A Sour Search
Belimbing is not just a Peranakan favourite. It finds its way into Indian pickles and Filipino stews too.
My great-grand aunt Evelyn had a belimbing (averrhoa bilimbi) tree in her backyard which I admired. I noticed how closely it resembled the starfruit tree in my eldest aunt’s garden, down to the little bunches of pink flowers on the trunk.
My mum sometimes received a small bag of belimbing at the end of a weekend visit to my great-grand aunt’s house in Stevens Road. She added the sour fruit to a roast pork dish with bean paste and chilli which she taught the house help to cook. Other Straits Chinese families I know use it in curries.
I have been looking for a belimbing tree for more than a year now. Around Holland Road I see belimbing trees growing on pavements in front of houses but I have not seen one for sale in nurseries. Far East Flora stocks starfruit trees but not belimbing trees. I thought maybe since only Straits Chinese households used it extensively there wasn’t much demand for it.
I was proven wrong. A French brother at the Montfort Centre who was well-versed in the use of belimbing in cooking helped me get a cutting from a tree that was growing on the grounds. It did not root even after some tender loving care from me. In fact the leaves drooped almost immediately. I consulted my library. According to Ivan Polunin’s book “Plants and Flowers of Singapore” the leaves respond to touch by drooping. So it was likely that I would have to grow the tree from seed and that was going to take years and years. That was probably the reason for its rarity in Singapore.
A close cousin of the starfruit, the belimbing is a Peranakan favourite
Some more research on the Internet showed that other Asians treasure it too. In the rural parts of the Philippines it is often seen in backyards. The fruit is eaten either raw or dipped in rock salt as a snack. It can also be added as flavouring for the common Filipino soup or stew called sinigang.
In Indonesia, it is added to some dishes in place of tamarind or tomato. In Aceh, sun dried belimbing is called asam sunti. The flowers are also sometimes preserved in sugar.
In Malaysia, it is made into a sweet jam.
In Kerala in India it is used for making pickles and chutney. Around Maharashtra and Goa the fruit is commonly eaten raw, with salt and spice.
To my surprise, I found that belimbing also has medicinal uses. In the Philippines, a paste made from the leaves is used to treat swelling, rheumatism, mumps or skin eruptions. A leaf infusion is used as an after-birth tonic, while a flower infusion is used to treat colds and coughs.
Malaysians even use fermented or fresh belimbing leaves to cure venereal diseases!
While the search for my balcony belimbing tree continues, I tend to a 10-year-old limau purut and a four-year-old limau kasturi coaxing fruit and fresh leaves from them. Chilli padi plants have come and gone, my lemon balm plant replaces an old withered one and my lemon plant now has seven fruit on it.
Two failures: a lemongrass clump and a pandan cluster. They just needed too much space.