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Essay

Wild eating in the garden city

By Tan Ying Zhen

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I had seen it before. But it was my first time smelling the pale yellow fruit. A pungent smell reminiscent of rotting cheese hit me so strongly I wrinkled my nose.

I was on a walk with Kristine, a Danish artist from a Singaporean art collective called Mamakan. Kristine and her two fellow artists, Laletha and Steve, had embarked on a project called GastroGeography to chronicle the edible plants in Singapore. The walk in the central civic district was labelled an "artistic food experience," and participants could taste and identify various local plants along the way.

The fruit I'd smelled was the noni fruit, or the cheese fruit. Its tree is commonly found in Singapore, but I never knew that the fruit and leaves were edible. Kristine suggested cleaning the fruit and leaving it in a closed jar to ferment in the sun. The juice that collected could be mixed with cream cheese to create what she called "Singapore's very own blue cheese."

The noni fruit was but one example. Kristine, Laletha and Steve had found more than a hundred edible plants growing along the streets. I peered at their art installation, which consisted of little jars of edible plant specimens arranged on concrete blocks, and scrutinized the poster they'd made to list all the edible plants.

I was amazed. The only local plant I remember foraging for was the ixora growing in my primary school. My seniors taught me to suck the nectar from the flowers. But I never imagined there were so many other edible plants. Singapore is known as the garden city, but I'd never realized this garden was full of edible wonders.

Kristine shared stories from other Singaporeans who'd gone on the walk. One lady had been going to health food stores to buy expensive noni juice imported from Hawaii. She never knew that the noni tree grew locally. While it's illegal to pluck the fruit or remove other parts from the plants, she could have picked the fruits off the ground.

Kristine's fellow artist, Steve, a Singaporean, was new to foraging too. When he tasted the jam Kristine had made using local berries from the rukam masam tree, he'd found the taste "foreign." Ironically, what he found familiar was imported strawberry jam.

I recalled my own foraging experiences, which were mostly in Japan. I'd collected wild mint and oregano, and dug for bamboo shoots. I remember thinking then that it was a pity I couldn't forage in Singapore. Now, I realize it was my own ignorance that prevented me from seeing the edible plants in my home country. I can't wait to discover more local plants, and perhaps grow some of my own too.

ガーデン・シティーで自然を味わう

ガーデン・シティーとして知られ、街中にも豊かな緑があるシンガポール。筆者はあるアート団体のイベントに参加し、見慣れた植物の中には食べられるものがたくさんあることを学んだ。

The Japan Times ST: March 24, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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