Malaysia pepper plantation
Cooking History, Cooking Knowledge, Non Recipes

Let’s talk about pepper – Part 3: Indonesia and Malaysia

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Few countries in this world can match the beautiful landscapes of Indonesia. The largest Muslim state of the world consists of 17 508 islands that contain 147 volcanoes. But you will not just encounter picturesque beaches, Komodo dragons, volcanoes, and coral reefs there. The former Dutch colony is also a major pepper producer.

The Indonesian islands were the first ones in history to surpass India as the world’s leading pepper producers. Indonesia might not be the biggest pepper producer anymore but it certainly produces pepper of very fine quality. And it’s not just black and white pepper that can be found on these islands. They also produce:

  • Java long pepper
  • Kubeben pepper
  • Andaliman pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • Betel nuts
  • Vanilla
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Cardamom
  • Ginger

And these are just the most important spices. There are so many more rare and exotic spices that can be found on the Indonesian islands. The legendary “Spice Islands” are part of modern-day Indonesia. Nowadays, they are called “Maluku Islands”. On these islands, clove, nutmeg, and mace originated. Three of the most essential spices for European cuisine. But because these islands are not famous for pepper, I will need to talk about them in another post in the future.

The island of Borneo is the third-largest island in the world but not part of the traditional “Spice Islands”. Today, it is politically dived among three major countries:

  • Malaysia
  • Brunei
  • Indonesia
File:Regional map of SE Asia with Borneo Highlighted.svg
The island Borneo.

Borneo has always been one of the major trading ports worldwide. Before the Europeans arrived there, the main trading partner of Borneo was China. Yet, from the 6th century until about 1300, pepper was not a trade commodity of Borneo. The Chinese were interested in other things like:

  • Gold
  • Camphor
  • Tortoise shells
  • Rhinoceros horn
  • Hornbill ivory
  • Dragon’s blood
  • Edible bird’s nests

China doesn’t love Borneo because of its peppercorns

While most Westerners are not crazy to eat, for example, bird’s nest soup, the trade value of this commodity is insane. Edible bird’s nests sell for up to 6600 US dollars per kilogram on the world market. That’s 3000 US dollars a pound. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), bird’s nests promote good health, especially for the skin.

Until today, Indonesia and Malaysia are still by far the two biggest bird’s nest producers in Southeast Asia, exporting 2600 tons of this delicacy every ear. The two biggest importers are Hong Kong (80-100 tons yearly) and the USA (30 tons yearly). In Mainland China, on the other hand, they “only” consume 10 tons of bird’s nests yearly.

edible bird's nest
Edible bird’s nest is a delicacy in Asia.

Why do Hong-Kong Chinese and Chinese communities in North America eat so many bird’s nests? I don’t know. It is only certain that the consumption of bird’s nest soup in Mainland China is comparatively low because Chairman Mao introduced laws that prohibited buying and selling bird’s nests from 1949 until 1976.

Nowadays, scientists are worried about rapidly disappearing swiftlets which are the producers of edible bird’s nests. They might become extinct in the near future. Swiftlets can survive getting their nests stolen two times a season. If you steal or destroy the third nest they build, they aren’t able to raise young birds which are much needed for the production of new bird’s nest.

Yet bird’s nests, also called “white gold”, sell for a good price so that some ruthless businessmen steal all the nests they get without leaving anything behind. One of the main reasons why China started to import bird’s nests from Borneo and Jakarta was that the supply of local bird’s nests during the Middle Ages was completely exhausted.

The spread of pepper cultivation in Indonesia

The Chinese, of course, also loved pepper. The pepper plant was brought to Indonesia by the Indians around the 10th century. It was mostly cultivated on the Indonesian island Java. The Chinese trade handbook “A Description of Barbarous Peoples” published in the year 1225 ranks Java as the second wealthiest foreign land which possesses a great store of precious and varied goods for trade with China. Number one on the list was Arabia which made a fortune exporting East Asian commodities to Europe.

Java with volcanoes
Java is one of the most beautiful islands in this world.

Chinese trading missions and territorial expansion in the early fifteenth century stimulated pepper production in Indonesia and its trade to China so that Indonesia displaced India as the most important trade source by the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. This effect became even more pronounced when European buyers displaced Chinese buyers for Indonesian pepper in the 17th century.

While the Indonesian islands Sumatra and Java had been major exporters of pepper for a long time until the Europeans became the major importer of this commodity, many kingdoms in Borneo and modern-day Malaysia had been reluctant to grow pepper. Pepper cultivation was especially widespread in lightly populated areas of shifting cultivation, where pepper could be planted without necessarily foregoing staple food crops.

Reasons against pepper cultivation

The main problem with large-scale pepper production at that time was that other food crops were neglected which could lead to annual food shortages in densely populated areas. In the early 17th century, the Sultan of Aceh ordered the destruction of pepper vines in the vicinity of the capital to generate space for food crops to feed the population. The Sultanate of Aceh was located in the North of Sumatra and had acquired its wealth through the spice trade.

map of sumatra from 1738
Old map of Sumatra (1738).

The Sultanate of Aceh was of major interest to Dutch colonialists. They knew about the wealth that was generated there through the pepper trade. Yet, as the Dutch became more and more powerful in Southeast Asia, the Sultanate of Aceh feared a Dutch invasion. They knew that in the long-term the Dutch would attack their territory. In 1620, the Sultan of Aceh made an effort to cut down the pepper production to self-sufficiency in order to make Dutch and British colonialists lose interest in the territory.

Similar patterns can be observed in the Sultanate of Maguindanao, a kingdom located in today’s Southern Philippines. The Sultan there forbid the continued plantation of pepper in 1699 to avoid conflict with the Dutch. It’s a very common pattern in world history that regions rich in natural resources, without sufficient power to resist their exploitation by others, destroyed or proscribed their natural resources.

Did it help? No, obviously not. The Dutch attacked the Sultanate of Aceh nevertheless. One of the last acts of the Sultan of Aceh was to burn down all the pepper plantations from 1873 to 1874 when the war started. This caused a worldwide pepper shortage that led to the cultivation of pepper by the French in Kampot, Indochina. In 1904, the Kingdom of Aceh was finally defeated and thus annexed into the Dutch East Indies.

The second Aceh war
Dutch troops during the second Aceh war.

The Sultanate of Maguindanao was also brought down by Western imperialists. This time it was the Spanish who took over the Sultanate in 1837.

With these events in mind, it becomes quite obvious why not every country in Southeast Asia glorified the pepper trade. It was a good way to make money as long as the country remained independent. However, there was a constant threat by the European invaders.

It was not hard to foresee the future

In the Sultanate of Banjarmasin, a former coastal Malayic kingdom in South-East Borneo, the local ruler warned his population in the mid-sixteenth centuries to not plant pepper:

And let not our country plant pepper as an export crop, for the sake of making money, like Palembang and Jambi [two kingdoms in Sumatra]. Whenever a country cultivates pepper all food-stuffs will become expensive and anything planted will not grow well, because the vapors of pepper are hot. That will cause malice all over the country and even the government will fall into disorder. The rural people will become pretentious towards the townsfolk if pepper is grown for commercial purposes, for the sake of money. If people grow pepper it should be about four or five clumps per head, just enough for private consumption. Even four or five clumps per head will cause much vapor, owing to the great number of people involved, let alone if it is grown extensively as a crop; the country inevitably would be destroyed.

The ruler of the Sultanate of Banjarmasin (mid-sixteenth century)

Yet his population didn’t listen to this wise king. Pepper was a good way to earn money even though it depleted the soil and caused food shortages. The local population underestimated the special role of pepper for the Dutch. For China, pepper was always one of many trading commodities. But pepper was the one and only superior trading good for the Dutch. Pepper was the king of spices.

The Dutch East India company aimed to monopolize the pepper trade. Therefore, it was quite obvious that they would attack Southeast Borneo at some point. The Banjar king had warned his population two years before the Dutch attacked to move their capital away from the coast. Yet, that didn’t happen so that the Dutch attacked the capital of Banjar in 1612 and obtained a monopoly on the pepper trade in 1635.

I propose that we move the capital to somewhere on the Mangapan river [ . . . ] for it is like a banana tree in front of one’s gate, too many people take an interest in it. Since this place lies near the sea it is an easy prey for an enemy. We had better move elsewhere. At that time none of the dipatis [governors] was willing to move because it would give too much trouble.

Banjar king (1610, two years before the Dutch attacked)

Yes, the king was correct. The pepper grown and traded in the Sultanate of Banjar was the banana tree in front of the house that made the Dutch attack. The kingdom had failed to remove his banana tree in front of the gate by prohibiting pepper cultivation. The capital city was destroyed so that a new one had to be built further inland. In the subsequent years, the Dutch blocked the pepper trade from Southeast Borneo so that the local population stopped cultivating pepper. This allowed the Dutch East India Company to obtain a monopoly on the pepper trade.

Dutch fighters during the banjarmasin war (1859-1863).
The Dutch finally took over the Sultanate of Banjar after the Banjarmasin War (1859–1863).

Pepper in Indonesia today

The Dutch control over the Dutch East Indies faded after World War II and ended in 1949 with the foundation of the modern-day nation-state Indonesia. Eastern Borneo became part of Indonesia.

Yet, the British still controlled the Northwestern part of the island until 1963 when the former British colonies North Borneo and Sarawak united with the Federation of Malay to form modern-day Malaysia. The Sultanate of Brunei neither wanted to become part of the Malaysian Federation nor Indonesia. It gained its independence from Great Britain in 1984 and is nowadays the third independent state on the island of Borneo.

Indonesia and Malaysia are still major pepper producers. Yet they have been overtaken in the mass market by Vietnam and Brazil. The most famous variety of black pepper from Indonesia is called Lampung pepper. It stems from the Lampung province in southern Sumatra.

Java long pepper
Long pepper is a specialty of Java. Picture source: Wikipedia.

Besides black pepper, Indonesia is also famous for its long pepper (Piper retrofractum) which is grown on Java island. It is similar in taste to Indian long pepper (Piper longum) and also popular in Cambodia and Thailand. Long pepper is spicier than round pepper and was actually the first variety of pepper that was exported to Europe. It was around the fourteenth century that long pepper was displaced with round black pepper in Europe.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of white pepper. Most of the Indonesian white pepper gets produced on the islands Bangka, Belitung, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. A precious specialty is Muntok white pepper. This is real white pepper where the fully ripe peppercorns get fermented in a basin with slow-flowing water for one week before peeling. Because the water is constantly flowing and renewed, there is little risk for the development of fecal off-flavors. Instead, this pepper has some of the eucalyptus and floral notes that you can also find in Kampot pepper.

The island of Borneo is famous for its black Sarawak peppercorns which are grown in the Malaysian state Sarawak. Besides black pepper, a part of the harvest is also left to fully ripen on the vine and then processed to be sold as white pepper.

The flavor compounds of pepper

Last week I have talked about how pepper is produced. I mentioned there that white pepper often has fecal-off flavors to it. Today, we’re going to take a look at the pepper aroma from a molecular point of view. Which flavor compounds can be found in the pepper essential oil?

chemistry lab for aromaextraction
Even though aroma compounds might be detectable in a laboratory that doesn’t mean our nose and taste receptors can recognize them as well.

Although more than 250 volatile compounds of pepper have been identified by gas chromatography, that doesn’t mean that we can smell or taste all of them. The concentration of a flavor compound in the pepper needs to be higher than our flavor recognition threshold so that we can identify it. We might notice it if the flavor compound is present in a concentration above the detection threshold. However, we can’t identify the flavor then. If the concentration of a volatile compound is below all sensory thresholds then it can’t be considered a flavor compound.

The most potent odorants in black pepper are:

Aroma CompoundSmell
Alpha-pinenePine-needle like
MyrceneMetallic, herbaceous
LinaloolFloral
Alpha-phellandreneDill, herb-like
LimoneneCitrus-like

There are additional aroma compounds which are also important parts of the pepper aroma yet they are more subtle and harder to detect:

Aroma CompoundSmell
Methyl 2-, 3-methylbutanoateFruity
PiperonalSweet, Spicy
beta-IononeViolet-like
Germacrene BMushroom-like
UnknownPhenolic, wood-like
2 PhenylethanolSweet, alcoholic
1,8-CineolePeppermint-like
Sabinene/ beta-pineneTerpene-like
3-MethylbutanalMalty
Butyric acidSweaty, Cheese-like
2-/3-Methlybutyric acidSweaty, Cheese-like
VanillinVanilla-like
SotolonSpicy

Black pepper is usually not too problematic when it comes to the formation of off-flavors. Yet a lot of Western people consider musty or moldy flavors as off-flavors. Two aroma compounds are responsible for a musty/ moldy off-flavor:

  • 2,3-diethyl-5-methylpyrazine
  • 2-isopropyl-3-methoxypyrazine

The main reason why pepper loses aroma and forms off-flavors are wrong storage conditions. If pepper is stored in an open container (unsealed) the pepper-like terpene and citrus-like notes get lowered. Volatile flavor compounds vaporize easily and thus get lost when the pepper is not sealed tightly. You should also store pepper in a dark place to prevent your pepper from oxidizing which could lead to the formation of moldy off-flavors.

Tips for buying pepper

In general, shop for fresh and small packets of pepper. The longer pepper sits, the more flavor it loses due to the evaporation of volatile flavor compounds. The faster you use it up, the more flavorful the pepper will be. Buying spices in big value packs might be good for your wallet but you’re not doing yourself a favor flavorwise.

pepper mill with white pepper
Freshly milled peppercorns taste more flavorful than pre-ground pepper powder.

With white pepper, there’s a higher chance that you’re experiencing off-flavors. That is most likely not because of wrong storage conditions but because of the production process. The traditional way to peel red peppercorns before drying is to soak them in water for up to one week. The peppercorns undergo a fermentation process during that time. If the water is not clean and not continuously renewed by a water pump, off-flavors might form that many consumers describe as fecal-like or cheesy.

Most Western people are very sensitive to these fecal off-flavor compounds. In Asian countries, however, there’s a higher acceptance rate for these pungent flavors which are not very appetizing, at least to the typical German palate. Among the flavors which might make you run away from white pepper are:

Aroma compoundSmell
3-methylindole (“Skatole”)fecal, swine-manure
4-methylphenolfecal, horse-like
3-methylphenolphenolic
butyric acidsweaty, cheese-like
2-/3-Methlybutyric acidsweaty, cheese-like
pentanoic acidcheese-like
hexanoic acidcheese-like

If these off-flavors are in your white pepper, then it is advisable to consume it as fast as possible. For the first few months, the pleasant volatile odorants like alpha-pinene or limonene are able to mask the fecal notes. However, after 6 months of storage, a lot of the pleasant volatile aroma compounds will have evaporated. That is when the pepper starts to taste very nasty, at least to Western people. The fecal off-flavors show low volatility and remain in the pepper during storage.

cow feces
White pepper might develop fecal off-flavors.

Spice traders know about this issue so that in Europe, only pepper without these fecal off-flavors is sold to German consumers. The white pepper is either peeled by heat treatment or enzymes or it is soaked in a continuous stream of fresh water. It is not soaked in a dirty water bath without water renewal under the sun for one week. Oftentimes, the pepper we eat in Europe is also just regular black pepper that has been peeled mechanically after drying. If you want to experience the “authentic” and “true” white pepper flavor, you have to source your peppercorns from ethnic retailers where consumers want their pepper to have a unique funkiness that reminds them of the restroom.

Pepper is spicy – however – this is no aroma

If you know a thing or two about the aroma of pepper, you might have asked yourself by now: where is piperine in all these lists of flavor compounds? Piperine is an alkaloid that is responsible for the pungency of pepper. Without piperine, pepper wouldn’t taste spicy. Yet, that is why piperine is no aroma compound. The spice sensation in your mouth is a pain reaction and no taste by itself.

Hot spices
The spicy taste we experience from hot spices is no aroma by itself but a pain reaction.

Pepper contains between 5-8 % piperine and its derivates like for example Piperettin, Piperylin, Piperanin, and Chavicin. But these only make the pepper spicy. All the aroma comes from the pepper’s essential oil. Especially the skin of the peppercorns contains a high amount of essential oil which is why black pepper is more aromatic than white pepper. Black pepper contains almost double (4.8 %) as much essential oil as white pepper (2.5 %). However, the piperine is concentrated in the center of the peppercorns which is the reason for the strong pungency of white pepper.

Besides piperine and oil, the peppercorns mostly consist of starch (50 %), minor plant metabolites, and water. Even though piperine does only contribute to the pungency of pepper and not its aroma, it still is the ingredient that gives pepper its unique health benefits which I will discuss in one of my next blog posts. The topic pepper is so complex and nuanced, it could fill my entire blog for the next year.

Taste test of Indonesian pepper

For today’s taste test, I’m going to introduce you to four kinds of pepper: Sarawak pepper, Lampung pepper, Muntok pepper, and Java long pepper.

Sarawak pepper

Sarawak pepper

Sarawak pepper is grown in Borneo and a very fine variety that has quite some similarities with Vietnamese and Kampot pepper. I highly recommend this one as an all-purpose pepper that is much cheaper than authentic Kampot pepper but still has all these refreshing minty and eucalyptus notes that are unique to Southeast Asian peppercorns.

Diameter of the peppercorns4 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns550 grams per liter
Color of the peppercornslight to medium-dark brown
Smell of the peppercornsThe pepper smells minty with pine and eucalyptus notes. Very herbal with floral notes. The smell of the pepper reminds me a little of chocolate but it doesn’t have the warm and sweet notes that Indian pepper has.

Observed flavor attributes:
Minty
Eucalyptus
Pine
Floral
Terpene
Taste of the peppercornsThe pepper is on the spicier side and offers a long-lasting heat that spreads quickly through the mouth. It has a very minty and floral taste to it yet the warm and sweet notes are underrepresented. There are also earthy and citrusy notes. Overall, a very refreshing taste with a good level of spice.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Floral
Minty
Citrus
Earthy
slight bitterness

Lampung pepper

Lampong pepper

A word of warning here: I purchased this pepper from a seller on eBay. As you can already see by looking at the bulk density of the peppercorns, these are peppercorns of a low quality. I confronted the seller because he told me that he was selling “high-quality” pepper. Well, it turns out he’s a cook who doesn’t know shit about pepper. He’s a poor guy because he obviously got tricked by his seller too. So please take my flavor impressions here with a grain of salt. I’m sure there is better Lampung pepper available out there!

Diameter of the peppercorns5 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns500 grams per liter
Color of the peppercornsdark-brow/ black-greyish
Smell of the peppercornsThe pepper smells muddy/ earthy with woody notes. Only a few pine-like notes can be observed. Overall, a rather mild smell that is disappointing.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy
Wood/ Muddy
Warm
Pine-like
Taste of the peppercornsThe spice level of the pepper is rather mild. Besides the spiciness, the aroma is woody. It’s a pleasant aroma, however, it is very one-dimensional. There’s little earthiness but overall the pepper tastes very mild.

Observed flavor attributes:
Woody
Spicy
Earthy

Muntok white pepper

Muntok pepper

As for the Lampung pepper, this pepper was purchased from the same incompetent eBay seller. The bulk density was fine, however, the pepper smelled extremely fecal. Not a good sign. Either the peppercorns were fermented under unsanitary conditions or this pepper was stored for a long time before it reached me.

Diameter of the peppercorns3-4 millimeters
Density of the peppercorns650 grams per liter
Color of the peppercornswhite with a light yellow undertone
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell of the pepper is very fecal. It smells like cow’s dung. I could hardly recognize any other aroma compounds because the fecal smell is intensely overpowering.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fecal
Earthy
Grassy
Taste of the peppercornsThe pepper is only mildly spicy but the overall flavor is pleasant. It doesn’t taste as it smells. Overall, a warm aroma that isn’t too bad but extremely mild for white pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Spicy
Woody
Earthy
Sweet

Java long pepper

java long pepper

This pepper was a little disappointment as well. Not because it was inherently bad but because I compared it to Kampot long pepper that I had purchased on-site in Cambodia. In all honesty, get Kampot long pepper if you can. This long pepper doesn’t have the intense gingerbread aroma of Kampot long pepper. Instead, it tastes a bit earthy, muddy, with more pronounced bitter notes.

Length of the peppercorns2-3 centimeters
Density of the peppercorns450 grams per liter
Color of the peppercornsdark-brown, greyish, a light red hue
Smell of the peppercornsA very earthy smell that is warm and aromatic at the same time. The pine-like notes are a little less pronounced. Overall, a mild and pleasant smell that isn’t as aromatic as the one from long pepper grown in Kampot.

Observed flavor attributes:
Earthy
Sweet and Aromatic
Pine-like
Taste of the peppercornsStrong fruity notes with an earthy undertone. A good amount of spice with a little bitterness in the aftertaste. I prefer the Kampot long pepper much more over Java long pepper.

Observed flavor attributes:
Fruity
Earthy
Spicy
Slightly bitter

Resources:

The British in Banjarmasin: An Abortive Attempt at Settlement 1700-1707

Bird-nest Soup, Anyone?

The “banana tree at the gate”: Perceptions of production of Piper nigrum (Piperaceae) in a seventeenth century malay state

BLACK PEPPER FIELD REPORT

Characterization of Odorants Causing an Atypical Aroma in White Pepper Powder (Piper nigrum L.) Based on Quantitative Measurements and Orthonasal Breakthrough Thresholds

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