Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tending the Garden, HortPark, Kha Restaurant and Thanksgiving

Cherry Tomatoes on Vine
The happiest days of my childhood were spent in the house garden. Being a Singaporean garden not given to pretension, not for her the niceties of harmony, patterning, fractals, visual jokes, anticipation of colour, and historic styles of classic garden design theory. The choice of vegetation probably hinged on the question: "Can eat anot?" In a back-corner, mangoes, deep yellow and fat and sweet, hung down heavy and luscious. In another, rambutans were red and abundant. We collected them by the basket-full and there was always plenty for neighbours (and mynas). Less popular with the humans but no less bountiful were the chikus and papayas.

In the front garden, when the frangipani flowers were out, the air was sweet and soft. There were rows of ixora bushes wonderful to hide in and suck at nectar-filled flowers while waiting to be found. And there were 2 great trees: a giant pine grand and stately that could be seen for miles around and an equally towering bottlebrush tree which snowed red feathery brushes on the grass below.

Mostly, I remember dappled sunshine, butterflies fluttering about pollinating, sparrows hopping around in the grass, woodpeckers pecking intently at the rambutan tree (an early prognosis of a wormy end for her) and sunbirds building hanging nests in the bougainvillea. Sometimes caterpillars would drop on our heads and we'd put them in old jam jars away from predatory birds and watch weave cocoons around themselves and weeks later, emerge as butterflies.

Our garden was a haven for stray animals. Running about, we'd startle a cat or two napping in the bushes. Sometimes, there were dirty once-white rabbits without waistcoats looking for wonderland. Other times, chicken eggs nestled in shoes that we'd forgotten to put in the cupboard.

And there were snakes of course, whose existence no adult would acknowledge until, to prove the non-existence of an alleged snake, they'd prod a suspect shadow which never failed to slither away reluctantly.

The years in England, with her rabid flower shows, her thick Sunday newspaper supplements helmed by gardening experts arguing over gardening techniques and heirloom vegetable species, her cottage gardens overflowing with huge roses, her petitions for the preservation of historic vegetables, her thoughtful essays on the gardens of Cecil Beaton, Roy Strong and Vita Sackville-West, were a marvellous joy. In our ramshackle house off campus, I had the luxury of a blue door in my room that opened, like a portal in a fairytale, to the little garden outside. In summer, we sat and read on the grass in the sunshine amongst the butterflies and flowers. In winter, I hung out seed-feeders on naked tree branches for needy birds and bushy-tailed squirrels.

Back in Singapore, somehow, over the years, the family acquired and never got round to discharging the services of a Pol Pot gardener with a perchant for mowing over anything on the ground that hadn't attained tree or shrubbery status, the most recent victim being a curry plant. Those Knights of Ni sure knew a thing or two.

In the last year, there have been attempts to cultivate a culinary plot in an empty patch. Not Francophile potager, not renaissance herb garden, but a fairly random mix of useful plants. The aloe vera, lime and basil still live but the rest of the seedlings which hadn't had gone under the Pol Pot blade have perished either in the extremely waterlogged soil from the past weeks of incessant showers or in the the extreme heat that followed.

So it was with some excitement that we wandered over to HortPark, lured by the promise of a one-stop horticultural hub. We opened the car door and were immediately beset by a cloud of hungry mozzies and the stench of fertilizer. The whole garden smelt of fertilizer. Big bags of it lined the footpath. And the footpath wound past balding grass patches and what looked like cheesy leftovers from GardenTech 2007 that shouldn't even think of getting anywhere near the Chelsea Flower Show.
HortPark - Herb and Spice Garden
The pests had gotten to the herb and spice garden first so there wasn't much to see there. A little distance away, children ran screaming round the little playground, chased by a security guard bizarrely yelling,"No running in the garden!"
HortPark - Flowering plants in greenhouse
The good stuff, the riot of colours, was safely encased behind glasswalls at the greenhouses at the end of the park.

HortPark - Kha
(Dinner at the modern thai cuisine restaurant, Kha, was great. The unique juice mixes (pomegranate and jambu) recommended by their inventor were refreshing. And after all that looking around in Bangkok, we finally got a tom yam soup with body and just the right balance of spicy and sour in Singapore. The "medium hot" red duck (chicken?) curry grilled with pumpkin was smokily tender. And hooray good sticky rice and mango with pandan coconut sauce and black sesame seeds! Later, all the air-kissing was explained by the restaurant being the progeny of Yenn Wong's JIA Boutique Hotels group. Wonderful menu by David Hamilton, head chef - Kunchit Srimuang.)

But back to brown-thumbing. We have been trying to grow cherry tomatoes. Since HortPark wasn't quite as advertised, I have started eating my way through the supermarket offerings to find suitable sires. Why bother, asked the colleague. I suppose there is an indescribable satisfaction in cooking and eating the produce of one's garden; to seed, grow and harvest; to smell and touch the food at all stages. Nigel Slater's leading the celebrity chef pack with a soon-to-air series on recipes featuring food from his rather bountiful garden. Perhaps when Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson (however unlikely) hop on, community gardens might take off in Singapore and no one will ask "why bother?" because the answer will be glaringly obvious.

Sugar Pears
In fresh produce sections everywhere, there were mounds of blushing abate fetel pears. Breathing in their sweet ripeness, it was difficult not to admire their inherent medieval beauty. Pear tree mortality in Singapore, however, would be high even sans Pol Pot gardener.

So far removed from the food cycle are we urbanites that we forget that the growing of even basic food is a miracle, a repeated phenomenon of success against all odds. From the sprouting of seeds to their strong and healthy growth to the need for the right proportion of water, soil type, nutrients and sunshine, to protecting against weeds and pests, to the regulating of temperature...there are few things that more obviously and consistently spotlight our lack of control of our very existence. It is no wonder that the people in the agriculturally-intensive times before pesticides, greenhouses, hydroponics and other farming technology, were acutely superstitious. They faced, on a daily basis, the reality that they could not ascertain their supply of nourishment, and so neither too, their continued survival.

And even now in the age of advanced science, the missions carried out in Biosphere 2 (the reports read like episodes of Survivor) and The Eden Project continue demonstrate the delicate complexity of the systems that support agriculture and animal husbandry and their extreme vulnerability to unplanned events, systems that we have taken for granted and have so far failed to replicate.

Through the years, I have held off saying grace before meals, attempting to avoid the religious conceit that so often accompanies rituals. Yet, thanksgiving is only appropriate when we consider how the food before us arrived on the plate.

If we get what we deserve, if the meat, vegetable, starch and sweets are only a result of our hard work and superior brainpower, then there would be no need for thanksgiving because we would have received the due payment for our labours.

But we know we can't claim the credit for it. There is a Creator who created the world and everything in it. Genesis 1 waxes lyrical about his thoughtful moulding of this awesome place we live in. And the Creator of the world also sustains it: he causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall and the plants to grow, he provides food for the animals and gives man both plants (Genesis 1:29) and animals for food (Genesis 9:3). How can we neglect to thank him for all this?

It would be terribly unwise to care more about our diets than about the source of our food, to adhere to Atkins, South Beach, gluten-free or other dietery regimes without a thought about the person who gives us life and health.

What Would Jesus Do? Thanksgiving was a huge part of what he did while he was on earth, yet we dare to consider this a mundanity unworthy of our attention. What is the will of God for me? we ask, but ignore the stated will of God for us to give thanks not just for food but for everything in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink. (G.K. Chesterton, who might have had a point there)

33 Hyderabad Road, off Alexandra Road
6.00 am to 10.00 pm

33 Hyderbad Road

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At April 04, 2008 9:48 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

when i read "duck" - my brain froze, thinking, was i eating duck??? man. it was so tender i thot i was eating chicken!!!


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