The Sarawak Pepper Gardener—Spice Supplier to Your Table
As related to “Awake!” correspondent in Malaysia
IN THE year 1897 my great-grandfather Ting sailed from China for Sarawak, to begin a new life at the foot of a jungle-carpeted mountain range. He had been invited by some friends to join a growing number of families from southern China. Together with the native Sarawakians, they engaged in cultivating some of the finest and most fragrant pepper available in the world.
In later years many immigrants found it more profitable to grow rubber, but the pepper industry did revive. Today Sarawak has more than 21,000 acres (about 8,500 hectares) of pepper gardens and ranks with India, Indonesia and Brazil as one of the world’s most important pepper-growing regions. The gardens in Sarawak, each averaging an acre (.4 hectare) or less, produce a quarter of the world’s pepper.
For pepper cultivators the busiest time is from March to October. March is the fruit-setting season. During June and July the whole family is busy harvesting the peppercorns from firm ladders placed alongside the twelve-foot ( 3.7-meter ) vines. Our own garden extends over an area of two acres (.8 hectare) and we have over 1,300 vines from which to collect the berries that hang down in small clusters.
After being harvested, the peppercorns must be cleaned, blown, brushed, washed, dried and graded before they are ready to be brought to the table.
To ensure a good crop, one must insist that visitors use the footpaths. About ten years ago, all our vines were destroyed by the dreaded foot rot. This disease is easily transmitted and can ruin large acreages of vines in a very short time. The disease probably was brought to our tract of land by someone who had walked through an infected area.
Something else that must be watched is fertilizing. During one period, when pepper prices were rather high, father decided that he could afford to give the vines extra fertilizer. But the results were most disappointing. In fact, the harvest was not as good as in previous years. Now, with proper fertilizing, our vines produce more than 27,000 pounds (12,250 kilos) of green berries annually. The vines are seven to eight years old, just the right age for high yields. In the future we expect the amount harvested to decline.
Methods of Producing White and Black Pepper
It is commonly thought that there are two distinct types of pepper, black and white. Actually, only the processing of the berries is different. From our 27,000 pounds (12,250 kilos) of berries we can produce either 7,200 pounds (3,260 kilos) of white pepper or 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilos) of black pepper.
The Pepper Marketing Board of Malaysia believes the process of bleaching pepper with chemicals is unnecessary, and so Sarawak white pepper reaches your table unadulterated. Our method of processing pepper is typical. We pluck the berries when one of the fruits on the spike becomes red. Next we load the harvested berries into jute sacks. The sacks are then carried to a pond fed by a stream. Here the berries are soaked completely for about ten days until the pericarp softens and rots. The berries are then emptied into a tub, where we trample on them with our feet and afterward wash them clean to remove the decayed pericarp, along with the stalks. Next the berries are soaked for another day or two before being washed a second time. We hope for a minimum of three days of dry, sunny weather so that we can dry the peppercorns outside on woven grass mats.
Delay in drying will adversely affect their white color and spicy flavor. If the weather is wet or otherwise unfavorable, we must keep the peppercorns submerged in water. If removed and placed in damp air, they are likely to mold.
Sometimes we find it more profitable to sell black pepper. When this is the case, we prefer to dry only the green berries. (Red or yellow berries, when dried, will produce a pepper of uneven color.) The stalks, with their green berries, are first stored for a couple of days. This makes it easier to push the berries through the mesh and to take out the unwanted stalks. The berries are then dried on the grass mats, without soaking them beforehand, as when producing white pepper. The dried pepper is cleaned and blown, to remove any extraneous substance.
How do we test peppercorns to determine whether they are well dried? One way is simply to let them run through our hands. If properly dried, they will run freely and not tend to stick together. But I feel that the best method is to crack one of the berries between the teeth. If the pepper has the desirable low-moisture content, it will grind to powder rather than split in two.
Marketing the Pepper
Pepper is like money to us. It can be kept for a long period without deteriorating in quality. In fact, we have set aside a small dry room in the house for pepper storage. This room could be called our savings bank. Here the pepper is kept in jute sacks imported from Pakistan. To give it more strength, the filled sack is placed inside another one. Plastic bags cannot be used, as these reduce the quality of the pepper. We try to determine the right time to sell our valuable produce, taking it either to the dealers or to the exporters, who will purchase it at the market rate for the day.
Some small-scale pepper cultivators living in remote areas, however, are obliged to sell their produce to the nearest village shop. Sometimes the tracks to their gardens are too narrow for a small pick-up van and, therefore, the heavy sacks must be placed on a bicycle and wheeled out, one at a time, to the nearest road. Still other growers bring their produce to the shop by river. In these cases, the shopkeeper provides the farmers with household goods, hand tools and fertilizer in exchange for the pepper the farmers bring to the shop. The growers instruct the shopkeeper when to sell. Usually the relationship between the parties concerned is cordial. However, I have heard my brother talking of cases where the shopkeeper exploits the pepper grower.
Not many years ago father, too, transported his pepper by bicycle. Times have changed and now we have a small pick-up van of our own. We take our pepper and other produce to the Main Bazaar in Kuching. This enables us to earn a few extra dollars by selling to the exporters. Some of these exporters are able to deal directly with overseas buyers.
By far the majority of the peppercorns will be sent to Singapore, where the spice traders specially grade the pepper to meet the specifications set down by such important bodies as the American Spice Traders Association.
Truly, we pepper farmers enjoy a fine outdoor life, as well as satisfaction in our work. Though we are far from rich in material possessions, we find pleasure in growing this rather special spice that serves so well as a seasoning. The next time you shake pepper on your food, think of me. Who knows? That very pepper might have been grown on our Sarawak acreage.