longer the place
for me to record my poems of struggle
slogans, banners or observations
and it is not the place
for a degree in agriculture
stuffed and mounted like a corpse
on a mahogany cabinet
in an air-conditioned office

the city is no longer my home
long have I left the air-conditioned office

in front of me today
farm-folk and fisher-people
awaiting their stories
to be scrawled upon pages and pages
to become a single poem of advocacy

this far corner of the world is my home now
a banana packing shed for an office building

I have left the city
to liberate farm folk
from the control of the greedy
who freeze their subsidies
and replace them with GST


(untuk Lia)

Kota itu bukan lagi tempatnya
untuk aku merakamkan puisi perlawanan
slogan-slogan, sepanduk serta tangkapan
seperti juga bukan tempatnya
sekeping ijazah pertanian
dibingkaikan dan dipamer
atas kabinet mahogani
bilik pejabat berhawa dingin

kota itu tidak lagi menjadi rumahku
bilik pejabat sudah lama aku tinggalkan

di hadapanku hari ini
kaum tani dan nelayan
menantikan cerita mereka
dicoret pada helaian-helaian
menjadi sebuah puisi pembelaan

ceruk perdesaan ini adalah rumahku kini
pondok pisang sesikat sebagai bangunan pejabat
aku tinggalkan kota
untuk memandiri kaum tani
ketika penguasa rakus
menghentikan subsidi
diganti dengan GST


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

[divider type=”thin”]

Malay pantun sourced from Malay Civilization.  Translation mine.

Nothing Left to Say – Blues Gang

coconut masjid


Nothing Left to Say

Translation by Bin Gregory Productions

Riding my bike down to the store
Middle of the day, in the middle of the heat
Who’s got the strength to tap rubber
Nothing left to say
If I could, I’d be a school teacher
Down in Kuala Pilah

Apo Nak Dikato

by Blues Gang

Poi pokan naik basika
Tongah haghi tongah paneh
Apo dayo motong gotah
Apo nak dikato
Kalau boleh nak jadi cikgu sekolah
Kek Kolo Pilah

Fields of paddy, buffalos all over
Water from the well is so darn cold
Quiet as can be, not a soul around
Nothing left to say
If I could, I’d have some commotion
Like in Tampin town

Sawah leba kobau banyak
Air pigi sojuk sekali
Sunyi sopi takdo oghang
Apo nak dikato
Kalau boleh nak bising-bising
Macam pokan Tampin


Cooking up dinner. Village rice
Coconut milk and chili peppers
Don’t have a rice thresher no more
Nothing left to say
Lots of folks got factory jobs
Down Seremban way

Tanak nasik bogheh kampong
Masak lomak cili (lado) api
Mesen padi takdo lai
Apo nak dikato
Ramai oghang dah kojo kilang
Kek pokan Seghomban


Kemang Bay, Four Mile road
Where everybody splashes and plays
Come the weekend sure is packed
Nothing left to say
The sea just keeps getting saltier
Down in Port Dickson town

Verse 1 repeats.


Batu Ompek Toluk Komang
Tompek oghang mandi mando
Aghi minggu ponoh sosak
Apo nak dikato
Air laut bertambah masin
Kek pokan Port Dickson

Ulang 1.

[/two_second][divider type=”thin”]

1. Another pop song in the dialect of Negeri Sembilan
2. Originally published as “What’s left to say”, I couldn’t live with it after FB fren AA suggested a far better translation.

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.

Gurindam 12 Fasal 6

old house

by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873)
English translation © Bin Gregory Productions

This is the gurindam of the sixth issue:

Seek you a companion
Who can be for you a medicine.

Seek you a guru
Who can teach every enemy to you.

Seek you a wife
Who can devote to you her life.

Seek you a friend.
Choose one loyal to the end.

Seek you a servant
Whose manners are decent.[/two_first][two_second]

Ini gurindam pasal yang keenam:

Cahari olehmu akan sahabat,
yang boleh dijadikan obat.

Cahari olehmu akan guru,
yang boleh tahukan tiap seteru.

Cahari olehmu akan isteri,
yang boleh menyerahkan diri.

Cahari olehmu akan kawan,
pilih segala orang yang setiawan.

Cahari olehmu akan abdi,
yang ada baik sedikit budi.[/two_second]

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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 of the Fourth Issue

Gurindam of the Fifth Issue

Gurindam 12 Fasal 5

Maqam at Masjid Bahagian Kuching

by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873)


This is the gurindam of the fifth issue:

If you wish to know the people of high birth,
in manners and speech are shown their worth.

To know the people of happiness,
avoid involvement in the meaningless.

To know the man of high distinction,
look upon his deeds and actions.

If you wish to know the people of wisdom
ask and learn without feeling boredom.

If those with intellect you would know
store provisions now in this life below.

If men of character you would recognize
among the masses observe how they fraternize.


Ini gurindam pasal yang kelima:

Jika hendak mengenal orang berbangsa,
lihat kepada budi dan bahasa.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang berbahagia,
sangat memeliharakan yang sia-sia.

Jika hendak mengenal orang mulia,
lihatlah kepada kelakuan dia.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang berilmu,
bertanya dan belajar tiadalah jemu.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang berakal,
di dalam dunia mengambil bekal.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang baik perangai,
lihat pada ketika bercampur dengan orang ramai.


[divider type=”thin”]

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 of the Fourth Issue

Daun Inai

Henna'd fingers at the henna tree

Daun inai banyak getahnya,
Ambil segenggam pewarna kuku,
Wahai adik abang bertanya,
Apa obat penawar rindu.

Thick with sap run the henna’s leaves
Take some in hand your nails for dying
O young maiden, your lover asks you
What salve is there to heal longing?


Gadis ditegus lalu dikenyit
Baik perangai pandang tak jemu
Bagai kapur bertemu kunyit
Merah inai mencari kuku

A glance at the maiden leads to a wink
Moves so fine eyes can’t take their fill
Just like limestone chanced upon turmeric
Or the red of the henna seeking the nail



Photo: Lawsonia inermis, the Henna Tree, Pokok Inai in Malay.

Traditional pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.

Translations mine.