Foraging in Singapore: Field to table

Food found in Punggol: (From left) The noni fruit, also known as the Indian mulberry; butterfly pea flowers; the ivy gourd, also known as baby watermelons.
Food found in Punggol: (From left) The noni fruit, also known as the Indian mulberry; butterfly pea flowers; ivy gourds, also known as baby watermelons. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Picking and eating plants growing in the wild may seem primitive to city dwellers in Singapore, but that is slowly changing, thanks to a global food trend that is catching on here.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 28, 2015. A version of this was published in the June 2015 issue of The Life digital magazine.

He crawls on all fours on a pavement in Dempsey Hill, fingers combing through blades of grass and eyes darting back and forth.

Mr Bjorn Low then gingerly picks up tiny leaves, pops them into his mouth and chews on them. “That’s wood sorrel,” says the co-founder of urban farming consultancy Edible Gardens.

“Some might think they are weed, but they are actually edible. And we want people to become more aware of things growing around us,” says the 34-year-old.

Picking and eating plants growing in the wild may seem primitive to city dwellers in Singapore, but that is slowly changing, thanks to a global food trend that is catching on here.

While there are no official figures of the number of people who forage for food in Singapore, Mr Low says that more chefs here have expressed interest and have approached Edible Gardens, which occasionally hosts guided foraging trips for chefs.

 Mr Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Gardens, foraging for wild edibles in Dempsey Hill.
Mr Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Gardens, foraging for wild edibles in Dempsey Hill. Mr Low says that more chefs here have expressed interest in local wild edibles and have approached Edible Gardens, which occasionally hosts guided foraging trips for chefs. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Mr Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Gardens, handing some wild edibles picked in Dempsey Hill to Mr Jonathan Lee (with cap), head chef of Artichoke cafe and bar.
Mr Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Gardens, handing some wild edibles picked in Dempsey Hill to Mr Jonathan Lee (with cap), head chef of Artichoke cafe and bar.  ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

European restaurants, for some years now, have been plating food prepared with ingredients foraged from the wild, a practice glamorised and made popular by Rene Redzepi of the two-Michelin-star Danish restaurant, Noma.

Wild edible plants found in Singapore include pandan and curry leaves, noni fruit and even ivy gourds.

But foraging in urbanised and land-scarce Singapore is not without its caveats.

Mr Low cautions against foraging in nature reserves or on land tended by the National Parks Board as it is illegal to do so.

He also cautions against picking plants by roads with heavy traffic as they might be tainted.

“There are definitely poisonous plants around, so be careful of what you pick and, if you are unsure, do not pick them at all,” he adds.

But this return to our hunter-gatherer roots does not have to be limited to the local greenery.

A man who declined to be named harvesting rock oysters on Punggol Beach at dusk during low tide. The man says he does not eat these oysters raw, but uses them to make omelettes.
A man who declined to be named harvesting rock oysters on Punggol Beach at dusk during low tide. The man says he does not eat these oysters raw, but uses them to make omelettes. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Mussels, clams and even oysters can be found growing wild on the shores of Singapore.

And all that is needed to harvest these molluscs are a pail and some elbow grease.

 
 

Mr Nigel Lian, a marketing communications executive and fishing blogger, digs for mud mussels once a month on the mudflats of Kranji Beach during low tide. On good days, his haul of the delectable shellfish can weigh up to 2kg.

“The very first reaction I get from people is, ‘Can eat one or not? Why don’t you just buy them,’” says the 26-year-old.

“But I usually explain that by digging for clams, you are really working for your food and that gives you a sense of satisfaction.”

Mr Lian adds that older folk tend to take better to foraging as it was something they already did in kampungs.

Foraging is an activity man has been doing for a long time, Mr Low points out. “Medicine men forage for herbs in the mountains, tribes forage for food, established societies in Europe have a thriving foraging of mushrooms during autumn. It has always been a part of human history.”

deslim@sph.com.sg

Rock oysters found along Punggol Beach. They can grow up to palm size and are found attached to rocks on the shore in Punggol.
Rock oysters found along Punggol Beach. They can grow up to palm size and are found attached to rocks on the shore in Punggol. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

foraging at Punggol, Singapore
PUNGGOL: (Left) The noni fruit is also known as the Indian mulberry. The trees thrive on rocky and sandy shores. The fruit gives off a pungent odour when ripening and is often blended into juice. Some people believe the noni fruit has cancer-prevention properties, but this claim has not been scientifically verified.

 (Middle) Butterfly pea flowers are used in South-east Asian cooking. The Peranakans extract the blue colouring to use as natural food dye in their cooking. (Right) Ivy gourds are also known as baby watermelons. They are used in Indian curries. (Photos are not to scale) ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM


foraging in Singapore - mussles at Kranji Beach and sea snails are Punggol Beach
(Left) KRANJI BEACH: These shellfish are called brown or mud mussels. They are usually sold at local seafood stalls as "tua tow". These molluscs thrive in a mangrove environment and live buried in the mud. (Right) PUNGGOL BEACH: Spiral melongenas are sea snails that are harvested and canned as topshells and sold in supermarkets. These sea snails feed on barnacles and can be found on sandy and muddy shores. (Photos are not to scale) ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

Upper Thomson Road Torch ginger flowers have stiff waxy petals that are used commonly in rojak. It is also known as bunga kantan in Malay
UPPER THOMSON ROAD Torch ginger flowers have stiff waxy petals that are used in rojak. It is also known as bunga kantan in Malay. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

pandan leaves and Wild pepper leaves
UPPER THOMSON ROAD: (Left) Pandan is also known as screwpine in some countries. The aromatic leaves are used to flavour dishes like chicken rice, nasi lemak and chiffon cakes. ​
(Right) Wild pepper leaves are also known in Malay as kaduk hutan. They have a mildly bitter taste and are used in South-east Asian dishes like nasi ulam. (Photos are not to scale) ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

sunset way chiku fruit and passion fruit
SUNSET WAY: (Left) The chiku fruit tastes sweet and malty. It is also known as sapota in some countries. (Right) The passion fruit, cultivated widely in tropical and sub-tropical regions, has aromatic and seedy flesh which is often used for juices and desserts. It is also known as bai xiang guo in Mandarin, literally translated as “fruit of a hundred fragrance”. (Photos are not to scale) ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

DEMPSEY ROAD Curry leaves are commonly used as flavouring in South Asian cooking. SEMBAWANG ROAD The leaves of a kaffir lime tree have a fragrant lime scent and are used in Thai cooking. The plant is thorny and its fruit has a bumpy exterior. It is also k
(Left) DEMPSEY ROAD: Curry leaves are commonly used as flavouring in South Asian cooking. (Right) 
SEMBAWANG ROAD: The leaves of a kaffir lime tree have a fragrant lime scent and are used in Thai cooking. The plant is thorny and its fruit has a bumpy exterior. It is also known as makrut lime in some countries.
 (Photos are not to scale) ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM