What’s the deal with clean eating? Should you care?
Clean eating is a global movement that’s now gone local. More people in Singapore are becoming more conscious about what goes into their bodies.
It comes down to this – people are going out of their way to buy and eat clean. The clean-eating movement began some years ago with the rise of wellness bloggers in the US like Ella Mills (who advocated a plant-based diet), and Madeleine Shaw and Amelia Freer (who both recommended real, fresh food). Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall’s Escape to River Cottage – the chef escaped the city to grow his own greens and raise animals – also helped raise clean eating’s profile.
Sinking roots in Singapore
By 2014, chefs like Artichoke’s Bjorn Shen, Open Farm Community’s Ryan Clift, and Restaurant Labyrinth’s Han Li Guang were introducing diners to the farm-to-table concept, choosing local and organic meat and produce where possible. As certified health coach and owner of clean-eating cafe Kitchen by Food Rebel Elika Mather says, it is “food closest to its original state”. But is local always cleaner?
Most of the time, yes. In Singapore, strict regulations imposed by the authorities on local farmers mean that what’s produced here is largely free of toxic chemicals and other contaminants, says Ivy Singh-Lim, founder of the Kranji Countryside Association. But it’s not organic. If you’re shopping in a supermarket, the easiest way to eat clean is to look for an organic label – which certifies that your food is produced as naturally and ethically as possible. This means no hormone-injected chicken, genetically modified crops, or harmful pesticides. Crops are also grown some distance from contaminants like fogging and car exhaust fumes.
More, more, more
Demand for clean food has continued to explode. These days, consumers want to hear from the growers, to understand what goes into cultivating the produce. Manda Foo, CEO of Bollywood Veggies, says the first Kranji Countryside Farmers’ Market in 2014 drew 4,000 people, a figure that has swelled to 10,000 today. Held every quarter at the D’Kranji Farm Resort, it has dozens of farmers hawking their produce, as well as sellers of artisanal products like nut butters, jams, and oils. Other such markets have spawned, including pop-ups in the heartlands. We talk to the people leading the movement and sussed out the best produce you can take straight from the farm to your table.
The hydroponic home grower
Shirley Yong is no farmer, but she is responsible for more than 350 edible leafy plants that sit in an air-conditioned hut on the ground floor of her executive condominium in Sengkang. Shirley, 41, is one of four residents growing hydroponic vegetables in this space measuring roughly 5×2.5m – which she currently rents at $10 for two months. Her home is the first in Singapore to include a hydroponic facility in its building plans. The vegetables she’s growing include xiao bai cai, kai lan and nai bai, and lately, she’s been experimenting with cauliflower and broccoli too.
As a stay-at-home mum of two children aged eight and 10, she had read about harmful pesticides in imported vegetables, so she stuck to buying local produce. And now, she can grow vegetables herself to ensure that they are free of chemicals.
Shirley says she only needs to check in on her plants three times a week, and top up the water source with a nutrient solution. It takes just 20 minutes each time. She harvests all her leafy veggies at once, and this lasts her family about a week or two. They then have to go without the hydroponic veggies for a couple of weeks before the next harvest. Still, Shirley makes sure she supplements her family’s vegetable intake with store-bought stuff like broccoli and carrots, which don’t grow well in a hydroponic environment.
The wildling who lives off the land
Esmonde Luo, 30, is on a mission to educate people about the flavours that can be found around them – if they’d only stop to look. Since 2016, he’s been leading small groups around forested areas in Singapore to teach them to forage for food. During each tour, which lasts a couple of hours, he shows them how to identify native edible plants, including a flower with a fiery kick similar to Sichuan pepper.
Esmonde, who works as a freelance landscaper, does not organise regular paid tours at present, and is content to take people on nature walks as and when he’s available. So far, he’s conducted more than 10 such tours.
He also takes a more extreme approach once every few months, when he packs a tent and some supplies, and sets up camp in the forested areas of Lim Chu Kang, Mandai and Pulau Ubin. He’s careful to avoid restricted zones.
“I eat only what I have caught or foraged. So I don’t eat if I don’t find anything,” Esmonde says. He picks wild cucumbers and catches crickets, which he then fries in oil. Occasionally, he’ll catch a catfish. “You truly experience nature when you draw sustenance directly from the earth,” he says. By submitting himself to the elements, he’s become more mindful of what he’s putting in his body.
The clean food to eat
Not all of us can grow our own hydroponic vegetable garden or forage for food in Lim Chu Kang. There’s an easy fix: buy clean groceries.