SINGAPORE – Where others saw compost, Madam Atik Karim saw a culinary opportunity.
When she realised that the gardeners from her community garden – Sky Garden @ Jurong Central – were throwing away grape leaves, she stepped in and asked to take the leaves home.
“I used them to make warak enab. In Arabic, ‘warak’ means leaves, and ‘enab’ means grapes – so warak enab is stuffed grape leaves,” the 69-year-old housewife explained.
Madam Atik volunteers at the Sky Garden – a rooftop garden near her house – about three times a week. The 2,000 sq m community garden has over 100 types of plants. It also includes a grapevine.
Madam Atik’s main role in the garden is to water the plants and maintain the grapevines. Sometimes, she removes the grape leaves so that the grapes can get enough sunlight.
“I will go to the garden and take about 40 to 50 pieces of leaves. It can depend on the season. In summer, you can get big leaves and that is when I can make 200 to 300 rolls.”
To make warak enab, Madam Atik would wrap the grape leaves around rice and minced beef. The wraps are then simmered in tomato paste.
Madam Atik learnt how to make warak enab when she was in Dubai during the 80s.
Her husband joined Dubai Petroleum in 1980 and relocated the family there. To keep busy, Madam Atik would learn how to make Middle Eastern dishes from her husband’s friends and do some gardening.
“Every year the company would give us about 1,000 dirhams (S$378) to encourage gardening in our own yard. With that money, I bought soil, plants, fertiliser, and seeds.”
Madam Atik grew fruits and vegetables commonly used in Singaporean cooking such as choy sum, bok choy, lemongrass and pandan leaves in her garden.
“During those days, it was difficult to find Singaporean ingredients in Dubai. I had to dig out the desert soil to plant vegetables.”
After living in Dubai for 10 years, Madam Atik and her family returned to Singapore in 1990.
In 2003, Madam Atik met one of the community gardeners at her son’s kindergarten and was immediately convinced to join. Since then, she has been an active volunteer.
“If you don’t mix with people, you are more likely to get dementia. Everywhere you go, people talk about dementia. I get really scared and tell myself to mix with people. When I go to the garden, at least I can keep myself busy.”
Madam Atik often likes to share her grape leaf wraps with the community gardeners.
“The first time I brought the dish to the garden, the gardeners really enjoyed it. They were really happy because you don’t waste the leaves.”