What's the Malay word for Mint?, I ask my dad at the market, determined to get some this time. He walks over to the lady whose vegetable stand we're at and asks her if she has the herb you put in Penang Laksa. Why didn't I think of that- I've tried unsuccessfully describing it as crinkly, fresh tasting, the flavor in toothpaste- to blank looks. Penang Laksa, a Thai influenced riff on the local Laksa characteristically has mint in it. She deliberates, then points to some bundles, at first indistiguishable from the others in a huge pile, but I'll be durned, it's mint. This is the herb I was asking you about, what do you call it in Indonesia?, I ask the maid when we get home. I don't know, we don't use it there, she replies.
Interestingly the herb she does use a lot of is something called Daun Salam (the largest leaf in the picture) or Indonesian Bay Leaf. I've eaten it many times now in the dishes she's prepared but can't really tell you exactly what is it's unique flavor except that it's fairly complex, subtle, certainly not like a bay leaf, perhaps smoky and plays a visual role too like dark green Basil leaves in a tomato sauce. They don't seem to use it much locally here either, I don't think I've had it before now, which might explain why it's one of the few herbs she has growing in the garden to ensure it's supply.
We both however are familiar with Kaffir Lime leaves, Citrus Hystrix (the twin lobed leaf), but we use them differently. She uses them as an interesting accent particularly in a heavily spiced meat curry called Rendang which immediately distinguishes it from the local Malay version and also in a fried crispy snack with rice flour and peanuts. I use them in Thai recipes like Green Curry or Tom Yum where the leaves work with lime juice and lemon grass to broaden flavors that are all about sharp, sour and citrus. She says there are many trees in her village with this leaf. I remember first discovering lime leaves as a young boy on vacation in Thailand only because I remember my mother scrutinizing the dish, analyzing it's ingredients in the hope of recreating it when we got home.
Then there are Curry Leaves, Murraya Koenigii where we share some common ground- they are used almost exclusively in Indian curries. I learnt how to use them as a young adult watching Madhur Jaffrey on TV, she did working for an Indian family prior to working for us. I am tempted to experiment with this Ayurvedic staple as a replacement for Plantain in a salve given it's medicinal qualities.
In New York City I would buy kaffir and Curry leaves sealed in refrigerated plastic bags found in Little India and Chinatown. Here, branches of them are stacked in mounds and I can't help noticing the much enhanced freshness of their flavor. The Daun Salam on the other hand would travel well, it almost has no personality when fresh, only releasing it's essential oil when dry or heated in the pan.
I now discover that the mint I bought is Mentha Arvensis or Corn Mint, it doesn't quite have the brightness of flavor that Spearmint, Mentha Spicata does but a couple of bruised sprigs went straight into a glass of iced tea yesterday and I renewed my acquaintance with one of my favorite herbs. Today the maid asked what I wanted to do with the mint I put in the glass, she didn't throw it away, was I trying to grow it? No, but, hey, there's an idea, why didn't I think of that.
Our front door is staged on either side with two tiers of potted plants. Two pairs of cascading slatted wooden stands and an assortment of potted plants, including some Orchids and Begonias but mainly Ferns. My grandmother's house had something vaguely similar also with a tiered assortment, but exclusively Ferns. This must be a tropical home and garden decorating standard intended to cool you down as you step out of the blistering heat into the shade of the porch and venture into the cooler shadowy interior.
It works and I think the ferns are key. The fine feathery greenery is visually cooling and the slightest breeze creates a soft rustle particularly with the two kinds I have pictured a Maidenhair Fern and an Asparagus Fern. There are also more sculptural ones like the Stag Horn and the Bird's Nest that help to create variety. It's also standard practise to take your shoes off before you enter so you linger a little while longer in this transitory space. A wind chime adds to the overall sensory experience.
I love the concept of an intermediate space- there's a Japanese word for this which I've completely forgotten - somewhere neither inside nor outside, but necessary for one to flow into the other. Everytime I stepped into the tiny space just inside my apartment door in New York City, I wished that I could transform it into one like this but of course nothing would grow in that dark windowless space. The trade off though is that the windows here are stark, heavy tinted glass often with heavy curtains to keep the sun and heat out, not at all like the views and assortment of interior potted plants I previously enjoyed.
Apart from preparing the beds in Mamaroneck and planting some seed back in April, I've done zero vegetable gardening this year. There is a patch here at the family home that I'm sure I could utilize for that purpose, but I have had little inclination and the photograph above is the reason why. The local produce available is incredible. Despite my earlier thoughts on the price of growing vegetables where I rationalized the cost of commuting half an hour from New york City was worth the experience, I'm wavering somewhat now.
Within walking distance of home we have a fresh market, a supermarket and a night market (once a week). The produce is largely, vibrantly fresh. Go somewhere specific like Little India in Singapore where I took the photo above and you start to see the produce expressing it's target customers specific tastes. Apart from the Okra and those large black pod things that are Banana flowers ( they are used as a vegetable here), everything else is Eggplant. The Indian community relishes the subtle flavor differences and shapes of all the different kinds. For example the white ones are preferred in certain curries because of their more acid flavor. I've never seen those long green ones before and those purple ones are small, like purple eggs and beyond cute.
At the night market where the clientele is predominantly Chinese, the vegetable selection includes an intriguing assortment of medicinal vegetables. Alongside the more recognizable greens are bundles of unfamiliar odd colored and shaped leaves that are for making tonic soups. At the morning market, where I go every week with my Dad, we buy our vegetables from a Malay lady who quite shockingly cautions me not to select vegetables that she thinks are not up to par. Where are the vegetables from?, I enquire. We have a 'kebun' she tells me- a word that equally describes a garden or plantation so its hard to decipher the size of the operation or her methods (for now) but at least I know it's relatively local.
At the supermarket, the vegetables are more familiar as they have more information about them. I see signs for 'local' tomatoes and bundles of vegetables with stickers that say 'organic' or 'grown in Cameron Higlands' a cool highland area about 270 miles away. The prices here are the highest but are a fraction, perhaps a third of prices in the US. Shopping for vegetables here is liberated from a principal concern at my old haunt the Union Square Market, affordability.
With produce this fresh, varied, easily available and cheap - the urge to grow is virtually extinguished, but not completely. There are two things I'm jonesing for. Fresh (Italian) basil and mint. You just can't get it anywhere and I am dying for a tomato sauce pasta with fresh basil or a mint cucumber and yogurt salad. I'll have to order some seed and get going with that but one thing I won't have to worry about is when to plant it as the growing season is year round here. Yes, for added inner conflict, it's easier to grow produce here too.
I just got back from spending a few days on Pulau Tioman, a two hour ferry ride off the east coast of Malaysia and famed location for the film South Pacific. It has a striking mountainous spine that drops steeply into an array of beaches and coves, that house a string of resorts each with a slightly different personality. Ayer Batang where I stayed was a rustic assortment of wooden buildings, some traditional houses, wooden chalets, bar shacks and veranda restaurants all threaded together tightly to a narrow path that hugged the shore.
The botanical experience of the place was eclectic. There were the tropical beach classics - palm trees, casuarina trees, mangrove trees but mixed with a jumble of crotons, orchids, ferns and all kinds of other flowers and fruit trees subject to the gardening taste and whim of the homes and resorts they resided in. All this in contrast with the dense rainforest that covered the mountain slope with a dark, slightly ominous, textural rhythm .
The flora existed synergistically with equally exotic fauna, families of Macacque monkeys huge Monitor lizards and Swallowtail butterflies. They darted through trees, slithered over the path and added another layer of color, movement and sound to this island garden.