White pepper rules in Malaysian Borneo

Pepper (Piper Nigrum L) is an important foreign exchange earner for several countries: Malaysia is the fifth largest pepper producer in the world behind Vietnam; India; Indonesia and Brazil.  Pepper is grown in small farms, averaging 0.2 ha (under half an acre) in Sarawak and is one of the significant crops in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo – making it an important source of income for about 67,000 rural families in the interior areas of Sarawak and – on the way to a long-house where I’ll spend a night – I visit one.

All pepper, black or white,  comes from this vine
All pepper, black or white, comes from this vine

The little farm is owned and run by an Iban woman and her Chinese husband. I hadn’t really realised the plant is a vine, growing on stakes. Interestingly, for eco-reasons, the govt is experimenting with growing them on ‘decorative’ plants as farmers can no longer grow them on the usual long-lasting, and now protected native hardwoods.

This equipment doubled the Sarawak pepper farmers income.
This equipment doubled the Sarawak pepper farmers income.

Local research and development have also produced a simple device to separate the corns into first and second grades – this unpretentious piece of equipment has evidently doubled the small farmer’s income! I’m shown it working and it reminds me how often local inventors add modest but effective solutions to local problems. This ‘spiral separator’ is sort of like the cream separator my dad used on his Canterbury farm many years ago.

Malaysia grows some 25,672 metric tonnes and evidently 90% is produced in Sarawak meaning the commercial name for Malaysian-grown pepper is named “Sarawak Pepper” in the world’s marketplaces.

Although I knew it was used in food, on my trip to a small pepper farm I hear it’s also used in household products, medical products, and even in the cosmetic industry where pepper perfume can be found!

Black and white peppercorns are both the fruit of the same pepper plant, but are processed differently.  Peppercorns are picked when they are almost ripe then sun-dried, turning the outer layer black. To produce the white peppercorns, the outer layer is removed before drying, leaving only the inner seed: they are soaked in water which softens the shells and which is then removed.

my guide shows the corns growing
my guide shows the corns growing

According to the experts these local white peppercorns ‘have a slightly musky aroma and a rich, winey, somewhat hot flavour that is used locally in soup, on grilled meat, or poultry’.  I didn’t realise that white pepper tastes hotter than black and although freshness is key to good white pepper I have now added it to my pantry  for cooking Southeast Asian dishes – until now I always  just had black pepper in my grinder!

While black pepper is more common in many western kitchens with chefs using white pepper in light-coloured dishes such as white sauces for the look of the dish. However, white pepper is also used in some cuisines for its specific flavour. It is common in Malaysian and Chinese cooking, and evidently is always in aromatic Vietnamese soups and pork dishes.

Sarawak Laksa has local pepper in it!
Sarawak Laksa – the great Borneo breakfast – has local pepper in it!

Which do you use? Tell us (in the comments) about your favourite Sarawak white pepper recipes or tips.

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