Thai boer keeps Jozi's Chinatown stocked with freshly-picked exotic produce

21 May 2017 - 02:00 By Andrew Unsworth
Farmer Jong de Jong.
Farmer Jong de Jong.
Image: Andrew Unsworth

When Miss Jong met Mr De Jong, the happy result was an Asian-food farm that supplies Joburg's Chinatown, writes Andrew Unsworth

On the pavements of Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene's Chinatown is the most colourful and tempting vegetable market with boxes and trays filled with fresh greens, fruits, roots, tubers and mushrooms.

Many of them are unfamiliar to South African cooks, yet much of the produce is grown locally.

Farmer Jong de Jong supplies Thai herbs and vegetables that she grows on a 4.5ha farm on the East Rand. The more tender plants grow in plastic tunnels. "My husband told me to put a doek on everything," she says, "and so I did."

From Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, De Jong came to South Africa with a friend in 2001 and two years later married a South African called De Jong, hence her wonderful name. He is also a farmer, so, she says, if she has any agricultural issues, she asks him.

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She says she knows herbs and vegetables "because in Thailand people just grow their own and share".

"You see, all the herbs have a different smell," she says as we crush leaf after leaf.

De Jong does not know how many varieties she has, but there are various basils, phak phai, a Vietnamese coriander, tangled mounds of ivy gourd plants, avenues of lemongrass, galangal, white turmeric (which is eaten raw in salads), and rows and rows of water spinach or morning glory, phak bung.

There are even betel plants, whose leaves are popular for chewing, especially in India, and pandanus plants, whose leaves are used in some Asian recipes. "You have to treat them like babies or they die in the winter," De Jong says.

Trees include Thai papayas, moringas (Moringa oleifera) and the hummingbird tree (Sesbania grandiflora) whose white flowers are eaten in salads.

I am amazed to find roselle bushes, a member of the hibiscus family (Hibiscus sabdariffa) from West Africa. Its dried flowers are used in cooking and to make a cold tea-like drink.

De Jong uses cow manure to fertilise and avoids pesticides, because so much of the leafy plants are eaten. "If I have a problem with snails I only use Sunlight liquid to spray," she says.

Out in the fields her staff of six are picking for the next morning's deliveries: 80kg of small round brinjals, chillies and bunches of Swiss chard for the market in City Deep. Her biggest seller is humble mint.

"When I started planting it my husband said, 'Don't do that, don't do that! You can't find a market for mint.' Now it's the one that makes money, up to R70 a box."

I leave with too many plants, including a pea-aubergine bush that I will cherish, and two useful tips.

Lemongrass dies off if you don't bank the stems with soil every year, and chillies hate too much water. And, of course, a new resolution to grow and cook Thai.