In the lush greenness, we were led, like foragers, from tree to tree. Stopping occasionally to sniff at some bark or nibble on a fresh leaf, the experience was about as close to the source of food that you can get.
The setting was quiet Fort Canning Park in Singapore, a place that’s as known for being a lovers’ lane as it is for being the panoramic hilltop spot on which the country’s first colonial settlers built their homes. My friend Willin (my stomach-of-steel dining partner in Singapore) and I had trekked to the park for a tour of its spice garden and At-Sunrice, the cooking school that’s perched next to it. (Think of it as the Cordon Bleu of Singapore.)
Before we checked out the school’s Chinese, pastry and Western kitchens, however, we’d taken a little detour, wending our way along a garden that dates back to the early 19th Century, to get to the root of what we cook and eat. Even with the advent of farmer’s markets and lengthy explanations of the origins of ingredients on restaurant menus these days, it can be hard to feel a sense of connection with where our food comes from.
But when you’re holding a broken-open nutmeg shell while sniffing and stroking the thin film of mace that covers the seed, you start to have a deeper appreciation for all the cakes and pies that you’ve beaten mace into.
Now, this being an outdoor setting in Singapore, we began our tour with an important cautionary measure: insect repellent.
Instead of bug spray, however, the At-Sunrice folks pulled out a bowl of lemongrass water, telling us that the plant’s oils are a natural repellent.
We chewed on the leaves of a pepper plant …
… before sampling a little roll that had been made by filling one of those leaves with bits of roasted peanuts, bird’s eye chilis, young ginger and palm sugar.
The bite-sized roll, explained Christophe Megel, CEO of At-Sunrice, was meant to “represent all the aspects of taste” — sweet, spicy, salty etc.
“It’s like a party in my mouth,” Willin observed.
Now, I’ve had Singaporean rojak, a tossed salad of fruits and vegetables in a tangy, savory sauce, more times than I can count. But I’d never given much thought to what actually went in it, given that the extent of my involvement in its serving has basically been opening up a brown waxed paper packet and pouring its contents onto a plate.
In this garden, however, when we spotted a vibrant pink flower, our tour guide of the day, Dean Yassin, an instructor at the academy, immediately said, “rojak.”
Turns out this ginger flower (known as bunga kantan) in its bud form is ground up to temper the strong flavor of fish sauce in rojak.
Another revelation — assam, or tamarind, the tree whose sour, pulpy fruit is used in many Southeast Asian soups and sauces, has lovely, big leaves that, when chewed, have a lovely, sour flavor as well.
As we crushed up the leaves, smelled and nibbled on them, Dean informed us that we could indeed toss a few of them into soups.
A little bush of slender branches and pretty leaves caught my eye — it was a sichuan pepper plant, we were told.
Again, the leaves themselves yielded a lovely peppery taste when gnawed on — Willin and I immediately began fantasizing about a nocturnal visit to snip off some bits for garnishes. The light pepper taste would be lovely with fish, after all.
But, of course, we kid. We would never desecrate a national park.
As we wrapped up our tour of the school, pausing to sniff at the spicy, grilled Malay chicken that students had made and were settling down to eat for lunch, Christophe told us that the spice garden and having a clear understanding of the leaves and spices all around us are a crucial part of the courses the school teaches.
“If they fail that,” he said, “then they don’t even have to wear a chef’s jacket.”
Thinking back to the massive spice rack I have in my New York kitchen and the countless times that I’ve tossed whole cloves into a pot without having ever smelled its musky leaves or felt the bark of its trunk, I began to wonder if this tour would end up altering the way I cook and put flavors together.
Well, as they say, there’s only one way to find out.