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Business Times – 24 Jul 2010
The rise of the locavore
The concept of locavorism is budding here as Singaporeans become more aware of food provenance and environmental issues, but growing it will require a combined effort from restaurants, retailers and individuals. By Audrey Phoon
A RECENT post on the food blog 365days2play features several photographs taken at a bustling farmer’s market. There are some of tables heaving with fresh organic greens; a few baskets of artisanal breads; and yet others of cartons of barn-laid eggs. And then, at the bottom, a comment from a reader: ‘This doesn’t look like Singapore at all.’
Well, maybe not now, but those scenes are likely to become better associated with the Republic in the near future. As local audiences grow more aware of what they eat and where it comes from, farmer’s markets – and particularly the hitherto foreign notion of locavorism – are taking root here. (The latter term, coined in the United States in 2005 when the concept took hold there, refers to the eating of food grown or produced within a certain radius, the result of which is a smaller carbon footprint thanks to its proximity, and better quality control for diners.)
Take the event blogged about on 365days2play, for instance: the monthly Farmer’s Market at Loewen Gardens in Dempsey. Organised by Jane Glascow of The Pantry, the first one took place in February this year and subsequently became such a success that Ms Glascow has applied to the authorities for it to run twice a month from September.
Currently, the market is held on the first Saturday of each month and has about 20 stalls hawking mostly home-made products such as baked goods, jams and more. Other offerings include flowers, fruit and vegetables trucked in from around the region by organic farmers, as well as cage-free eggs by a new local firm called The Freedom Range Company that plugs eggs ‘farmed the ethical way as nature intended’.
It’s stuff that you wouldn’t normally be able to find under one roof (not to mention at your local supermarket), which is why flagons of foodies are eschewing their neighbourhood Cold Storages and Fairprice Finests for grocery shopping at Loewen Gardens once a month.
Of the event’s success, Cynthia Wee-Hoefer, an environmental activist whose Organic Himalaya brand of home-grown vegetables from her farm in Nepal is often represented at the market, says: ‘The level of knowledge in Singapore regarding eco-friendly produce has increased over the years. More children and adults are getting allergies and becoming intolerant to various foods. I get mothers recounting how unbearable it has become with their children reacting to processed foods; they are now switching to organically grown vegetables and fruits or wheat-free flours.
‘The suspicion is that we are being bombarded with eco-unfriendly produce and reading the unpronounceable ingredients in food labels is testament to our fears.’ At a farmer’s market, on the other hand, one can ‘put a face to the food’, she notes, which ‘allows credibility, trust and friendliness all round’.
Apart from the Loewen Gardens market, the recent Singapore Garden Festival, which ended on Thursday, included a couple of from-the-source events that reflect a maturing local consciousness in regard to food provenance. On Tuesday, The Farmer’s Party showcased a feast made from home-grown produce from seven local farms, while at the Supermarket Garden, which ran throughout the festival, a display of plants alongside their edible end products made a point about food and where it comes from.
According to Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association and owner of local farm Bollywood Veggies which took part in both The Farmer’s Party and Supermarket Garden, the events helped cater to the ‘growing awareness among Singaporeans, especially the younger and more educated and enlightened segment of the population’. But, she continues, ‘there’s still a long way to go – our education system is the biggest hurdle because it only teaches people to study hard, make a lot of money and not bother about anyone or anything that is not closely related to themselves’.
Education aside though, is it really possible to eat or cook local much in a country where there is so little farming? Christina Crane thinks it is. The Vancouver native and Singapore PR – who has spent the past eight years as a brand consultant to the food and FMCG industries in Singapore and the United Kingdom – started the website Locavore Singapore four months ago to spread the word on locavorism. ‘Singapore is actually not that different from overseas markets, except that ‘local’ for us includes two other countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, because we are a small nation geographically,’ explains the locavore, who makes an effort to use at least 80 per cent local ingredients when she is cooking. ‘Even if you take the standard definition of locavorism and stick to a 160km to 200km radius, you can get an extraordinary amount of food grown – from Singapore to the Riau Islands and Johor.’
Ms Crane isn’t alone in coming to that realisation – a rising number of chefs are too. At Cocotte, a newly opened bistro in Wanderlust hotel at Dickson Road, chef Anthony Yeoh is dishing up French fare but placing emphasis on local produce.
‘When I cook, I try and use local ingredients where possible because it’s cheaper, fresher – fish from Europe take two days to come here – and we support local businesses as well,’ he says. The bistro’s proximity to Tekka Market helps, he adds, because ‘I got to know the uncle and auntie there and now they supply really good fish to me’. He adds, ‘When you deal with people directly, the service is a bit more personal; I get to tell them if I need the fish scaled and gutted, for example.’
Of course, adds the chef, you can’t get ‘exactly the same thing as in Europe’ here, but there are local alternatives and substitutes, which he feels do perfectly well, particularly in simple, rustic fare.
Similarly, Mathew Woon of J Bistro at Ascott Raffles Place feels that local ingredients are fairly easy to incorporate into ca-sual cuisine. ‘It’s really not a huge challenge for us to source good local ingredients because we have reliable suppliers whom we work with closely and who know us well and what we look for,’ says the chef, who uses produce such as ducks from Malaysia for his duck confit. ‘It’s definitely something more restaurants in Singapore can adopt.’
Wider support needed
For the eateries to do so though, greater support is needed from the authorities, believes Bollywood Veggies’ Mrs Singh-Lim. She says: ‘Nothing can be more powerful to change people’s behaviour than government leaders who are truly concerned about food security and promoting local and regional buying to reduce carbon footprinting, global warming et cetera. They must give support to local farmers and then the natural spillover will take place to individuals and restaurants. At the moment, most farming communities are being destroyed to make way for what is seen as economic development.’
Locavore Singapore’s Ms Crane reckons that local retailers should simultaneously ‘play a lead role’ to create more eco-food awareness among individuals. She says: ‘I’ve seen a change recently in my local Sheng Siong – they are very good about labelling the provenance of produce, and it only seems to be getting better. They also support a lot of local brands, as does NTUC. But more can be done. Companies such as Unilever in Canada, for example, are helping by running a website called eatrealeatlocal.ca, which educates people about the benefits of local food. It’s fantastic and I’d love to see them do something similar here.’
Meanwhile, consumers ‘must not always think of cheaper food costs alone because we should know that low-cost, industrialised farming has a lasting impact on the environment through the use of artificial fertilisers, virus-risky vertical or stacked farming of poultry, immunisation and hormone-induced raising of animals for food’, emphasises Organic Himalaya’s Mrs Wee-Hoefer.
They must also ‘be demanding of growers and manufacturers to raise standards of planting or manufacturing’, she continues. ‘People should reject endangered species of seafood, return fish or crustaceans that are infant-sized and not good for the table, and in general be the watchdogs of the food industry in their local environment. This way, we can overcome the prejudice or hurdles of buying local.’