ln the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang, Malaysia are some surprising facts about common culinary spices.
Did you know that you could die from eating too much nutmeg?
Did you know that the banana tree is not a tree at aII, but a herb?
And did you know that most of the cinnamon we buy is not true cinnamon from Sri Lanka but the less expensive, and harsher, cassia?
I learned all this and more on a visit to the Tropical Spice Garden in Georgetown, on Penang Island off Malaysia's west coast.
In the 1800s Penang was a spice paradise, with several large-scale British growers cultivating and exporting exotic spices around the world. Today, the Tropical Spice Garden is just about all that is left of that once booming trade, but it's a perfect introduction to the many spices that made Southeast Asia rich and famous.
This enchanting gem of a garden, established on 3.2 hectares (eight acres) of an abandoned rubber plantation opened in 2003, is home to more than 500 species of exotic tropical flora, spices and herbs. You can see and smell most of them on a guided walking tour through the jungle. (The ones that are not in season can be smelled in the small gift shop where you can pick up a lasting souvenir of your visit.)
The Tropical Spice Garden is a veritable feast for the senses that starts at the main entrance where a breeze of spices wafts over you. On the walking tour, an English-speaking guide will point out the tree or plant where a spice comes from and pluck off a leaf or rub a seed pod to let you smell the fragrant aromas.
There are three garden trails to explore:
- a Spice Trail, featuring more than 100 varieties of spices and herbs;
- an Ornamental Trail, showcasing exotic flora, including palms, ferns and gingers;
- and a Jungle Trail, which follows an elevated pathway through ferns, wild orchids and other jungle species.
There are also themed outdoor rooms, including water, cycad and bamboo gardens. Best of all, you can sample these spices at the on-site Tree Monkey restaurant, which serves Asian fare featuring many of the garden's own spices. Set amidst giant rain trees (Albizia saman) and overlooking the ocean, this restaurant is a gourmet's delight. My wife and I sampled the lemongrass, ginger, honey and lime tea with fresh ginger root held in a twisted sprig of lemongrass. For lunch we dined on pandan chicken - tender morsels of chicken marinated in a sweet chili sauce and steamed in spicy and aromatic pandan ieaves.
If you want to do more than feast on the scents and tastes of these exotic spices, you can sign up for a half-day cookery class at the garden's cooking school, the first in Penang. Under the guidance of professional chef Pearly Kee, you'll learn how to prepare traditional Malaysian meals with fresh herbs and spices that you harvest yourself from the centre's own gardens.
But go easy on the nutmeg!
As little as two whole raw seeds can cause hallucinations and, rarely, death. In low doses, however, ground nutmeg is perfectly safe and is used to flavour dishes around the world.
Whether you take a cooking class, dine on fresh herbs and spices, or stroll through the jungle, you're sure to learn something new and come away invigorated by your immersion in Penang's Tropical Spice Garden.
Admission to the Tropical Spice Garden is RM 22 (roughly $7). Cookery classes with a maximum of 10 persons costs RM 200 (roughly $65) including admission and a guided tour. Public buses 102 and 101 both go to there from downtown Georgetown or you can drive and free parking is available.
Travel diary shared by Dan Cooper