May marks the beginning of summer; Singapore sits almost squarely on the equator, so we do not enjoy the four seasons. However we do experience a kind of ‘summer’, with higher temperatures, between May and November.
When I was young, this would be the time of year when I suffered from ‘heat attacks’: my mouth would break out in ulcers, heat rash would ravage my body, and I’d suffer unexplained bouts of thirst.
As my family devoutly believed in balancing yin and yang in the body, they would prepare all kinds of food to ‘cool’ me and everybody else down. Unfortunately these would involve food I loathed: bitter Chinese herbal teas, bitter gourd, and centella asiatica, otherwise known as pennywort or 崩大碗 in Chinese.
We Chinese value the pennywort for its versatility; when made into a drink, it is believed to cool the body while at the same time purging all toxins from the blood. It is also commonly used to treat cuts and injuries, where it is pounded to a paste and applied to cuts, swollen joints, and even acne.
In Sri Lanka, pennywort is used in their national food classic, mallung. Mallung is a spicy combination of shredded vegetables, chilli and coconut. Another common use of pennywort is kola kenda, a Sri Lankan porridge made of brown rice, coconut milk and sugar.
In Vietnam, pennywort is a common ingredient in salads and drinks.
In Singapore, it was made into a drink that was common on the streets before the 80s. The hawkers who sold cold drinks and desserts such as pineapple, grass jelly and ‘bird’s nest’ would add pennywort to their selection. The drink had an intensely raw flavor, and so my grandmother would ‘encourage’ me to drink it by saying it helped keep acne away. Being quite vain even as a young kid, I fell for it and drank the unappetizing concoction religiously. And it seemed to work: I hardly ever had acne throughout my teens – something my friends envied me for!
Sadly, pennywort drink has disappeared from the scene. I found this drink in Hong Kong last summer along Temple Street, the famous night market. In Singapore, pennywort is available at a shop in Tekka Market.
Pennywort 500 g, washed and drained dry
Water 1½ litres
Rock sugar 75 g
- Blend pennywort and water well.
- Sieve and boil the water for one hour.
- Add sugar, boil for another 5 minutes.
- Serve warm or cold.
Note: The thickness and sweetness of the drink may be adjusted through the amounts of pennywort or sugar.