The foragers of Singapore: how to find edible plants growing wild and the foods and drinks to make from them
From the roadside berries that make a delicious jam to leaves you can infuse and the noni fruit which, fermented, can make a blue cheese, there’s a feast of foods to be had for free. Juliana Loh takes a walk on the Lion City’s wild side
Our tour begins with a cool, fizzy welcome drink. We are asked to identify the herbs it is flavoured with; we taste pandan, lemongrass and blue pea flower. Then begins a two-hour walk through a city neighbourhood during which we are introduced to weeds and plants producing edible flowers, roots or fruit – jackfruit, mango, lychee, several varieties of ginger, banana and papaya trees, the blue pea flowers we tasted earlier, and breadfruit, which actually looks and tastes like bread.
There is a pit stop outdoors for crackers and snacks over locally made pesto, comprising laksa leaves instead of basil leaves, candle nuts in place of pine nuts, groundnut oil and galangal – a root that’s a relative of ginger.
The tour ends where it started, at an art gallery on Singapore’s Niven Road, where we taste artist Laletha Nithiyanandan’s torch pops – crispy rice bran, yellow turmeric, red chilli, green sawtooth coriander, pink torch ginger flower and Himalayan rock salt – then move on to laksa truffles, wonderful aromatic balls of coconut sugar and laksa leaves, coated with grated coconut. We sample jars of infusions, from leaves to ginger to chillies in rum and vodka – an intoxicating mix of flavours that would spice up any cocktail cart.
The tour, perhaps surprisingly, is the brainchild of three artists: Nithiyanandan, fellow Singaporean Steve Chua and Danish-born Kristine Oustrup, who has lived in Singapore for the past eight years; they call themselves Mamakan (Mama refers to nature, makan means house or home in Hindi and eat in Bahasa). It is part of a project for the Singapore Biennale that they call GastroGeography – simultaneously an exploration of the idea of putting down roots in a place, of locally grown produce, and of the plants and animals around them, both those introduced to Singapore and native to the Lion City.
“The aim of this project is to open our eyes and realise that food is everywhere, we just need to look for it. Mamakan is a philosophy that focuses on the connection of food with places and people through stories,” explains Oustrup. “The theme of GastroGeography refers to the complex relationship between food and place, culture and nature. We build connections with what we eat and where it’s grown.”
The artists explore the concept of slow food and encourage Singaporeans and expats alike to look in their own backyards and neighbourhoods for edible plants – weeds that can spruce up a salad, the red-lipped leaves of Syzygium myrtifolium, a member of the myrtle family which makes a wonderful infusion, or rukam masam, a plant native to eastern Indonesia and found in abundance on roadsides in Singapore whose tart berries make a delicious jam.
Or they can pick ripe noni fruit (the trees usually grow by rubbish dumps), ferment them in airtight jars, leave them in the sunlight for at least a month, strain the juice and mix it with cream cheese, for the Singaporean equivalent of a pungent blue cheese.
Then there is breadfruit. Native to the South Pacific but more commonly associated with Africa and the Caribbean, it grows easily in Singapore. Oustrup experimented with making bread soup with the fruit, but in Peranakan and Malay households it is sliced, dredged in flour, then deep fried like dough sticks – perfect to mop up rich gravy sauces, or for dipping into condensed milk in the way that Chinese enjoy mantou, deep-fried rice-flour buns.
Compact Singapore, with its high-rise buildings and land scarcity, is not the first place one would associate with foraging for edible plants, yet the country presents ideal growing conditions, something Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore as a port of the East India Company, observed two centuries ago.
Raffles met Danish doctor and botanist Nathaniel Wallich in 1822 and discussed the possibility of planting botanical gardens. Wallich wrote Raffles a letter that year, saying of Singapore: “It abounds in an endless variety of plants equally interesting to the botanist, the agriculturist and the gardener, with unrivalled facilities and opportunities of disseminating these treasures and exchanging them for others.”
Working with volunteers and botanists, Mamakan has recorded trails around Singapore featuring more than 120 types of edible plants.
Cheryl Wong says she was initially apprehensive at the thought of “nibbling on weeds”, but says at the end of the tour: “I found it really informative and worth the early morning Sunday trek. Now I know all those berries that line the roads in my neighbourhood in Bukit Timah can be used to make jam, and the plants and weeds around us can be used for infusions. I am now motivated to do a little more gardening and try growing more herbs since I cook so often.”
Another participant, Ann Lemons Pollack, visiting Singapore from the United States, says: “I’m a traveller who is interested in food. This combination of food and art, with additional ‘seasoning’ of history, both of Singapore and Singaporeans, plus agriculture, is unusual. Food tours usually focus on restaurants and/or markets, but this goes in a whole new direction. Is it foraging as performance art? Definitely not. To my knowledge, it’s something completely new.”
Mamakan’s Singapore Biennale tours run until February 5, 2017. After that, Mamakan will be running private tours for up to 10 people at a time. Email [email protected] to book.