Singapore Foragers Find Ingredients for Restaurants and Home Cooking

Without understanding exactly how I’d gotten there, I straddled the side of a steep hill in downtown Singapore, stretching my arm into the branches of a belimbing buluh tree for plump yellow-green fruits. Tiled shophouses surrounded the hill, and beyond, the austere skyline loomed like a glittering tidal wave. I focused on a little cluster of fruit dancing just beyond my fingertips and went for the pluck.

From the base of the tree, MJ Teoh, head chef at Native, told me belimbing is a member of the starfruit family that produces small, powerfully sour fruit. From the restaurant’s air-conditioned dining room, she had tasked me with helping gather ingredients for the dinner menu. We also needed bunga kantan, known as torch ginger — a flower that grows like a pink flame and a key component for a local sweet-savory classic called rojak — and pepper leaves, flashy green leaves used as ground cover throughout Singapore that yield a sharp flavor, which the chef uses in a take on miang kham, a street food popular in Thailand.

We gathered what we needed and hustled back to the restaurant — before we attracted any unwanted attention. Foraging in some parts of Singapore is illegal, and perpetrators are subject to fines and jail time. While only a small portion of the 283-square-mile territory is technically protected and penalties are rarely enforced, the law represents a broader cultural prohibition on foraging that essentially applies to all public spaces. Even when foragers are safe from legal consequences, rampant social stigma and nosy neighbors are enough to keep people away from the bounty growing around the metropolis.

In a generation, Singapore transfigured from a nation of agriculture into a hypermodernized economic powerhouse with robust manufacturing and a massive international port, doing its best to clear any memory of humble subsistence farming along the way. But a dedicated minority of intrepid foragers maintain the practices that predate the modern country, gathering wild fruits in the shadows of skyscrapers, prying oysters from rocky shores, and hunting for gems among mangrove swamps. With my T-shirt full of belimbing fruit, I had joined them. It was not the last time I would be up on that hill.

A tray of six small dishes holding various ingredients (pickled vegetables, leaves for stuffing, various toppings), set on a tiled blue counter.

Miang kham at Native.
Jackson Kao

The country’s rapid urbanization has made it easy to forget that Singapore was recently an island made up of small villages known as kampongs. After being expelled from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, furiously pushed the country toward modernity and relocated residents into high-rise housing developments.

“Difficult adjustments were inevitable and there were comic, even absurd results,” Lee wrote in his autobiography. “Several pig farmers could not bear to part with their pigs and reared them in their high-rise apartments. One family … brought a dozen chickens and ducks to rear in the kitchen.”

A person, seen from the feet to the waist, picks a bright pink flower on a hill, while a passerby moves below.

Picking torch ginger.
Jonathan Tan

While the government was busy moving people into apartments, Lee was establishing green spaces that would beautify and cool the gleaming city. He saw urban greenery as a way to “achieve First World standards in a Third World region.” And he was fiercely protective of these green areas, railing against what he saw as lawless destruction.

“Perseverance and stamina were needed to fight old habits,” he wrote. “People walked over plants, trampled on grass, despoiled flowerbeds, pilfered saplings. And it was not just the poorer people who were the offenders. A doctor was caught removing from a central road divider a newly planted valuable Norfolk Island pine which he fancied for his garden.”

Today, his obsession is law. Under the Wildlife Act (established in 1965) and later the Parks and Trees Act, the National Parks Board of Singapore prevents residents from tampering with plants in protected spaces. Anti-foraging rules are rarely enforced, making the prohibition something like laws against jaywalking in New York. Authorities look the other way usually — but not always.

In 2018, a Bangladeshi migrant worker was slapped with a fine of $2,000 Singapore dollars (about $1,500 USD) for picking leaves from a kelat oil tree in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Singapore has a track record of heavily scrutinizing migrants, especially people from countries perceived as less developed. In the end, the man was let off with a warning, but for many in the foraging community, the incident was a wake-up call.

Two large green fruits hang from a tree.

Filipino simpuh fruit.
Rossman Ithnain

Even more than the cops, foragers have to watch out for their own neighbors. Lee’s words still echo among environmentally conscious NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) residents, who see foraging as destruction. Often, fear of public shaming is all it takes to deter foragers.

“It’s the Singaporean psyche,” says Rossman Ithnain, a retired Singaporean diplomat and an expert in local flora and fauna. “We are generally law-abiding. So in a sense it´s self-policing.” Recently, when a group of friends went foraging, he warned them, “Technically it is not a protected area, but you know there are many nature warriors who have a single-minded approach. Don’t get filmed!”

This conflict plays upon a generational divide. When given the chance, aged residents, rapt in nostalgia, will recall the wild flavors of old Singapore they enjoyed in their childhood. Younger to middle-aged Singaporeans — who grew up with grocery stores, air-conditioned hawker centers, and other conveniences — condemn foraging as a drain on Singapore’s extremely limited biodiversity.

This isn’t an accident. When Lee and his government set about redefining Singaporeans’ relationships with the natural world, they specifically targeted children, filling schools with new lessons about environmental protection.

Rossman invited me on several excursions, which always had a delightful air of serendipity; they weren’t explicitly for foraging, but there was always the possibility.

At the crack of dawn one morning in western Singapore, I met him and a group of friends outside of Bukit Panjang train station. We chatted in our sun hats as we made our way to the trail. Rossman dove toward papaya trees along the way as a few gardeners watched us with curiosity.

Two flowers with bright pink petals in a sea of green leaves.

Ulam raja.
Rossman Ithnain

The trail had once been a large kampong. The only remaining evidence was the once-cultivated fruits and herbs now growing wild. Huge displays of bird’s nest ferns, radiating from notches of trees and flowering straight out of the ground, offered young shoots that could be eaten raw in salad. We spotted ulam raja, with its pink flowers and splaying fan-like leaves, the latter of which taste wonderfully of green mango and offer remarkable anti-diabetic properties. We wandered further, posing for photos in front of finds like rugged trophy hunters. At a giant daun buas-buas tree stretching out of a river, I was tasked with wading in to gather leaves, known for their antibacterial properties and culinary uses in soups and curries.

Until the 20th century, the country was part of Malaysia, where there’s a long history of herbal medicine. Knowledge of medicinal applications lingers in Singapore (augmented by immigrants who brought their own practices from India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar). But this expertise is seen as out of step with Singapore’s modern health care. The association with outmoded natural medicine is yet another strike against foraging.

Even when they’re not overt, though, medicinal practices underlie dishes like nasi ulam, which translates from Malay to “herbaceous rice.” It essentially consists of chopped herbs — laksa leaf, galangal, Thai basil, torch ginger, mint, ulam raja, lemongrass, turmeric, and wild betel leaf, each with its own impressive resume of benefits in traditional medicine — sometimes combined with dried fish, folded into steaming rice, and topped with bits of shallot and sambal chile. The dish is relatively rare, since it can include up to 19 different herbs, which must be diced into near subatomic size before incorporation.

A person picks at a large tree, with skyscrapers looming beyond.

The writer foraging on a Singapore hillside.
Jonathan Tan

“It’s a lot of work,” says Redha Faikah Binte Abdul Wahid, owner of the Little Red Hen stand at Amoy Street Food Centre in downtown Singapore, where she specializes in nasi ulam.

At one time, all the necessary herbs and leaves were local to Singapore, making it a highly foragable dish. Many ingredients can still be found within meters of the hawker center. Yet, instead of walking around the corner to pick whatever looks good, Wahid and her family rise around 4 a.m. each morning to buy them from a local market, where ingredients are trucked in from Malaysia.

Dishes of blue rice, fish topped with cooked leaves, and sprigs of fresh leaves.

Blue pea flower rice, ulam raja leaves, asam fish with buas-buas leaves.
Rossman Ithnain

This kind of international sourcing is par for the course. The country produces roughly 10 percent of its own sustenance and buys the rest from 172 different countries. Despite its complex relationship with homegrown ingredients, the Singaporean government has recognized the vulnerability of relying almost entirely on foreign markets, even before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted supply chains. In 2019, Singapore launched the 30 by 30 initiative to become 30 percent self-sufficient by 2030.

Though foragers would appear like prime advocates for building up Singapore’s native resources, overreliance on outside supply chains has only reinforced NIMBY residents’ scarcity mindset. Critics assume foragers take as much as they can, despite the fact most foragers express an ethos of taking “just enough.” With their intimate knowledge of the land and the plants living alongside them, foragers are uniquely qualified to understand the precarity of the resources they utilize.

The government isn’t only interested in developing green spaces, but any sort of land. Since its founding, the country has attempted to expand its territory through infilling. The reclamation effort off the city’s east coast began promptly in 1966, building out coastal areas with mixtures of sand, mountain soil, and cement. Singapore’s famous Changi International Airport, constructed in the late ’70s, is built entirely upon this kind of reclaimed land.

A person in a parking to leans down to inspect potted plants.

The writer inspecting Singapore’s bounty.
Jonathan Tan

Not far from the airport, Changi Beach is one of the few original coastal areas that hasn’t been impacted directly by reclamation. One afternoon I joined Rossman there for a walk. Small crabs scuttled under neon hoods of kelp, razor clams flowered on the rocks, and bright pink sea cucumbers rolled aimlessly in the tide as we combed the shore. Nearby, a boy and his father put long, spear-like shells into a bag. I asked them what they had planned for the shells.

“Can eat,” said the boy with a shy smile.

We marveled at brown muscles, an invasive but edible species. Rossman gave a little cry when he spotted a noble volute, an edible species once abundant in Singapore that’s now considered highly vulnerable due to habitat loss.

The sheer amount of trash was also disquieting. Car tires lay beached in the sand. I poked at a red alarm clock studded with barnacles and bagged a sturdy plastic clothes hanger for my closet, ultimately our only foraged token of the day. Rossman was less interested in gathering ingredients than giving me a peek at the texture of Singapore’s waters before the reclamation effort totally reshapes every mile of coastline.

Though the conflict between foragers and NIMBYs does illuminate Singaporeans’ changing relationship with the natural world, it also distracts from the destruction officials continue to impose upon the landscape in the name of modernity. Locals largely do not have a voice to stop the government from chomping away at their forests and waters. What they do have are small acts of preservation, not of wild spaces but of practices that encourage respect for natural resources.

As we made our way off the beach, in the dying light I watched shadows moving in the tide, making calculated passes at little reef guppies with handheld nets. Rossman’s wife picked us up in their car, and we zipped off into the warm evening. I held my wet shoes in a plastic bag on my lap.

“So what did you find out there?” she asked.

The car was silent except for the air conditioner blasting away.

Jackson Kao is a writer and professor living in Bogotá, Colombia. He eats dark chocolate and prefers the mountains to the ocean.

A person stands far off in ocean shallows, with lots of rocks and greens around, the ocean beyond, and a plane cutting across the sky.

Rossman Ithnain perusing the beach.
Jackson Kao

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *