Pepper and Gambier in Malaya

by Elizabeth Khoo

When European colonists reached the part of the Malay Archipelago consisting of the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore, they found that only 2 of the spices that they sought would grow well in this region.  These were pepper and gambier, which were then cultivated and became lucrative crops.


Pepper known as the “King of Spices”, is one of the oldest and most popular spices in the world. Indigenous to Malabar, West Coast of India, it was already traded during the Roman and Greek period. It was the search for pepper that led early sailors eastward, which influenced the history of Asia Pacific.

photo taken from

The name pepper comes from the Sanskrit word pippali, meaning berry; it is called “lada” in Bahasa Malaysia. Pepper is used to cure meats, as a preservative and to flavour food. It has medicinal uses in Chinese, Indian and certain other communities.  In medieval Europe, pepper was worth its weight in gold and often used as currency for rent, dowry and taxes. Indians brought pepper to Java; it then gradually spread throughout the archipelago.

Pepper vines grows best near the equator in moist, hot climate with evenly distributed rainfall of about 100 inches.  It requires fertile, flat or gently sloping land, rich in humus with good drainage and light shade.  The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine growing up to about 4 metres in height on support poles, trees or trellises. The pepper plant is propagated by cuttings. It starts fruiting at between 3 to 5 years and will continue to do so every 3rd year for up to 40 years.  It fruits looks like slim long cluster of berries and harvest is done by hand.

Pepper fruits known as peppercorns are processed to be available in various forms.  The 3 most popular being Black Pepper, White Pepper and Green Pepper.

  • Black pepper (Lada Hitam) is produced from green, unripe drupes (fruit with stone) which are scaled to release its enzymes. The drupes are dried on mats and raked several times a day for a week, until they are wrinkled and black.
  • White pepper (Lada Puteh) is processed from ripe peppercorns. The red and orange berries are packed in sacks and soaked for a week under slow running water.  This rots the outer husks which is then removed by rubbing.  The dried husked berries are white peppercorn.
  • Green pepper (Lada Hijau) is occasionally available fresh, still on its long stem. Green peppercorns are available pickled in brine or vinegar, or freeze dried.

Today Malaysia is one of the largest producer of pepper in the world together with Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Brazil. The main pepper producing area is in the State of Sarawak which accounts for 95% of the total production in Malaysian. Other pepper producing states are Johor and Sabah.


Gambier is native to the Malay Archipelago and was traded in the 17th century.  Interestingly, both pepper and gambier share a symbiotic relationship; they are often grown together and are seen entwined. Gambier leaves compost act as fertiliser for the pepper plants and offers protection for its roots.

Uncaria gambier. Photo taken from Wikipedia

Gambier is also known Catechu (India), Er Cha or Gou Teng (China) or Cat’s Claw. It is from the Rubiaceae family and the native variety is the Uncaria gambier. Gambier shrubs are climbers of slender woody vines.  They grow as bushes up to about 2.5 metres. Gambier is prepared by boiling the young leaves and pressing them to extract its juice.  The concentrated juice is dried into a semi solid paste and moulded into cubes, which are then dried in the sun.

In medicine, Gambier has anti-inflammatory and sedative properties.  It dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), gambier is used to treat hypertension, dizziness and anxiety. It is also effective to calm wind; to relieve convulsions; calm the liver; and remove (or clear away) heat. Excess consumption can cause diarrhoea, kidney damage, swollen feet and nausea. It is not recommended for long term use.

Gambier is most commonly used today as a condiment in betel nut chewing, tanning of hides and in dyeing where it yields the colour ‘khaki’.

Gambier was first grown in Johor in the late 1840s and exported to China and Europe.  The plantations were highly profitable and successful, providing employment to many locals and immigrants. However with the advent of the automobile industry, rubber replaced gambier as the most important cash crop by the turn of the 20th century.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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