Rob Pierce showing essential oils from herbs. In 2012, he established The Edible Garden City with Bjorn Low, a Singapore-based enterprise that encourages people to grow their own food. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Tasty Ways to Boost Singapore's Food Self-Sufficiency

JUNE 07, 2015

The lemongrass drink lived up to its billing as a refresher. Known as the Tangy Lemongrass Refresher, the beverage derives its tangy and fresh flavor from the chunky, bubbly texture that the locally sourced lemongrass was broken down to. The drink also owes its organic wholesomeness and taste to the land, reminding one how its seemingly simple ingredients can go a long way.

The Tangy Lemongrass Refresher is one of a number of foods created by the Edible Garden City, a Singapore-based enterprise for the city-state’s urban farmers created in 2012 by Briton Rob Pierce and Swede Bjorn Low.

“[The Edible Garden City] set out to encourage Singaporeans to grow their own food. As an island whose scarce amount of land is used for urban development, Singapore is particularly dependent on food imports” says Pierce, a specialist in garden design and construction who based Edible Garden City on his grandfather’s experiences as an urban farmer tackling food shortages during World War II.

“Britain was also dependent on food imports then, but there were still enough urban farmers to grow food. Singapore is perhaps in greater need for them during an emergency, as there’s still a low number of them in proportion to the population, most of whom live in high-rise apartments.”

“The possibility for urban farming in Singapore is still more viable than Hong Kong, where I lived previously," laments Pierce, who has lived in Singapore for the last five years. "However, the number of urban farmers who have the ability to make the most of our food supplies is still few, so there’s only so much we can do."

“Among the foods that we constantly develop for ourselves are microgreens. We realized that it's best if we grow it ourselves instead of importing them. But ultimately, Edible Garden City set out to remind the public that there’s nothing better for our wellbeing than to eat the food that we grew and developed for ourselves.”

It didn’t take long to see Pierce’s point, starting with his mushroom, kai lan and daikon salad. Prepared by students of Temasek University’s Culinary and Catering Management from produce grown by Mycofarm Singapore and Koh Fah Farm, the button mushrooms gave the dish a distinctively full flavored, somewhat smoky taste. The latter is due to the mushroom’s use as salad dressing in its powdered form. While the kai lan is somewhat muted, the daikon gave the dish its natural yet buttery flavor. The salad’s derived its wholesome organic flavor from the soil, making for a surprisingly hearty vegetarian dish.

“[The salad] reminds me of why I like working with vegetables” says student chef Lisa Tang. “Different parts of vegetables, whether it be their stems or leaves, have contrasting flavors that still manage to balance out. This is the effect that I always sought after.”

Edible Garden City’s gardens have been increasing in renown since the enterprise’s inception. The herbs and micro greens grown there won it a clientele of high end Singaporean establishments, including the Marina Bay Sands hotel and resort.

The Edible Garden City’s use of greens is also highlighted by their use of hibiscus in a main course that features seabass and prawn, as well as a mousseline of leeks and potatoes. Using seabass hatched from fisheries run by the OnHand Agrarian collective, the fish derived its wholesome, almost crunchy flavor from its marinating in organic prawn oil. Its lean skin did the dish wonders, as it provided a good counterpoint to the fish’s meat and gave it the right texture. While the prawn seemed understated, its subtly fresh flavor and texture make it an interesting contrast to the seabass.

“The seabass is grown on our fish farms near Johor. We placed the fish in concrete waterproof tanks which are watered by rainwater as well as freshwater” says On Hand head Shannon Tan.

“We also recreated the ocean ecology with an intricate process involving seaweed, fish waste, vermin and sand in the tanks. However we still have our work cut out for us as we only managed to hatch over 800 thousand kilograms of fish annually, which is still a fraction compared to the seafood we import from Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in the region."

The hibiscus garnishing did wonders to the dish. Its minty, grape-skin-like flavor balanced the fish out, as did the leek infused in the potatoes. The use of hibiscus highlights Edible Garden City’s work with herbs ranging from rosemary to snakeweed, some of which are used for salads or essential oils.

The Edible Garden City capped off the meal with Coconut Ice Cream With Southernwood. The ice cream’s delicate, creamy texture and flavor evokes the coconut’s freshness. But the shaves of southernwood took center stage, as it has a flavor akin to organic corn flakes.

On his part, Pierce adds that Edible Garden City will continue its efforts to get food self sufficiency for Singapore by trying out new methods and foods to produce or plant, whether it be with time-tested methods or by trial and error. Whether Edible Garden City can attain this goal remains to be seen. However, the enterprise might just be the incentive for urbanites to get closer to the soil.

The Peak