Jeanette Scott enjoys a walk peppered with discoveries in sultry Singapore
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.