It’s amazing how much crossover there is between gardening and cooking, not just in terms of the ingredients themselves, but in the culture that surrounds the two disciplines. As a homesick pseudo-Singaporean, this week I was catching up on a podcast from back east where amazing local chef Christopher Tan waxing lyrical about Asian patisserie really helped me better articulate what I have always thought about 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, Arab, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences, they can be everything from sticky, steamed peanut dumplings to crunchy, coconut-caramel fried treats, but what they all have in common is how incredibly elaborate they are to make.
Kueh chef Christopher Tan helped me better articulate what I have always thought about gardening
Pretty much everyone’s grandma would sit them down the day they were able to hold a spoon and put them to work, stirring slow-cooking coconut custards for hours, rolling discs of infuriatingly sticky rice and sweet potato dough to fill, hand-peeling individual mung beans to grind into batter. Yet today these traditions are rapidly being lost in favour of simply buying in pale, factory-made imitations. Skills handed down through generations are evaporating in just a generation or two in the name of the quick and easy.
As someone who teaches people about plants, I often feel a huge pressure to do the horticultural equivalent, with the clickbaity “Three top tips” or “Five-minute fixes” to get over the “drudgery” or “faff” of gardening. I have always found this uncomfortable, as to beginners it instantly makes gardening out to be something not just boringly unpleasant, but (worse still) low skill.
Yet if you ask any baking obsessive or passionate 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 when dreaming up a new idea, the nostalgic connection with old family traditions, the therapeutic benefit of calm focus.
Chef Tan has a wonderful word to reframe the narrative here. As someone who is constantly asked if making kueh isn’t “troublesome” or a “hassle”, he rails against these negative value judgments with the term “effortful”. The idea is that putting in effort, far from being an impediment to the joy found in cooking, is essential to achieving it. It’s an expression of the love, dedication and respect that is only made possible by investing time, care and attention. It’s the difference between grabbing some petrol-station forecourt flowers and designing a homegrown bouquet for the one you love, from seeds you carefully selected months before and nurtured every day over each season, come rain or shine.
So, let’s embrace “effortfulness” as not just a virtue in itself, but an absolutely essential ingredient to experience the true joy gardening can bring.
Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek
July 17, 2022 at 12:57PM James Wong