Where does cocoa come from?

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It was during an impromptu visit, to a certain Chocolate exhibition earlier this year, that we met a some people from the Malaysian Cocoa Board (MCB), named Easther and Felicity. Cumi being the curious one and always loving a little adventure wanted to find out how cocoa was planted and processed so we talked with MCB about a trip to a Cocoa plantation and processing center. Initially, MCB suggested going to Tawau, Sabah, since there is a cocoa museum there and plantation tours (Tawau is a large producer of cocoa) but Tawau was too far for us. After several months of intermittent email exchanges with MCB, we finally got down to setting a date and rounding up a bunch of friends to visit the cocoa research center in Jengka.

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Jengka is approximately 2.5hours from KL. It’s relatively easy to reach using the East West Highway. There is a stretch with signs warning of heavy fogs and it was true…

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… just like a driving into a different dimension

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You know you are a food blogger… when the first thing you do at an event is take shots of the food table!

Our program prepared by Easther from MCB started 9am with a fantastic breakfast made for REAL Malaysian champs.. Amazing fried egg noodles with slivers of chicken, fish cake and vegetables. Golden fried egg and sweet, hot prawn paste chili accompanied the noodles. A simple dish but done smashingly well for us!

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Su was a little late due to a wonky GPS, so we waited around.. and it gave us more time to binge on the yummy breakfast – you can’t get this quality in city! Finally she arrived and we were ushered into a new a/c meeting room with comfy chairs for an informative slide-show presentation by Rozita Osman and Raize Shah on the cocoa plantation, pests, facts & figures, and community projects.

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COCOA POD – The fruit has green, yellow or maroon colored shells resulting from different hybrids. Through bud grafting a tree can have a variety of different cocoa hybrids growing on its grafted branches.

Some interesting facts:

Three decades ago, cocoa production was dominated by Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Indonesia and Brazil. Only a decade ago Malaysia was finally recognized as one of the major producers of cocoa after the Ivory coast and Brazil. This is a consequence of the development policy of export-led growth and the role of the state in providing necessary forms of encouragement and technical assistance

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Three phases that spurred the Cocoa Industry :

1. changes in commodity prices
2. the investment climate and
3. the nature of political control in Peninsular  Malaysia, Sabah & Sarawak

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Above: Different stages of cocoa seeds after it is removed from the pod. Seeds used for planting

1st phase (1880s – mid 1940s)
Cocoa was planted as an experimental crop, overshadowed by rubber and palm oil.

Cocoa (Theobroma Cocoa) was probably introduced by the Dutch in the 1700s. Its earliest presence in 1778, found in the garden of a Portuguese widow in Melaka. Experimented as commercial crop by European planters in Melaka, Penang, Singapore, Perak and N. Sembilan.

2nd phase (1948 – early 1960s)
The Cocoa Industry was revived as part of the country’s policy of greater economic diversification.

The initiative was taken by colonial government through private sector to boost the cultivation of cocoa. This phase also saw the promotion of cocoa as a small-holder crop.

3rd phase (late 1960s – onwards)
The Cocoa Industry took off as an important commercial crop after oil palm and rubber.

Cocoa was introduced as a key cash crop in order to play an important role in the raising peasant incomes. A hybrid cocoa with superior yielding properties and tolerance to disease made it especially attractive as an inter-crop with coconut. Research had shown that the two crops were complementary – coconut providing shade cover to the cocoa.

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In Summary:

Cocoa expanded in the late 1960s and 1970s:
1. in response to price incentives
2. due involvement of both private and public sectors
3. due to concerted effort and agricultural development plans by the state.

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Malaysia’s World Ranking in the Cocoa Industry:

Export 2009:

–    18,152 tons produced
–    0.9 % of world Cocoa
–    Ranked 13th Cocoa producing country in the World

Cocoa Grinding in Malaysia 2009 :

–    279,228 metric tons produced
–    8.0 % of world grinding
–    5th in the World
–    Largest di Asia

Some other Facts on the Planting Cocoa:

-Cocoa can be planted with other crops (inter-cropping)
-Cocoa needs shade
-Cocoa simplest crop to plant and process – can be done by anyone
-Cocoa prices almost doubled in 5 years, i.e.  in 2005 RM5.32/KG to 2010 RM9.00/KG
-Several varieties of cloned cocoa species. These hybrids provided better protection against pests and infection.
-Malaysian cocoa has a superior cocoa butter content and therefore a higher melting point

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Outreach Program to Orang Asli

During the presentation, we also learned a bit more about an outreach program to indigenous tribes (Orang Asli) in the deep Malaysian interiors. MCB is assisting them with cocoa plantation knowledge and supply of seedlings. This aid was taken up rather enthusiastically by the Orang Asli, so much so that the demand became greater than the ability to produce the seeds. It’s not easy to teach them the skills involved because many lacked the education and were not well versed in plantation techniques, irrigation and bud grafting. It was a win-win situation between MCB and indigenous tribes. For MCB it is their goal to spread the cocoa plantation in the country and community service to help those less fortunate.

Another community project initiated by MCB, “Koko untuk Rakyat” or “Cocoa for the citizens” was launched several months ago. Free plants (1-50 seedlings) are given out to any interested parties (subject to approval). Technical knowledge on how to cultivate the plant and process the fruits will be provided by MCB. Objective of the program is to increase production of cocoa, increase family income, increase awareness of cocoa cultivation and to be more “green” – greening the earth. Interested parties can check out MCB website listed at the end of the post. We took home 2 seedlings!

After the informative presentation and Q&A session, the real exciting part of the program came… Time to hop on the Toyota trucks and see the plantations.

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how to get a tan in a cocoa plantation..

At its maturity, the cultivated tree measures from 15 to 25 feet tall, though the tree in its wild state may reach 60 feet or more. It takes 2 years to reach full maturity.

However, in 25 years the economic usefulness of a tree may be considered at an end, and it often becomes desirable to replant with younger trees.

While the cacao tree bears fruit (or pods) all year round, harvesting is generally seasonal. The pods come in a variety of types since cacao trees cross-pollinate freely. These types can be reduced to three classifications: Criollo, the prince of cacaos, is a soft thin-skinned pod, with a light color and a unique, pleasant aroma. Forastero, a more plentiful type, is easier to cultivate and has a thick-walled pod and a pungent aroma and finally Trinitario, which is believed to be a natural cross from strains of the other two types, and possesses a good, aromatic flavor. In recent years cacao growers have turned increasingly to hybridization as a means of improving the quality of the bean and making it more disease resistant. Scientists using state-of-the-art biotechnology techniques are also trying to improve the quality of cacao and its resistance to disease. MCB research center has at least 8 hybrid varieties that is available to planters.

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The job of picking ripe cacao pods is not an easy one. The tree is so frail and its roots are so shallow that workmen cannot risk injuring it by climbing to reach the pods on the higher branches. Pickers are sent into the fields with long handled, mitten-shaped steel knives that can reach the highest pods and snip them without wounding the soft bark of the tree. Machetes are used for the pods growing within reach on the lower trunk. It requires training and experience to know by appearance which fruit is ripe and ready to be cut. Ripe pods are found on trees at all times since the growing season in the tropics, with its evenly distributed rainfall, is continuous.

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Pruning keeps the good cocoa close to the main branch. The useless tall branches are snipped way to give easier access to the pods.

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A snazzy device that quickly covers the cocoa pods from pests

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Easther asks, “Ever wondered what cocoa fruit taste like?”

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It actually has the texture of and tastes like a bland soursop

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This is where cocoa comes from.. the seed (later, the fermentation process)

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This is how you break open the pod. Just smack them together and they will come apart in the center

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Mmmmm.. delicious! Different hybrids have different taste and texture.

We climb on the trucks and head on out to have a look at how inter-cropping is done.

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Cocoa plant on the left; a straight row of Tongkat Ali on the right (REP 1)

Here we see some interesting inter-cropping with Tongkat Ali! Tongkat Ali root is the local organic aphrodisiac and… NO… the plant does not add further enhancements on the cocoa’s supposed sexual-healing properties! All of us had the same question in mind. MCB planted the Tongkat Ali  at different different distances to study the effects of fruit production.

The cacao tree is very delicate and sensitive. It needs protection from the wind by other, taller trees and requires shade. A newly planted cacao seedling is often sheltered by a different type of tree. It is normal to plant food crops for shade such as banana or coconuts or even tongkat ali. Rubber trees and forest trees are also used for shade. Once established, however, cocoa trees can grow in full sun light, provided there are fertile soil conditions and intensive husbandry. There were a variety of durian and dokong(small yellow fruit) fruit trees here but we just missed the fruiting season. Many groaned at the missed opportunity!

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However , the consolation came later on for lunch.. Pandan coconuts! And they really tasted of pandan (screwpine leaves) flavor. Remember we mentioned earlier that the two crops (cocoa and coconut) were complementary – coconut providing shade cover to the cocoa.

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Back on to the Trucks.. and out to the Nursery..

At the nursery, saw how the Cocoa flesh was removed from seeds with saw dust, then covered on gunny sack to be planted then rubbed with pesticide to prevent infection.

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At the Nursery, we also watch the Propagation process. A Bud grafting demonstration was witnessed by all of us. Bud grafting provide different types of cocoa pods on same tree (different colors)

Here’s a video of a live demo. on Bud-grafting

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What is this?

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We saw many interesting egg plant, tiny cucumbers and ladies finger plants at the nursery.

Continuing on to the fermentation center, we finally got a clear picture of the entire process:

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1. Once the cocoa pods are full-grown and have changed color from green to yellow-orange. With great care, not damaging the branches, the pods are harvested by the plantation workers. The cocoa pods ripen for a few days after the harvest. The outer peel is opened using long knives and a very precise cutting movement, without touching the beans. This process can either be done by manual labour (above) or machines (below).

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VIDEO

2. The pulp containing the precious cocoa beans is then removed from the pods and collected in large baskets. The beans are then, depending on the type, left to ferment for five to seven days.

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Fermentation is important since this process naturally removes any of the remaining fruit pulp that sticks naturally to the beans and increases the rich aroma. The beans change color from beige to purple and develop their aroma. At fermentation, the only chocolate aroma is a stench.

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3. After fermentation they are spread out and left to dry in the sun for about six days. The beans are turned regularly so that they retain just a fraction of their moisture content. Drying is essential, both for stopping the fermentation process and for storage.

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Some of us, so hungry for Chocolates, decided to eat the dried cocoa instead. MMmm.. taste just like bitter dark chocolate! Needed to be roasted though.

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We ended the plantation tour at around 1p.m. and headed back to the Cocoa Research & Development Centre for lunch

lunch

Fantastic Malay style dishes eaten with rice.. super delicious and spicy. The Pièce de résistance (top right of collage) the Patin Tempoyak Curry (photos in collage courtesy of Boolicious of Masak-masak)

The lunch even topped the breakfast we had. It was awesome! Freshly cooked Patin (silver catfish) in a delicious tempoyak (fermented durian paste) curry sauce [voted best dish by all], fried chicken (ciki loved this), curried ofal & brinjals, and a super-duper hot chili sauce that had all of us weeping! Fortunately we had the freshly chopped pandan coconut, and lychee fruit & rose flavored punch to cool us down.

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Also, nobody leaves without getting a wonderful goody bag full of MCB memorabilia as well as a fantastic box of chocolates made with the finest Malaysian Cocoa of course! THANKS MCB!

Well, we really need to mention that we were bowled over by the great experience and the amazing hospitality provided by Raize, Easther, Rozita and their colleagues!

Thanks MCB for the opportunity to “Melawat sambil Belajar” (Learn as you visit) at the Jengka Cocoa Plantation & Research Center.

Don’t miss the “Malaysia Cocoa And Chocolate Day 2010″
Learn about the history of Cocoa and the importance of Cocoa plus meet local and international chocolate makers & suppliers.
Date: 15 – 17 October 2010 , Time: 10am-8pm
Location: Hall 2, Mid Valley Exhibition Centre, Mid Valley

To find out more about Malaysian cocoa, enquire at www.koko.gov.my!


PAPARAZZI SHOTS OF THE PIRATES OF COCOA-LAND!

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The hungry ghosts arrive!

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FBB (Fatboybakes) being the “Dad” and spraying the lil’ ones with mosquito repellent

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Delectable Su, tries out a new nose for size

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Oliver and his pair of perky.. er.. cocoa pods?

Oliver… “my cocoa pods brings all the girls to the yard..”

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Monkey tries to eat the whole lot.

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PIRATES OF COCOALAND!

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My lonesome Cocoa pod.. says goodbye..

THE END

Comments

  1. Wow! What a comprehensive write up. Puts my slow ass to shame! Ive not even downloaded my pictures from the camera yet.

    Anyway, thanks for organizing the trip. We had fun, as u can see from the pics. Loving my cocoa tan now!

  2. Don’t worry alilfatmonkey, you are not alone. How Ciki has shamed us both. *sigh*

    Haha.
    Great post, Ciki! :)
    (And thanks for organising this trip – was such a fun and educational day out…)

    • You mean BOTH CUMI & CIKI! LOL! Cumi had a big hand in this post too you know.. how else would I have done it w/o his efficient help:P which goes to show.. TWO monkeys are better than ONE!

  3. Ah, I see somebody paid attention during the lecture! ^_^

  4. Look at what I’ve missed :( a big SIGH!!!
    So where did you all head for lunch or dinner later?

  5. great post guys, the world now knows more about malaysian chocolate!

    I gather that this is not a regular tour though? Shame, i think weekend trips to here would be good. Hopefully malaysian tourisim board reads your blog and sees this!

  6. thank heaven for cocoa producers, right! imagine a life without them … it would mean a life without chocolate! *wailllsssss*

  7. Really enjoyed this post. One of my favorite on this website. Does this mean not everyone can go to the plantation? I am guessing not. :(

    Malaysian tourism should take note. Thanks to posts like these, it makes me want to visit Malaysia. If places like this are not accessible then it’s a disappointment.

    Again, great post, that really shows the entrepreneurial side of Malaysia, its great history, and the people that are making Malaysia what it is today.

    Would love to read a follow up to this about how Malaysian chocolate is made! Different types etc!!

  8. Great trip and good coverage on this trade! I will check out the Cocoa Museum for you when I go to Tawau next month :)

    Sadly, Cocoa has been around for a long time now, just that it was never popularized as it should have been in the early days. Anyway, it’s all good now that they are inviting bloggers to cover this area.

    David

  9. look what I’ve missed!! but ur comprehensive post made up for it

  10. Looks like a good day out. The breakfast picture has made me feel really hungry.Scrummy.

  11. Thank you for organising, Cumi & Ciki! :) I was a bit of a sleepyhead (and monkey has the photo to prove it) but it was an educational visit for the sheltered singaporean!

  12. wa so keng such loooooong write up better than wikipedia :p

  13. Thank you ALL For your kind comments! This was an amazing trip and we are glad that the participants enjoyed it as much as Cumi & ciki enjoyed planning it! See you all at the Chocolate Fair! woohoo!

  14. so you finally got the cocoa educational visit. The cocoa fair is a bit fail la…

  15. Wow I love it!! I didn’t know Malaysia has that much of cocoa industry! Malaysia is about everything girl! :)
    It’s so educated and fun. Nice photos :)

  16. Interesting. I did a similar tour back in Dominician Republic. Visiting the Cocoa field and tasting it. great shots!

  17. hi cumi dan ciki.

    i’m from malaysian cocoa board, and i read this article and really feel good on your writing and pictures. anyway, malaysian cocoa board will be involved in MICCOS 2011, which is biannual commodity event that will be held on 28-30 october at MAEPS, SERDANG selangor. we are so glad to invite you to come to our chocolate booth. if anything, u can contact me via mail. we hope to hear from u soon. thanks.

  18. Wow! What a great report! Very interesting as we are headed that way! Do you know how easy it is to get organic raw carob powder in Malaysia? I will be in Penang for an extended stay and wondering if I should bring it from here or buy it there?