You don’t usually associate the sweetness of a dessert with the tang of poison do you? But the new Poison Garden at Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden provides exactly that kind of insight – that poisonous plants can, with the right treatment, be both food and medicine. In fact, humanity has long had a relationship with such plants and used them in a variety of ways. Take apples, for example, we eat them every day without stopping to realise that their seeds contain cyanide. Fortunately it’s only a very little but all the same, if you are planning an apple blow-out, it’s wise not to eat the seeds. The plant ricinus produces both castor oil, known to many generations of children as a purgative, and ricin, famous during the Cold War as an assassination tool. The difference is that the poison is contained within a large molecule, and it’s only deadly if injected.
Let’s look at Malaysia’s best-loved dessert – Bubur Cha Cha . The jelly is made of tapioca flour which comes from the cassava, or manioc, plant that is indigenous to Central America. This is a highly poisonous – the cyanide in its roots can disrupt breathing, induce coma, and even cause death. And yet cassava is sometimes called “the bread of the tropics” because over half a billion people depend upon it in the developing world as a source of carbohydrate. Cassava must be prepared properly to detoxify it before it is eaten which is why it’s not a good idea to do it at home. But once the poisonous milk has been extracted, the remaining cassava has a taste not unlike sweet potatoes and can also be ground in to a flour to bake breads, cakes, and cookies. It can also be processed into “tapioca pearls” which can be found in bubble tea – which uses the largest tapioca pearl as the basis for a sweet, fruity drink.
You can learn more about Malaysia’s delicious cuisine by attending the Tropical Spice Garden’s Cooking School where expert cooks show you how to make local delicacies. And you can find out more about how poisonous plants have interacted with humanity by visiting the new Poison Garden that has been recently opened there.