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Farm to table, Singapore-style
HAN LI GUANG PETS a fuzzy little goat on the head at Hay Dairies - Singapore's only goat farm that sits in what little 'countryside' we have in Kranji, along with other farms growing vegetables or rearing frogs and fat ornamental koi. But unlike visitors who are happy to wander around and buy a packet or two of kangkong, the chef-owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Labyrinth is there for some serious grocery shopping.
On his list: goat's milk for his burnt yoghurt espuma dessert; silver perch from nearby Nippon Koi Farm to be cooked in herbal pepper broth with ulam rajah and textures of black garlic; quail for a main course of Uncle William's quail, satay espuma, muah chee and pearl onions.
Anyone who thinks Singapore is a barren, import-only city with no local produce to speak of probably shouldn't say that to chef Han, who can rattle off some 200 (and counting) ingredients he can find here that form an impressive 80 per cent of Labyrinth's menu. This is even before venturing into Malaysia, Indonesia or other nearby countries that other locavore-centric chefs in Singapore also look to for their ingredients.
While the growing locavore movement in Singapore is mainly to do with sustainability and reducing carbon footprint, chef Han takes it a step further. "I feel it's something of a social responsibility as much as it is my passion as a Singaporean chef cooking Singapore-inspired cuisine," says the chef who set out in 2017 to evolve Labyrinth's identity by being more produce-centred. "That means exploring the terroir, culture and people of Singapore."
He dismisses any notion that Singapore cannot produce good quality ingredients. "Of course it's easier to import - the supply is consistent. But you can't say the produce in Singapore is bad if you haven't tasted seafood that's not farmed and wild caught in local waters. Or herbs freshly picked from the farm. Whether the produce is good or bad is at the hands of the chef, in understanding what the farmers are growing in this environment and how to create a dish to bring out its best qualities."
It's a refrain echoed by like-minded chefs including Ivan Brehm of Nouri, who says about 60 per cent of his ingredients are sourced locally and from Malaysia. "It's mostly fish, poultry and vegetables. This proportion can go higher once the farm in Cameron Highlands that we get our vegetables from goes into full production."
Some of the suppliers he works with are Tiberias Harvest for sustainably farmed local fish, and fishmongers Bear Bear for wild caught fish that "provides variety and an accurate snapshot of the ocean around us". He also gets Kampot pepper from local supplier Hong Spices, and Farm deLight for herbs and lettuces.
"It's through supporting people who already do an exceptional job that we create the right stage for growth," says the Brazilian-born chef who says the locavore scene has grown immensely in the five years he has been in Singapore. "There are many farms sprouting, with government support through grants. However, a lot of it goes into quick-solution farms that grow imported varieties of leafy vegetables or quick crop fish stock. The challenge will be how to increase the diversity of farmed produce to create new demand. I see chefs playing a role, to not just cook tasty food but help inform the demand."
Still, scaling up production is tough, says Edmund Wong, general manager of artisanal vegetable grower Farm deLight.
"In theory it's possible to scale up but practically it isn't." As an indoor operation which practises vertical farming, "you can build huge structures, where every level is designed to grow plants. But building them is expensive, even if you can get cheap land. Manpower and the costs of doing business in Singapore are just too high".
Short land leases of 20 years, heavy technological investment and price sensitive consumers are some of the issues that affect expansion too, says Leon Hay, business director of Hay Dairies, which has 700 goats and produces 1,000 litres of milk a day. He's hoping to get approval to set up a small abbatoir, as well as more government support for small farmers like him "who are producing food for the nation".
Still, for all the challenges, a strong eco-system is emerging of dedicated producers who are catching the eye of chefs looking for both sustainable and high quality ingredients. Oliver Truesdale-Jutras, a Canadian chef who recently took over the kitchen at Open Farm Community, always worked with local ingredients before coming to Singapore two and a half months ago, and believes that what he has sourced here is fine-dining quality. "We get organic tofu, soya sauce, bean-to-bar chocolate, mushrooms, herbs and really good fish." The restaurant does 65 per cent of ingredients from South-east Asia rather than Singapore, as he says he can't get, say, beef, pork and large vegetables here.
While using Singapore-only produce is tough now, he hopes to do more. "What I'd really like is a farmers' association that you can call to get what you want, instead of calling individual farmers. It's about improving the chain of supply where you know that whatever you order has been grown locally. I think that's the next step."
Vincent Lauria, chef at the newly opened The Guild, doesn't see it as a 'locavore' restaurant. "It's not a gimmick to me. It's about where I can get the best ingredients and it so happens I get them in South-east Asia. My oysters are farmed just 35 minutes away from here and they're so fresh and bright next to the French or American oysters, so why aren't we respecting that product?"
It's not cheap to buy local and it can even be more expensive because of small supply. That's why he spends time building up relationships with farmers so he can get the best. "When I came to Singapore three months ago, everyone told me there's no local produce. I told them there is and I will find it. And I did."
He adds, "There's a perception that ingredients from overseas are better, and it can't be good if it's grown in Asia. I completely disagree. Some of the best produce is in our own backyard."
In Case You Missed It: Fresh seafood delights, from farm to fork
Bear Bear Fresh
'BUBU' and "Bear Bear' are terms of endearment you might use on a pet or extramarital love partner, but if you're in the market for some sustainable wild seafood caught from local and regional waters, you'll need to add them to your vocabulary.
Bear Bear Fresh is a new age fishmonger on a mission to prove that top quality seafood can be found literally in our own backyard, not airflown from Tsukiji fish market.
"The main idea is to explore what we have in nearby waters, and go beyond the usual sea bass or grouper that you find in Chinese restaurants which are mostly farmed," says Roger Wong, who with his 'brudderhood' of friends Chen Wei Nan and Christopher Chan make up the enthusiastic trio who run Bear Bear. They named their business after the first words uttered by Mr Wong's infant son, and also because bears are known for their ability to pick out the best fish to eat.
They spent the last three years developing a strong network of bubu fishermen who practise the traditional method of lowering large 'bubu' cages made of wire mesh into the sea, trapping the fish as they swim into them. Unlike commercial trawlers which go out to sea for long periods and literally drag a huge net to catch whatever's in their path, small-scale bubu fishermen don't overfish, and their catch can literally be delivered to you within hours of being caught. Some are so fresh they are still in rigour mortis, which means they have to be 'aged' for a few more hours before they're good to eat.
Red bass, Spanish striped flag fish, threadfin, parrot fish, banana prawns, diamond trevally and ink-rich cuttlefish are just examples of the catch the bubu fishermen bring in, says Mr Wong, who was roped into the business by Mr Chen, whose father is a retired fish wholesaler and who spent his childhood running around Jurong fish port. In turn, Mr Wong roped in Mr Chan as their sales manager - both are from the corporate world and are now happy to be running around literally playing with fish. Besides bubu fish, their main business is in supplying fresh and frozen seafood to customers from large restaurants to hawker stalls.
Thanks to the network that Mr Chen has built up, they can tell you exactly which fisherman caught your fish and where, which is increasingly important as consumers become more concerned about where their food comes from.
The only drawback about bubu fishing - which has been the livelihood for generations of fishing communities living mainly in Malaysian and Indonesian waters - is that you never know what you're going to catch, and it very much depends on the time of year. That is why big customers that require a consistent supply will stick to farmed or commercially caught fish, says Mr Wong. But that was exactly what attracted Nouri's chef-owner Ivan Brehm, who was looking for more unique fish varieties to work with at his restaurant.
"It's a common misconception that the quality of the fish is related to the temperature of the water," says chef Brehm, who has even served the fish raw. "It's not true. It's a matter of processing. Most of the time when the fish comes out of the water it's not handled properly so the fish expires really quickly. There are fish we can appreciate in a Japanese restaurant that comes from warm water but we don't know and think it comes from cold water."
He adds: "Sashimi-grade is an American term to describe fish that has been flash-frozen to kill parasites. It just means it can be consumed raw, but it's not an indication of quality. It's just that the industry markets it as a measure of quality, which it's not."
Already, Bear Bear is seeing a growing demand by enlightened chefs and consumers who prefer wild fish over farmed because of its varied diet and texture. As Mr Wong says: "Why do you need to go for imported cod and salmon when there's so much good fish right here?"
Bear Bear Fresh Pte Ltd, 52 Dunlop Street. Tel 6996-6289
The small 600 square metre indoor farm started out in 2015 and differs from other indoor farms in that it focuses on soil-based planting instead of hydroponics. It was started by its general manager Edmund Wong, who believes in being all natural and uses only organic or biological fertilisers, although his produce isn't certified as such.
He supplies mainly to fine dining restaurants such as Joel Robuchon, Saint Pierre and Nouri, and prefers working with passionate chefs "who use my products to bring another dimension to a dish."
His main product is microcresses, "which are basically very small baby plants which are packed with nutritional value". He also grows Chinese spinach (xian cai), peas and corn shoots.
Mr Wong, who says he couldn't even keep a cactus alive when he was young says: "When I started this, I realised there's no such thing as black fingers. It's about effort and understanding of your craft."
338 Jalan Boon Lay. Tel: 9852-2318
If you're a convert to the health-giving properties of goat's milk over cow's milk, a supply of the fresh stuff is coming your way soon. By the second half of 2018, Hay Dairies' brand of locally-produced goat's milk will be stocked at all Cold Storage outlets in Singapore, in addition to existing Prime Supermarket outlets. Business director Leon Hay estimates that half their daily production of about 1,000 litres are sent to these retailers, while the rest are reserved for home delivery customers. Restaurants on the other hand, make up a small percentage of his customer base, as most eateries only order the goat's milk on an ad hoc basis. The Guild restaurant, for example, uses it to make ricotta cheese.
Even then, the demand currently exceeds his supply, so Mr Hay hopes to be able to increase his productivity by bringing in more goats if his lease is extended in June, and maybe even start producing yoghurt drinks and ice cream. Mutton may also be on the menu eventually, if the farm successfully obtains permission for a small abattoir within ts premises to supply local restaurants.
3 Lim Chu Kang Lane 4. Tel: 6792 0931www.haydairies.com.sg
Nippon Koi Farm
When Nippon Koi Farm started over 30 years ago, it was an ornamental fish farm specialising only in koi. These days however, managing director and head honcho Pay Bok Sing has expanded his farm's repertoire to include an edible fish called the Australian Silver Perch, as well as leafy greens such as Hong Kong Watercress and Brazilian Spinach. According to Mr Pay, nothing on his farm is given antibiotics or artificial hormones, and even the fish feed is a specially-formulated mix of milk powder, cheese powder, spirulina powder, honey, eggs, and olive oil.
The farm currently supplies fish and vegetables to just a small number of restaurants in Singapore, including Restaurant Labyrinth which also takes any extra produce from the farmer's personal garden like sweet potato leaves and starfruit. But since Mr Pay's recent success in hatching his own breed of fish fry, he hopes to eventually put his Silver Perch on more dining tables in Singapore, and perhaps even overseas.
51 Jalan Lekar. Tel: 6763 1882. www.nipponkoifarm.com
Kin Yan Agrotech
Singapore's largest mushroom farm has been in business for over 20 years. You've probably bought its abalone or king oyster mushrooms and fresh black fungus in NTUC FairPrice supermarkets without realising you've been buying local produce. "We grow five kinds of mushrooms and they're all pesticide-free," says its business development manager Lim Soon Leong. It also supplies to locavore-centric restaurants Open Farm Community and The Guild, as well as Chinese restaurants like Tong Le.
It started out growing wheatgrass, harvesting 200kg to 250kg a day, while its mushroom output is about 7,000kg a month. It also grows pea sprouts and edible cactus. The wheatgrass and pea sprouts are grown in compost, not soil, and so are its vegetables which are not sold in supermarkets but at its weekend farmers' market where walk-in customers can find roselle, lady's fingers, kai lan, chye sim and lettuce.
220 Neo Tiew Crescent. Tel: 6794-8368. www.kinyan.sg