The Wisdom Behind The Words ‘Waste Not, Want Not’

My sister once said that the word that is sure to grab everyone’s attention at my house is the word ‘buang’ or discard–and she is not wrong. Whenever I hear someone mention anything that could be associated with throwing things out, it is impossible for me to keep my focus until I know what is being thrown out, why it is being thrown out or perhaps what is actually being said.

The saying one man’s trash is another man’s treasure shows that rubbish can be all about perspective. I remember back at school, my friends used to give me their old highlighters, coloured pens and markers, after they found me fishing them out from the waste basket. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have any coloured pens but it bothered me to see people throwing out things that could still be used. While others got frustrated by the inconsistent ink flow or the lighter colour as some of the ink dried up, I saw that it could still leave mark. Dried magic pens may not be ideal for writing anymore but I could use them for colouring, producing something akin to the dry brush effect. And highlighters, no matter how unsaturated could still mark important notes.

My mother, who was getting rather annoyed by my growing collection of bunga telur flowers, old and unusable CDs, bits of colourful ribbons, strings, papers and torn fabric, started throwing them out while I was out at school–only to find them reappear in another day or two. It took her some months before she finally caught my toddler brother waddling from the bin with a handful of broken items and handing them all to me, whispering that he had just ‘saved’ them from the rubbish bin. When my mother taught us ‘waste not, want not’, she could not have imagined the repercussions it left in the house.

Nonetheless, she is quite the ‘rescuer‘ herself, specialising in food recycle and recovery. She grew up watching her grandmother cooked fried rice with a variety of leftover fish and gravy and she herself would occasionally make ‘nasi special’ (special rice) every now and then from a concoction of various curries, ‘kuah‘ (gravy from side dishes, usually eaten with rice) and ‘sambal’ (a kind of hot sauce) that she could pull out from the freezer. What others might have considered to be useless because it’s out of ‘lauk‘, be it chicken, beef or fish, she would pack them and store them for future use.

Which is why it is sad, and sometimes maddening, for us to see the mounds of half eaten food piled high on plates, along with rows of barely touched drinks, that people leave behind at eateries. Papers, with their backs still white and untarnished by ink, getting crumpled and tossed into rubbish bins is as painful to me to watch as hearing fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. And my sister is always going around, turning off unused electrical appliances

My late great grandmother would always say that the more grateful you are and the more you try to make use of what you already have, you would always be blessed with more. I used to think that what she meant was you would have more physical things: money, food and items, because you have less need to buy more. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that there is more wisdom to her words; wisdom that she probably deeply understood.

Because through our dislike for throwing things, we have to constantly really dig into our heads to try and find a use for something nobody pays attention to. When the dough of one of my mother’s early bread making attempts failed to rise, we tried frying it and from that ‘disaster’, we’ve got ourselves some interesting ‘cakoi‘-like fritters that everyone enjoyed. When our collection of curries, too little to be served as side dishes, reaches a formidable size, we tossed them into the rice cooker and get a surprise mix of flavour that we could never recreate. And when I pull out my collection of odds and ends for a craft project back at school, I could come up with something unique that others would call ‘creative’.

The thing is, what people call creativity is usually the ability or tendency to look at the world from a different perspective and finding unique ways to do things or solve problems when unconventional methods fail. And in a world where we are constantly bombarded with quick and instant solutions that are taken for granted, you don’t get a chance to train your mind into looking for interesting and possibly better alternative methods or even the consequences of all of your actions.

And there is something very beautiful in seeing the wonderful possibilities and the many threads that connects the various cycles which creates the universe–all lighting up in front of you, in the form of a chicken-less chicken curry that is left in several bowls after a small community dinner. And when someone asks me if I am going to have it as a dipping sauce with my bread, I smile and wonder upon the wisdom of my grandmother’s words–and then run off to grab the next bowl before someone collects it for the bin.

Don’t Throw Out Your Daun Serai (Lemongrass Leaves)

Serai or lemongrass is a herb that is used for a variety of Southeast Asian dishes, as a natural bug repellent it could commonly be found in a lot of Malay gardens. It is generally pretty easy to care for. In fact, here in Kuala Lumpur where a daily evening shower is not uncommon, I have left my lemongrass without watering it for months and it survives when some of the fussier ones might not.

View this post on Instagram

Baby serai (lemongrass) moved into their new home. . When removing the babies from their mother, I would cut the top off so they could focus on reestablishing their roots. Usually, if you leave the leaves attached, they will fall off anyway and if you don't remove the dead leaves, it could lead to rusting. . The other good part about removing leaves is that you can infuse the leaves into your tea! My mother loves them and they come with a number of health benefits to boot. . However, if you're like me and you think lemongrass tea tastes like food in a cup so you'd rather not have them, you could still add the leaves to your soup or broth for added flavour. . For now, these babies would work their magic with sunlight and compost tea before they make their way into our pots, cups and plates. . #serai #lemongrass #gardening

A post shared by Aiman (@aimanamanikarim) on

However, my father would always remind me to give the plant a periodic trim to boost its growth. I’ve often watched him snip the leaves off the stalks and later cutting them into small pieces before scattering them in various pots to be used as mulch (with a bonus aromatic fragrance that would last the rest of the day). And as his work kept him busy and I began to take over the mantle, I too would prune them from time to time, usually after my father remarked on how long the leaves have grown.

Which is why it came as a surprise to me when I found out that some people actually buy lemongrass leaves to make tea! My mother had long been brewing lemongrass stalk for its health benefits but we had never considered the leaves to be edible. And as someone who is ‘allergic’ to the term ‘discard’, I was excited to find one extra use out of the leaves before I return them to the earth.

Traditionally, lemongrass is known for its ‘detoxing’ properties as well as a remedy for some gastrointestinal issues but more and more research is proving that lemongrass comes with a lot of beneficial properties.

In labs and animal studies, lemongrass exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antiproliferative properties which would help against problems like cell degradation and tumour growth. They also show vasorelaxant properties and in one observational study, those who drank lemongrass tea experienced a moderate drop in systolic blood pressure with a mild increase in diastolic blood pressure. Lemongrass oil has also been shown to help control cholesterol levels in animals although it is not known if the same effect could be seen from simply taking lemongrass tea. Lemongrass extract also gave hypoglycaemic effects on rats which suggests it would help with Type 2 diabetes.

What surprises me most was how effective lemongrass oil is in its antimicrobial and antibiofilm properties. In fact, in a preliminary study, lemongrass oil has even been shown to be a helpful addition to periodontal therapy for treating chronic periodontitis (a severe gum infection). Which is why in many countries , people have been traditionally chewing the stalks as a part of their oral hygiene routine–and the fibrous stalk works well as an emergency brush.

Despite all of these amazing benefits, it is important to remember that like all things, natural or artificial, everything likely comes with a side effect of some sort and it is important to keep things in moderation (even too much oxygen can kill you!). Many people suggest steeping 1-3 teaspoons of fresh or dried leaves in a cup of boiling water and you could either let it cool with a couple of iced cubes or serve them hot.

My mother, at the moment the only person who regularly drinks the tea, likes hers cold so I usually boil a pot of water, drop the chopped leaves of one stalk in after I turn the gas off and once it has cooled, just pop them into the fridge for a couple of hours. If it is a thicker stalk with more leaves, I would dilute the tea before serving.

View this post on Instagram

Lemongrass tea for Mama #lemongrasstea #lemongrass

A post shared by Aiman (@aimanamanikarim) on

I tried having the tea once but having the taste of what I usually associate with savoury food in my tea was very confusing. But knowing what how healthy this tea is now, I might give it another try.

So please, don’t throw your leaves out. Even if you don’t like having it in your drink, you could repurpose them into your cooking. It doesn’t taste exactly like the stalk but it still has the lemony scent which would go well into a number of soup and broth. And you’ll feel good about repurposing something that otherwise would have gone into the bin.

IMG_20200328_184113

Top to the cup, stalk to the plate.