For most Singaporeans, discovering a novel piece of produce in the market or at a zi char stall is a rare occurrence. Most of us have been eating the same plants for a large part of our lives, but it doesn’t always have to be this way. For the curious gourmand and intrepid gardener, Singapore’s climate is suitable for growing a large variety, including many with unexplored culinary potential, says Joanna Chuah. “We’re so spoilt for choice, and there hasn’t been any incentive to want to grow or consume different kinds of produce. Plus, it’s so easy to buy what you need from the supermarket. However, people should note that there are more choices out there,” adds the lawyer, part-time urban farmer and founder of Weird & Wonderful Edibles.
Chuah, who has been exploring the viability of growing various organic edible plants in the Singapore climate for the last four years, works out of a 15m by 17m space. She uses organic fertiliser from food waste for the nearly 100 varieties of vegetables on her farm. From Singapore and elsewhere, many are lesser-known and even rare.Diminutive, striped fairy tale eggplants and squat Star of David okra, as well as Okinawan spinach, are some of the more exotic variations of typical vegetables you might find in Chuah’s garden.
She also cultivates edible flowers and herbs, including the exotic-sounding lemon myrtle, a species commonly found in the Australian outback that also thrives in sunny Singapore. Sourcing seeds and cuttings from farms and seed catalogues, Chuah takes an empirical approach to her horticulture, recording the performance of each plant, and figuring out better ways to grow them through trial and error.
As she has such a diverse range of edible plants, she’s naturally attracted the attention of restaurants such as Magic Square as well as cafes looking for something a little more unusual yet local to cook with. While orders from restaurants slowed tremendously during the Circuit Breaker period, Chuah notes that the sales of seeds and soil – she offers a house blend – went up significantly, thanks to the sudden interest in lockdown- inspired gardening.
The Circuit Breaker also gave her time to work on new projects. For instance, she now has a small team working on collecting seed samples from local and overseas farms to try and preserve as well as diversify what’s grown in Singapore. “We could do with more plants, and we should eat a wider range of offerings,” says Chuah. With Singapore’s deadline of meeting 30 per cent of its food needs by 2030 fast approaching, Chuah firmly believes we need to continue considering better plant species and better ways to grow them. She’s already doing her part.
Photographer Tan Wei Te
Art Direction Fazlie Hashim