Tuesday, 26 January 2016

NSS Kids' Fun with Edible Plants at Bukit Brown Cemetery (Singapore)

By Ryan, Alastair & Jake Liew (10, 12 & 8 years old)

The Liew brothers Ryan, Alastair and Jake, all set to join the NSS Kids and their caregivers in exploring Bukit Brown.
It was a toasty morning on 30 August 2015. We set off on an adventure with our adult guides, Uncle Si Guim, Auntie Gloria and Auntie Lena, to find delicious and edible plants in Bukit Brown, located off Lornie Road in Singapore. Officially opened in 1922, Bukit Brown is a world-famous Chinese burial site housing some 100,000 graves. However, exhumation of nearly 4,000 tombs have been undertaken to construct a new highway. We were dismayed to see the entrance area cordoned off with safety barriers, concrete slabs and evidence of construction. As we got pass the iconic gates of Bukit Brown, we were greeted with a partial view of the surrounding greenery. Thankfully, not all of the area’s secondary forest has been destroyed and steps have been taken to conserve Bukit Brown’s wildlife.

Everyone was eager to launch into the hunt for delicious plants. We even had a two-person TV crew from MediaCorp Channel 8 Morning Express (
晨光第一线) following us around to film our findings. Uncle Si Guim started by stooping low and plucking some heart-shaped leaves growing abundantly as ground cover. He introduced this as Daun Kadok or Wild Betel (Piper sarmentosum), a plant hailing from the Piperaceae family which includes pepper. Its leaf is often confused with the Betel Leaf which is traditionally chewed together with Areca Nut and slaked lime as a mild stimulant. Wild Betel has smaller leaves and is milder in taste compared to Betel. It is used in Thai, Laotian and Malay (shredded for ulam salad) cuisine. We nibbled on bits of leaf, and it indeed had a peppery flavour. We even brought some home and it proved tasty sprinkled on soft-boiled eggs.

We next spotted the Tapioca plant or Cassava (Manihot esculenta) with its classic multi-lobed leaf. Uncle Si Guim said that the Tapioca root was a staple during the war years. He then fished out a sample from his bag and told us that this starchy root can be toxic if not properly cooked due to the natural occurrence of poisonous cyanide. Our school sells cassava chips, what a scary thought if the poison is still present!

Cultivated in Asia, South America and Africa, the leaves and tubers of Tapioca are used as human food, animal feed and biomass fuel.
A trip to Bukit Brown is not complete without exploring the intricate carvings and intriguing designs on the graves. Jake’s favourite is the grave of Mr Chew Geok Leong, which is guarded by majestic and life-like Sikh statues. Uncle Si Guim led us under a towering structure formed entirely of matted leaves and roots. It felt like we were entering a secret passageway. Everyone was fascinated by the delicate network of roots looming above our heads. We emerged on the other side and discovered a ramshackle kampong house lying just beyond. This was one of several residences of the grave keepers. We could not venture any further as a fierce dog guarding her puppies deterred us with her non-stop barking.

Auntie Gloria next spotted a Starfruit tree (Averrhoa carambola) with dangling clusters of unripe starfruits and pink flowers. We also came across other edibles such as Rambutan, Banana and Pandan leaves as well as inedible but attractive toadstools. Uncle Si Guim then pointed out the Yellow Stem Fig (Ficus fistulosa) which birds feed on. We split open a few figs and examined the tiny flowers inside with a magnifying glass.

Pandan leaves are used in Nonya cooking for pandan cake, kaya and ondeh ondeh.
There are special secrets hidden in Bukit Brown, such as an old wooden door that functions as a bridge across a stream leading to a grave keeper’s house. This bubbling stream was filled with wriggling tadpoles and guppies. There is even a special tomb that has been converted into another grave keeper’s dwelling. We hope that these will continue to remain untouched.
A special tomb converted into a grave keeper’s dwelling.
Indeed, Bukit Brown has a lot of wildlife and history. While some of its graves need to be cleared to make way for new roads, we hope that as much as possible will be preserved for the next generation. In his interview with MediaCorp journalist Hong Xinyi, Jake spoke of his wish to conserve nature areas so that when he grows up, such places will still be around. Uncle Si Guim also gave his views on Singapore’s rich plant life and how children benefit from encountering plants and animals in the wild. The three-minute feature of our trip was aired on TV on 29 September 2015. Watch it here, from 16:30 onwards: http://www.channel8news.sg/news8/ca/morningexpress/episodes/20190929-wld-morning/2157560.html

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