I'm working on a couple of side design projects that are local based and have been researching the Pepper plant, Piper Nigrum. Historically pepper has been an important agricultural product in this state since the early nineteenth century, grown together with Gambier (as an under plant). Hence the recurrence of the design motif of Gambier and Pepper intertwined as a decorative element. It can be found in the borders of old lithographs, as well as ornamental ironwork on city street lamps and carved into stone and woodwork in public places and government buildings.
Coincidentally, I regularly see fresh green peppercorns sold at the market, so this week I buy a handful of the string of green beads, like little green bracelets, to get up close and personal with them. I taste a couple - they are exactly as you would imagine, with the flavor of black pepper but fresher, less harsh and vegetal as opposed to something woody. They would be great in a sauce, stir fried with something or pounded into a paste like the Thai green curry paste. I also drop some in hot water to see what happens- they crinkle and turn black resembling the form I am more familiar with, which after drying in the sun, would be how they would be processed to become black pepper. The leaves are also used in Thai cuisine in stir fries.
Both the design projects have strong local identities, a journalist who writes extensively about the region and a non profit that provides the means for local disabled citizens to make a living making handicrafts (rattan, bookbinding) operating since 1952. The local Pepper and Gambier motif are a shoo-in to include in the design work for both but as I research, I struggle with the Gambier part, its a plant that has lost its significance in the modern world. It was used for tanning and dyeing and also as an ingredient in the antiquated habit of chewing sireh - slices of Betel nuts, Gambier a dab of chalk, rolled in a Betel leaf.
Pepper on the other hand remains an important crop, even enjoying an increased popularity and record prices. I also happen to discover that there are pepper farms being added to the Bio Desaru Organic Food Valley, a government initiative to encourage more up to date agricultural (green) principles and (bio) technology. Pepper, besides it's stake in the state of Johor's history, will play a role in it's future. I abandon Gambier for my projects and focus on Pepper, it's modern day relevance adds meaning to it's historical and spicy connotations.
A few weeks ago I also happen to discover Black Pepper essential oil in Singapore made by a Thai company called Lemon Grass House and really, really liked it. Unlike the usual associations of pepper being an irritant and sneeze inducing, the oil has a stimulating, uplifting quality. They also have oils from other local plants Kaffir Lime, Nutmeg, Turmeric, Ginger that I'm eager to try out. I used to make my own ointment with Oregano, Lavender, Calendula and Plantain essential oils - now it's time to configure a more appropriate tropical version and Black Pepper oil which has some interesting properties will definitely be in the mix.
How strange, I've never really been a big fan of Black Pepper, it's always a no when the waiter hovers with the pepper grinder and I rarely use it in cooking and here I am all peppered up.