Growing your own food is the rage, and serious local foodies are growing their vegetables and herbs in countryside farms, highrise rooftops, and even in slivers of balcony space.
It seems that everywhere we turn in the city, someone’s growing food. At Whitegrass, chef-owner Sam Aisbett grows sea succulents in his urban cultivator. The plants may need some tender loving care but it’s worth it for the flavour they bring to a dish of Western Australian marron, native desert lime, pickled and grilled cucumber, young garlic cream, breakfast radish and beach succulents.
Meanwhile, in the 29,000 square feet garden at Open Farm Community, head chef Daniele Sperindio cultivates shrubs like Southernwood and Chain of Love flowers. The latter adds a little something extra to his plate of crispy Jurong frog legs, beetroot fregola pasta and sour sheep cheese.
Home enthusiasts are also getting in the act. Jay Vana, sales manager of Seeds Master says, “We estimate that gardening for food has picked up by around 50 per cent over the last two to three years. Under our ‘hot and humid selection’, we have over 200 types of edible plant seeds. Among them, varieties like Strawberry Spinach and Dwarf Greek Basil have been getting very popular in the last 18 months.”
We didn’t need much convincing that urban farming is alive and well. Visiting a few urban farmers-at-work on their farms or in their homes, we spied magnificent edible specimens not only growing, but thriving in our immensely built-up island. Here are some interesting varieties that caught our attention.
Pink and Yellow Oyster Mushrooms
Oyster mushroom is so named because of its shape, and can range from light grey to pink, yellow, and blue. It is high in Vitamin D and antioxidants, and has an abalone-like aroma. The spores are injected into spawn bags filled with wood soda, rice kernels and other compost elements, and take over three months to grow. Marc Wee, chef-owner of Arbite, uses it in a mix of sautéed mushrooms in his breakfast and pasta dishes. “Pickle it with a little garlic, chilli and white wine vinegar to retain texture and enhance its taste,” he says
Roselle, part of the Hibiscus family, is native to West Africa but partial to tropical climates. Its juicy, bright red calyxes (the fleshy whorl that encloses the seed pod) can be made into roselle jams or jellies; dried calyxes can be used to make roselle tea. With a flavour that’s similar to Ribena, roselle is rich in Vitamin C; it helps in digestion and prevents inflammation of the urinary tract and kidneys.
Purple Wood Sorrel
The purple wood sorrel boasts burgundy-coloured, clover-shaped leaves and petite pale purple flowers, The leaves are high in Vitamin C, B and calcium, but they contain oxalic acid, so use sparingly. Award-winning bar 28 HongKong Street uses it in their cocktail Instant Star, made up of Encanto Grand & Noble Pisco, dill, pineapple, aperol, lemon and East Imperial Tonic.
The Basil herb is commonly used for its aromatic leaves, but its tiny flowers can also make a delicate garnish over salads or pastas. Chef Enoch Teo of Garçons has used them in his black miso tuna dish.
Ulam rajah, which literally means ‘King of Salads’ in Malay, is commonly used as a herb across the Causeway. It helps to lower blood pressure and aids diabetes treatments. Kush at Timbre+ uses the leaves in their dish of grilled ribeye beef with ulam rajah, spinach, tomatoes and soy ginger vinaigrette. Says chef-owner Chung Deming, “Ulam rajah has a citrusy, slightly astringent flavour profile. It complements and elevates the flavours of the other ingredients.” Its pretty flowers are edible too.
Considered native to Southeast Asia, the butterfly pea plant is a vine or creeper with striking blue flowers that are used as a natural food colouring, especially in Malay and Peranakan kueh. The blue dye is extracted from the flowers by steeping in boiling water. Adjusting the PH level of the dye changes its colour. For instance, adding citrus elements turns it purplish. The seeds and roots of the plant have some medicinal properties as well.
The flower of a common creeper commonly grown in China, India and Southeast Asia, tonkin jasmine flowers have a very strong and sweet scent that is strangely reminiscent of Skittles candy. In Vietnamese cuisine, they are commonly stir-fried with shrimp or used in soups such as tonkin jasmine soup with pork paste.
The small webbed leaves of the nasturtium plant are a great addition to salads for a dash of peppery taste, Vitamin C and antioxidants. Chef Stephan Zoisl of Chef’s Table likes to throw these leaves into mains like his signature duck and foie gras dish for a little kick. He would have liked to use their flowers too, as their bright red, orange or yellow petals brighten up any platter, but successfully growing them here is quite a challenge due to our warm climate.
Microgreen Red Cabbage
Microgreens are the shoots of salad leaves picked just after the first leaves have developed. Smaller than baby greens and more developed than sprouts, they grow fairly fast and easily all year round, and have about five times the amount of vitamins and carotenoids than their mature equivalents. Red cabbage, for instance, is high in fibre, protein, and Vitamins A, C and K.
A ‘pseudo grain’ that looks like cereal grain but actually belongs to the plant family, this superfood was widely used by the ancient Aztecs, and is cherished mainly for its seeds and leaves. It can be harvested as a microgreen just six to 10 days after germination, and is rich in fibre, calcium, iron, Vitamin C and protein, including the amino acid Lysine. Founder of online shop MicroGreens Chuah Khai Lin adds it to her smoothies, salads and sandwiches, and as a garnish on cooked dishes.
Cover: Assorted microgreens
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s October 2016 issue, The Oishii issue – ‘Urban farming’