Monday, October 13, 2014

A Malay childhood home in Jalan Tampoi

This is the first of a series of posts about my mother's childhood in kampong Singapore

My mother's childhood home was in one of the Malay settlements of Singapore: Kampong Glam. It was a large area of land, big enough for a bungalow-type home with several additional attachments.
Her house was a rumah papan, a two-storey house made of wood. With a kolong or void deck below, it had the appearance of three storeys. You entered the compound through a large metal gate, with patterns. It was a beautiful gate, my mother said. The veranda and front porch were made of brick, including the steps you had to climb to enter the house.

There was a large garden round the front, and extended to one side of the house, dotted with five or six low coconut trees. These trees grew enough coconuts for any of the children to drink coconut water whenever they felt like it. In the front garden there also grew a mango tree and a rambutan tree (that unfortunately never bore any fruit). They all played within the household compound; there was enough space for these free spirits to run back and forth to their hearts' content.

At the back of the house were several attachments. My mother's oldest sister lived in a three-room attachment with her family of eight children. The second oldest sister got two rooms for her family of six. There were separate toilets for bathing and for nature's calls - the latter consisted of a hole over a large metal pot (that was later collected by the "nightsoil" men, aka ah pek taik).

There was no plumbing; water had to be collected from a main pipe. All the nine siblings were supposed to take turns doing it, but there were eight girls and only one boy (who was born second last). So sometimes the girls paid off boys in the neighbourhood to collect water for them. The children used a wheelbarrow-like vehicle that someone cobbled together; this three-wheeled contraption made it easier to carry home several litres of water.

One year in the 50s, there was a big flood and waters rose to almost the height of the first floor of their wooden house. It was the evening of Hari Raya (Eid ul-Fitr) and the villagers were just starting to boil their ketupat (rice cakes in woven coconut leaves). Somehow someone managed to get hold of an ambeng, or a wooden platform not unlike a bed frame, and to the relief of all the children anticipating the biggest celebration of the year, the boiling of the ketupat and other dishes could go on - flood or no flood!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

First time foragers

Summer has officially ended, and gone are many of the delicious things to be found in the wild. I spent the last two weekends foraging with the Dutchman (Nootje always comes along of course, in a handy backpack) in the sand dunes of The Hague.

First we went to Westduinpark, easily accessible by tram 12 or bus 22 directiom Duindorp. Armed with a children's nature guide, we spot some duindoorn berries, which cluster thickly around spiny branches. They are high in vitamin C, but ridiculously difficult to pick. Maybe we were too late getting to them as well, as the berries were quite soft and tasted overripe. They are extremely sour but with a yummy aftertaste (can imagine it as a marmalade!). I ended up snapping off two small branches to experiment with.

We looked mostly for nettles. The first time I got stung quite a fair bit, so I came armed with leather gloves the second time around! Dutchman remarks that I've become quite the nettle connoisseur, as I only snip the first four or six leaves off a small plant, and they must be of a certain shade of bright young green as well. I read somewhere to pick only the best when you forage to eat, and I am taking this advice rather seriously.
I wash the whole bagful of nettles thoroughly, toss to dry and I dehydrate them in the oven at 50 degrees. It takes three batches to dry everything. We've eaten them stirfried and mashed in stamppot but my favourite way is to make an infusion (pour hot water and leave for 6-12 hours, or overnight to simplify things) together with elderberry flowers and rosehips.

The first time, we also discovered dauwbraam or dewberries. They look like blackberries, but are smaller and less sweet. The dewberry plant also tends to creep horizontally rather than arch upwards into a bush shape, like the blackberry plant. Perhaps symbiotically, dewberries grow in between nettles, so there were many untouched berries right under our noses, in the leaves. These I washed, picked out any stems and leaves, and froze in plastic boxes.

Rozebottel or rosehips grow in abundance in the sand dunes. The Dutch variety is more round rather than elongated. The red flesh is mostly bland and very slightly savoury when eaten raw, and most of the fruit is made up of seeds and hairs. I dry these on 50 degrees in the oven until semi dry, before cleaning out the hairs and seeds. Dry them further until they crumble.

Not bad for a first time forage, and i learned the second time around to lay out the goods after foraging to let all the wood lice and other bugs and worms escape before I inadvertently cook or freeze them. Though we couldn't find our coveted elderberries, next summer I'll be prepared early in the season for all kinds of berries, and try my hand at making my own red raspberry leaf tea as well!

Free superfoods for the picking


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