Garden-to-Stove: Green Cincau

In recent weeks, I’ve finally found the time to re-create my favourite foods from my travels. One of them is green cincau.

I knew that green cincau existed because a few gardeners in Malaysia would share photos in the Facebook groups of the dessert. In 2018, I acquired a few cuttings and started growing them in my garden as ornamentals. They remind me of vanilla orchid vines with thick green stems and firm succulent leaves. However, before Covid-19, I was suffering from something I term “gardener’s curse” and barely bothered to harvest and cook from my garden (despite growing lots of edible crops). So the vines went pretty much untouched for 2 years until I was scrolling through my albums and found a photo of the green cincau I had at a rooftop restaurant in Vietnam (Saigon):

I recall being slightly unimpressed by this rendition of the dessert, as there were too many trapped air bubbles in the cincau jelly giving it a strange plasticy / spongy mouth-feel. I understand that not many people might empathise with me on this, probably because this dessert is quite uncommon overseas and definitely here in Singapore. But essentially, when cincau leaves are blended with water they produce a slimy substance that can be set into a jelly in the fridge. The texture is like seaweed based agar agar, except slightly softer and it has a mild taste of wheatgrass. Of course, traditionally the cincau leaves are hand pressed and worked into a paste that is then introduced to water. This minimises the number of air bubbles in the cincau jelly and avoids the spongy texture. However, modern day cooks tend to just use a blender to blend the cincau leaves with water, thus trapping a lot of tiny air bubbles within the mixture. One way to remove said bubbles, is to tap them out of the mixture after you’ve put it into the mould.

To make green cincau jelly, you need:

Ingredients

  1. 100 cincau leaves (Cyclea barbata)
  2. 2.5 litres of warm water
  3. Cloth strainer or muslin cloth
  4. Wooden setting mould or a baking pan with a flat bottom

Method

Wash the cincau leaves, then blend it with the water in a blender. Alternatively, you could crush the cincau leaves with your hands until it breaks apart and releases its slimy texture. After which you would start to introduce the water.

Once that is done, use the cloth strainer to remove the chunky fibrous leaf bits in the mixture and press out the clear green jelly (pictured above).

Pour into a mould for setting in the fridge, leave for 4-6 hours.

Remove from fridge and cut into cubes or use a spoon to scoop the jelly into a bowl.

Ladle over some cold coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar) or add sugar syrup over the jelly to serve.

I made this dessert for my first garden guest in 3 months, who is a Business Times photographer. He was so kind to meet me in the early AM before work, so I made it a point to prepare a cooling dessert for him. He mentioned he really enjoyed eating it and suggested that I put up some of the jelly up for sale. Unfortunately, green cincau jelly has a tendency to “shrink” the longer it is kept in the fridge and if kept for too long it starts to produce a brownish purple water. For that reason, authentic fresh jelly cannot be commercially sold.

For the benefit of those wanting to try this dessert, I know there are a few home gardeners selling cincau leaves on Carousell or Shopee (little suspect, so please do your due diligence before purchasing). And there are some nice write-ups by Prof Wong on green cincau on the Nparks platform as well as an article on black cincao which is notably made from completely different plants, https://tropicalgardener.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/introducing-the-cincau-plant-mesona/

I have plans to start releasing small plants or batches of leaves so that more locals can try to make this wonderful food!

Always,

J.

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