Turmeric is not an unfamiliar spice. Its color and earthy flavor is universally known as a component of curry powder or used individually in food preparation primarily for its intense yellow color hence it's moniker as the poor man's Saffron. Usually found in powder form, the fresh version I might find very occasionally in New York City's Chinatown. Here however, the small rhizomes are easily purchased from the markets and grocery stores. The rich saffron color is a surprise when you slice into the drab skinned root.
This article lists summaries for 200 recent peer reviewed studies on this herb spice. Clearly it's anti inflammatory, anti oxidant and anti cancer properties are of keen scientific interest, although it's effectiveness remains unclear. Herbalist Karen Vaughan's interesting article on Turmeric inspired me to try a mash up of the ideas she presented. Instead of using powdered, I sieved the liquid from a pounded turmeric root and stirred that into some local honey. Instead of milk, I stirred the turmeric honey into some live yogurt.
It was really quite nice, the earthiness of the turmeric (without the slight bitterness that comes with the powdered version) seemed like a natural fit with the local honey and the creamy custard color of the combiation was very appealing. I think there's potential here for an interesting smoothie with some frozen fruit.
Heading back to my hotel at dusk in Singapore's chinatown, I decided on a whim to make a detour. The golden light lit up one of the many old shopfronts down a sidestreet painted in an exquisite pairing of colors and I went looking for more. That's where I found an art gallery, painted in a striking deep coral with stripped wooden shutters, it's front yard crowded with a large Frangipani tree. Talk about exquisite pairings, the deep pink flowers riffed off the coral, the branches echoed the brown shutters but syncopated their geometry. I was mesmerized by the artistry of the pairing and wondered about it's provenance, was it inherited, beautiful happenstance or a series of considered choices by the artist who owns the gallery.
The next day at the Peranakan Museum another wonderful pairing with a different vibe. This time a yellow Frangipani that harmonized beautifully with the pale blue and green paint tones, the glossy leaves echoing the dark green ceramic banisters. This time the arch of the branches complemented the building's archways and the leaf detail plaster accents softened its contrast with the rhythmic lines of the building. What extraordinarily good luck to find two great examples of nature and architecture combined.
Despite the beauty of these Frangipani trees, they always arouse a sense of conflict with me, a quick search reminded me why. In this part of the world they are also known as the Graveyard Tree and it extends to the neighbouring countries too where they are also associated with ghosts, graveyards and funerals. Their branches apparently shelter demons, their scent attracting vampires. Silly, of course they don't. Since then I've seen the flowers threaded into Hawaian leis and known their familiar scent evoked in Nag Champa a hippie, counter culture essential. Walk down any touristy street, St Marks Place, New York City or Haight Ashbury, San Francisco and the waft of this popular incense is omnipresent. The positive associations abound and many homes here, now have pretty minature trees in pots. But still, it's hard to shake off these embedded childhood associations.
Rabindrath Tagore's 'The Champa Flower' captures the experience of this tree well, how passing under it you might find a fallen blossom and notice a scent that makes you look up. That might be the root of its legend as the scent is strongest at night and you're more likely to look up at the eerie embrace of its branches in search of the source of its rich (ghostly?) sweet smell.
There are a few local/native plant materials used here that effortlessly fulfill a growing global desire for products that are natural, eco friendly and sustainable. In the case of rattan, a fast growing jungle weed, a couple more labels can be attached, handmade and vintage/heritage. To this day the steaming, bending and weaving of canes requires an artisanal hand. The catalogue of classic designs made from this material is substantial- my particular favorites are steamer loungers from the thirties, french baroque pieces with woven inserts, mid century modern shapes like the one pictured and of course the iconic three piece tropical lounge set replete with tropical motif covered cushions. Add washable natural fiber cushion covers and latex cushions to the latter and you have another label, hypoallergenic.
The material is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in my childhood when rattan furniture was ubiquitous in almost every home, the wet markets would be filled with shoppers carrying rattan baskets to port their wares home where they also scratched their backs and swatted flies with gadgets fashioned out of this material. The baskets, it could be reasonably argued, are unnecessarily heavy in comparison to the plastics that have replaced them. However the airy design of rattan furniture, the dry cool touch of the material itself justifies a lament for it's decline and replacement with entirely inappropriate ( if not aesthetically then, certainly functionally) upholstered western style furniture.
I have to admit there are rattan pieces that I don't like - top of my list would be the wicker laundry basket that has become the staple of container and budget furniture stores everywhere. Therein probably lies the reason for the decline of rattan furniture here- it became too common and is percieved to be old fashioned and cheap. A quick search on the internets yielded a couple of designs that were pretty cool and certainly not cheap like this and these.
Outside the terrace houses of Heeren Street, ( with the air wells I wrote about in my last post) there is typically, an assortment of terracota and salt glazed pots filled with an assortment of plants- everything from small fruit trees to large and small pots of foliage or flowering plants. What stood out were the pots filled with water and home to an assortment of lotus, water lettuce, duckweed and occasionally- fish.
The pots weren't extraordinary, usually terracota and they didn't seem to mind if the pot leaked a little as it all ended up in the monsoon drain in front. Or there were the green lined salt glazed kind usually decorated with dragons. On parallel Jonker Street, the antique stores had for sale larger, grander versions which I think were originally storage jars. I loved these two with botanic motifs on them- the hole gets stoppered with a giant cork. They were huge, stacked up, they almost reached the height of the doorway.
If I were to pick one type of garden that I would want above all others, I would without hesitation and unreservedly choose an interior courtyard garden, just like one of these pictured above that I saw in Malacca last week. The first two images were taken at the rustic guesthouse I stayed in, with a plumeria/frangipani tree, hanging ferns, bamboo and a mossy pool. It was a lush space with cool shadows, birds and flowers. I brushed my teeth 'outside' staring at a giant tropical blue flower that I did not recognize.
These aren't glassed in spaces with skylights, they are open interior gardens architected to break up long narrow terrace houses, bringing light and the outdoors into a private space indoors. The ground floor is usually a courtyard with chairs and tables or an extension of the kitchen. Upstairs, walkways wrap around and shuttered bedroom windows open out into these verdant air wells, the grander houses with not one but two. High ceilings and carved porous vents between rooms allow the air cooled by pockets of deep shadow to circulate with a little help from some strategically placed fans. Genius.
Sadly these exquisite ideas of space and light have been replaced with tighter, closed in, easy to air condition modern alternatives and these interior courtyards can only be found in places like Malacca and Penang, relics of another era. They are also an eclectic fusion of design and materials, a hybrid of east and west, drawing from Chinese and European Colonial architectural traditions.