IIt’s amazing how much gardening and cooking intersect, not just in terms of the ingredients themselves, but in the culture that surrounds both disciplines. As a nostalgic pseudo-Singaporean, this week I was catching up on a podcast from the back east where amazing local chef Christopher Tan waxing lyrics on Asian baking really helped me better express what I’ve always thought of gardening.
Kueh is a bit of a catch-all term for a group of traditional Southeast Asian sweets that are the result of centuries of cultural mixing. Incorporating Chinese, Arabic, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences, they can be everything from sticky steamed peanut balls to crunchy deep-fried coconut and caramel treats, but what they all have in common is how incredibly elaborate they are.
Almost everyone’s grandmother sat them down the day they were able to hold a spoon and put them to work, stirring slow-cooked coconut creams for hours, rolling discs of rice gooey and sweet potato paste to fill, hand peeling each mung bean to grind into paste. Yet today, these traditions are rapidly being lost in favor of a simple purchase of pale factory-made imitations. Skills passed down from generation to generation evaporate in a generation or two in the name of speed and ease.
As someone who teaches people about plants, I often feel enormous pressure to do the horticultural equivalent, with the clickbaity “Three Best Tips” or “Five Minute Fixes” to overcome the “drudgery” or “faff” of the gardening. I’ve always found this uncomfortable, because for beginners it instantly makes gardening not only boring and unpleasant, but (even worse) low skill.
Yet if you ask an avid or bake-obsessed gardener what they love most about their hobby, the answer tends to be as much about the process itself as the end result. There’s the creative buzz of dreaming up a new idea, the nostalgic connection to old family traditions, the therapeutic benefit of quiet concentration.
Chef Tan has a wonderful word to reframe the narrative here. As someone who is constantly asked if doing kueh is “inconvenient” or “boring”, he rails against these negative value judgments with the term “effort”. The idea is that the effort, far from being an obstacle to the pleasure of cooking, is essential to achieve it. It is an expression of love, dedication and respect that is only made possible by investing time, care and attention. It’s the difference between snatching flowers from a gas station forecourt and designing a homemade bouquet for the one you love, from seeds you carefully selected months ago and nurtured every day in every season. rain or shine.
So, let’s accept “effort” not just as a virtue in itself, but as an absolutely essential ingredient to experiencing the true joy that gardening can bring.
Follow Jack on Twitter @Botanygeek