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.

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.