Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Charcoal and its Uses in Sibu

According to Philip Hii these two men were charcoal businessmen of Sibu. Look at their white shirts and short hair.

This is an unusual but collectible photo by Philip Hii. This unusual structure was the "store" for charcoal. Charcoal would be unloaded from the river boats and sales would then begin. All the unsold charcoal would be placed in this store for sale every day until new charcoal arrived by boat again.

Photo by Wong Meng Lei (Rejang Basin) What a luxury -a 60 year old charcoal stove!!

The Foochows in particular and the people of Sibu in general continue make use of charcoal for many purposes and for many different reasons today. In my own case, cooking over charcoal fires still gives me the satisfaction of producing the best tasting food one can ever get.

If you visit Sibu any time now, you can find many coffee shops still toasting their bread over charocal fires to make their famous roti kahwin. Kaya, the famous coconut milk and egg sweet sauce is still being prepared slowly over a low charcoal stove. And coffee beans are still being roasted in a homemade roaster placed over a simple charcoal fire perhaps right at the back of a coffee shop in the small lane.

Charcoal is still the best fuel for roasting the local banana leaf fish,pulut pangang and mutton,beef or chicken satay. Its fire can easily be controlled and just a small stove is enough to cook a few hundred satays. It is the only way to cook good traditional Malay satay and pulut.

Besides,if you can remember, charcoal was used to heat up the old fashioned brass irons ,for ironing clothes made of cotton and linen,to boil huge tanks of water for laundry and in some shops, the charcoal fire continued to burn for the whole day so that the porridge was warm . In some shops the coffee pots were kept hot for customers and towkays and their family members.

I remember how my late father deftly helped my mother prepare the charcoal fire, whether in the big Foochow stove or the smaller clay charcoal stove. I felt that at those times my father left his "personality of a business man "behind and played the role of a life partner, helping around the house, giving a helping had and emjoying the slow paced family life. He was showing his less chauvinistic side and enjoying it.

The two of them alawys talked in very soft and gentle tones, very different from the normal voice levels of husband and wife today. Perhaps it was because my father was a very soft spoken man. Sometimes I could hear them share a little joke and laugh, the way only very understanding couples laugh.

And sure and soon enough, the crackling of the charcoal would be heard and I could smell that unique and marvellous fragrance of a glowing organic charcoal fire.

I still have a charcoal stove which I use as a standby when gas runs out. But sometimes, when I need to use some of the traditional pots I trust my charcoal fire to burn properly and surely for me. From now on too I must make sure that I have a box of charcoal ever ready for any emergency. Talk about keeping the hearth warm!!

For modern day uses, most youngsters and young married couples also use charcoal for their b-b-q fires. But probably they will buy the smokeless charcoal bricks from the supermarkets. Although there are lots of high-tech gadgets around, the simple charcoal barbeque pit will beat them all.

Although there is no longer a real charcoal factory in Sibu, I can still refer to a good charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang, located in North Peninsular Malaysia, to relate how charcoal is made today. So read on.......

The mangrove forest around Kuala Sepetang is a vital factor for charcoal making in this part. The Chuah's charcoal factory has been in existence since the 1930's.

Mangrove trees which are over 30 years old are harvested, and new ones planted in order to replenish the supply. That area is not to be tocuhed for another 30 years.

The trees are then transported with the high tide into the factory. Trees are then stripped off their bark and then sent to the igloo like cones where the baking process starts.

These cones are all handmade without any architecture drawing design. The master building simply builds them still "out of memory and experience".

A cone is used for around 15 years. Once the cone is finished, the logs are brought inside and heated. The process is in fact very simple and complicated at the same time.

It's all about the right temperature, so the process have to be monitored 24 hours a day.

The logs are standing up inside the cone on stone. Then the cone is almost closed apart of a small hole where a fire is burning. This fire heats up the cone and water will start to vaporize from the logs. Inside the cone there is now a temperature of 220°C.

The first stage of this process takes around 8 to 10 days. The log condition inside the cone is determined by the feel of the smoke that comes out of the holes of the cone. Mr. Chuah and his workers have such an experience that they can tell on the feel of the vaporized water how the condition of the log is.

After 10 days the cone is completely shut off and the baking process continues on a temperature of around 83°C. This takes another 12 to 14 days. Then the cooling process starts, this takes another 8 days before the hole in the cone is opened.

All the water is now vaporized out of the wood and the charcoal should look shiny black. The workers now get the charcoal out of the still hot cone and it is sorted, put in bags or transported in a whole log. Most of the charcoal of Mr. Chuah's factory is exported to Japan. A minor part is used in Malaysia.

Producing charcoal is a time consuming process. Most of the process is manually done. People in Kuala Sepetang, Matang and other small villages in the area have a living from the mangrove charcoal factory.

Note : More later when I can get hold more information on charcoal making.

Source : My Island Penang HomePage

Another blog you should visit : if you are interested in his visit to a charcoal factory in Westmalaysia. Enjoy!

11 memories:

Arani Jantok said...

the best thing about making a fire for a BBQ is when u see that your coal has turned a bright amber.
i still cannot start a fire, and can't wait to get back to have another one of our sunday afternoon BBQ's.

sarawakiana said...

Starting a fire is a living skill. I remember Girl Guides and Boys Scouts have to pass a test in making a fire with only two match sticks.

Guiding and Scouting are the best non religious activities for youths of all races, ever !! There is not doubt about that.

Gaharuman said...


Though I never join the Boy Scout, I always admire their spirit. Most of them do very well in live later on. I guess it must be the scout and guide training. I always encourage people to join the movements but sadly nowadays parent are more concerned with academic achievements.

michaelangelica said...

Thank you for your interesting article.
I have re-posted some of it here:-
I hope you don't mind; let me know if you do.
Would you have a photo or drawing of traditional charcoal making in your area?
Warmest wishes

sarawakiana said...

Dear Michaelangelica,
Thanks for dropping by. I cannot reach your site. It is alright to copy and paste my posting as long as you quote some kind of reference to my blog.
My blog is mainly to help people "remember" our childhood and youth and our birthplace, Sibu.

I am afraid I do not have a diagram of how we make our charcoal, although verbally I would be able to tell how one can make charcoal out of our local mangrove trees or bakau.

Perhaps one day, someone from Mukah in Sarawak will contribute such a picture.


michaelangelica said...

I hope you got my email
I think some of the address may have been cut off by your software

sarawakiana said...

Dear Michael,
Your site is amazing and knowledge filled .
I do hope that we Sarawakians will continue to treasure our charcoal wealth (knowledge,usage and production).
thank you. Keep in touch.

michaelangelica said...

I would love to see a drawing or a picture of your traditional charcoal kiln.

See here for a lot more information on charcoal and its importance in the 21st Century.

Warmest wishes,

Sarawakiana said...

In the past, many foochows would burn logs to "smoke" rubber sheets in properly built smoke houses. And the wood which burned better in turn became very usable and resuseable charcoal. So there was no waste in fact.

but nowadays rubber sheets are no long "smoked" as they are sellable in the raw form.

sarawakiana said...

Dear Michael,

Hope you get to read this. The origin charcoal making process in Sasrawak was the use of bakau wood.

Bakau is a small tree found in mangrove swams at the river mouth of the Rejang . There are a few thousand hectares of them.

Bakau is cut into three making about 4 feet each and are inclined in the kiln (like brick kilns?)

The kiln is then heated up to high temperatures. Bakau will turn into charcoal.

This is a very original and organic method of producing good charcoal which burns well.

I know of no other wood which can turn into charcoal in this way.

This method however seems to be going out of fashion for one reason or another. But as I am still very tradional, I continue to use the old type of charcoal for my barbeque. The added fragrance is wonderful.

Unique and unmistakeable.

Jones Morris said...

These charcoal capsules are great to carry around with you in a small container and can be taken in the morning, use of activated carbon


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