Urban farming brings Singapore’s
food scene back to earth.
Sweat runs freely from Nigel Lian’s forehead, merging with the muddy sand that envelops his ankles. Barefoot and ungloved, he digs patiently, feeling with his fingers for the hidden bounty: wild Singaporean clams. Practically within swimming distance across the shell-strewn bay, the 1950s residential tower blocks opposite serve as a reminder that this is urban foraging at its purest.
With a population of 5.5 million crammed onto a landmass of just 715 square kilometers, Singapore has long struggled to grow its own food. As the government works to remedy this with investment and incentives, the city’s worldly citizens are increasingly tasting the benefits of homegrown fare.
Lian, 28 — who shares fishing tips via his popular “Baktao” blog — was taught how to harvest clams when he was 5 years old, and he remembers eating the walnut-sized shellfish “for days” after just a few hours spent digging with his family. “Back then it was just a fun Sunday activity,” he explains, “but I think when my dad and uncle were kids, this was one of the things they did to put food on the table.”
Perhaps overcompensating for the severe post-WWII food shortages, modern-day Singapore — a financial powerhouse with a GDP of almost US$300 billion — is a foodie haven, boasting a rich and varied cuisine incorporating Malay, Chinese and Indian flavors. But the tiny island imports over 90 percent of its produce, making it vulnerable to safety scares and fluctuations in price and supply.
First introduced in 2009, the Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises program — which aims to ensure Singapore’s rapid urbanization is paired with environmental initiatives — was further expanded in November 2017. While Singapore is already known for its strong ground-level greenery, the government wants to see 300 hectares of rooftop and wall gardens (the equivalent of 300 football pitches) by 2030. One key strategy is to provide incentives for developers to “green” their buildings with landscaped walls and communal spaces. In addition, individual citizens and businesses are being encouraged to use their window boxes, balconies and corridors for growing vegetables.
Citizen Farm is an 8,000-square-meter multi-use space in the inner-city Penjara district. The brainchild of Edible Garden City, champions of Singapore’s farm-to-table movement, this inclusive community comprises office space, “food-scaping” services, and an ever-evolving urban farm that operates on a “closed-loop” system.
Perhaps the biggest earners here are the “microgreens,” just-sprouted salad leaves that are sold to some of the city’s top restaurants. Grown hydroponically at night under surreal blue and pink lights, these trendy veggies require no end of nutrients. Enter, the loop.
All food waste from the restaurants that buy from Citizen Farm is shipped back to the site, where it’s feasted on by gluttonous black soldier flies. The flies process the waste — making top-grade fertilizer for the outdoor garden — before eventually being fed to the fish, which swim fat and happy in five huge tanks. Once fully grown, the fish are sold to the restaurants, while the nutrient-rich water they swim in feeds the indoor hydroponic plants. The ethical cherry on top of this no-waste business model cake is that Citizen Farm employs ex-convicts, disabled people and autistic workers, with everyone getting an equal share of the profits.
“It’s very new, it’s very progressive,” beams 28-year-old head farmer Darren Ho, the image of modern-day agriculture with his sun-kissed skin, fashionable haircut and faultless English. “We want to prove that anyone can farm. This is what urban farming is all about.”
Citizen Farm is not alone in supplying Singapore-grown goods to the city’s ever-hungry restaurant scene. Artichoke Cafe, which bills its menu as “Middle Eastern Dude Food,” has shopped around for its local supplies, sourcing mushrooms from Kranji Island, cheese and dairy products from the highlands, and herbs from its very own backyard.
Jolene Lee, Artichoke’s baby-faced 21-year-old co-chef, says the team makes a point of visiting all the sites of their Singapore-grown ingredients. “It’s always worth it as a chef when you know where something is grown and what it tastes like fresh from the ground,” she says, pruning a mint plant in her custom denim apron and rubber clogs. “You can pick up something from a farm and know exactly how you’re going to use it.”
Frankie Nghe, Lee’s 28-year-old kitchen partner, agrees that the benefits for a chef are clear, but he insists the model must be actively supported from all sides if it’s to continue to expand. “We have been getting the mushrooms from the Kranji Island farm for years, and they’ve always been reliable,” he explains. “So whatever dishes we’re planning for dinner, we keep in mind that those mushrooms need to be used. Week in and week out, we know we have to give our partners some support.”
Choosing to be completely self-sufficient are the Sohs, a forward-thinking family of entrepreneurs spanning all spectrums of youth and experience, from 15-year-old Dylan to his 74-year-old grandmother, known as Mommy Soh. The eldest of 12 siblings, Mommy Soh has lived in the family’s charming wooden house all her life. She remembers when the southeastern Bedok area was a thriving kampong — a traditional Malay-style village where doors were left open, youngsters ran freely between gardens, and homegrown goodies, rather than money, exchanged hands. When the former primary-school teacher announced her plans to sell the property a few years back, the family intervened and together birthed the concept of One Kind House.
One Kind House now acts as a mini farm, cooking school and restaurant, with all generations pitching in to grow and harvest the organic ingredients that go into Mommy Soh’s legacy recipes. Inside and out, every inch is packed with plant life; fragrant passion fruit spheres hang heavy overhead while spiky aloe vera sprouts from the wall.
Such a simple and sustainable philosophy has proved a hit with both visitors and locals keen for a taste of old Singapore. “The younger people come here and say it’s so hipster,” laughs 50-year-old Calvin Soh, shooting a teasing look toward his firecracker of a mother as she commands an audience in the kitchen. “But it’s actually just how things used to be.”
Crystal Wilde is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Beijing. She loves food and is passionate about protecting the environment, making Singapore’s urban farming phenomenon a natural point of interest.