Food on a Crowded Island

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Cultivate member and erstwhile West Oxford resident Joel has just started a year-long sojourn in Singapore with his family. So much is he missing the VegVan that he’s decided to stay in touch in blog format. This is the first in a series of dispatches from his new home in which he’ll explore the horrors and delights of Singapore’s food system, and dig deeper into understanding the social and environmental dimensions of how this small, crowded island feeds itself.

Hello! My name is Joel. I’m 37 years old. Last month, after eight years in Oxford (doing too much studying!), I moved with my wife and three young kids to Singapore. My wife is a doctor and will be working in a Singaporean hospital for the whole of this year. We are living here in the north of the island in a place called Sengkang. It’s quite a bit different from West Oxford! Apparently, about fifteen years ago, there was little in these parts beyond pig farms and small fishing villages. Now it’s total high-rise with an incredible population density. We are living on the 14th floor of an apartment block within a condominium development that houses around a thousand people, I think. There are now well over 5 million people on an island that measures only 30 miles from east to west and 16 miles from north to south. It’s about 40% of the size of Greater London, but its population is well over half. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the issue that recently finally got Singaporeans protesting was a government white paper projecting a population of 6.9 million by 2030.


When I’m not looking after our kids, I will be doing my own research at home. I also want to write a blog out here about food. I’m passionate about food, not just cooking and eating it, but where it comes from and how it’s produced. I am vegan and have been for about 18 months now. My wonderful friends at Cultivate have given me the chance to share with you what I discover about food in Singapore over the coming year.

With its wonderful ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays, Tamils and other groups, there can’t be many better places to eat in the world than Singapore. For many, this is the ultimate eating den. Noodles, laksas, satays, curries, seafood, fresh tropical fruit juices, exotic desserts – Anything, anytime, anywhere! Not just local foods, but Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese. Whatever you crave, you can probably find it here, and not only that, you can get it cheap. A large cup of fresh juice will cost you S$2-3 (£1-1.50), and you can get a good meal at any food court for little more than a pound! Really!

So, Singapore – a culinary paradise, right? No doubt the vast majority of Singaporean citizens, and those lucky enough to have visited this island, would see this place as such. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying the food here. Even as a vegan, there is loads to choose from. I’m particularly partial to the South Indian curries, vades, rotis, chappatis, etc, often served on a banana leaf! Also, the Buddhist tradition within the Chinese population means that there are plenty of vegetarian Chinese dishes to sample too. And the fresh fruit is amazing! So, the short answer is ‘yes! Singapore is a full-blown culinary paradise.

singaporemarketHowever, there is another reality below the surface, and a small, but growing number of people are beginning to think a bit more about their food. They are beginning to ask questions such as: Where is all this food is coming from? How and why can it all be so cheap? What are the environmental and social conditions and consequences of its production? I am one such person. So, if you, like me, want to learn more – not just about food here in Singapore, but food produced for and consumed in virtually all cities today – then I want to invite you on a journey to try to find some answers.

So, here’s the plan. We’ll start off by exploring the surface reality (or the ‘fetish’, as Marxists would put it) of Singapore’s culinary paradise – sounds like fun! After this, however, we have to start going deeper to try to find out a bit about what lies beneath: the environmental conditions and social relations that combine to produce this culinary paradise – even more fun! We’ll also meet and learn from people who are trying to produce and prepare food in alternative ways. I’ve come to see life as a never-ending praxis – an ongoing process of learning and acting, thinking and doing. So, I hope that we can learn a lot together and also put what we learn into practice and start to eat better – in every sense of the word.

I think I’ll leave you with a recipe for Chinese New Year – the year of the horse – which was last week. These pineapple biscuits are everywhere at the moment. My kids really like them. I’ve tried them too and they’re good. Here’s a vegan (egg-free) recipe for them that I just found online. Unfortunately, I don’t have an oven, so I can’t join you, but try it out if you can!

Next time, I’ll start our journey by taking you to a typical Singaporean food court to sample the local delights. Till then, gong xi fa cai (happy new year!)


P.S: If anyone can think of a top name for this blog, you get a personal shout-out! I can only think of cheesy names for Chinese restaurants like ‘Taste of the Orient’!

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