There's no accounting for taste. At a recent birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant, the birthday host announced with great enthusiasm the arrival of his favorite course, Bitter Gourd ( also known as Bitter Melon). Really? I'm pretty easy going with food and can manage most things but this vegetable, I despise, its so bitter. I don't get it, how can anyone 'enjoy' this. It's good for you, it has plenty of Iron my Dad always says when it shows up for dinner and I crinkle my nose. He's right, nutritionally, there's high amounts of beta carotene, potassium and iron, and there's some evidence that it has medicinal and therapeutic properties. I had it at a South Indian restaurant, and cooked with coconut and spices, it's more tolerable.
I discovered this interesting green at the supermarket, pretty like a giant clover leaf , see pic on left. It's bitter, but in the range of Water Cress or Broccoli Rabe and I've been enjoying it in soups and as a raw vegetable side. I've subsequently tracked it down from its local name (Pucuk Pegaga) to discover that it is in fact Centella Asiatica or Gotu Kula. The latter name is one that I've often seen in NYC health shops sharing shelf space with the likes of Echinacea, and Gingko Biloba, its claimed property- mental clarity. It seems the triterpenoids it contains has properties that benefit things from wound healing to insomnia.
I noticed a jar of dried leaves (pic on the right) in the kitchen and asked the maid what they were. I take it for coughs, she said. She walked me outside to show me the plant and said it's better to take it fresh- three leaves rolled up together and swallowed whole. It is wickedly bitter and a relatively common weed, I see it growing all over. It's Andrographis Paniculata, an ancient herb that's used in both Traditional Chinese and Ayuredic systems, also known as Indian Echinacea. There's evidence that it may be effective in the treatment of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection.
The taste perception of bitterness, has an interesting paradox, we are genetically wired to reject bitter foods as the taste frequently represents danger or toxicity. However, the phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates in plants that are bitter can also, in small doses be beneficial. This dilemna, interestingly has different responses and approaches - in the west through selective breeding and other methods, debittering is a process often found in the food industry in response to the consumer avoidance of these foods rich in phytonutrients and therapeutic properties. Here in the east - bitter foods are regularly served and this is not including the already high rotation of bitter-ish vegetables like mustard greens and chinese broccoli and any protest usually met with- but it's good for you.
I recently spent an evening at Lost Malaya, a gallery and lounge that owners Chris and Alisa want to make a social hub for creative locals to mingle, show and enjoy each others work. It’s housed in an elegant and beautifully restored colonial property thanks to their enthusiasm and tuned sensibilities for the aesthetics of this era.
Up in the lounge, large open windows on three sides invited the evening glow to spill in. Looking out from it’s slight hillside vantage, I experience much more than the languid sunset views over the narrow Johor Straits to Singapore. It’s a poignant glimpse back to the landscape of my childhood. A little way down this same waterfront street is the house where I spent my first dozen years, a little further down from that, the hospital where I was born.
In this landscape an eternity ago, I climbed Mango trees, made Lalang grass arrows and chewed regularly on Begonia flowers because I liked their sour flavor. I hunted for stray eggs in the Hibiscus hedge that the neighbour’s chickens would sometimes lay. Days would be spent collecting the bright red seeds of the Saga tree and the exploded pods of the kapok tree, to name a couple of things from the bounty of flora that provided the daily resources for play. The fauna of Cicadas, Emerald Beetles and Fighting Spiders provided even more.
Is the similarity of the salt water ponds landscape of Rhode Island to this one what drew me to spend time there? Even the Cape Cod wooden clapperboard houses stir memories of the tropical wooden colonial ones I grew up with. The landscape of ‘home’ fascinates me. I was stirred reading a post about personal landscapes to reflect on my adopted landscapes, both English and American. I remember acutely when people talk about this, like the Swedish house guest who also likened the watery Rhode Island landscape to his Nordic home or my Serbian friend who told me that on seeing the African Savannah landscape for the first time she felt without knowing why, that she was ‘home’.
The house we used to live in has mutated over the decades, the verandahs walled in, the property shrunk and denatured. The road itself is currently a massive construction site as they dig and build a six lane highway. The muddy beach in front of our house where I chased hermit crabs, and dug up green cockle clams, the sandier Lido Beach where we went to swim at the weekends, gone, buried under the harsh new landscape of ‘progress’.
As I write this, I’m googling and finding more formal ideas about Environmental psychology, scratching the surface of a subject of increasing interest with urbanization and climate change. I found this intriguing term - “solastalgia” a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’ in the NYTimes article Is there an Ecological Unconscious?
The view out of the Lost Malaya window has triggered a less formal but revelatory insight, one that spans decades and continents. I do in fact have a personal landscape, with discernible components - wooden structures, ribbon strips of land and water, an environment rich with natural and botanic interactivity. I have in fact been ‘homesick’ all these years but this malady has responded well to an intuitive treatment plan of sojourns to Rhode Island and Cape Cod and gardening time in Mamaroneck. It’s a sad irony that this home sickness seems to be strongest now that I actually am, home.
Orchids, or certain varieties of them, do well in the cool, mild, San Francisco climate and my year long stint of living in that city was the only time I ever owned one. It was a gorgeous blue, perhaps this one. It was already in a mossy pot when I bought it and when I placed it in the mossy courtyard in front of the indigo noren that graced the front door of my Potrero cottage, it looked like it had always belonged there.
Here, orchids are native and ubiquitous, I see them everywhere. Our Phalaenopsis are blooming, all three of them. The first one, pictured left, was in bloom when I arrived four months ago, and still going strong. The other two are just sending out flower buds. The orchid on the right, an Oncidium I think, was just outside my room in Pulau Tioman.
There's a gorgeous almost black purple one in the supermarket which I might just have to get one of these days which means I'll have to figure out their strange cultivation. The ones we have at home are growing in a pot full of charcoal and crushed brick. I see them also planted in coconut husks and slatted wooden containers, it's all very odd. I'll be visiting a family member soon who is an avid collector of wild orchids, so I will get the lowdown on this.
In the meantime, I've discovered they make great subjects for floral portraits with their interesting sculptural shapes and rich variety of color.
Night markets are cool. Literally. Nightfall brings relief from the heat and glare of the tropical sun and the streets come alive with all kinds of commerce. I'm in Singapore just about to catch a taxi home but stray a little to find myself on the edge of Little India where the produce I saw a few weeks ago has overflowed onto the streets and drawn a large crowd. Bright fluorescent bulbs illuminate heaps of verdant produce. Walls and pillars of teal, pink, chartreuse and a myriad of colored canopies, buntings and signs paint a vivid scene. I'm surprised at how quiet it is. The vendors neither hustle nor hawk, the shoppers are focussed and deliberate, quietly examining, selecting and filling their bags and baskets.
Is that spinach? I ask a lady. It's Indian spinach she says, that's spinach pointing to another green next to it. The other green, although known here as Spinach or Bayam is in fact Amaranth, and has a slightly hairier texture than Spinach. I mull over its Indian cousin that I don't recognize, undecided. It's a huge bundle and I don't really want to be carrying too much through customs. Same reasoning occludes taking home the long thin drumstick vegetables. They look amazing and every shopper has some in their bag. I've had them before and can only a conjure up a fleeting mental sketch of what their taste and texture is like. I settle for some eggplants, those super cute little ones and get a free bunch of cilantro with my purchase.