Pepper, a plant that produces berries growing in grapelike clusters, originated from the Malabar Coast (Kerala) in southern India, where black pepper was the most valued spice traded.
The port city of Kochi, widely regarded as the heartland of the spice trade in India, has been exporting spices for over 5,000 years. A variety of spices can be found in this spice city.
I have visited Kochi twice and seen the various spices available there. I had not seen some of these spices in Malaysia.
Like salt, pepper is one of the world’s important spices, consumed by people all over the world. Not only is pepper used for cooking but powdered pepper is also used as a condiment to add extra flavour to food.
Black, white and green peppers come from the same plant. The aroma of pepper depends on the place and manner the spice is grown and at which stage it is collected, washed, treated and warehoused.
Pepper also varies depending on how it is reaped and treated. The final product is segregated by colour, aroma and spiciness.
Black pepper is the most popular form of pepper marketed globally. One of the most important ingredients in cooking, it is known as the “king of spices”. Many still refer to this spice as black gold.
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Pepper was brought into Sarawak in around the 1840s by Chinese migrants who took an active interest in growing the spice, mainly in Bau, Baram, Trusan and Limbang. Sarawak’s pepper sector hit its peak in the 1960s and 70s, in the absence of strong competition from other countries.
Today, pepper farms are located in the Sarawak districts of Kuching, Samarahan, Sri Aman, Betong, Sarikei and Sibu. Pepper in the state is mainly grown in hilly areas.
Pepper is a key cash crop grown in Sarawak. Ibans and Bidayuhs account for around 85% of the 36,000 pepper farmers in Sarawak. In 2021 Malaysia’s exports of pepper amounted to 7,407 tonnes valued at RM154m.
About 70% of local pepper exported is black pepper, the balance being white pepper. The price of black pepper has soared by 79%, whereas white pepper surged 60% from the previous year.
Since 1972 native pepper farmers have been mainly actively engaged in farming through planting schemes supported by the Department of Agriculture.
In Sarawak, the most widely grown cultivar is the ‘Kuching’ variety. Through research, two cultivars – Semongok perak and Semongok emas – have been released to farmers. At the Semongok agricultural research centre, the pepper germplasm comprises 47 accessions of Piper nigrum and 46 accessions of other Piper species.
Sarawak ranks among the world’s top five producers of pepper (Piper nigrum L) with around 90% of its annual production of around 25,000 tonnes for the export market. The state ranks behind other top producing countries like Vietnam in terms of quantity, but Sarawak pepper is sold at a premium price due to its superior quality.
As one website describes it: “Black Sarawak peppercorns are among the best in the world. They are medium-sized, with a bold flavour that blossoms into mingling flavours of fruit, cocoa and woodsy spices. The flavour is milder than Tellicherry or Wynad – a delicious all-purpose peppercorn, grown and processed with care.”
The development of the pepper industry is under the purview of the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB). Besides bureaucratic matters, the board’s commercial activities include the purchasing, marketing and distribution of peppers.
In 2019 the federal government decided that MPB, as a government agency, should only focus on the development and enforcement related to the pepper industry. Following this, the commercial activities undertaken by MPB were corporatised to avoid a conflict of interest.
Saraspice, a wholly owned subsidiary of the MPB, was incorporated in September 2019 to undertake MPB’s trading role. Saraspice has assumed all the commercial activities previously carried out by the MPB.
The MPB has invited investors from the peninsula and Sabah to invest in the pepper plantation sector. Malaysia aspires to be among the top three pepper-producing countries in the world over the next decade.
Pepper contains antioxidants, which work to normalise movements of cells in the body.
Known to be rich in vitamins A, C and K, pepper also contains potassium and calcium and is generally recognised for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Pepper is also known to enhance digestion and the immersion of nutrients.
Challenges facing pepper industry
After the war in 1975, Vietnam embarked on massive pepper growing in the 1980s.
Today, Vietnam has over 200 enterprises engaged in the pepper industry. In 2021 the nation exported $950m (RM4.3bn) worth of pepper, accounting for around 60% of the global market.
Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Brazil have also emerged as key pepper producers.
With heightened competitiveness in the global pepper trade, Malaysia needs a mindset change to rejuvenate its pepper industry.
One challenge for Sarawak is to encourage people to engage in the pepper cultivation in the face of strong competition from other crops such as oil palm and rubber.
Sarawak’s long and successful history in the spice sector gives it a distinct advantage over other crops planted in the state. The quality and brand name of the state’s pepper has enabled it to carve a niche in global markets.
The continued nurturing of Sarawak’s upstream and downstream pepper industry along the value chain is vital for the industry to progress. Public-private sector collaboration is also pivotal for the continued growth of the sector.
People in the ‘Land of the Hornbills’ can take pride that Sarawak has placed Malaysia on the world pepper map – a remarkable feat for a state with just 2.7 million people.