G(r)owing Bananas

Setandan pisang

I couldn’t wait for the rock wall and grading project to be done to start planting up the yard. I decided to grow some bananas along the jungle edge. Six months later, I’ve already harvested my first banana crop, and I’ve got banana trees towering 15 feet tall, swaying in the breeze.

The varieties of bananas here are amazing: there are about a dozen different types available in the market, and they’re all quite different. We’ve got Pisang Emas (Golden Bananas), Pisang Embon (Dew Bananas), Pisang Berangan (Dream Bananas), Pisang Awak (Your Bananas?), Pisang Tanduk (Horn Bananas), Pisang Keling (Indian Bananas, though careful, keling is a derogatory word for indians), Pisang Serendah (Shorty Bananas), and my personal favorite name, Pisang Pisang (Banana Bananas)! The only banana you can’t find is the chiquita banana they sell back home, the Cavendish variety. In the yard, the giant Pisang Tanduk is ripening. It’s a cooking banana, like a plantain, but sweet when fried. My previous harvest was a pisang serendah. It only grew about four feet tall, not counting the terminal leaf. We couldn’t eat it all fresh, so we gave some to the neighbors, and the rest became banana fritters (cucur) and banana bread. SR makes a mean banana bread.

Bananas are a funny plant. They’re not really trees. The trunk is a green bundle of juicy leaf stalks, with each new leaf emerging all the way from deep inside the plant, kind of like blades of grass. Each plant only produces one clump of bananas before dying. Often the trunk will topple over from the weight. As it is dying, new shoots sucker up from the base. The fruiting body first emerges as this deep purple heart-shaped thing that can be eaten as a vegetable by the way, though noone’s served it to me yet. They sell ’em in the market. The heart slowly opens up and elongates, revealing itty-bitty little bananas.

Beyond the fruit and the heart, the other useful product of the banana is the leaf. The leaves are huge, from 2 to 7 feet long. The leaves are used as wrappers for cooking and sweets. The leaf isn’t just a wrap though: it’s an ingredient. Lots of kuih-muih get a certain flavor from the leaf that is essential to the dish. SR claims the old people in her kampung even discern among different varieties of banana for the flavor the leaf imparts on the dish. There’s an Indian restaurant in town that has weekly banana leaf specials, where for an extra price, you can eat your lunch right off a banana leaf. It’s very popular. A personal favorite banana-wrapped treat is pulut udang, glutinous rice stuffed with spicy dried shrimp and toasted in a banana leaf. One of those units warming up in the picture will do you right for breakfast. Or minum pagi. Or minum petang. Did I mention I’ve put on five pounds since moving here?

[Update] Bananas can be used in the ornamental landscape as well. There are number of ornamental varieties that have been developed, including Pisang Derhaka, the bananas of treachery, or maybe, the bananas of rebellion, or maybe even, Uppity Bananas. The poor banana’s crime to deserve a name like that: the heart that points up to the sky instead of bending toward the ground like a good banana.

Strange Fruit pt. 8: Rambutan

It is fruit season now, which means all my discretionary income is vanishing at the roadside market. There are plenty of local fruits available year round – pineapples, papayas, bananas – but the best fruits are highly seasonal, available only for two months or so at the beginning and middle of the year.

One of my favorites is rambutan, with their bright red and yellow hairy skins. Rip or twist them open and inside is a thick sweet juicy flesh around a seed the size of an almond. I first encountered them as rum-tums in Sri Lanka, where they constituted a culinary high point during my few months there. Here in Kuching, they sell them on the twig for between RM 1.50 a bundle, more at the ends of the season, less in the middle.

The rambutan tree is easy to grow and care for, and so is often planted in people’s backyards. It is a medium sized tree if left untended. In an orchard I visited in Penang, though, the trees were all kept pruned to about fifteen feet so all the fruit could be harvested by step ladder. The shape and size of the trees were not unlike what you’d find in an apple orchard, except the trees were spaced much further apart.

I’ve got a rambutan tree that I planted about a year and a half ago. It’s a named variety: “Anak Sekolah”, or School Kid. I continue to be amazed by how fast things can grow around here: It’s about eight feet tall already. According to the nurseryman I bought it from, grafted stock will start bearing two years after planting. If so, I ought to get a little fruit in the middle of this year. I can’t wait.

Mysteries of the Coconut: Umbut

It may resemble an ice sculpture or some kind of high tech snowman, but it is in fact the heart of the coconut palm, or umbut in Malay, the growing part at the top of the coconut tree from which all the fronds develop and emerge. It is smooth, shiny and pure white. I’ve heard people use putih macam umbut the way we might say “as white as the driven snow”.

Umbut for salePutih macam umbutPile of Umbut

Umbut can be eaten, and that’s what it was doing at the market that day, being sold like a vegetable. You don’t have to buy the whole thing; they’ll carve a peice off for you. It is served cooked, often boiled in a mild watery dish. The taste isn’t that much different from bamboo shoots or nibong shoots, with a nice firm texture. The thing that makes umbut a bit of a delicacy, of course, is that you have to kill a whole coconut tree to get it.

The first time I had it was back in Bagan Datoh at my brother-in-law’s place, when a line clearance crew came down the road felling all the trees overhanging the power lines. Since they had to drop one of my brother’s trees, he asked them to salvage the umbut. They happily complied and made sure not to drop the trunk into the canal. They even took a minute to chainsaw the umbut out of the crown of the tree for us. At the market, the hawker brought the whole crown along, as you can see here, presumably to keep it fresh. Some short work with the parang and they’ll have the snowman.

Mysteries of the Coconut: Santan

Coconut Shredding Machine
Coconut Shredding Machine
When I was a kid, I remember my father bringing home a coconut once or twice as a novelty. He used a screwdriver to knock a hole in one of the three dark spots at the end of the coconut, then drained the milky liquid into a cup. After we had shared the drink, he busted open the coconut and we ate the white meat inside. It was fun. I liked it. Now I am in the land of coconuts; there are coconut palms growing everywhere you look. But any Malaysian reading this would think we were absolutely crazy. No-one would dream of doing what we did. There are uses for almost every single part of the coconut palm (something I hope to write more about soon), but the unprocessed meat is considered inedible.

The principal way coconut is used in Malaysian cooking is through the coconut milk, called santan.
Continue reading “Mysteries of the Coconut: Santan”

The Yard: Hazards of Collecting

yellow hibiscus, bunga raya

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]herever I go, I am always sure to bring my secatuers along. If it was only more portable, I’d probably bring a spade too. You never know when you will come across a plant for the garden. Institutional grounds are the best places to go, since they tend to have cultivated varities, and noone would miss a little cutting here or there. When I say cutting, I don’t mean chopping a tree down, I just mean clipping a twig or two off a shrub or tree. With a pair of hand pruners, there is absolutely no harm done.


Still, you have to be careful. Back in Michigan, my father had the cops called on him for digging a few volunteer Scotch pine seedlings out of a drainage ditch, underneath a power line on a public right-of-way. Anyone who stopped to think about it would know that within a few years’ time, right-of-way clearance crews would come down the line and cut down every last one of them. Yet, some watchful citizen, without bothering to come out of his house to ask what was going on, called the police on his neighbor. And the policeman was just as dense, chasing my father away, and warning him not to do it again. So, I know to be careful.

To make a short story long, a little while ago, when I found myself on Telekom grounds with a little time to spare, I strolled around, surreptitiously taking some cuttings of Mussaenda and Hibiscus when a watchguard barked at me (in Malay), “Hey, you there! What are you doing?”

“Oh nothing sir, just taking a few cuttings for my garden.”

“You can’t take cuttings like that”, he said in the same gruff voice, “those are [tooltip text=”kecik gilak” trigger=”hover”]ridiculously small[/tooltip]! They’ll take forever to grow! Give me those clippers. Here, ah, macam ni haa! That’s how you do it!” He cut off a stout branch about three feet long, pruned it a bit and handed it to me. Then he spun around and marched back toward his booth.


Interesting texture on the woody knobs
Interesting texture on the woody knobs

Some pictures of petai, a green bean used in Malay home cooking. It grows in long pods on a very large tree of the Legume family, Parkia speciosa. The beans are very pungent. I’ve most often seen it cooked in sambal tumis ikan bilis, a fried chili paste with dried anchovies. It is also eaten raw dipped in some kind of spicy sambal. A lot of vegetables in the diet are eaten raw with chili sauces instead of salad dressing, a practice known as ulam. I can eat petai on occassion, but mostly I just like the cool texture on the woody knobs that bear the pods (picture 2). Petai is believed to have a beneficial effect on the kidneys and urinary tract. I imagine this is due to the dark brown foul-smelling urine you will pass the day after a petai meal.

The green beans are inside the leathery pod.  Some cook the bean together with the pod and eat both.
The green beans are inside the leathery pod. Some cook the bean together with the pod and eat both.

Petai is semi-wild; it is often encouraged to grow on the outskirts of kampungs. It is also gathered directly from the forest. In The Economic Valuation of Parkia speciosa in Peninsular Malaysia, Woo Weng Chuen estimates the domestic market at between RM8-24 million per year. Due to the whole smelly brown urine thing, though, I don’t think Petai has much future as an export crop, aside from supply to southeast asian communities in diaspora.

The Yard: Inherited Plants

A sprig of lemongrass
A sprig of lemongrass
As the yard was being cleared of brush, I came across a few plants of some value that I spared the parang for. The first is a very common seasoning in Malaysian cooking, Lemongrass or serai, Cymbopogon spp. Not surprisingly, it was planted just outside the kitchen door. From a distance it is hard to distinguish it from other grasses, though it tends to form a dense, rounded outline. Sometimes you can make out a reddish-brown tinge near the base. But just
A clump of lemongrass, <em>serai</em>.
A clump of lemongrass, serai.
touch it with the weed-whip and the smell is unmistakeable: a very pungent lemon scent. The base of the stalk is what is used in cooking. It is very woody, so it is often blended, or pulverized with a mortar and pestle before adding to the dish. If you’ve eaten at a Thai restaurant you’ve probably tasted some. It can be grown in Michigan, but only as an annual. And the spindly growth I got when I tried hardly made it seem worth it.

Asam Terung, or "sour eggplant", directly translated.The next survivor is the Terung Asam, or sour eggplant. It is a vegetable commonly eaten here in Sarawak. I don’t remember ever having it in West Malaysia, but that doesn’t mean they don’t serve it there. This report on rare and wild fruits of West Malaysia lists Terung Asam as “Wild” in West Malaysia. From what I can decipher of the report, this would simply mean that it is primarily gathered rather than

The Asam Terung plant, in sorry shape.
The Asam Terung plant, in sorry shape.
cultivated. It is listed only as Solanum spp, which does put it in the same genus as Eggplant. Personally, it is not my favorite vegetable. It doesn’t have a very pronounced flavor except for a bitter aftertaste. The Terung Asam in my yard is a very sad specimen, by the way. The fruits are typically bright yellow-orange when sold in the market. I don’t know if mine is overripe or has some affliction.

The last plant was in the back on the edge of the jungle. It is Pandan, Pandanus spp, a common ingredient in kuih, snacks/desserts. It is called Screwpine in English. It is a subtle flavor, but a lot of sweets just don’t taste right without it. If you’re eating a dessert with any kind of green color, it is probably made with pandan. Its leaf is also fashioned into a wrapper for some sweets. It can also be bunched up and thrown in a pot of rice for flavoring.

Pandan, or Screwpine
Pandan, or Screwpine

The plant itself is very wild-looking. It grows on long rootstalks that sometimes trail, sometimes stick upright. It grows into a big tangled mass after a while. My wife reports that snakes are fond of lurking under pandan. My plant is quite overgrown, so I’m fixing to give it a regenerative thrashing pruning with the parang.

The Yard: Adventures in Tropical Horticulture

Our new home is in fact several years old. The house itself is quite nice and liveable as is, but the yard… The yard needs a lot of work. I wanted a house with a lot of land, and I got that in the sense that the area is spacious. But it is missing about 18 inches of soil from the kitchen stoop to the back fence. It is common practice for developers to save costs by skimping on landscape, or even to sell homes with bare earth only. But I’ve never encountered a project where the developer just decided not to backfill at all. But that’s what I’ve got: a yard that is more like a hole.

Still! Lots of possibilities abound for doing something nice and interesting when the time comes to fill. But first, I have to deal with the jungle that has grown up in the last seven years. Here is the yard when I took it over:

The original backyard: chest-high in lalang and swamp beyond
The original backyard: chest-high in lalang and swamp beyond

After cutting and burning all the brush and grass, here is where I am now, two weeks later:

The backyard after two weeks of thrashing
The backyard after two weeks of thrashing

(I had some help. Mind you, this is Ramadan, so I’m good for about an hour of work before dusk. Start any earlier in the day and there is no water to quench your thirst when you’re done.)

Now I have found that the back fence has not just been overgrown, but has been completely vanquished. At least one tree has toppled on to it, and I fear there is another trunk under the last big mound of vegetation. While the fence has been down, all manner of viney, creepy plants have wound in and out of the fence, tying it to the ground. So my next step is to reclaim my property line with the aid of my trusty parang. The parang is the local version of a machete, but with nice heft and weight, curved and balanced for easy swinging. They sell straight-from-Brazil machetes in the hardware store too, but in my opinion, the parang is a better tool.

Stay tuned: my adventures with the yard will be chronicled in breathless detail here as events unfold.

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Strong back weak mind: Filling the backyard with dirt a wheelbarrow at a time without the benefit of an honest shovel.

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got: Building a dry laid stone wall with my bare hands.