Shandelle Battersby samples Singapore's sustainable side, from farm to table.
The sign at the entrance says "Welcome to Paradise" and for lovers of fresh food and nature, a tiny quiet corner of Singapore's northwest, near the Malaysian border that is dedicated to growing produce in a sustainable and safe way, is paradise indeed.
I'm at Bollywood Veggies, the brainchild of Ivy Singh, a visionary who established a farm and country cafe on 4ha of the Kranji Countryside nearly 20 years ago, at a time when Singapore's agricultural industry was in serious decline.
• Premium - Why Singapore is the perfect family stopover for long-haul holidays
• Singapore: 7 great sky-high bars to try
• Five hours to kill in Singapore Changi airport? Try a free Singapore tour
• Premium - Singapore: A holiday highlight is a Vespa side-car tour of the city
These days Singh's passion project is now a successful multi-faceted operation with a cooking school and food museum offering farm tours and experiences for schools, corporate groups, interested locals and tourists. That country cafe, Poison Ivy, has developed into a thriving bistro serving fresh farm-to-table fare, much of it grown either onsite or at neighbouring farms such as Kin Yan Agrotech, which specialises in the likes of organic wheatgrass, mushrooms and edible cacti.
More signs in and around the rustic bistro and gardens give an insight into Ivy's philosophies - "Let nature be the driver of the future", "Make gardens not war" - and you start to get an appreciation of the force of nature behind this patch of land and the hard work that's gone into developing it into a working farm.
Farming is not something you generally associate with modern-day Singapore. Space for its 5.8 million people is at such a premium that over the 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on its swampy shores, its masters have used reclaimed land to expand the Lion City's footprint by 25 per cent, with plans for more growth over the next decade.
The country, of course, has agrarian roots. Before the rush of development following independence from the British in the 1960s, much of Singapore was farmland. The famous shopping strip of Orchard Rd was named for the actual orchards that once stood where the malls and high-end stores now stand. These days, however, the country imports more than 90 per cent of its food, and pig farms and fruit trees have given way to skyscrapers and highways.
Just 40 minutes before, I'd been wandering around one of the country's most famous areas of reclaimed land, Marina Bay Sands on the Singapore waterfront; now I was deep in the Kranji Countryside to check out Poison Ivy and tour the Bollywood Veggies farm.
"The Kranji area is quite unique because it is the only remaining agricultural enclave in Singapore," explains my guide, Manda Foo, the founder of Bollywood Adventures (the farm's education and events arm) and former CEO of Bollywood Veggies. "There are urban gardens around, but this is where 10 per cent of Singapore's produce is grown."
We shared a pretty Nasi Lemak platter (a steal at around NZ$25, featuring coconut rice dyed blue with edible blue pea flower and coriander and bay leaf-brined chicken wings) followed by a trio of desserts including its delicious signature banana cake, before heading out into the tranquil farm to learn about the medicinal and nutritional benefits and uses of the region's indigenous plants, as well as sustainable and planet-friendly farming methods.
This slice of Singapore is home to a mix of high-tech and more traditional farms producing the likes of koi, goats, fish, quails, frogs, fruit and vegetables, and you can find a wetlands reserve, farm stays, a pottery studio and freshwater marshland too. More than half of the farms offer tours and experiences, and Foo says this is a valuable way to make people more mindful of where their food comes from.
"The farm tours are not just about growing food. It's also about getting people to understand the value of having a local agricultural industry and farming trade and getting them to respect that profession. It gives them information so that they don't do things like waste food," she explains. "Farming cannot just be part of our past, it needs to be part of the future too."
Back in the city I visit two places that walk the sustainable talk when it comes to using local produce and suppliers.
Native is a sleek cocktail bar upstairs on Chinatown's hip Amoy St, which is loyally Asia-centric, from the spirits and ingredients it mixes in its beautiful cocktails to the edible art made from natural dyes on the walls, the music on its playlist and the glassware for its drinks. Recently named No. 12 on The World's 50 Best Bars list, Native's inventive cocktails take the notion of hyperlocalism to the extreme - the Sarapan, for example, the Malay word for "breakfast", features coconut distillate, toasted breadcrumbs, butter roasted coffee and pandan egg strings, while other concoctions contain the likes of pineapple skin, laksa leaves and mangrove wood smoke. The space on the floor above the bar is where the in-house fermentation takes place and there's also an onsite compost and herb garden.
Over near Orchard Rd in the Shaw Centre, a partially frosted door allows you to peek in at Kausmo, an intimate new restaurant run by two clever young women, Lisa Tang and Kuah Chew Shian, which aims to promote conscientious food practices and educate its guests about thoughtful and mindful eating.
Accommodating a maximum of 16 diners in two separate sittings each night, the restaurant is set up like someone's home, with an island bench separating the open kitchen and long dining table. Jars of fermenting ingredients and piles of cookbooks sit on shelves lining the walls and soft music adds to the ambience as Tang seamlessly prepares a six-course carte blanche menu in front of you for just SGD$75 (about $87) per head.
Kuah helps plate the food - tonight, the likes of local soft-shell crab with house-made hot sauce and wild snapper congee with preserved plum and native greens - and explains the providence of each course before we eat. Every element of the restaurant has a backstory, from the slightly imperfect crockery we're using and the upcycled pieces of cloth our drinks are resting on, to the hand-sanded cutlery stands made from discarded pieces of mahogany.
Unnecessary food waste is an over-riding theme and Tang's dishes are cooked using fruit and vegetables that haven't made the grade because they're oddly shaped, over-ripened or overstocked, sustainably sourced local or regional seafood and under-rated cuts of meat, as well as overlooked native greens and florals.
"We make tasty food that looks good, tastes good and makes you feel good, based on what's available," Tang rather modestly tells me after service. The meal was not just good, it was extraordinary.
Some of her ingredients come from small local organic farms in the Kranji Countryside, where earlier that day I'd walked among the bees, flowers, fruit trees and vegetable plots with the warm sun on my back and the birds swooping overhead.
We take farming for granted here in New Zealand but in a land-scarce place like Singapore, a six-course fine-dining meal made largely from local produce is truly a feat. With the government's goal to produce 30 per cent of the country's food at home by 2030, things certainly seem to be on the right track.
Singapore Airways and Air NZ have daily flights to Singapore from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.