The air is fragrant with the scent of blossoming flowers, ripening fruit and fecund vegetables. Bees buzz gently in the background, and in the distance, you might catch a glimpse of a tree shrew scampering up a hardy trunk. There is a sense of fertility here, of soil and toil, growth, bloom and green – the colour du jour wherever your eyes choose to rest.
We are standing in the middle of Sce Hwai Phang’s verdant garden in a leafy Petaling Jaya suburb. Phang, better known as CY, is a horticulturalist who has transformed her rented property into a veritable edible garden, filled with 200 herbs, vegetables and fruits that she grows herself with the help of her mother, a gardener and some part-time help.
“When I first came here, there were some common herbs like lemongrass, pandan, curry leaves and bunga kantan. But other than, the space was quite bare. I’ve stopped counting how many things I have now because they change. At any one time, there are easily 100 to 200 herbs, vegetables and fruits,” says CY, who took 18 months to cultivate her edible garden, which she started a few years ago.
CY is the founder of Garden To Table (www.facebook.com/gardentotablePJ), which basically entails using fresh produce from her 2,000sq ft garden and incorporating that into delicious food, which she serves to paying customers at her adjoining private dining cafe two days a week (Tuesdays and Saturdays between noon and 4pm) when her home is open to guests.
Although she has been running this for awhile now, CY’s emphasis has shifted over the years and she now focuses her attention primarily on the garden and giving back to the community through educational demos and workshops, with the private dining aspect functioning more as a means to pay off the running costs of the garden, which can range from RM8,000 to RM10,000 every month.
Also a food stylist and culinary consultant, CY takes on independent projects, but says most of her clients are now focused on food sustainability, in line with what she herself espouses.
CY’s main idea behind Garden To Table is to encourage more people to have their own edible gardens at home. “We want to make people grow more and cook more at home, because it’s very hard to find any urban farms. Yes, you can go to farms in Semenyih and Janda Baik, but I feel we should not marginalise farming away from the city.
And now, the trend is changing, it’s more people-centred, not business-centred. People know what they need to do, but they don’t know how to do it. So we have a large space to show people the diversity of what we can grow,” she says.
This diversity includes plenty of local produce like curry leaves, turmeric, bunga kantan, four-winged beans, blue pea flower, chillies, okra, pineapples and lime as well as more unusual herbs, fruits and vegetables like tarragon, lemon verbena, bay leaves and even figs.
“Originally I wanted this place to be more like a French Provence-style garden, but that’s just a dream. Because if you look at the overall profile of Mediterranean fruits like figs, you need a distinctive cold and dry weather or hot and dry weather to stimulate production. They can fruit here throughout the year, but they will not have the taste profile of figs. The ones grown here are sweet but don’t have that intense flavour,” she says.
Roots, shoots and all
CY’s garden functions as a natural ecosystem. Her compost is derived from 90% food waste and she doesn’t use any pesticide. One of her main concerns when planting new trees or plants is whether they attract insects like bees (she has bee hives in the garden too).
“We want to grow things that will attract bees and provide food for them. So we have fruits like guava, kedondong, passionfruit, bananas, pineapples – these are what the bees like. And we have a lot of flowers which also attract bees. So whenever possible, the plants are edible and if not edible, they provide food for the bees,” says CY.
CY is also an avid advocate of utilising as many parts of different plants as possible. Through the course of her work, she has discovered multiple uses for leaves, shoots and flowers, which she now incorporates into her food preparation.
“People ask us a lot, ‘Is this edible? Which part is edible?’ So we conduct a lot of demos and workshops to show people how to utilise different parts of plants and trees. And with Garden To Table, we utilise a lot as well. Like when I make angku kuih, instead of using banana leaves, I use lemon leaves to line the kuih, so it will have the fragrance of lemon leaves. Even chilli flowers can be used in stir-fries – it’s a little bit peppery but not hot,” she says.
Although CY is a horticulturalist, she says she has learnt more from her garden than from her degree, as many things can only be discovered with first-hand experience. Like the fact that some plants can be used as home remedies, for example.
“One day, I was trying to save a bee and got stung. I searched on the Internet and found that yam leaves were supposed to be good for this. So I cut some yam leaves from my garden, squeezed the juice, rubbed it on my skin and within 20 minutes, the pain was gone,” she says.
The taste test
However much someone tries to sell you on the idea of freshly-harvested produce, the truth is always in the tasting. And you’ll very quickly realise just how different the food at Garden To Table’s private dining arm tastes, compared to the many commercial variants out there.
Like CY’s nasi kerabu (RM35), for instance, which utilises Tonkin jasmine, turmeric leaves and four-winged beans sourced from the garden as well as rice that has been dyed with blue pea flowers.
It’s like no other nasi kerabu I’ve tasted before – aromatic and intoxicatingly herbaceous, yielding bold, robust flavours underscored by the intense freshness of the herbs on the plate. I actually saw CY pluck the jasmine a few minutes before putting it on my plate, and it this commitment to freshness that really makes the concept appealing, especially when you can taste the difference instantly.
“People say my nasi kerabu is expensive. But the commercial nasi kerabu uses herbs that have been harvested probably a week ago, but here we only harvest them just before serving, so the flavours are really amazing. So it does make a huge difference. When you eat it, it’s so robust and there is such a mixture of flavours, and the herbs don’t have blackened edges, because they are really fresh,” she says.
CY’s pot stickers (RM18), meanwhile, are just as good. The homemade pastry wrappers are given a natural light green colouring, thanks to sayur manis. A stuffing of minced chicken, shrimp and chives proves delightful and you’ll find yourself reaching for more and more of these plump little bundles without hesitation.
Growing and sharing
CY says growing an edible garden makes sense for many people, as it reduces reliance on a commercial food system and saves both time and cost.
“It helps you to save time and effort – imagine running to the market just for two pandan leaves! By planting your own herbs, vegetables and fruits, you save time and petrol and the other thing is, it encourages sharing of produce between neighbours.
“It is something people used to do before, and gardening is an effective tool to rekindle that kind of community spirit again. In this neighbourhood, many of my neighbours share what they grow. I even use my next-door neighbour’s mangoes to make kerabu mangga and acar!” she says.
For neophyte gardeners anxious about starting their own edible gardens at home, CY highly recommends beginning with herbs like pandan, lemongrass, turmeric and curry leaves, which are hardy and require less maintenance.
Ultimately, though, she hopes Garden To Table will encourage more urban dwellers to grow their own fresh produce in their homes.
“I think people are starting to realise that money isn’t everything and there is joy in growing and joy in establishing family bonds and harvesting and cooking. I think we don’t have any public spaces for this, so people go to Semenyih and Janda Baik to give their kids these experiences. You can’t go there every day, but you can grow things every day. And through this gardening process, I think people will realise that a lot of things can be grown at home,” she says.