Aside from serving up wholesome food, Garden-to-Table offers diners a chance to get in touch with nature without having to leave the city
Picture your ideal garden, and you’re bound to imagine well-manicured lawns dotted with pretty flowering pots. Or perhaps, it has more of a tropical flair, a mini-jungle with lush ferns and wide-leaved palms. But if a garden can be more than just an aesthetic experience – one that is not just beautiful, but productive, healthy, and good for you as well as the environment?
If the rise of edible gardening and urban farming is any indication, it seems that more Malaysians are looking at gardening as more than just a leisurely past time. Stepping into Chef Phang Sce Hwai office cum eatery Garden-to-Table in Petaling Jaya, the beauty of having your food freshly plucked off the branch inspires a type of child-like awe.
Located in an ageing bungalow, with an impressive yard, Garden-to-Table has a charming homey feel. The furniture itself serves as a testament to the eatery’s push for sustainability; the chairs, tables & cupboards here are pre-owned, either sourced from Amcorp Mall’s flea market or friends’ homes or recycled from crates. The menu for the day is scrawled in chalk on a wooden brown wall in the middle of the space.
“The menu changes according to the harvest from our garden and our partner farms,” Phang explains. “So we base it entirely on the kind of produce we get; this is how we are really meant to eat, instead of artificially extending seasons of vegetables, or relying on imports so much.”
She adds that if one is going to claim themselves as a sustainable enterprise, they need to pay attention to more than just food. “So we even encourage guests to bring their own containers, coffee cups and bags if they want to pack or take away food or coffee. We recycle our food scraps into compost for our plants. We also use biodegradable dishwashing liquid to wash our dishes and cooking utensils,” she says.
Of course, the centrepiece of the outlet is its garden, with over 100 herbs, fruits and vegetables jostling for space. Papaya and fig trees plant their roots alongside moringa plants and vines, while other plants like coriander herbs and sprouts fill the gaps in between. This result is no accident, as Phang around two years perfecting her garden before deciding to open her doors to eager diners.
From soil to plate
The farm-to-table movement, while a now an almost oversaturated concept in the West, is still a growing phenomenon in Malaysia. The idea is simple: these outlets source their ingredients from local farmers, or grow the produce themselves, with the aim of creating a more environmentally friendly supply chain.
While restaurants around the world have been doing this for years, the label implies a larger social cause in an era where food production is global and complex. While modern food production has certainly made things more efficient, the side-effects of this efficiency are becoming apparent; from the use of pesticides and hormones, to the carbon footprint of having say, avocados being flown from halfway around the world.
A food stylist and culinary consultant by profession, Phang has a degree in horticultural science and a masters in human communication. Driven by a passion for food and the environment, she found herself on her current path through experimentation.
“While working as a food stylist for corporate projects, I realised just how much food was wasted in the process, and I felt like there had to be a better way of doing things,” she says. “From there, I started to get into the idea of growing my own food; my degree did help somewhat, but what I wanted to do was enable more people to be a part of the experience. I also used to write recipes for food companies, so that love for cooking was always there — here I get to combine all these interests.”
Digging into her nasi kerabu, I’m glad that Phang decided to forge her own path – it has been the best that I’ve had outside of Kelantan. Staying true to tradition, the rice is naturally infused with the blue-ish hue of the pea flower, and comes fried fish, acar, an assortment of fresh ulam (traditional Malay herbs and ferns) as well as a not-too-spicy belacan paste. The addition of a salted duck egg was a surprise, but it was the perfect complement to the hints of sourness and heat from the overall dish.
Phang also gives her nasi lemak the blue-pea treatment, a dish she says is inspired by the renowned Michelin-starred Candlenut restaurant in Singapore. As a lifelong connoisseur of nasi lemak, the use of freshly squeezed coconut milk, alongside a refreshing pandan juice definitely hit the spot.
Aside from local meals, Garden-to-Table also has its own bakery famous for its handmade sourdough bread (made from dark rye flour) as well as buttermilk and cinnamon scones accompanied by a range of homemade jams.
My personal pick to satiate the sweet-tooth cravings however, would definitely be the homemade ice-cream based on local fruit such as durian and mangoes. The cempedak (jackfruit) ice-cream in particular, packs a punch of flavour without being too sweet. Phang explains that she gets a lot of her fruit for these creations from her neighbours. “I want people to know where their food is coming from. We even do garden tours here, so people can have a look at how these plants actually look like, and how committed we are to staying local,” she adds.
The drawback to Garden-to-Table is that it only opens on Saturdays, for two sessions of 9am to 11am and 12pm to 2pm. As it is literally a home, space for each meal is limited to around 12 to 16 people, so it is best to book ahead to avoid disappointment. On the flipside, this provides diners a calm oasis for a lazy weekend meal. In a world that always seems to be in a rush, this is a welcome respite, and Phang agrees: “You want to be able to really relax and enjoy your food, and nature gives you the chance to do that.”