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3 Chinese Herbs & Fishball recipe

Fishball is a food familiar to every Singaporean, its in Laksa, Ba Chor Mee, Char Kway Teow you name it… In primary school, I remember fondly eating fishballs in diluted soy sauce as a lunchtime snack. Now that I frequent the wet market more for my personal groceries (usually at Ghim Moh Wet Market or “GM Market”) I will always pick up some fishcakes or fish paste stuffed vegetables from the ‘Ghim Moh Traditional Handmade Fishball’ stall, not to be confused with the, also, very popular Thye Hong Handmade fishballs. The former stall is situated in the wet market section of GM Market, whilst the latter is found in the hawker centre area. The fishballs and cakes from both stalls taste very different too.

Fishball making appears to be a very daunting task, at least it was to me, because every Chinese new year, my mum will bring back stories from the market to the hotpot table telling everyone how the fishball maker’s hands went pale from beating and rolling the fish meat into balls. Its undoubtedly a labour of love making fishballs the traditional way – which involves buying the freshest batam or yellowtail fish, skinning / deboning it (or “qi rou” / meaning lift the meat from the bone in Chinese), using a chopper or two to pound the meat into a pulp, beating it down onto a wooden board 45 – 60 times until the meat becomes bouncy, adding seasoning, using your hands to squeeze out floating balls of meat into icy water..

However, fishballs being one of my all time favourite snack, I decided it was time to learn my mum’s recipe. She usually uses a mix of squid, prawn and fish in her fishball recipe but I had it tweaked to suit what I had in the fridge today / harvested from the backyard. And also, you may be pleased to know that with the aid of modern technology (ie. a blender, maybe even a paddle mixer) your handmade fishballs will be ready within the hour.

There are lots of fishball recipes around, and all of them use pretty much the same few ingredients. So in this brief write-up I’ll focus on the technique of fishball hitting which makes or breaks your fishballs. If you’re a home gardener like myself, then you may want to consider adding your herbs or spices into your fish paste. Thankfully, I managed to harvest some extremely fresh birds eye chilli, spring onion and Chinese coriander from my garden for use in today’s recipe.

Raw ingredients – you’ll need:

  • 2 cups of minced batam or yellowtail fin fish, you can use any other white fish flesh like naw he, pollock, etc;
  • 2/3 cup of prawn meat, get the wild caught local sea prawns also known as orh hei (black prawns) which have crunchy and sweet meat that is used for ngoh Hiang / kueh pie tee stuffing too. Theres a brilliant write-up on prawns from wet markets here;
  • 1/3 cup of cold water;
  • 1 teaspoon salt;
  • 2 tablespoon of tapioca flour;
  • *Optional: 1/2 teaspoon Hong Kong prawn paste, 2 tablespoons fish sauce (replace salt with this), 3 bulbs of spring onion leaves chopped finely, Chinese coriander leaves chopped finely, 3 birds eye chilli with the seeds removed chopped finely.

Method:

  • Blend the seafood meats together, adding the icy cold water as needed to ease the meat through the blender. This usually takes about 15 minutes. Ensure that the meats form into a paste like texture that is smooth, ideally there would be no muscle tissue visible. A tip for this segment is to use a big blender instead of a small “palm sized” blending unit, for smaller units you will need to feed the meat into the machine slowly and in smaller portions for an even blend;
  • Once meat is blended, add salt and the tapioca flour;
  • Then in a wide bowl, use a large spoon (rice cooker spoon or a soup spoon works) to stir the paste. At first, it will seem like the mixture is never going to get bouncy, but don’t give up. You will need to stir the paste at least 45-60 rounds (around the bowl) before you start seeing the right texture forming. You will know its ready when the meat paste starts to stretch alittle as you stir it, sheets of paste should be able to form and what you’ll notice is that the paste becomes shinier and more gelatinous looking. The meat looks more formed and coagulated together, rather than rough and patchy when it comes straight out of the blender. This stirring and mixing takes 20 minutes;
  • There you have it, your fishball paste! If you want to add herbs to your fishballs, simply chop the herbs or spices finely, then use your hands to squeeze out any excess water from the herbs and then mix them into the paste.
  • To make fishballs, prepare a bowl of ice water, then grab a palm full of fish paste, cup your four fingers (except your thumb) over the paste gently as if you are creating a small cylindrical well for the paste with your fingers. Then use your thumb to brush over the fish paste for an even surface, and slowly apply pressure with your four cupped fingers to squeeze out the paste. With your thumb, cut away the paste as it forms into a ball and let it drop into the ice water bowl. Heres a video of how to do it by sgpnoodles.

The fishballs I made with this recipe were good to taste and slightly chewy, but I felt they were not airy enough nor did they have the bounce factor of most manufactured fishballs. Whilst they did float after being cooked in soup, I am told that good fishballs float when they are raw and put in icy cold water. That is a standard I hope to eventually reach.

Nonetheless it was a fun experience and I hope you try this recipe in your own home!

Always, J.

Weird & Wonderful Workshops

Workshops are done alittle differently here at WWEdibles.

This post will take readers through what to expect at these carefully curated events, with a link to register interest at the end of this post.

Background

2 years after WWEdibles’s founding in 2016, I started offering edible flower workshops upon request of my regular customers who largely came from culinary backgrounds. Their primary interest was in trialing the organically grown small-batch produce for use in their cooking or, to take back the idea of establishing edible flower / herb gardens in their own restaurants.

As such, since its inception, Weird & Wonderful Workshops have always been deeply rooted in the connection between plants, food and people.

Edible flower workshop set-up

With the edible flower workshops remaining at the core of what WWEdibles provides (being a classic workshop), it has also started to branch out into other niche areas such as; growing Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM), asian herb gardens, container gardening for fruiting asian edibles as well as kueh-making workshops.

What to expect – workshop topics and themes

The workshops are tailored to suit the realities of gardening in Singapore and WWEdibles only promotes the growing of plants which thrive in the heat and humidity here. They are also culturally relevant, being heavily influenced by Singapore’s history and diverse demographics.

Full credits to Singaporean Artist Lee Xin Li

Topics

As founder, I also wanted my life experiences and milestones to be reflected through the workshop topics offered. That’s seen through the focus on edible flowers and asian herbs / fruiting vegetables which form the core of what I love to grow / supply, as well as the TCM workshop which was inspired by the TCM garden that I set up at the SMU Grow Garden in 2017.

The hugely popular kueh-making workshop is an ode to my maternal grandmother and her colourful stories and experiences making and selling kuehs at Pulau Ubin (an offshoot island near Singapore). The recipes and techniques I use in the kueh workshops are from her, with some slight modifications (I don’t use Chinese porcelain bowls to measure the flour and use natural dyes for the kueh skins).

A small wooden hut in Pulau ubin, similar to the one lived in by my mother and her family in the 80ies

Hand-carved wooden kueh moulds from Penang, as well as the freshest ingredients are used in the kuehs (for example, the filling for the Ang Ku Kueh are made fresh from ground mung beans and pressed coconut milk / sweet potato is used in the kueh skins). This is so that participants can experience the original taste of these heritage treats, and take home with them our family’s time-honoured recipes to keep them alive.

Themes

In terms of overarching themes which influence the style and location of the workshops, WWEdibles is always looking to support other smaller independent businesses or talented individuals.

For example, wwedibles collaborated with Frank and ZhiXian of House of Plants (a greenhouse growing and supplying ornamental plants at Punggol) for a dedicated workshop space where we could host guests. Many of you who came for the workshops at House of Plants were in awe of the beautiful plants offered at the location, its rustic red-brick charm and the warmth of the couple offering drinks for guests to enjoy under the shade of passionfruit vines.

Inside House of Plants

The workshops have since moved to be conducted in a quaint black-and-white heritage house in Chip Bee Gardens, which is conveniently located near other famous restaurants and cafes at Holland Village. As the workshops are conducted in the early mornings at 9am, participants get to witness the soft morning light pass through the large fig tree outside the house and the cool morning breeze at the porch.

The workshop spaces are styled to encourage a sense of wellness and to provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of big-city living.

Ahead of the workshop, fertilisers and pesticides from local companies such as MOFPF, BioZapp (supplied by Simon Loh), Bioflora, etc are tested and the results shared with participants.

Another key feature of the workshops is the serving of light refreshments to guests, together with an option of cafe latte or artisanal tea. The refreshments are sourced from home-bakers or cooks who live near the workshop location and these treats are often made in small batches specially for the workshops.

The coffee beans are bought directly from local coffee roasters (such as Yahava or Nylon Coffee) and the tea leaves are also selected from environmentally conscious producers (such as Camellia Tea Bar).

Ultimately, the workshops are aimed at supporting Singapore’s growing community of creatives and makers. WWEdibles also believes in fair transparent pricing and does not take a commission from the bakes or food offered at the workshops.

If you would like to work with WWEdibles for future events, please drop gardenerd.sg@gmail.com an email.

Content

Finally, the workshops are all hands-on with a keen focus on learning-by-doing.

After registration, which is done through payment of the workshop fees, a follow-up email will be sent containing the workshop outline together with the details (location, date, time etc).

Briefly, in the edible flowers workshop, samples of edible flowers are given, together with a talk through the different kinds of edible flowers and a practical session of potting your own flowering plants for taking home.

A similar outline is followed for the asian herbs and fruiting edibles workshops which largely involve learning about different soil and nutrient sources, hands-on mixing of soil and pest management strategies. For the plant-focused workshops, participants should expect to bring home new plants to practice what they’ve learnt during the session.

All materials are provided for our plant-related workshops.

On the other hand, the kueh workshops are focused on the practical skills and techniques of making the various components of the kuehs. From understanding the type of coconut milk used (first press or second press?) or the variety of sweet potatoes (Indonesian honey or purple sweet potato or Japanese?), participants will gain some practical street-knowledge on the making of this traditional treat. An attractive feature of this workshop, is of course, that participants will get to take home steaming hot hand-made kuehs that smell of fragrant coconuts and banana leaf.

Our kueh workshops involve lots of effort and time to prepare from soaking the mung beans a day before to boiling them down and cutting / oiling the banana leafs for the kuehs.

Register

If you’d like to register for the upcoming workshops for the month of Feb – May 2021, please do so through this link: https://forms.gle/p9ByG56ebQL7J8ez8

Kindly note that in compliance with government regulations, workshops are strictly limited to a maximum of 7 pax.

Thank you!

J

Tree-picking: Jackfruits

There is an old jackfruit tree in my backyard which came with the house. It is about 2 and a half stories tall with large branches that encroach towards the kitchen, and into the 2nd level bathroom. Jackfruits take 5-6 years to bear fruit and are most productive after 15 years, given the height, girth of the tree and its fruiting abilities I suppose the one in my yard is at least 30 years old.

Since the history of my estate goes back at least 50 years this tree must’ve been planted by its early homeowners. Another interesting fact is that the Singapore Land Authority / Nparks owns all the large trees within the estate (even those within our private premises/gardens). This being the case, we cannot cut down or trim the trees without their permission. The jackfruit tree thus stands as an (almost) untouched relic, lording over the inhabitants of the home.

Wolf in sheep’s clothes?

The keen eyed reader may have noticed something suspicious by now. What I’ve called a “jackfruit” doesn’t look entirely like one. For those who frequent the wet markets, you may have come across a fruit, similar to jackfruit, called the cempedak. Alittle more about this fruit (from the National Library’s webpage):

Cempedak (Artocarpus integer), also spelt “chempedak”, is a tropical fruit from the Moraceae family. It can be found in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Cempedak is similar to the jackfruit in appearance as well as in the way the fruit is used.  The cultivated species was believed to have come from bangkong, a wild variety of cempedak”“.

More on the (supposed “wild”) bangkong and cempedak:

The bangkong fruit is harvested only for its seeds while the fleshy part (bland testing) is not eaten. It is an important part of the Orang Asli diet, especially when they go hunting for days in the forest. It also provides emergency food rations for rural villages. Wild crop relatives like bangkong are also really important as a genetic resource for plant breeders.

The lack of aroma and taste in the bangkong fruit led Corner to hypothesise that cempedak was domesticated from bangkong. However, another tropical botanist, Richard B. Primack, thought differently. He had found cempedak growing in the most remote forests of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo Island. From this he surmised that cempedak and bangkong originated separately from each other.”

My experience with ripe cempedak is that it has incredibly sweet, custardy flesh that taste akin to jackfruit but with a honey-like heaviness. It also has notes of durian, custard apple and pineapple.

The reason why I (and my friend Chunwai) suspected that the tree had cempadak genes was because of its small long, oblong shape with a “waist” in the middle of the fruit. The spikes on the fruit’s outer skin are also dull and not as sharp as those traditionally found on jackfruits.

Cross-breeding of plants within the Moraceae family (consisting of amongst others – jackfruit, breadfruit, cempedak and bangkong) is extremely common and I am convinced this “jackfruit” is in fact a jackfruit-cempedak hybrid.

But for the purposes of this article and simplicity, we will just refer to this plant as a jackfruit.

When are jackfruits ripe?

Few things to look out for:

  • Seasons – jackfruit harvest season is September to January
  • Smell – tree ripened fruits give off a strong sweet smell
  • Sight – the fruits on our tree turn slightly greenish-yellow when ripe and have black/brown “spots” on the skin, the peduncle (the stem of the fruit connecting it to the tree branch will usually turn fully brown)
  • Touch – the fruit is slightly soft to the touch and will “give” when pressed (as opposed to being firm and hard)

A lesson I’ve learnt with the jackfruit tree in the backyard is not to judge a fruit by its size, smaller fruits can also be ripe if they meet the above-mentioned requirements.

How to harvest jackfruits?

To harvest a ripe jackfruit, you will need an oiled knife and (if the fruit is high in the canopy) a long pole. The oil prevents the white fruit sap from sticking to the knife and allows for easy cutting.

Be very careful when harvesting jackfruits as they are heavy (weighing anywhere between 3kg to 20kg) and can leave you with a serious injury if it falls on you. This was the case with our roof which has dents / holes in them due to the falling fruits.

Here are some lovely pictures taken by my friend Kalya of our harvesting:

Once you have your jackfruit, start by cutting it into two halves again with an oiled knife. If your “jackfruit” is a cempadek hybrid like mine, then oil your hands and dig into the fruit’s rags (which are the stringy bits between the flesh) and pull out the fleshy fruit pods, cutting into the fruit where necessary. I found it useful to cut away the white middle “core” of the jackfruit before pulling out the pods.

How to eat jackfruit?

Jackfruit flesh, seeds and rags are edible, for extremely young jackfruits just peel off the skin with a knife and the whole fruit can be boiled as a starch. The sweet flesh can be added into curries, salads, or desserts and the seeds can be toasted or boiled. They taste like macadamia nuts.

*I would like to thank my wonderful neighbours for lending me their clothing pole to poke down some jackfruits. Hopefully as the final fruits of 2020 ripen, we will have enough to share them (if the squirrels don’t get to them first).

Best,

J.

Balcony herb garden

Happy new year friends!

Today I’m going to share about my balcony garden set-up, for those who are also growing in small spaces – this one is for you.

As some of you may know, I moved into a house along Holland Village awhile ago. It has two patches of garden in the front/back yard and my room came with a street-view balcony.

Admittedly, since I was pre-occupied with the move and settling in proper, I didn’t do much with the balcony until the end of 2020. My intention was always to set up the area with some nice chairs and plants to have an al fresco dining experience – I’ve seen this done in countries like England and Europe where the weather is more forgiving. Thankfully, since I’ve only began establishing the garden in the later part of 2020, I’ve been spared much of the heat given that temperatures have dropped to 21 Degrees from Christmas and the way into the new year.

The estate that I’m currently in is a lot older than my previous one, consequently the street trees are much larger and play host to all sorts of animals. In my short time here, Ive seen flocks of Pied Imperial Pigeons, Asian Glossy Starlings, invasive tree frogs and even civet cats all witnessed from the comforts of my balcony. My housemate often jokes that its like National Geographic, and indeed I wanted to set up the balcony so that I could spend more time observing the happenings at my corner of the street.

In this regard, I do have to thank members of Nature Society and the good people of Instagram for identifying these animals for me.

Another thing which inspired the move to grow a tiny garden were the horrific prices of fresh herbs in the supermarkets near my house, costing anywhere between S$5.00 for a packet of fresh mint from Australia or S$3.00 for those from our neighbouring countries. The first week I moved in, I paid as much money for the herbs (mint, coriander, dill) as I did for the core ingredients (tomatoes, white onion, tortilla) in tacos! Admittedly herbs are more perishable and do not take well to transportation and fridge storage (explaining the high price), which is all the more why I felt compelled to grow them at home.

The Balcony

The balcony is a small 3 m by 1.5 m space which my landlords had covered with turf grass.

I bought landscape cover (S$10), fairy lights (S$15) and silver tassel (S$4) as decorative items for the reels, couldn’t find any pot hangers nearby for sale so I attempted to tie the pots to the reels using cotton and plastic string in what, perhaps was, one of the worst gardening decisions I’ve ever made. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Instead save yourself the trouble and make a visit to World Farm where you can get steel pot hangers for S$12 each.

After fixing the pot-hanger crisis, I went back to my original garden and carried with me, bags of soil, rectangular pots, smaller pots of odd sizes and most importantly, plant cuttings/seedlings. Laksa, mint, marigold, culantro, basil, chilli – all the essential ingredients to a hearty asian stew. Then, I scurried to the wet market and bought dozens of red shallots (for growing my own spring onion – because that would cost an obscene S$1.50 in the supermarket), gotu kola, organic rosemary and thyme for rooting.

The 2 weeks of acquiring the cuttings and seedlings, rooting them and potting them went by like a blur but it felt good getting my hands dirty again. If anything, my experience setting up the balcony garden has shown me that even caring for 20 pots of small herbaceous plants keeps the hobbyist interest alive.

The balcony gets plenty of strong morning / early afternoon sun from 7am to 1pm, this coupled with the persistent rains that have been sweeping past the island have resulted in quick foliage and root growth for the herbs. Unfortunately, the sun is not strong enough for the healthy growth of fruiting edibles such as pumpkins, gourds, eggplants or okras (which need strong afternoon sun) neither would it be an efficient use of space to grow those plants. With herbs, you can use almost every part of the plant, as opposed to fruiting edibles which you harvest only for the fruit.

A benefit of balcony gardening is that you can grow Mediterranean herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme and oregano. In Singapore, these herbs have to be grown in extremely loose and sandy soil under the correct light conditions. Growing them in small pots (as I do) promotes the fast drainage of water from the soil and prevents root rot.

The pride of my garden are the organic thymes (pictured above) which I’ve grown through cuttings, I water them only once every 4 days and they have started to sprout new leaves. They are aesthetically pleasing plants with almost feathery-like olive green branches, extremely fuss-free and pleasant to keep as you can brush your hands past them and they will beam back at you with their warm earthy fragrance. Their counter-parts, the rosemaries, on the other hand are known to incite fear in most tropical gardeners, and for that reason I personally find them less approachable albeit misunderstood.

As an aside, I’ve somehow found myself with more rosemary than I need for the year (very typical of me), and as such, I’ve offered them for sale on site at $8 per pot, orders can be put through Facebook or Instagram (linked to this blog).

3 weeks after the first pot was installed in my garden, things are starting to come together (picture taken before Christmas 2020):

(Pictures taken today, 9 January 2020):

Above is the view from my room.

If you’re wondering what those reddish pink bulbs are (at right-bottom), they are Hao cai tao (red carrot tops). They are grown during Chinese New Year for good luck . “cai tao” which means radish top, sounds similar to the Chinese term for a lucky charm.

Whilst the plants are growing relatively well, I know that it is not at its best yet. New gardens always take a certain amount of time to fully regulate and establish themselves. At the start, you can expect slow growth and plant death because the soil has not been built up. As soil health improves and the plants get used to your space, you may subsequently experience a quick exponential growth spurts.

Balcony gardens are also an effective way of creating a closed loop food system, to build your soil you could compost food waste from your kitchen and use that to fertilise your plants. My partner and I recently purchased a coffee machine and have been trialing it, needless-to-say, much of the “badly” frothed milk and used coffee grounds have gone into the pots. For apartment gardening, you may also consider bokashi composting, although I have not tried it myself.

So far, we have harvested culantro, ghost peppers, spring onions, thyme and mints from the humble balcony space. Below is a picture of herb infused water (pineapple mints and thyme):

Well, that concludes the setting-up of the balcony garden with more updates to come! Thank you for tuning in.

Best,

J.

Sweet Rice Wine (甜米酒) for rainy days

Every time we make peng kueh, my grandma will say – IF we have jiu bing (rice leaven) we can make rice wine.

Of course prior to Covid, I didn’t give much thought about buying jiu bing. My mum never successfully procured it from the wet market or dried goods stalls and gran only buys it when she is in Malaysia (Penang) so we let the topic rest. Jiu bing is one of my grandmas most prized kitchen ingredients because she uses it to make Wa Ko Kueh a type of sweet steamed rice cake that is very soft, fluffy and slightly chewy. It is used in buddhist prayers as offerings because it is vegetarian, relatively “easy” to make and stores very well as a display. I have to say that my grandma’s Wa Ko Kueh is probably one of the best I’ve eaten, it is usually dyed pink, green or orange and has almost a snow-like texture, with a light elevating smell of sweet rice.

There are many recipes online about how to make Wa Ko Kueh, or Bai Tang Gao. But the main aim of this post is to talk about the fundamental ingredient – Sweet Rice Wine or Jiu Niang.

Ask an average singaporean what Jiu Niang is and they probably wouldn’t know. But most people know about Korean makgeolli which is pretty much the same thing in terms of taste. Jiu Niang is a very traditional chinese rice wine drink made from 3 ingredients – Rhizopus oryzae and/or Aspergillus oryzae (jiu bing / rice leaven), glutinous rice, water. Interestingly, my grandma informed me that Rhizopus oryzae is the same mould used for tempeh making, so you could technically use rice leaven meant for jiu niang on soy beans and wrap it in banana leaves. It makes sense to me because what Rhizopus oryzae does is to break down starch (from soy bean / rice) into simple sugars, and based on what I’ve seen from the Jiu Niang brewing process, it forms white mycelium like those seen on tempeh. From the above, you would have gathered that there is no YEAST in Jiu Niang (only fungus which produces alcohol). However, people do introduce brewer’s yeast (and sugar) into their Jiu Niang at some stages of fermentation to speed up the alcohol production process.

Rice leaven comes in 2 forms, first as a hard white ball and second, in powdered form.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to find the first type of rice leaven in Singapore (we previously got ours from Penang) so I would recommend trying to get the powdered form. You can buy it from Shopee by searching “Alcohol Yeast” / “Rice Leaven” / “Fermented Rice Wine Alcohol Yeast”, eg links: https://shopee.sg/10-Bags-Alcohol-Yeast-Active-Dry-Yeast-Wine-Song-Glutinous-Rice-Koji-Powder-i.182890393.2907154517 (I am not sure why it is referred to as an yeast when it is a fungi). As for the glutinous rice, you can purchase it from any dried goods stall, wet market or supermarket.

Recipe

Ingredients

2 teaspoon of rice leaven

1 kg glutinous rice

1 cup cold water

Method

First, the glutinous rice needs to be washed 8 times. Then left to soak for 24 hours or until the rice breaks apart easily between two fingers.

Second, drain all the water and steam the rice in a steamer over the stove. When cooking glutinous rice, you do not need to add water into the rice dish. If the rice looks too dry over the course of cooking it, simply sprinkle some water over. After 20 minutes take the rice off the steamer. Then slowly mix in 1 cup of cold water until all the water is “absorbed” by the rice. At this point you should have plump perfect looking glutinous rice that is able to hold shape. Do not add too much water as it hinders fermentation and prevents you from shaping it into final form. Let rice cool down.

Third, start preparing a metal pot (with lid) and utensils (spoon) by washing everything thoroughly and ensuring there is no acid or oils in the jar as that will destroy all attempts at proper fermentation. Pour boiling water over all kitchen equipment and let cool at one side. *NOTE: some families are very particular about rice wine making, and only allow one family member to manage the process. There are some superstitions associated with the fermentation such as leaving a piece of unburnt black charcoal over the lid of the fermentation pot to chase away bad spirits (preventing the wine from spoiling), or avoiding saying rude or unhappy things near the pot.

Fourth, once glutinous rice is cooled, add it into the pot and mix in the rice leaven. Then, shape it into a well. Put on the lid and leave aside in a dark cool corner of your kitchen. As the days pass, the well will start filling with sweet alcohol (see below).

Between 1 – 2 days you should notice some bubbles forming in your glutinous rice, that is a good sign. On day 3, a white layer of mould will appear on your glutinous rice as the fungus colonises and breaks down the starch. Only be concerned when you spot black dots of mould on your rice, if that happens then just use a clean spoon (sterilised with hot water) to scoop it off. There should be a puddle of delicious sweet rice wine in the well by day 3 – 4. After that, something strange happens. The glutinous rice starts to loosen shape and the well disappears. This could be due to the aggressive bubbling activity from the rice leaven that dislodges the rice particles from their well shape. By day 5 you will notice a layer of glutinous rice floating above a hazy white liquid which is your rice wine. At this point you can harvest your rice wine by putting everything through a muslin cloth, straining out the liquid (rice wine) and keeping aside the glutinous rice sediments.

When my grandpa discovered that we were fermenting rice wine in our kitchen, he jumped from his seat and came to try some. Apparently it is his favourite drink and thankfully he approved of the brew. He told me that he used to buy fermented rice wine from his friend (who makes it at home) because he couldn’t find it in the supermarket or anywhere else in Singapore. Then insisted that we cook jiu zao rou or fermented rice pork for dinner.

Without going into too much detail, he basically browned the pork, then cut it into cubes. Fried the glutinous rice sediment with fermented beans and chilli in oil, then added in the pork cubes topped off by some water. This was left to boil down for 2 hours to rid it of the alcoholic taste from the fermented rice bits and to soften the pork cubes. As with most dishes that have fermentation elements, this was pack full of umami flavour, saltiness, sourness and a residual taste of the wine. Perfect for dipping with Wa Ko Kueh and a small cosy family dinner as the rains made their scheduled appearance again.

Hope this recipe inspires you to try something new this weekend.

Always,

J.

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.

Garden-to-Stove: Lei Cha (擂茶)

In Singapore, Lei Cha is prepared by many members of community (allotment) gardens simply because it is the best representation of the harvest within the plots and it is extremely healthy. It was supposedly first created by a Chinese physician-farmer to feed troops during the warring Three Kingdoms period in China. And subsequently, Hakka farmers started drinking it both during and after work in the tobacco fields in order to fortify their bodies.

Today, lei cha can be found prepared by some restaurants and food courts in Singapore but overseas I find it being served most often in temples or tea houses.  Being a dish with a long history there are a few time-weathered methods (“principles”) of preparing lei cha that some people abide by. First, only fresh herbs and vegetables are used; Second, the lei cha paste must be pounded in an earthen vessel with a wooden pestle made from the trunk of a fruit tree (guava, jambu etc); Third, each component must be prepared separately (ie. the lei cha paste / tea, rice, accompanying vegetables) and at the end they must come together harmoniously as if they were made with each other in mind.

The most difficult part about lei cha, is the third principle, which is gaining a sense of how to prepare the component parts so that they compliment each other when mixed and eaten. If one understands the building blocks of taste and textures in lei cha, then you can easily switch out the ingredients depending on what you have available to you.

As for the second principle, the reason for using a fruit tree’s trunk as a pestle to grind the lei cha paste is supposedly to add a sweet woody aroma to it. Some Hakka families have pestles which have been passed down through many generations, the most common types of wood being guava. If you dont have such a pestle, then use a blender.

Going into the recipe proper.

Tea Paste

Ingredients: 2 cups thai basil, 1 cup mint, 3 coriander plants (incl tap roots), 2 sprouted spring onions, a few stalks ku li xin (Trifoliate Acanthopanax), 2 mugwort plants, 3 tbsp of black Chinese tea (eg oolong or pu er), 4 cloves garlic, 4 cloves shallots, 0.5 cup of peanuts, some sesame seeds.

Lei cha is a deeply personal dish, the proportion of the ingredients is largely up to you so long as the following elements are met: front forward nutty taste, followed by fresh herby flavour with bitterness and aroma of tea. Peanuts, basil, mint, mugwort, ku li xin and the chinese tea is what gives lei cha its distinctive taste. Essentially, you need to balance out the heaviness of the peanut with the lightness of the basil, mint and mugwort. The ku li xin and Chinese tea add the bitterness to the paste which I find is necessary for lei cha. If you do not have ku li xin (it is not sold in wet / super markets in Singapore), then simply replace with another type of bitter herb like King of Bitters which is a wild weed or add more Chinese tea into the paste mix.

Method: Fry the peanuts until light brown, set aside, use the same oil to fry the herbs and the Chinese tea leaves. Cool down both components, then blend (or use an earthen vessel with a fruit tree pestle to pound….). After a paste has formed, add 2.5 – 3 cups of cool water to the paste and keep grinding / pounding. Add salt and sugar to taste. Here, include slightly more salt than you would keeping in mind that the tea is going to be poured over rice and should flavour it.

Rice

Ingredients: 1.5 cups of rice (washed), 1.5 cups of water, 4 tbsp of cai po (fermented sweet radish), 4 cloves of garlic (chopped).

Method: Combine 1.5 cups of rice with the 1.5 cups of water to.. cook the rice in a rice cooker… After that, in a hot wok add 3 – 4 tbsp shallot oil and the chopped garlic, fry until almost brown, then add the cai po. Once the garlic lightly browns, add in the rice. The oil should coat the rice lightly to prevent it from lumping together (keeping it fluffy) but do not add too much or the oil will float up when you add the lei cha tea.

Vegetables

The first principle relates most to this component, so use the freshest vegetables that you can find. The “standard” lei cha vegetables are long bean, bok choy, four corner wing bean and fried / firm tofu. The shared characteristics of these vegetables are that they are crunchy and juicy without an overpowering flavour. Peanuts are also often added. The reason for this is that when you add the lei cha tea into the rice, you need the other ingredients with a firmer / crunchier texture to stand out. For example, if you only used soft vegetables in your lei cha like boiled down cabbage or mashed sweet potato it would disintegrate into the tea and would be rather bland to eat. In that connection, never overcook your vegetables. Anybody who has made lei cha will tell you that the cooking of the vegetables takes the shortest time out of the 3 components.

Long beans – 3 minutes in boiling water

Pumpkins cooked with oyster sauce and soy sauce and roasted peanuts – 5 minutes

Kang Kong with garlic and soy sauce – 4 minutes

Do not add too much seasoning (such as chilli etc) to your vegetables, as they’ll just melt away into your lei cha tea. All you want to do is cook the vegetable to an acceptable doneness (not raw) and add salt to push out some of the flavour notes.

After all this is done, plate up and enjoy!

I hope this post inspires you to try making lei cha at home.

It’s extremely rewarding because you get to adjust the recipe according to your preferences. For example, the lei cha paste I make for myself has added laksa leaves, ginger, dried ramie nettle and lemon basil. As you can guess, the lei cha tea is therefore more herby and strong flavoured with citrus notes. If I make lei cha for my mum, I would add more peanuts and sesame seeds with less herbs, she also prefers it more diluted so I add more water to the paste. To each his own.

Always,

J.

Growing Ken’s Special Pumpkin in Singapore

Here’s another one from the Garden Journal: Ken’s Special Pumpkin. This is the most common type of pumpkin grown in Singapore and also termed ‘Japanese pumpkin’. I recall seeing dozens of these being sold at Spectra Primary School’s farmer’s market last year and wanted to grow it ever since. Its a highly ornamental ribbed-skinned pumpkin which tastes great roasted with some sea salt and pepper.

I bought the seeds off a florist at block 453 Ang Mo Kio at Chong Boon Market, the stall vendor owns a small plot at Lim Chu Kang (‘LCK’) and always sells bags of freshly picked young four-winged beans or Chinese traditional medicine (weeds mostly). We became friends after she caught me snooping around the bags of herbs and asked if I knew what they were – at that point I had just set up the SMU TCM Herb section and replied with their names. She was shocked – could a lowly millennial really know the wisdom of Lao Tzu.. I convinced her by saying the only thing aunties get assured by: “aiyah aunty… my ah ma teach me one”.

Nowadays when I walk past she’d be sure to say “girl today have wild bitter gourd” or “Si Fang Dou lai le (four winged bean is here already)” – she knows that I’m her most loyal customer and will buy anything she throws at me from the LCK plot. Recently she started to sell seeds too, from a brand called “Go Organic”. This is the same brand I saw being sold at Gardener’s Day Out, so I bought one pack of pumpkin seeds to try out.

HOW TO GROW KEN’S SPECIAL PUMPKIN

First, plant the seeds 2cm deep into the soil and at least 15 cm apart. I grew two vines in one big styrofoam box. I recorded planting my seeds sometime late November 2019.

Relying on whats recorded in my book:

The vine started to reach across out of the styrofoam box, into the vegepod and it started to sink its roots into the empty patches of soil. Usually these roots would emerge from a node under a leaf before diving into the soil.

(Following from sowing on November 2019) By 21 December 2019, the vine had its first buds of male flowers. Typically the flowers form around the same height as the leaf stalks. The leaves tend to adjust themselves to be sun-facing but as a result they are susceptible to catching rain drops (the leaves are also furry resulting in trapping of moisture) causing powdery mildew (fungus) to form. For my vine, the risk of mildew forming was even greater since I was growing the pumpkin as ground-cover for my Thai solider beans which covered the upper canopy and caused the growing site to be very humid and shady. I mitigated this by only watering onto the soil avoiding the leaves, and by cutting away any yellowing or weak leaves which tend to foster the evil mildew. Proper fertilisation is needed to prevent fungal attacks – high P / K.

NOTE: Pumpkins tend to form male flowers first, (approx one week) BEFORE producing female flowers, the reason for this is simple; the vine “trains” nearby bees to visit the male flowers regularly so that when the female flower appears the bees would already be in the habit of visiting the (male) flowers on the vine and would pollinate the females.

On 24 December 2019, the vine was 3.5 meters long and bore its first female flowers. There were two of them. But unfortunately, both decided that the vine was not ready to fruit, so they turned yellow and fell off after 3 days. The disappointment was immeasurable ( I told myself that I would be happy with just fried pumpkin flowers stuffed with cheese – *I wasn’t*).

Then came 12 January 2020, when I brought my friends Jie Hui and Hailin to the garden and we saw the first promising female bloom. Admittedly, by the time we spotted it, it was already pollinated by the bees. This was obvious from the exaggerated bulge of the ovary. But I did my due diligence: plucked off one male flower and positioned the fused pollen-covered anther (male parts) to touch the stigma (female part). I then left the male flower over the female flower and went away for the afternoon. The next morning, I removed the spent male flower and repeated the process with another fresh male flower. The point of this is to (1) ensure that the pollen touches the stigma and (2) to use the male flower as a shade to cover the stigma whilst pollination is happening so the pollen is not exposed to direct sunlight. This trick was taught to me by a farmer at Green Valley Farms who successfully grew 15kg winter melons, she didn’t provide any reasons for why she fused the two flowers together but this much I can guess.

By 16 January 2020, the ovary was swollen and the ridges started to form. I covered the fruit with shade netting and supported it on a metal pole that I hung above. I chose to grow the pumpkin aerially so that it wouldn’t rot on the moist soil or be vulnerable to pest attacks – seems like a good decision as the pumpkin was free from blemishes and developed an even colour throughout its skin (I notice that some pumpkins have slight discolouration at the spot where they were placed on the ground).

The netting allows sufficient air and sunlight through.

HOW TO HARVEST A KEN’S SPENCIAL PUMPKIN

On 5 February 2020, I harvested the pumpkin, there are a few ways to tell if a pumpkin is ripe:

  • gently tap on the pumpkin to see if it makes a hollow sound, if it does it should be ready for picking;
  • the outer skin should be covered in a white coating, the colours (green and white) should become duller (into olive and yellow respectively);
  • the stem connecting the pumpkin to the main vine should be brown and dry;
  • the skin should be very hard and difficult to pierce with your finger nail (don’t try this with supermarket pumpkins, people sure will scold you);
  • For ken’s special harvest it 1 month after confirmed pollination of the female flower;
  • Weighs usually between 1 – 3 kg (mine was 1.8kg, approx 50 inches circumference).

Leave the pumpkin to “cure” for 10 – 14 days after harvest this allows the pumpkin to develop more flavour and ripen up. The pumpkin turns orange after being cured.

Me: Clearly very chuffed with my pumpkin and thinking “who was I kidding I would have been devastated with just cheesy stuffed pumpkin flowers.

TASTING NOTES

The Ken’s Special taste little like sweet potato but with a firmer flesh, it is not particularly fibrous which is a good thing. My recommendation would be to cut it into thin slices and roast it in the oven with salt and pepper until browned. The sugars from the pumpkin will caramelise and release all of its umami flavours. The benefit of growing pumpkins is that they improve with time and storing pumpkins for a few months is an option if you have a bumper harvest – if not, Im sure your friends and family wouldn’t mind taking a few off you.

As always, I am trying a new variety of pumpkins in the garden this season – Thai Rai Kaw Tok Pumpkin which is flatter, speckled and more ribbed than the Ken’s Special. Will keep everyone updated on the process.

Till then – keep growing,

J.

Growing Japanese Summer Corn in Singapore

Sometime mid-August this year, I scheduled a visit to Kyoto for the annual summer pottery festival and cormorant fishing at Arashiyama. I also wanted to revisit the farming towns along Lake Biwa and try the summer fish that I heard so much about. Enroute up from Kyoto to Lake Biwa, we passed by fields after fields of rice plantations and stopped at a trout farm by the mountains for lunch. These farming practices are a testament to the pristine waters of the Shiga Prefecture.

Since we were visiting the area, I couldn’t pass up a chance to explore the Omihachiman canals. The canals, also known as hachiman-bori used to be an old merchant’s quarter and is known as japan’s Venice. There are many small shops that line the canal.

As mentioned above, Shiga prefecture is known for its quality agricultural produce, since I visited during the summer months when fruits and vegetables are at their peak I made it a point to go to a local farmer’s market. The one we visited is called ‘Omi Green Farmer’s Market’ located near Bakery&Cafe KiKi where we got our morning bread and coffee.

As you can tell the Market was very busy and it sold all sorts of rare and interesting produce like arab okras (small and stubby cousins of the green ladys fingers we have in Singapore, pictured below), white egg plants, pink mushrooms, blue potatoes and a huge variety of pumpkins and squash, some of which are ornamental.

On your right, you can see a man holding what appears to be a stalk of corn that has been cut down with the ear still intact. The cut ends were still moist and white, this clearly evinced the freshness of the corn. Some of you may be familiar with Hokkaido White Corn, popularised by its sweet fruit-like kernels that can be eaten raw (and are sometimes served in high end restaurants as a dessert), but the ones sold at this market were yellow.

I reproduce an extract of an article from Japan Times about corn in Japanese culture:

Sweet corn was first grown domestically in Hokkaido in the 1900s, when the northern island underwent large-scale development as farmland, but it didn’t become widely popular until the 1950s and ’60s. Hokkaido still dominates domestic corn production. Sweet corn is now a familiar and popular vegetable around the country, and fresh corn is a welcome fixture during the summer.

While purists prefer it to be simply boiled in salt water, a very Japanese way of cooking corn on the cob is to boil it briefly and then grill it while brushing the surface with soy sauce or a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sugar. The nutty, salty flavor of the burned soy sauce is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the corn, and the smell as it cooks is irresistible. Grilled corn on the cob is a regular item at summertime festivals and barbecues.

by Makiko Itoh

Whilst my pops and I were able to try the grilled Japanese summer corn at the farmers market, I was curious to grow the yellow variety in my garden. Thankfully, I only had to go to the florist section to find an array of vegetable seeds, including yellow Japanese corn.

HOW TO GROW YELLOW JAPANESE SUMMER CORN

First, plant the seeds in moist loamy soil, that is 3:2:1 of potting soil, compost and rice husk/perlite.

Corn needs at least 4-5 KG of soil and a big pot to grow well.

For reference, I planted my seeds on 14 August in my large vegepod which has a depth of about 30cm.

Relying on whats recorded in my notebook:

By 19 August the corn was 8cm tall; by 23 August it hit 12 cm, on 8 September it was 25 cm, finally reaching 50-60cm by 21 September.

At this stage, the tassels started to grow.

The tassels are the male flowers on the top of the corn stalk that produce pollen. In corn plantations, wind pollination is sufficient for the pollen to reach the female part of the corn (ie the silk).

However, if you are growing corn at a housing corridor, rooftop garden or small-scale in a community garden/farm you will need to manually pollinate for fruit.

From my experience and research, I discovered that the tassels (male part) usually appear 3-4 days before the silk on the ear (female part). Once the tassels appear they will start producing pollen, each branch of tassel will open at different times (staggered blooming for the male corn flowers). Corn pollen is viable for 6 days if stored properly.

HOW TO STORE CORN POLLEN

With the above timelines in mind, you may now appreciate why corn pollen needs to be collected each time the tassels bloom (because the female sexual organs only appear 3-4 days later). That said, as pictured above, I collected the pollen, dried them in a cool breezy area for 1 hour and stored them in my freezer.

When the silk finally appeared, I carefully sprinkled the stored pollen over all of the silk ensuring that the male gametes are captured. This is an easy step as corn silk is “sticky” and pollen will adhere to it easily.

I then repeated this process 3 times over a span of 3 days.

This picture was taken on 8 October, you can see how well the kernels have developed but this ear of corn is not ready for harvesting.

WHEN TO HARVEST CORN

Sliced corn and corn ‘milk’

Knowing when to harvest your corn is extremely important. Pre-mature harvesting of the ear will yield tough and fibrous kernels that are not good for eating. Here are three ways to tell whether your corn is ripe:

  1. The silk has turned brown or black – the dying back of the silk indicates that pollination has been complete and the kernels are forming;
  2. The kernels are rounded and not pointed at the tip;
  3. The kernels fill the gaps on the cob and give the ear a ‘full’ appearance;
  4. If you press open one kernel it should produce a milky white substance, ‘corn milk’.

WARNING: when the corn becomes ripe, it gives of a sweet smell that attracts many insects and birds, protect your corn by wrapping it with plastic.

Continuing from above, I harvested this batch of corn on 17 October – approximately 2 months after I sowed the seeds.

I was extremely satisfied with this cycle. Not only did the kernels form (almost) completely around the cob, they were also succulent and sweet. Just like the Hokkaido white corn. If I had to give a taste analogy, Id say its akin to a crunchy star apple/milk fruit with a “beany” aftertaste.

I am now moving on to growing multicoloured gem corns. Hopefully they are as successful as this little experiment.

Till then,

J.