Friday, December 01, 2006

Scenes - Sarikei Pepper

Sarikei - Pepper vines creeping up a central pole

hake it, baby! Have you ever wondered about the humble transformation of the pepper vine creepers to the pepper powder used in your mother-in-law's creepy dishes? The pepper vines are propagated by cuttings about 50cm long tied up to a rough central pole for the creepers to climb. The vines bear fruit from the 3rd-5th year, and continue to bear fruit for 7 years.

Sarikei - Black Pepper vines 2004 - fully grown

The small flowers grow on spikes that lengthen up to 15 cm as the berries mature. The harvest starts as soon as one or two berries at the base of the spikes begins to redden. The black pepper berries on the spikes are cooked briefly in hot water to speed up the browning enzymes during drying in the sun or by machine. The berry around the seed shrinks into a wrinkled black layer around the seed. The dried berries are known as black peppercorns.

Peppercorns - Black and white

White peppercorn is not from a different plant. It simply consists of the white seed only, with the berry removed by soaking ripe berries in water for a week. Rubbing the soften berry removes the fruit and the seed is dried. Sometimes white peppercorns are derived by removing the outer layer from black peppercorns produced from unripe berries.

Sarikei black peppercorns mixing - 2006 (source: linggau)

Malaysia is the world's 5th largest pepper producer with 98% of it from Sarawak. (Sarikei used to produce 80% of Sarawak's pepper and was the #1 producer in the world.) Pepper is used to make condiments, pharmaceutical and perfume-related products. To boost pepper production, the government's 5P programme involved maintenance scheme, organised farming and replanting, production of value-added and premium quality pepper. 5P planned to build 7 in situ plants for quality pepper in Kuching, Sri Aman, Betong, Sarikei, Bintangor, Serian and Sungai Asap. The plants would be equipped with spiral separator machine, blower, thresher, destoner and mechanical classifier, etc. Sungai Asap, Betong, Serian, Sarikei, Suai-Niah and Lundu have been identified for pepper cluster-farming, to be implemented in the next 5 years.

Meanwhile, please excuse me and pass the black pepper for my ding pian hu dish.


Kanga said...

Good on you Daniel. I thought sooner or later you would bring up the 'pepper' topic which was more or less why Sarikei town started and grew to what it is today. Growing pepper is hard work! One crop a year! I know all about it. I was born and grew up working in the pepper farm. First you clear the jungle. Then you burn it all up (Haze!!!!)then turn the soil, then design and fit you plantation to the terrain, etc. The pepper vines are first germinated from the cuttings to develop roots to ensure success. The pole is the hardest wood known and white ants could not conquer it (name of the wood??)The plant would even flower and fruit in the first year but it will be a stunt growth. so you pluck the flowers for 3 years until the vines climbs to the pole top. There is so much more to tell. My final tale is that there was a dreadful root fungus disease which was terminal and wiped out lots of plantations, including mine!

dominic said...

Dear Daniel,
You are doing a great job in keeping the Sarikei blog alive for all of us overseas originally from our little hometown and you will be amazed how much we do appreciate your daunting task. You are definitely our essential links to our immediate past, history, and origin. Perhaps just about any search on the word Sarikei whenever we hit the keyboard button.The articles from Rejang wharf to the pepper garden has to be rated as classic and aced.

I thank you ever so much for putting up some rare photos of my parents and related St Anthony's school history. Personally I think you do a damn sight far better job than my elder brother and sisters combined at home who merely mesmerise.Perhaps they may not feel the same but as you see in this particular instance where I have not been back for years you feel the urge and the need to renew your old link is greater . After having suddenly seen snapshots of my parents and other nostalgic pictures of Sarikei institutions on the Net this has indeed come as a complete shock and euphoric surprise to both my partner and myself here.I do thank you for an excellent job on Sarikei which is considered very well done by any measure.

You may also notice from your chart one of your regular subscribers to your posts are from us. Where Borneo Posts and other daily mass media miserably fail is where Sarikei Time Capsule adequately fill the void.

burunghelang said...

The hardwork comes during the pepper picking season. Under the hot sun, we would don our long john pyjamas and "Chou Wee" straw hat, climb the home made ladder carrying a ratan basket. Hated getting "stung" by the caterpillars hiding among the vines as a kid. This is when almost every neighbour, relative, and friend you know that owns a piece of land grows pepper.

fred said...

the days when lada/pepper was the thing. price was so high in the old days. used to have two pepper farm. now is gone, my family dont have the time to maintain it. I have a good share of pepper planting, and its not easy.

Daniel Yiek said...

Sarikei used to produce 80% of Sarawak's pepper. Sarawak produces 98% of M'sia's pepper. Hmmm.

The centre wooden pole is Sarawak's ironwood ("belian"), I think.

Thanks for the words of encouragement. Wow. Great to see your restaurant (in your blog) doing well in Hobart, Tasmania! I'm not sure which pic shows your parent that I hv posted.

Burung Helang,
I recall seeing those home made ladders in the vine plantations though I'm a town kid.

The gov is trying to show people the way to plant better quality pepper to fetch higher prices.

Kanga said...

Has anyone tried a bowl of soup made by boiling pork bones and pepper roots? Wah! special! try it one day. Your challenge is to find and buy the pepper roots. Some Chinese medicine shops in Sarikei sell them in dried form. Just imagine how difficult it is to persuade the farmers to sell you the pepper roots! The pepper tree life cycle is about 3 plus up to nominally 8 years (if you look after them well). Another delicacy is tasting the ripened pepper berries (there is an outer layer which is green and turn to red and taste beautifully sweet and slight hot when fully ripen). For those who has experienced all this, there is also the constant battle with the jungle birds who are equally keen to acquire the ripened pepper berries. One can only experience this by growing up in a Sarikei pepper farm.

gongpiang said...

It would be interesting to note the history of pepper growing in Sarikei but I believe it was never documented and thus I am making my own assumption that it was first introduced by early settler migrating from Indonesia. The earliest settler came from Indonesia were the Hakka, they could be the one who started pepper growing in the area called Saley. Mr.Chong a Hakka whom was the 1st principle of Kwang Chien Primary School actually started pepper growing in Saley before he settled in Sarikei. The earliest Cantonese migrant also started pepper growing and settled in Saley.

It was noted that the years that follow the surrender of the Japanese and beginning of the British administration was the time where price of pepper was at it peak and many farmers became rich, can you imagine the price went up above $1000 per 100 kati (60kg) and you could simply buy a new shop house for less than 20 bags of pepper in those days. That was the most significant years where Sarikei town begin to develop. So I would say pepper was the single most important significant factor to the history of Sarkei.

Daniel Yiek said...

Gong Piang,
Good insights! Sarikei was the #1 producer of pepper in the world which is somethg Sarikei folks should be proud of. 2004 Straits Times article pasted below.

From The New Straits Times
31 July 2004
WAVELENGTH: Pepper — Sarawak’s neglected crop
John Teo

AS the country looks anew with seductive eyes on our commodities
sector, we will be well-advised not to be overly infatuated with such current golden crops as oil palm to the exclusion of other neglected crops.

One such neglected crop deserving of attention is pepper, of which 90
per cent of Malaysia’s output is concentrated in Sarawak. As Minister of Plantation Enterprises and Commodities Datuk Peter Chin
said in Kuching this week, although the total export value of pepper from Malaysia last year was only RM140 million, that still represents the second highest commodities export earner for the nation after palm oil.
As with most commodities, pepper farmers suffer the perennial problem of wildly fluctuating prices.
This, combined with other factors, has led to pepper farmers forsaking the crop in droves over the years.
Thus, Sarawak, which used to be the leading world exporter of pepper, has seen its pole position overtaken by countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Still, the State stands virtually alone as a globally significant producer of high-grade pepper.

Towns in the Rejang basin such as Sarikei and Bintangor which owe much of their existence to the pepper trade will certainly welcome a return of the spice’s glory days. Fortunately, as with other crops, Malaysia may be better placed than other countries to improve the lot of pepper farmers, and in the process, to help the country maintain a healthily diversified economy.
Pepper can easily be stored away for years without any deterioration in its quality. It therefore should lend itself quite easily to any government-initiated buffer stockpile to cushion farmers against wild
fluctuations in world pepper prices.

Chin offers hope for this when he revealed that the new direction for the Malaysian Pepper Marketing Board will be price-centred.
His ministry may also want to engineer a strategic re-think about the industry, exploring ways and means for making a largely
small-holder-based industry more efficient and globally competitive.
Coupled with a proactive government emphasis on stabilising pepper prices must be an equally proactive focus by the Marketing Board on research and development.
As Malaysia progressively moves up the production value chain, it can
never hope to compete successfully merely as a producer of raw

The Government needs to pump serious money into research and
development on pepper to come up with pepper-based value-added
products. It needs also to do some serious thinking on coming up with ways to attract private-sector players to invest in mass production of promising pepper products targeted at the export market.

Kuching’s souvenir shops now display a whole array of products derived from pepper, primarily aimed at tourists. Not a few foreign fans of such products have been frustrated by the
impossibility of importing them owing to production capacity
constraints. The Marketing Board must therefore be properly equipped with the
wherewithal to think and act global rather than merely seeking to serve a very localised market not much beyond the level of small-scale enterprises.

The "brand" name of Sarawak pepper still carries an invaluable cachet
hardly diminished by the years of relative neglect and which, if
properly nurtured and promoted, could conceivably provide it with a glow and a premium to spice up the world well beyond our shores.

Kanga said...

Gongpiang is spot on! I recalled my parents mentioning the pepper farmers did so well in the early days that during CNY in the village the fire crackers could be heard the whole night (11:45 pm on CNY eve till the next morning). I recalled that many farmers bought short-wave radios to listern to the pepper prices (announced in Hokkien) from Radio Singapore.

Daniel, that was a very interesting article from the NST.
Just two comments: (1)Pepper would not keep well if it is not dried properly. After some years it would turn to a powdery form and becomes useless (suspected to be a fungus action). (2) I wonder if currently there is an effective approach to prevent the dreadful pepper plant root rotting disease.

The rise and fall of pepper prices had caused boom and bust to many farmers over the years.

gongpiang said...

I believe Sarikei developed her own unique way of growing pepper which is not practiced by other pepper producing countries such as Indonesia and India. Beside the way pepper is grown on pole some of the items used in pepper farming are also unique, exclusively used in pepper growing in Sarawak.

The pole used is from the iron wood of Sarawak called the belian; this pole can be recycled when time to start a new farm. When the plant is young the vines need to be tied to the pole so that it will start to climb up the pole. Sarikei folks are lucky to have a unique kind of bark from tree trunk found locally. The special part for using this bark as string to tie the vines is that it will eventually breaks off within a month or two once the vines start growing and grip to the pole, this way the farmer do not need to remove the string and also it won’t hurt the vine when it grow…..Smart?

To harvest pepper the folks use a kind of rattan basket called the “Lang-nyak” to collect the berries, thanks to the special talent of the local Iban women. To wash away the skin of the berries when preparing white pepper, this is usually done in a pond using a very big basket make from bamboo; the circumfluence of this basket is as big as 1.5m in diameter, make by migrants who brought along their skill from China.

Having said so much I have been thinking for a long time if it is worth the effort to find out the possibility of finding the top quality pepper. I noticed that when the berries are ripe a kind of birds (red eyes black feather) will come and eat up the ripe berries and within days you could see birds dropping (pepper) all over the garden. In the coffee market they have a highly sorted and priced coffee from Indonesia where it is actually the dropping from animals after eating coffee seeds. Because the berries goes though the digestive system of this bird and that might help to create a special and unique rich flavour, you never know until you taste them.

Daniel Yiek said...

Interesting feeback.

Gong Piang,
Vietnamese coffee has the same background as the Indonesian coffee story. Now Vietnamese coffee use modern machinery to ferment the coffee to produce the same effect as coffee going through an animal. I love Vietnamese coffee for its special taste...better than Starbucks. ;-)

Kanga said...

Again, great info from Gongpiang! At one stage some farmers did try a different way to grow pepper;'terrain' style instead of individual plant. Poles no more that 6 feet high (no need for ladder to harvest)and about 4 feet apart with wires tied at 3 to 4 levels up and across along the poles in a row and numerous pepper vines climb up the poles and the wires, forming one continuous row. I did not know whether this method gives any advantages.
As to the pepper berries from the bird's droppings, in my farm we picked them up, wash them and mixed it with the best!No complain from consumers so far!Birds and animals are smart in spotting the best meals (pepper or coffee berries) for themselves.(Just to side track, my family had tried panting coffee. Coffee berries are very sweet when ripe. Each berry usually has 2 pots and each pot holds one bean covered by a very hard shell.)Be it pepper or coffee, nature has a way to tempt birds or animals to help in propagating.
When I use pepper, I roast it first (or fry the berries in a very little bit of oil until producing an aromatic scent!)then grind it. Well, lateral thinking?? A cup of cuppacino with pepper topping? or a cup of peppercino with coffee topping?

Daniel Yiek said...

EXPORTS of white, black and green pepper have steadily risen to countries like Japan, Spain and the United States since the local commodity first entered the global markets back in the early 1970s.

It is more commonly known as “Sarawak pepper” as the state produced about 24,500 tonnes, or 95%, of last year’s total output, while 200 tonnes came from Johor and 18 tonnes from Sabah.

Sarawak has 13,400ha planted with the crop out of a total of 13,483ha in the country.

Interestingly, Sarawak pepper is also well sought after for its world-class quality that even top world pepper producer Vietnam imports it for grinding purposes.

Graded and certified Sarawak pepper is now recognised by end users and traders worldwide for its consistently high quality, and reliability in terms of delivery.
Pepper planters in Malaysia are challenged by the high cost of production of about RM5.30 per kg

Having said that, Malaysia should not be contented in exporting pepper in its raw form, but instead will need to aggressively broaden the range of local pepper products to meet the niche international market needs.

The next challenge for the industry, particularly the Malaysian Pepper Board, is to expand the development and promotion of creamy white pepper, naturally clean black pepper, extra bold black pepper of the Semonggok Perak variety and dehydrated green pepper that fetch better prices in the world markets.

Early last year, the white pepper price peaked at about RM14,690 per tonne but dropped to RM11,370 in January 2009.

The black pepper price has also fallen to about RM6,730 currently from RM8,240 in January 2008.

At the same time, given the increasing acceptance from the Western countries on the properties of oriental herbs and spices, the local pepper prospects can be further extended as a new industrial crop for the production of pharmaceutical and perfume-related products.

On another note, pepper planters in Malaysia were also challenged by the high cost of production of about RM5.30 per kg compared with their lower-cost peers in top-producing nations like Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Brazil.

As part of the strategic plan to revitalise the industry, the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry is also introducing pepper cluster farming in Sarawak. With this method, the country’s annual production could increase from about 20,000 tonnes to 30,000 tonnes by 2010. More incentives should also be given to encourage farmers.

Last year, Malaysia exported 13,390 tonnes of pepper worth RM172.1mil. Some 67,000 farmers are engaged in pepper farming in the country.

Malaysia was the world’s fifth largest pepper exporter last year at about 24,000 tonnes after Vietnam (82,400 tonnes), India (50,000 tonnes), Indonesia (48,000 tonnes) and Brazil (35,000 tonnes).

Currently, top buyers of Malaysian pepper include Japan, China, Singapore, the Netherlands, Britain and the US.

Daniel Yiek said...

PEPPER cultivation has been introduced in Kedah, Malacca and Perak while more pepper cluster farms are being developed in Sarawak.

Malaysia Pepper Board director-general Grunsin Ayom said the size of pepper estates in Johor, previously the only state in the peninsula to produce pepper, had increased to between 80ha and 100ha, up from 50ha two years ago.

He said that more people who owned small pieces of land were interested in planting pepper to supplement their incomes.

“To help farmers start pepper planting, we provide partial assistance like the supply of planting materials, farm input such as fertiliser and chemicals, as well as technical expertise,’’ he told The Star.

There are some 67,000 pepper smallholders nationwide, with Sarawak contributing 95% of the country’s production estimated at 23,000 tonnes last year.

At current domestic prices of RM9,360 per tonne for black pepper and RM15,300 per tonne for white pepper, it is profitable for farmers.

Malaysia is the world’s fifth largest pepper exporter, selling 14,000 tonnes last year to international buyers.

Grunsin said that pepper cluster farms had been established in Sarikei, the Sungai Asap resettlement area in Kapit Division and Ulu Julau in Kanowit district where there was a concentration of farmers.

“We plan to set up the next cluster farm in Lundu involving 50 farmers,’’ he said.

He added that domestic pepper consumption increased significantly by 30% to 6,000 tonnes last year, exceeding the board’s target of 5,000 tonnes. In 2008, the domestic consumption was 4,500 tonnes.

Pepper is being used increasingly as a food manufacturing ingredient and more hotels and restaurants have introduced food prepared with the spice.

Daniel Yiek said...

Sarikei pepper nicely packaged for international markets

Daniel Yiek said...

The Pepper Marketing Board is located at Jalan Then Kung Suk at Upper Lanang Light Industrial Estate. It is open for visitors during office hours. At a pre-arranged time, visitors will be taken on a guided tour of how Sarawak pepper is processed and packed for export. There are processed pepper products available for sale.

Sibu,The state of Sarawak produces 95% of Malaysian pepper hence the trade name, Sarawak Pepper. Over 90% of the 25,000 tonnes produced annually is exported to some 40 countries around the world. Traditionally, 80% of the crop is processed into black pepper with the remainder being turned into white pepper.

Today, pepper production has taken a different approach with the introudction of Specialty Pepper (creamy pepper, naturally clean black pepper and extra bold black pepper), Sarawak Green Pepper products (pepper sauce and pickle) and processed pepper products (sweets and perfume). The Rajang riverine towns of Sarikei and Bintangor accounts for 40% of the State's total production.

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