Do you know your roots? Cultivated in your backyard or gallivanting wild in the jungles, roots are usually hidden underneath the ground. They lack the glory given to leaves and flowers often paraded for their beauty. Mysterious as they are, roots give life to us. In fact, roots are important food staples in certain parts of the world like cassava in sub-Saharan Africa. Tuberous roots like sweet potato and yam are survival food during war times. Since centuries ago, some have been consumed heavily for their health properties like ginseng in China and Korea. Also, not forgetting Malaysia’s national trophy, the tongkat ali, its concoction ingested to cure impotence. In South East Asia, roots brighten dishes with that extra edge. Have you tried any?
Wild Ginseng was devoured largely by the imperials of China thousands of years ago. The emperor Qin Shi Huang from the Qin Dynasty even sent his liege hunting for these super tonic plants high up the mountains in Korea as he sought the elixir of life in this medicinal root, believed to promote health, vitality and longevity. The high demand makes it endangered now.Wild ginseng flourished abundantly in Hamyang during the Three Kingdoms era in Korea. Until the early 1990s, many Koreans worked as ‘simmani’ . They were experts in digging up ginseng. Today, Hamyang is renowned for its ‘Hamyang Wild Ginseng Festival’, held in Sangnim Forest, Korea’s natural monument.This prized herb becomes most nutritious when it produces a red fruit. Traditionally, the Koreans boil the wild ginseng and chicken together to make nourishing soup as well as soak it in wine as medicine. Nowadays, you can experience its novelty in the wild ginseng flower tea.
Arrowroot originally came from the Arawak, the people who lived in the Caribbean Islands.
Arrowroot originally came from the Arawak, the people who lived in the Caribbean Islands. You can enjoy young arrowroot raw. Its powder form, however is derived from Marantaceae’s rhizomes. As it is gluten-free, it is a healthier alternative to corn starch making it a superb thickening agent in sauces and stews. High in several B vitamins and minerals, it also aids digestion. Its primeval uses include healing wounds from scorpion bites and poisoned arrows.
Wild Water Taro thrives in wetlands. Commonly referred to as wild yam in Sarawak, it is also grown near ponds in the urban areas. The shoots and stems make great dishes. Readily available in the regular markets with its stems already cut, peel the skin carefully before throwing it into the wok. Spongy when chewed, it is rather tasteless so local chefs usually get innovative with it. Add in turmeric leaf, chili, fermented tofu and taro or yam or simply with belachan and chilli into your cooking. Non belachan fans could jive with miso instead for a different twist. Be careful though, the wrong species in your mouth could have you rushing to the pharmacy!
Its exotic taste lies in its seeds
Green Cardamom: Originated from India, this herb from the ginger family spice up any dishes with an intense, minty flavour. Loaded with antioxidants, cancer fighting, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial compounds, these are just a few of its impressive medicinal qualities. It is generally safe for most people but the supplements form are cautioned not to be given to children and women who are pregnant and nursing.
Kecalak: Fondly named kecalak by the Ibans, Sabahans call it tuhau. The young sheaves of the shoots and roots can be eaten. Often cooked in ‘ayam masak kicap’ , you can also mix it with chili, lime, salt and vinegar for an appetizing jeruk. This is only for the adventurous as it requires an acquired taste with the plant smelling like the insect pesisang.
Black Curcuma: The scientists label it as curcuma aeruginosa while the Indonesians refer to it as temu ireng. A perennial plant with its gorgeous magenta coloured flower, its beauty goes beyond its physique. Exuding healing powers and flavonoids, it alleviates cholesterol levels and treats malaria, scurvy and gonorrhoea. Its dark insides can be pounded and mixed with coconut oil into a paste to be used as a skin- softening mask.
The many, many faces of ginger
A global superfood, ginger is a common household commodity in China, India, South East Asia, Jamaica and South Africa. Packed with antioxidants and anti- inflammatory goodness, the rhizomes and roots are processed into powder and oil as well as eaten fresh and dried.
Aromatic ginger, cekur, kencur, cutcherry, sha jiang and finger root are just some of the many names given to sand ginger. Loving the sun, it grows bigger in sand, and can be found sprouting in villages. It helps women in post-partum healing. Indonesians pound them into paste to treat wounds and infections on skin. Originated from India, its unique flavour enriches many South East Asian dishes like Thai, Malay, Chinese and Indonesian cuisines. The rhizomes and young leaves are tossed into salads and ulams for that additional oomph!
Ginger that tastes like unripe mango is the mango ginger or temu pauh ginger. The Malays endearingly call it temu ulam as it could be pickled and eaten raw, an appetizing add-on to a main meal. Sometimes, it is whirred into sambal. Southern Indians savour them as pickles while their Northern counterparts grind them into chutney. The leaves boiled alongside other ingredients are used as herbal bath for women after childbirth.
Thai Black Ginger: This ginger with its dark flesh, is used to treat metabolic sicknesses and improved one’s vitality especially in Thailand. It is highly advertised as an aphrodisiac and acts as a glucose support agent.
Crepe Ginger: This wild ginger, with its spiral leaves and frilly white petals, topped with its lingering strong and sweet smell gives your garden an exotic feel. Aromatic, it is a favourite element in incense and perfumes. An extraction of the rhizomes could lower blood sugar levels. It is interesting to note that the rural people of Assam in India utilizes it for fertility control.
Poko Senggang: Belonging to the ginger family living in the peat swam forests of Sarawak, this plant with its flowers sprout out of the earth is rarely documented (unlike the bunga kantan). The fruit is eaten when it is ripe, leaving a sweet and slightly sour tang in your mouth. Its stems are woven into mats, known as tikar senggang.
White Turmeric: An ancient spice, zedoary or the white turmeric is a rarity. Tasting almost like ginger, its flesh is light and it gives you a bitter aftertaste. Its medicinal benefits are bountiful, ranging from treating female ailments, stomach troubles, snake bites and chronic pain to purifying blood. The Indians use the flowers for festive rituals, the rhizomes for perfumes and they savour the roots fresh, pickled or cooked.
Bentong Ginger: Nicknamed the King of ginger, it is found mainly in Bukit Tinggi, Bentong, Malaysia. Likened to a poor man’s ginseng, it is actually more costly, more nutritious and spicier than the common ginger. Because there are no filaments around it, it is twice as delicious in adding zest to dishes like fried rice, chicken and pork ribs.
Let’s dig deep into our roots. Hunt them. Plant them. Eat them. Get creative and they might just grow on you.
A poet and visual artist, Angelina Bong has performed and read in South Korea, Malaysia, South Africa, Botswana, UK, Australia, India and Egypt with some poems translated into Korean, French, Malayalam, Japanese, Arabic and Malay. She is published online and in print including several poetry festival anthologies.