Where the wild things grow
We follow chef Florian Ridder from The Summerhouse on a foraging adventure through Dempsey. By Nicole-Marie Ng
We follow a chef into the Dempsey bush in search of the elusive wild cucumber
‘HEAD DOWN THE SLOPE behind St George’s Church until you reach an open field, and you should find it there.’ Despite the furtive lilt, these directions from a friend didn’t lead to buried treasure but to a plot of land in Dempsey where clusters of wild cucumbers grow. And with the instructions in my back pocket, I set out with chef Florian Ridder from The Summerhouse to see what we could forage for dinner.
Looking for ingredients in your own backyard is the cool thing chefs and bartenders are doing at the moment, and the 28-year-old German chef is no stranger to the trend. He has a garden at The Summerhouse where he grows a variety of greens from sweet potato leaves to butterfly pea flowers. But how easy is it to forage in urban Singapore? Would we even find anything worth putting in a dish? Here’s what transpired during our little expedition.
If eaten raw in large quantities, the sweet leaf shrub can be deadly
We meet at the church in the early morning on a quest to find the elusive cucumbers. Not even 5 minutes into our hunt, Ridder squats by the side of the road and picks up some lavender sorrel – its pale purple flowers are a dead giveaway. The sorrel leaves are surprising tangy, a refreshing palate cleanser to start the day with. Maybe this foraging business will be easier than I had first anticipated.
True enough, about 10 minutes later, the eagle- eyed chef spots a sweet leaf shrub (also known as ‘mani cai’ in Chinese or ‘sayur manis’ in Malay) creeping up on the side of a fence. The vegetable is commonly stir-fried with egg and chilli, but if eaten raw in large quantities, it can be deadly. Of course, I only discovered this fact after gobbling up a couple of these delicious leaves.
Still on the roadside, we found a clump of peperomia, a succulent that’s slightly spicy, hence its name. But just as I was about to sample the goods, Ridder remarks that the spot we found the leaves in looks like the perfect place for a dog to do its business – and I promptly threw the leaves on the ground. ‘My aunt used to conduct foraging classes in Germany,’ the chef explains. ‘In Europe, you have to be more careful because wolves roam the area and will mark their territory with urine.’
Ridder spots lavender sorrel by the roadside