Nor Azman shows his 'peha ayam' lemongrass. Photo: Bernama

By Fatin Nabihah Marzuki

SEMENYIH: From a distance, the sprawling green fields of tufted grass in Kampung Sasapan Batu Minangkabau resemble padi fields.

However, come closer and one will get to see clumps of lemongrass, or ‘serai’ as it is known in Bahasa Malaysia, growing there.

Incidentally, this rustic village and the surrounding areas of Beranang, about 10 kilometres from Semenyih in the Hulu Langat district of Selangor, are among the largest producers of high-quality lemongrass in the country.

Nor Azman shows his ‘peha ayam’ lemongrass. Photo: Bernama

Lemongrass, a perennial tropical grass with long, sharp-edged blades, is known for its slightly sharp and lemony flavour that titillates the taste buds. Its aromatic bulbous stalk is widely used in Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Sri Lankan and Indian cooking.

Lemongrass is also said to have a host of health benefits and is used as a mild insect repellent, as well as to make essential oil.

In a place where almost every household has several clumps of lemongrass growing in their front yard for their own use, some 500 villagers in Beranang have planted lemongrass on their smallholdings, covering an estimated 283 to 324 hectares, for commercial purposes.

Their daily yields amount to not less than five tonnes and these are snapped up by wholesale markets, factories and restaurants in the Klang Valley, as well as Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Johor.

Nor Azman in his 2.4-ha plot grown with lemongrass. Photo: Bernama

Moist, clayey soil
Among the villagers in Kampung Sasapan Batu Minangkabau who have their own lemongrass smallholdings is Nor Azman Md Said, 44, who has a 2.4-ha plot.

He said 30 years ago, Beranang had a lot of padi fields but over the years the drainage system in the area became problematic which led to many of the farmers giving up padi cultivation.

“The villagers then decided to plant lemongrass as they knew the clayey soil conditions were suitable for its cultivation. Like padi, lemongrass grows well in moist soil and it is easy to maintain too,” he told Bernama, when met here recently.

Nor Azman, who took over the lemongrass smallholding from his father, said several types of lemongrass such as ‘serai peha ayam’, ‘serai gajah’ and ‘serai kampung’ were grown in Beranang.

His kampung itself is known for ‘serai peha ayam’ which, he said, matures within six months and yields aromatic and thick stalks suitable for preparing dishes like ‘tom yam’.

“There’s good demand for ‘serai gajah’ in Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Johor. This particular lemongrass is less aromatic but its stalk is thick and the plant grows to a height of one-and-a-half feet (45.7 centimetres),” he said, adding that the more subdued aroma of ‘serai gajah’ suited the traditional dishes of the three states.

“In the markets in Beranang, lemongrass does not sell well simply because most of the people here grow their own lemongrass,” he added, smiling.

A worker ties the ‘peha ayam’ lemongrass into bundles to be sold to wholesalers in the Klang Valley for RM11 each. Photo: Bernama

Demand exceeds supply
Nor Azman said the local farmers, however, were not able to cope with the high demand for their lemongrass.

“As it is now, we have used up all our land for the cultivation of lemongrass. And, after cultivating it, we have to wait for five to eight months before we can harvest it,” he said.

Nor Azman said each bunch of lemongrass weighing about four kilogrammes can fetch about RM11 while the yield from a one-acre (0.4 ha) plot can rake in some RM7,000 to RM8,000 in earnings for the farmers.

Farmers Organisation Authority (FOA, an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries) Beranang area manager Shafeq Mahzan Mohd said almost 80 per cent of the income of the local community is generated from the sales of lemongrass.

“As there are about 500 people here having their own lemongrass smallholdings, we (FOA) are trying to set up an association to bring them all under one roof to help them to manage their lemongrass-related activities in a more systematic and structured manner,” he said, adding that in 2015 the government had donated fertilisers to the farmers concerned. – Bernama