Home Brew

I used to think of my morning coffee ritual as my last remaining vice, but if you are keeping up with the times, you'll know that it's vice status has been downgraded of late. Drunk in moderation to manage it's possible health aggravating and addicting qualities- coffee is officially no longer bad for you and perhaps even good for you as studies continue to emerge about how it's good for your heart, prostate, and dementia, to name a few. Being many years part of the Starbucks era of easy procurement and enjoyment of fresh ground, freshly brewed coffee it was an easy graduation to the new appreciation for serious coffee due much to the efforts of enterprises like Portland's Stumptown. No longer a guilty pleasure, coffee is a complex ancient herbal beverage that continues to have an ever expanding modern cultural relevance.

I returned home to Malaysia harboring a fantasy of rediscovering 'local coffee'. Coffee is grown here in South east Asia, and after trying pretty much every bean out there, I seem to have a natural taste bias for the bold, earthier flavor of Sumatra, which has been by preferred choice for many years. The fantasy is fueled by a childhood memory of being in a school room  that happened to be close to a coffee roasting enterprise. The smell of coffee to this day takes me right back to the the sultry heat of that classroom where the pungent smell pierced the dullness of afternoon classes. I was psyched to think I might perhaps discover a local, home grown, home roasted coffee.

Well that fantasy was smashed to smithereens. At first, I was just bewildered at the contents listed on bags of local coffee being only 60 percent coffee and the rest sugar, margarine and sometimes other ingredients like flour. Immersing myself in a little coffee 101, I discover that Malaysia largely grows Coffea Liberica, with a less than flavorful bean that the local coffee industry has learnt to enhance by roasting with butter/margarine and sugar. Coffea Arabica is what dominates global coffee production and is known for its flavor. It's a little more delicate than Coffea Canephora or Robusta which it is often blended with for both it's easier cultivation and higher caffeine content. Sumatra coffee is Arabica beans grown on Sumatra, whereas my local home kopi is adulterated Liberica beans grown here and entirely consumed by the local market.

It's particularly saddening as there is also a vibrant kopitiam (local coffee hangout ) culture here that includes the original kopitiam coffee houses that still thrive replete with old school coffee pots and the newer chains that combine well executed vintage aesthetics (see pic on right with marble topped table, chinese stools and coffee cup with botanical motif) and modern conveniences like free wifi and Starbucks ubiquity - there's at least one in every mall. They usually have a great menu with local and healthful alternatives to pastries and cakes but, the rasion d'etre is a bitter, greasy, sweet  beverage whose only saving grace is it's fix of caffeine.  Why not offer some better tasting alternatives, I asked the owner of a small family run chain of kopitiams with heritage roots ? His answer - the locals love the taste of the local brew, so we don't see a need to change. Sigh. 

All however is not lost. If I can't connect with a local grown cup of coffee, a major consolation prize is that I can connect with the plant itself, in fact I am the proud owner of one, see pic on the left. I recently learnt that coffee flowers have a perfume that is jasmine like, so it's a nice add to my perfume plants collection and bought at the same place mentioned in my last post that doesn't label its plants so I have no idea which type it is.

Thankfully too, Singapore, just an hour away is playing ball with global coffee trends and tastes. There are a  few enterprises that roast Arabica beans and is even home to a few artisanal coffee establishments that I plan to check out. Meanwhile, there is the old fall back Starbucks - there's one here in Johor Bahru and I have since found a small coffee vendor in one of the markets who sells a Bali coffee bean that is quite good. Not quite my beloved Sumatra but my new found coffee guy is quite the character with his old school giant ladled scoop, glass fronted metal display tins and vintage grinder. After much banging to ensure every last powdered grain is set free and right before he puts it into into the bag, he completes his ritual by extending the ladle, inviting me to take a whiff while simultaneosly showing me the thumbs up and there I am back there in that classroom staring at the afternoon sky through wooden shutters  the aroma of coffee blurring yesterday and today.


I'm looking for plants with a perfume I told the guy working at a little nursery discovered on a jaunt out of town. He showed me a couple of plants, unlabeled of course and not one of us was proficient enough in the other's language, we tried English, Malay and Mandarin, to figure out what the other was saying. Thankfully one of them has tiny little flower buds, which on crushing reveal a delicate scent. The other has large leaves and he gestures with his hands that the flowers are spidery - ah, perhaps one of these. Sold.

The little buds have opened and have a sweet Jasmine scent. The plant itself is woody and shrub like so I try those keywords in google 'jasmine + shrub'. Bingo. It's Murraya Paniculata  a distant cousin of the Citrus family also known as Orange Jessamine. It's also native to these parts with the local name Kemuning.

We have a small Gardenia Jasminoides tree already in our yard also known as Cape Jessamine or it's local name Melur Cina which translates to Chinese Jasmine. This too has a wonderful scent, I often cut some to put in my bedroom. Where the Orange Jessamine is not familiar, this Cape Jessamine is deeply so, a familiar sight in many a backyard of my youth. It's popularity owed perhaps because of its manageable small tree status with glossy leaves and seemingly perpetual blooms.

The flowers don't seem to last long though, there is a lovely tight green bud, then it is best when just opened as pictured left, then dishevels fairly rapidly. I notice that there is also a fair amount of  yellow leaves on our tree and wonder if  the soil might need a little ph adjustment to its preferred acidity. The Orange Jessamine on the other hand has more stamina. I can see why its tight woody habit would make a good hedge hence it's other name Chinese Box.

The leaves of 'the other' plant do look very much like Michelia Champaca leaves, which I am psyched about and the quest continues for more additions to my collection of perfume plants.

Update: A cutting from the Gardenia jasminoides and the Jessamine now reside in the White Corner of my garden.

Background Color

Last weekend, in Singapore I caught sight of a bright pink banana flower, framed by a fan of lime tinted leaves  set against a bright blue wall and it was stunning. Years ago, I think it was in the textile museum in New Dehli, I took away an image that has remained indelible in my mind - blue walls wrapped around a courtyard with a large tree swimming in a pool of Tradescantia Pallida Purpurea. The power of this image, the dark gnarled trunk, the shadows of its leafy branches and the vibrancy of the purple Tradescantia against the blue has since, always made me aware of how effective a strong background color is in a small garden space.

Blue walls have been a signature of some famous gardens belonging to artsy types - most famously the cobalt blue walls of Jardin Majorelle, Yves San Laurent's Moroccan getaway and there's also Frida Kahlo's Blue House, not as deep a blue but more intense than the one I have pictured above which, like the one in Dehli casts a little lavender. A blue background is a a great foil for these orange flowers in the Mission district of San Francisco and the lime tones of spring in Manhattan. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang shows how this color is as much at home with Marrakesh cactuses and Mexican yuccas as it is with Chinese shutters and lotus flowers.

The other wall color I keep coming across in Singapore is red.  Although it has clear oriental associations with the color of red lacquer and the walls of the forbidden city, this color has for me many more global associations from the Brownstones of Manhattan and the saltbox houses of New England to many a Tuscan wall, the Dutch Buildings in Malacca and the stone walls of Agra. Here in the tropics the warm tones look great with the warm browns of wooden shutters and pink plumeria  or a gnarly bougainvillea, as above. On Cape Cod a stand of hollyhocks perhaps and in Tuscany, a line of terracota pots with huge red geraniums.

I saw a few yellow walls in Malacca, pretty but somehow they weren't quite right. Yellow can be a diffcult color especially when it casts green. This image of the jade green walls of the Peranakan mansion in Penang, combined with wood shutters, gold decorative accents, on the other hand looks like the perfect starting point to embelish with potted foliage in a range of greens.

How does one choose? Well end use would probably help inform that decision. The psychology of colors tells us that low arousal colors of blue and green would be best for a spot intended for quiet reverie- a shady enclave to escape the afternoon sun or a peaceful breakfast nook. High arousal reds that stimulate the appetite would be great for an outdoor dining area particularly for use at night, the glow of lanterns and candelight making the space warm and intimate.

Doesn't all this color talk just make you want to pick up a paintbrush?

Strange Allure

The Durian is indeed a strange fruit. An unfriendly spiked shell with a powerful lingering smell that is either putrid or heavenly depending on which side of the great divide you stand. It is outlawed in taxis, most hotels, hugely expensive compared to the many other fruits available and right now, the season is in full swing.

It changes the local urban landscape. Small vendors set up shop out of the back of their cars, larger trucks and stalls are strung up with lights and in the cool of the evening the hustle and haggle of durian trade ensues for the length of the season. Those unwilling or unable to take the rank fruit home are afforded aluminum tables for an immediate roadside feast.

Last year I didn't eat a single one. Many years (maybe twenty) of abstinence living abroad made up part of my reluctance - the smell requires a leap of faith to dive through to reap the rewards of the complex sensory pleasures that follow. The other part is the now somewhat complex variety of cultivars and clones on offer, many of them with both inscrutable and unattractive names like D168. Inevitably unable to decipher which to buy, I would opt for the other fruits that also coincide with durian season- more of that in another post.

This year however a phone call from one of my Dad's old students alerting us that he was bringing over some durians from another alumni who owns a fruit farm broke the spell. In minutes he was over with four durians reminding me also of how we used to get  durians. Not from a bustling roadside stall but from a friend or neighbor who had been out of town and brought back a haul perhaps from family in a rural area or from a farmer on the roadside. My grandfather, a lawyer, who sometimes did pro bono work for rural folk would often be paid in kind come durian season of a bushel of fruit.

And so I came to be reaquainted with the strange allure of this native fruit, one almost impossible to describe.  Custardy, creamy, sweet, rich it packs a powerful sensory punch and by day four when we got to the fourth one and it was a dud with spoilt fruit, the disappointment seemed to strike a little deeper than expected. Is it it's high tryptophan content that hooks you? Am I really thinking I might have to buy some at the market next week to score a fix. Yes, I think I might have to.

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