Saturday, 27 February 2016

Jackfruit Picking... What are the Chances?

Our jackfruit trees are our major garden experiment. 

We have only seen a couple of jackfruit trees in Sydney. One resides in a yard behind a friend’s house: it appears to be growing happily enough, but we are unaware of whether it has fruited in our marginal climate. Moreover, we have heard whispers that there are some healthy jackfruit trees growing in the gardens of people of the local Asian communities. So, we have little direct evidence of successful, Sydney jackfruit trees … and we have nobody in our circles with local knowledge of the cultural requirements of this splendid tree. In fact, during the planning stage for our garden five years ago, we visited a nursery in northern Sydney which sold an array of Asian herbs and plants. On asking the proprietor about jackfruit, we were told bluntly, “That doesn’t grow in Sydney!” End of conversation!

As a couple, the better half and I do have one personal trait in common. We don’t mind a challenge… Unwittingly, the nursery owner had just provided us with a ‘challenge moment’.

We are regular visitors to Asia, and Malaysia, in particular. On arrival, our hire car takes us to the first market or fruit stall to satisfy our hankering for the fruit delights of the tropics. For her, the only thing better than nangka is durian. For him, the one thing that is better than nangka is a good mango. Therefore, nangka (or jackfruit) is one of our absolute favourites… Into the car it goes, along with the durian and the rainbow mango… and the rambutan… and the mata kuching… I am sure you get the picture. I love the crisp, orange flesh jackfruits with their hint of spiciness. She loves the sweet yellow-fleshed nangka. But then there was the nangka we were given in Changkat Keruing: an odd colour, pinkish-yellow. But what a flavour! So sweet! Magnificent! We took the remainder of the fruit back to our lodgings in Ipoh. To relish it!  Via a family visit in Sitiawan, in Malaysian heat, in a loan car, the electronic windows of which would not wind up, it went back to Ipoh. Oh, dear! Let me tell you that car-fried jackfruit is not a pretty sight or smell! Our wonderful gift had perished… We have never come across this magnificent pinkish-yellow jackfruit since.... ever!

A roadside nangka seller near Batu Pahat, Malaysia

Back home in Oz, we took a bold decision. Let’s buy a piece of jackfruit in Cabramatta, Sydney’s Asian suburb, home to a large population of Vietnamese, Chinese and other Southeast Asian settlers. At $11 or more per kilo, it is not cheap. Let’s collect the seeds and sprout them. If the seeds grow, we will be blessed. If the seedlings grow well, we will have some of the beautiful Asian trees in our yard. If it fruits, we will be in heaven! That was four years ago… Our challenge had begun.

Past blog posts have detailed the history of two of our jackfruit trees. We have two stately, young trees standing in our back garden. One flowered last autumn, the other is flowering now… and there are beautiful, gnarled, knobbly fruits hanging from the tree. Large and expanding gnarled, knobbly fruits. I am not sure whether to be excited or nervous! Why? Because the weather will begin to cool little-by-little from mid-March until the cool of our winter truly sets in from mid-May.

I have read that in the tropical and sub-tropical northern regions of Australia, jackfruit can take from three up to eight months to ripen. Three months places our ripened fruit in April, mid-autumn. In eight months, it will be September-October, mid-spring… Through a cold Sydney winter, will they ripen at all? What protective measures do I need to take? Do I cover them? Or will they be fine left to their own devices? Will they over-winter in the style of bananas and papayas, then ripen as the weather warms through the spring?

Growing jackfruit trees in Sydney is a challenge. So much still to learn. Fruit or no fruit, however, we have two sturdy and attractive Asian trees growing handsomely in our yard. So, what are the chances of them fruiting?

Please watch this space...

Female inflorescence (left) and male inflorescence

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Turtle Magic

Driving back home from Kuala Terengganu along the coast road, we saw beautiful villages, interesting towns and a horrific lorry smash! It is a drive which will live long in our memories, mostly for all the right reasons… By mid-afternoon, we had arrived at our intended destination on this journey: the turtle sanctuary at Cherating.

Cherating Turtle Sanctuary is located at Pantai Chendor or Chendor Beach. Established in 1972, the centre functions as a turtle hatchery, its primary aim to protect the four endangered turtle species which visit Malaysian waters, in particular the Leatherback Turtle but also the Green, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley Turtles.

The beautiful Pantai Chendor

On arrival, we were able to stroll to Chendor Beach.  Here, there were signs advising that it was illegal to be engaged in activities on the beach after 6pm: this was the beginning of the laying time for turtles, and so people were prohibited from interfering with the delicate process. However, during the main egg-laying months from April to August, the centre alerts those with an interest if there are turtles coming up to the shore. Under supervision, people are permitted to watch this fascinating, natural phenomenon.

No fishing...
No jogging...
No sport...
No bathing...
No nothing...
Which can bother egg-laying turtles!

Unfortunately, we did not have the time, on this trip, to ‘lay over’ in Cherating to witness this special event.

Close to the beach and at the back of the visitor centre, there is a sandy stretch, fenced off from prying hands and protected with shade cloth from the baking sun.  In this compound, the eggs of turtles had been ‘transplanted’ from the adjoining beach, each plot of eggs labelled with the time and date of laying. Here, the valuable eggs are kept under careful and caring supervision until hatching time.

The egg-birthing enclosure

We found the visitor centre to be an interesting and informative place, with a few ‘adolescent’ and the little hatchling turtles on display to the public. As the hatchlings mature and attain appropriate size and condition they are released back into the wild.

A secondary aim of the centre is to educate its visitors, providing information on the different species of turtles, their habitat and their food in their Malaysian context. Other exhibits include local sea shells and corals.

Overall, Cherating was well worth a short visit… and worthy of a ‘lay-over’ to witness the night magic of the turtles. Next visit, yes!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Kangkung Belachan

Kangkung Belachan is one of our favourite vegetable dishes, and it is simple to create in its most basic form

Kangkung, water spinach or water convolvulus, will grow readily in Sydney’s climate in a good sheltered position with very regular watering. Our little bed of kangkung measures only about one metre square, providing us with cut stems for the kitchen once every fortnight from December through until the onset of the cold weather…

A fortnight's single harvest
(For further information about kangkung cultivation - and a fun personal anecdote -, check out a previous blog post, Kangkung Adventures, in our Travel label.)

The leaves and growing tips are the prime part of the vegetable. However, the stems can also be consumed, provided that they are cooked a little longer than the leafy parts. Being rather spoiled for kangkung, we normally only consume the delicious leaves and tips.

What you need…

A great big bunch of kangkung, perhaps 500 grams
4 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
2 teaspoons belachan (Malaysian shrimp paste)
Chilli, to taste, chopped
Cooking oil
A little water
Dried prawns (Optional)
Green prawns (Optional)

What you need to do…
  •               Soak your dried prawns if you intend to use them. Drain them
  •         Prepare and wash the vegetable stems, retaining the large leaves and growing tips.
  •         Stir-fry the belachan, chilli, garlic and dried prawns.
  •         Add your green prawns now if you are using them.
  •         When the garlic mixture has turned golden, add the kangkung, taking care not to overcook it… it should still be a little crisp to taste.
  •               Add salt to taste.

     In certain Sydney suburbs, you can purchase kangkung under its Chinese name, Ong Choy... but it is better to grow your own.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Nam Dok Mai Disappointment

When the mango ripening season nears, the level of excitement of the home gardener inevitably rises in the expectation of succulent, juicy and sweet fruit… especially when those provident trees are young. As pointed out in earlier blog posts, our two bearing trees, both four years in the ground, have formed their second small crops.

However, when one of those expectant trees fails again, one’s excitement turns to disappointment.

Our Nam Dok Mai mango has failed to ripen its little crop in successive years. Last season, two mangoes split and fell before ripening. This season, even with new ‘tactics’, namely withholding fertiliser and providing much less water, the two fruits failed to ripen before spoiling.

The largest fruit appeared to have developed a fungal infection. Luckily, it was large enough to consume green after removing the damaged portion of the flesh. This week, the second fruit, much smaller in size, split. Again, we were able to consume a small part of the fruit green.

So, what was the cause? Sydney experienced very heavy and persistent rains throughout January. This is not out of the ordinary, because some seasonal sub-tropical storms will move south, depositing their revitalising loads on the city. It is a possibility that the Nam Dok Mai trees received too much water during this period, causing the unfortunate damage to the fruit.

If one reads other blog entries on the internet, it would appear that splitting of ripening Nam Dok Mai mangoes is a common problem.

We want to persist with our Nam Dok Mai tree. It was a ‘family’ backyard tree in Malaysia, and it would be lovely to be able to replicate old times here in Sydney. Furthermore, its wine red new flush growth is very beautiful.  However, we do wonder whether the Sydney climate, with its summer rainfall most seasons, is conducive to the easy cultivation of Nam Dok Mai mangoes.

'Aftermath' of a summer storm

Let’s see what happens next February!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

A Water Loving Herb

A very useful herb for the Southeast Asian kitchen garden, the Rice Paddy Herb (Rau Om in Vietnamese) loves water. Do you have a fish pond?

Our original cuttings were obtained by purchasing a bunch of Rice Paddy Herb from a street-side herb seller in the Sydney community of Cabramatta. This lovely, aromatic bunch of cuttings was placed in a glass of water in our kitchen and, within a short time, some of the cuttings had begun to sprout roots. These, we then potted up, with plenty of organic fertiliser.

Happy in an aquatic environment

The pots then were placed in a shallow section of our little fish pond… where they thrived. Their roots filled the pot quickly, the plant stems multiplied and where longer stems arched out of the pot and touched the water, these took root too. These rooted stems were detached for new plants.

Rice Paddy Herb with rooted stem

Our most advanced plant has been removed from its aquatic home to a small garden bed close to our kitchen. It lives happily with kangkung (Water Morning Glory), serai (Lemon Grass) and laksa (Vietnamese Mint), all of which require more water than most garden plants. Provided with a large dose of organic fertiliser and a heavy layer of mulch, the Rice Paddy Herb has settled well with daily watering.

In its new protected location

A major test ahead will be the arrival of winter. Will our warm-climate herb persist through the cold weather of suburban Sydney? In its kitchen garden home, it is sheltered by the branches of an overhanging kaffir lime tree. Its pond-dwelling brothers and sisters have no such overhead cover… It will be interesting to observe which, if any, make it through the winter months. Time will tell!

Our Rice Paddy Herb (Limnophila aromatica) is a pretty little plant, especially when it produces its gorgeous lilac and white trumpet flowers. However, it will be valuable in the kitchen too. Its fragrant leaves, reminiscent of cumin, will be used as an ingredient in noodle soups and in fresh spring rolls. 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Lime and Soya Dipping Sauce

You know those difficult times when friends visit... and those friends have a lower tolerance of chilli than you... Ayo! This is one of our solutions to the dilemma of what to prepare. The chilli lovers can warm their servings by adding this sauce. Rice, noodles...

There is a personal history behind our lime and soya dipping sauce. This little dish was taught to me as a Thai salad dressing using fish sauce as a base. However, my better half avidly loves preparing and eating Hainanese Chicken Rice. For me, this dish can be a little plain... she would say that I find it unpalatable... though this is an exaggeration... However, I think she is right in that my taste buds have been bombarded over the years with excess chilli, making me less sensitive to the subtle flavours and textures of this famous cuisine.

So, the solution? To spice up the Hainanese Chicken Rice with the Thai salad dressing. Later, I discovered that one of the three sauces of this dish should be a chilli and soya sauce dip. From this point, the mental leap to modifying the original Thai sauce was simple... Firstly, just replace the fish sauce with Chinese soya sauce, following the same principles of balanced sweet, sour and salty flavours. But what about a Malaysian influence? Well, that was easy too! Replace the limau nipis, which is commonly used in Thailand, with limau kasturi, Calamondin. Presto!

These days, we find this to be a useful dipping sauce for spring rolls and other finger food, as well as using it as a dressing for garden salads. Even, barbecued meat!

What you need...                                
·         3 or more small, fresh chillies or more, sliced finely
·         1 tablespoon white sugar or Gula Melaka
·         1/3 cup Chinese-style light soy sauce
·         1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, kasturi lime if you have it
·         2 kasturi limes, halved
·         1/4 cup water, or to taste (optional)
·         Shallots (optional)

What you need to do... 
1. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, lime juice and sugar. Stir until well blended, and the sugar has dissolved. 
2. Don't forget the principle of agak-agak. Test for taste. Make sure that the sweet, sour and salty flavours are balanced.
3. Add the sliced chillies and the halved limes.
4. Add the water and shallots, if you intend to use these.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Alluring Lady’s Fingers

From December onwards in the Sydney garden, it is harvest time for Lady’s Fingers or Okra. It is an anticipated time for us because okra is so different from all the other garden vegetables, having its own distinctive flavour and soft, yet crunchy, texture… Like a lady’s fingers, they are long and slim, soft but firm.

So, how does okra grow? Think corn! It becomes a tall, thin plant, By the end of autumn, the plants reaching up to two metres in height. They are best grown, close planted, in a small patch, twelve plants being more than sufficient for our needs. Prepare the patch well with plenty of organic fertiliser before planting your seed.

Buds, blooms and young okra
An added attraction of the okra plant is its beautiful primrose, hibiscus-like flowers.

When the plants begin to bear their delicious horns, you will need to inspect and harvest your plants every day. From flower to fruit is less than one week. Harvest the horns small. Any horns left for just one day too many will become hard and woody, unsuitable for cooking. However, if you do happen to miss a harvest, leave the horn in its place, because the plant will continue to bear new ones. Any ‘overgrown’ horns can become your seed source for the next season.

Ready for the harvest and collection of next season's seed

Now, while you are collecting enough okra for the next meal, they will keep very well in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for four or five days.

The cool winter of Sydney will inhibit the flowering and fruit setting of your okra plants, and frosts will kill the plant. In tropical climates, okra is apparently a perennial crop!

Okra has a myriad of uses. So, how do we use it in the kitchen?

In its simplest application, we slice it to make a delicious stir-fry with garlic, chilli, juice from a kasturi lime, and a little belachan (Malaysian prawn paste). However, we also use it whole in soups and curries. Occasionally, we have used okra as one of the vegetables in a Hakka Chinese dish called Yong Tau Foo. However, our favourite is Sambal Bendi, which I included in our recipe section last week… check it out!

Beware, when cooking okra, especially when working with the sliced vegetable. You must cook it quickly over high heat and with a little lime or lemon juice. Otherwise, it will produce a slime or goo, which can look a little unsightly. I wonder whether this is the reason that you rarely see okra on the menus of restaurants…??

Monday, 8 February 2016

Sambal Bendi

This is a home favourite, because we love our home-grown okra. Try to use large red chillies in this dish because they will impart a better red colour to the dish. In our photographed dish, we only had little red chilli padi available. By using lots of these, you can create the delicious spicy-hot flavour but the sauce might lack its intense red colour. Using Gula Melaka, a Malaysian brown palm sugar, will also change the colour.

What you need…
About 15 okra spears, sliced

For the spice paste (bumbu)…
Juice of 5 Kasturi limes
1 to 2 teaspoons of Gula Melaka or white sugar
1 stem of Serai (lemon grass), pounded
5 large Chillis
1 medium Onion
A little water

Oil for stir-frying

  • Pound or blend all of the 'bumbu' ingredients.
  • Stir-fry over high heat the sliced okra spears. If stir-frying, you might require a little water. Remove from heat when cooked.
  • Stir-fry the bumbu over medium heat. Continue to cook until the oil separates from the cooked spice paste.
  • Add the okra to the spice mix over heat. Mix well.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

A Season First... and a Second 

Yesterday marked our first small harvest of kasturi limes. They have been rather late maturing this season, causing us to miss out on delicious lime-enhanced sambals and kasturi lime drinks.

Ready for harvest for cooking purposes but probably not suitable for planting, the seeds of the kasturi lime will germinate very readily… However, they are best harvested for seed-planting when their rind has turned orange.

Yesterday also marked our ‘second’ serving of okra. Okra plants do not flush in the same way as beans, for example: day-by-day, one needs to harvest and collect young okra horns. They will keep for a few days, refrigerated in a brown bag or in newspaper.

So, why would one combine okra and kasturi limes in the same post?

The reason is that okra is the most delightful subject for sambal dishes… chilli, kasturi lime, sugar, serai (lemon grass) and onion are the key ingredients of a delicious, fiery Malaysian sauce suitable for hard vegetables and seafood. Sambal bendi… so tasty!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

One Reason to Visit Ipoh

… and ten five mouth-watering pictures!

It is not exactly on the tourist trail; so how did we find this delectable place? 

Seeking somewhere to dance, we were driven by a family member to an Ipoh ‘nightclub’. On entering, it was so dark that we needed a guide dog! Furthermore, the booming ‘doof-doof’ of the music was so loud – please read deafening - that we could only last for two painful minutes. A quick call was made to our ‘driver’ and he returned to collect us.

This time, he took us to the Excelsior Hotel where we discovered music more to our liking. Much more to our liking. Downstairs, a talented Filipino band, Sensation, was playing music from many cultures: Anglo, Latino, Malay, Chinese, Tagalog, Hindi… Similarly, upstairs, another wonderful and accommodating local band, Cheeky Cheeky Boom Boom, were belting out requests for a small, very appreciative audience. The ‘multicultural’ mix of music was something new, but very satisfying and enjoyable, for us.

A few nights later and with the assistance of a borrowed car, we were able to return to the Excelsior. And dance we did! All night! Every night during our visit! Upstairs some nights, downstairs others, staying until midnight and beyond…

After such exertion, one needs food, of course. A recharge. In Australia, we have to ‘recharge’ at home after a night-out dancing. But what about Ipoh, Malaysia? 

So, following our noses home, we drove up the hill and took a right turn from the Excelsior Hotel. There it was, directly in front of us, an alley of brightly lit food stalls, vibrant with late night customers. It was one o'clock: this would never happen in Australia! I drove across the four-lane main road and entered the alley against the traffic flow… it being a one-way street! I can imagine what thoughts the locals were having when I stepped out of the driver’s side of the car. Nevertheless, I had found a place to park.

So, here we were. We walked up and down the lane of stalls, many of which simply served iced desserts. How refreshing after hours of dancing in Malaysian heat! Where to start? I was like a kid in a lolly shop! We started with the known and selected Ais Kachang… it was the best! We had been served it in other parts of Malaysia, but this was the best yet! Scrumptious! And there on another table I spotted the icy piece-de-resistance... the Ais Champur. Being an incurable 'fruitbat', that decided it for me. Mango, jackfruit, watermelon, dragonfruit, longan, peanuts... and everything else you would expect in a good Ais Kachang. With a scoop of ice cream too! I need to stop drooling. 

"Honey, we are coming back here!" From that moment, we determined that we would try the desserts from the other food stalls of that lane on subsequent nights. That we have done, the fruit-bat raiding the many gerai manisan (sweets stalls) at every night-time opportunity: even when the fruit-bat's other half tired of the iced sweets, there were some splendid noodle dishes to sample.

The years passed. Every year we would return to Ipoh. Every visit, we would religiously go dancing at the Excelsior. Sadly, the Filipino bands are no longer hired by the hotel and Cheeky Cheeky Boom Boom have been playing at a new location for some time. However, we always return to this wonderful food alley when we are in town. 

So, what is its name? It is the Rainbow City Food Court or Tong Sui Kai (Desserts Lane). Just have a check-up with your dentist before you visit…

… and we still have not yet discovered better iced desserts anywhere in Malaysia!

… and I now know how to drive into Tong Sui Kai from the correct direction!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Thai Basil or Selasih

Redolent with the fragrance of aniseed, Thai Basil, known as Selasih in Malaysia, is easy to grow and maintain. In our temperate climate, it should be treated as an annual. Plant the seeds in spring, October is best, and you should be able to move your plants to their final growing position in November. By the end of summer your plants should be about 45 centimetres tall, and if you have planted them together they will form a pretty little hedge of green and burgundy.

As the plants develop their flowers over summer, remove them. By doing this, you will encourage new leaf growth. Keep removing the flowers, and keep cutting the stems for the kitchen until April. Only then, allow the plants to flower. They will drop their seeds over autumn and early winter before the cold weather kills them off. By allowing this to occur, you permit the possibility of self-seeded plants popping up in late spring. Thai Basil, however, does not ‘pop up’ as readily as its cousin, Lemon Basil.

It is an extremely common herb in the cuisines of Thailand and other South-east Asian countries, where it is used to flavour curries, stir-fries, soups… even fresh spring rolls. However, its use is much more limited in Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is normally used in seafood and shellfish dishes. Apart from the uses mentioned above, we even use our Selasih leaves in place of sweet basil leaves in pasta dishes… For us, Selasih is one of the most important plants in the garden.

Interestingly, I have noticed  recipes for refreshing summer drinks, Ais Selasih Bandung and Ais Tingkap which utilise the seeds of this fragrant basil plant… Worth a try on our next visit to Malaysia!