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).



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.



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.


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.


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.