Spice girl

Jeanette Scott en­joys a walk pep­pered with dis­cov­er­ies in sul­try Sin­ga­pore

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Per­fect scents: Chef and spice guide Boon Ng

AHOT chilli shoved up my nos­tril seems an in­ter­est­ing way to start a morn­ing that’s shap­ing up to be equally full of heat. I am am­bling about the lush con­fines of Fort Canning Park over­look­ing Or­chard Road in the heart of Sin­ga­pore.

Es­tab­lished by the ven­er­a­ble founder of Sin­ga­pore, Thomas Stam­ford Bin­g­ley Raf­fles, the park has a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory but I amon a mis­sion of a dif­fer­ent kind. Like the Dutch and Por­tuguese traders (who failed to spot Sin­ga­pore’s po­ten­tial as a trad­ing port), I amhere on a quest for spices.

Once as much in de­mand as oil is to­day, spices opened up the globe. Were it not for Christo­pher Colum­bus and Vasco da Gama ex­plor­ing the seas for prof­itable spice-trad­ing routes, who knows how long the Amer­i­cas and parts of Asia would have re­mained un­touched by Euro­pean hands.

Fort Canning Park’s spice gar­den is a pun­gent re­minder of that slice of his­tory. A ver­dant hill­side is pep­pered with more than 100 va­ri­eties of spice, in­clud­ing the hum­ble black pep­per. Raf­fles picked the spot as a kind of con­tin­gent side dish to his home on Fort Canning Hill. Un­trou­bled by lo­cal re­ports that the mound was a sa­cred site of an­cient kings and palaces, he went ahead with construction in 1819. A keen botanist, he es­tab­lished Sin­ga­pore’s first botanic gar­den three years later on the same site.

To­day’s spice gar­den is a smaller replica of Raf­fles’s grand vi­sion. It sits near the peak of the hill and of­fers great views across the fo­liage of Fort Canning Park to the city be­yond. Al­though the gar­den is open to all, walk­ing its aromatic trails is the per­fect ap­pe­tiser to a spice paste-mak­ing demon­stra­tion or a cook­ery class at the At-Sun­rice Global Chef Academy. Would-be chefs and in­ter­ested tourists are trained here in a maze of kitchens run­ning through Fort Canning Cen­tre, for­mer bar­racks for the Bri­tish Army.

With the con­stant threat of a drench­ing from an an­gry-looking sky, we ex­plore the fra­grant gar­den un­der a con­ve­nient canopy of trees. Chef Boon Ng holds a chilli un­der my nose while ex­plain­ing its ver­sa­til­ity in Asian cui­sine. The gar­den is tran­quil; there’s just the chirp­ing of birds, our foot­steps and Ng’s oc­ca­sional com­men­tary. He re­veals his es­sen­tial spices as pep­per, chilli and five-spice: th­ese fea­ture in his list of top five in­gre­di­ents, which also in­cludes le­mon­grass and co­conut milk.

Pick­ing our way around the in­gre­di­ents for a spicy paste, we pass flour­ish­ing chilli, galan­gal, le­mon­grass, turmeric, gar­lic and gin­ger. In­for­ma­tive plaques are dot­ted among the plants but the gar­den is also a kind of open-air mu­seum and vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to touch the ex­hibits. The best way of in­hal­ing the aro­mas, Ng says, is to crush leaves be­tween your fin­gers or roll and warm seeds in the palm of your hand.

Spices be­came such a prized in­ter­na­tional com­mod­ity (pep­per, at its first trad­ing peak in the 10th cen­tury, was used as a cur­rency) be­cause of its rich and var­ied us­age. To­day our kitchen racks are filled with all the ne­ces­si­ties for punchy flavours but spices have long been ap­plied as medicine, in re­li­gious rit­u­als, even for cos­met­ics and per­fume. I shud­der at the thought of be­ing swathed in co­rian­der as we plod on in the equa­to­rial mug­gi­ness.

We stop at the can­dlenut plant, where Ng sug­gests a firm fin­ger-rub­bing of the nut. It looks like macadamia, is oily to the touch but has no strong aroma or flavour. For­merly used to make can­dles be­cause of its burn­ing po­ten­tial, the nut is now mainly em­ployed as a thick­en­ing agent. In In­dian cui­sine can­dlenuts (or In­dian wal­nuts) are of­ten used in place of corn­flour.

Re­quir­ing heavy rain­fall and tem­per­a­tures be­tween 20C and 30C, turmeric has found a happy home in Sin­ga­pore. The pretty plant be­longs to the gin­ger fam­ily and is most fa­mil­iar in its bright yel­low pow­dered form, so lib­er­ally used in In­dian cui­sine.

A fra­grance of cit­rus draws us on and soon a le­mon­grass plant tick­les my bare shins. The long, spiky ten­drils of the plant give lit­tle ev­i­dence of the aromatic gem that lies be­neath. Only a small part of the bot­tom of the stalk can be used for cook­ing but its ver­sa­til­ity makes it the in­dis­pens­able root of many dishes, es­pe­cially such aromatic Thai sta­ples as tom yum soup.


Spice Gar­den Walk and Tea Re­cep­tion, 8.30am10am daily ex­cept Sun­days; $S40 ($41) a per­son. In­cluded is a spice paste-mak­ing demon­stra­tion and morn­ing tea. Cook­ing classes, in­clud­ing lunch, from $S107. More: www.at-sun­rice.com.


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