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I was finally able to meet with Say Meng of WaterCircle. He’s a hidden ledgend and pioneer of aquaponics/hydroponics. He’s been doing aquaponics for 19 year, which is longer than most of the world even knew aquaponics existed! We told me all about the history of aquaponics and hydroponics in Singapore including how he once produced commercial hydroponics vegetables, but ultimately decided that his passion was in building and installing systems for schools and individuals who wanted to grow their own food.

veggie poster

Say Meng even agreed to come out to NUS to take a look at the site of the potential aquaponics farm at Tembusu college. It was just our luck that the gate to the space was unlocked so we could go onto the site to take a better look. It is quite a large space of about 0.1 hectares. It seemed ideal as it got a good amount of light during the day and had sufficient drainage for any leaks. It was also between the two colleges and quite visible by the students at both.


Say Meng agreed to make a proposal for a system we could setup there while I was confirming with the housing administration that we would be able to use this site.



Fungi Farm

Dr K. K. Tan, founder of Mycofarm, is leading the way in the future of fungi. A former professor of NUS, Dr. Tan has put his research to action in this climate controlled facility in the countryside of Ang Mo Kio. I was lucky enough to tour the facility and chat with him about urban agriculture.
The cool sheds that housed the mushroom “logs” was a pleasant escape from the wet heat of Singapore. Temperatures ranged from about 14°C-20°C depending on the type of mushroom being cultivated.
The farm propagates several varieties of mushrooms, including Shiitake, Oyster, and Willow.
Shiitakes are known in alternative medicine as a cure for HIV, cancer, and heart disease… wait, why aren’t these in everything?!?!
The mushrooms are cultivated using a variety of substrates, including wood logs and a compost like mixture.
These are probably some of the highest quality mushrooms you will find in the area. It may not be “certified organic”, but it doesn’t get any more organic than this.
In addition to being able to purchase mushrooms directly from the farm, they offers a variety of value added products such as my personal favorites, Shiitake floss and their Shiitake Stout brew.
If you want to arrange your own visit, call +65 6773 0377. Here’s the location.



Closing the Loop

Graduate fellow Winson Lim and I paid a visit to Hydroponics and Plant Care run by Dr. Mallick F. Rahman. Dr. Rahman is another longtime hydroponicist having been in the industry for over 35 years! We spoke about the struggles of bringing academic and government institutions on board and committed to new technologies, like hydroponics, that are necessary for our future. His shop also had a nice array of hydroponic supplies and systems for purchase. One of his kits (pictured) was almost identical to an idea I had while shopping around at Ikea.


But the most exciting discovery while chatting with Dr. Rahman was the fish food processor that is being developed through one of the universities. The idea is basically that food waste such as you might put in a composter is processed into a a paste which is then dehydrated into pellet form for feeding to fish. The great part is that even meat or fish can be composted! I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about this before, especially since all this time I’ve been making compost which isn’t useful to hydroponic systems. This is not to say traditional composting isn’t still a great solution to food waste, this just makes it more relevant.

After leaving the store, I stopped by the nursery where to pick up some supplies. One of the workers was carrying some kind of fruit and I found out it was Jambu from their tree. I hadn’t ever heard or seen of Jambus so they showed me the tree and cut a few off for me. I understood they were ripe, but later found out that they were not and that the name actually means something like “red fruit”. Regardless, I will soon have Jammed Jambus.






In the Belly of the Beast

Just south of NUS along the West Coast Highway of Singapore exists the Wholesale Centre where much of the food of Singapore is traded. It is right along the port, so there are imports coming in from all around the region including Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, China, and Indonesia. The centre is quite large and is divided into blocks for the various types of foodstuffs. As an individual you are still able to buy goods without any special certificate, but I’m not sure if all vendors would be willing to sell their goods at small quantities.


We had the opportunity to chat with one of the purchasers who did the sourcing for various franchises such as Wendy’s and McDonalds. He was actually an ex US Marine and had lived in several cities in America. He gave us the lowdown on the inspection process the AVA implements for goods being sold at the market.

Goods are randomly selected to be tested for a certain level of chemical. The AVA marks the pallets being tested with red tape. The vendor has the opportunity to discard the selected batch before it is tested or undergo testing. If they submit to the test and the batch fails, the vendor is fined (I believe $250) and then has to undergo a series of 10 more chemical tests. If they fail these tests they are band from being able to sell at the market for 3 months at which time they must pass additional tests before resuming sales.

The fact that the vendor is able to throw their goods away, take a loss on that particular shipment, and complete forgo being tested was a bit shocking. It wasn’t certain whether opting for this path put vendors on any sort of watch list. We were informed that these regulations are being reviewed to improve the legitimacy of the process, but it wasn’t clear what the actual likeliness and timeline of these changes were.




Today was the first workshop for the Tembusu Food Garden group. Since arriving in Singapore, I had been eating an average of 1-2 coconuts a day. The husks and shell created quite a bit of  waste, so I had been trying to think of what to do with them as they don’t compost easily. One idea was to get a machine that grinds them in to fibers to use as a planting medium. The issues with this is that the husk needed be dried first and since the humidity is so high it would require a dehydrator, so ultimately the energy need to do this at small scale didn’t work out. A couple people had mentioned using them as planters, so I decided last minute to try it out with some of the students. First thing that morning I went over to the local Corona nursery which has been around for over 60 years! It really has a spectacular selection of plants, though was lacking in the way of seeds and food baring plants.


My favorite was this particularly exotic specimen.


The concept of this workshop was to have the group think about ways of designing food growing systems based on accessible and repurposed materials. We broke down this idea of the coconut, both culturally and as a design object. What we found is that there was a strong association between coconuts and relaxation and vacation, which makes a lot of sense considering the amount of electrolytes in coconut water help rehydrate and rejuvenate the body and provide a soothing effect. As a design object, the most obvious function of a coconut was as a container, so it made a great planter!

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Another topic we discussed was the increasing disconnection between ourselves and the production and preparation of food. Again we used the coconut as our example. No one really knew how to break open the coconut or had done it before. One of the students, Sean, successfully attempted to open the coconut after a bit of a struggle (as you can see from the video). His only knowledge had come from the memory of how his father did it in the past. Sadly, knowledge passed down though our parents and ancestors is becoming decreasingly common. Parents often rely on the education system to teach their children, yet this education does not provide much of the basic knowledge necessary for survival. We’ve become reliant on industry to provide our basic needs.

The students each had the opportunity to break open their own coconut, fill it with soil, and plant their first seed.

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Singaporean Tempeh

Tempeh is one of my favorite foods. It is one of the few forms of soy that is good for you due to its fermented nature and its a fantastic source of protein. So far I haven’t come across any in Singapore, so was wondering if it even existed here. This search led me to a sad story of the another crushing example of industrialized agriculture.

There use to be an Indonesian town called Kampong Tempeh, which translates to “Tempeh Town” (bring it all down to veganville). The location of this town was actually not to far from where I am living at NUS. Sadly, this town no longer exists. The Indonesian families making the Tempeh passed their recipes down for generations until factory made tempeh put them out of business in the 70s. To add insult to injury, the town was forced to be redeveloped in the 80s by authorities who demanded higher housing standards.

Read the whole story here.

Kampungt Tempeh



Ghim Moh Market

As a way of understanding the local food structures, one of my first destinations are the local markets that sell raw food goods. In the US, they are farmer’s markets, but in Singapore they’re referred to as “Wet Markets”. Unfortunately in these markets most of the food is imported rather than being sold directly by the farmer, but you still get better prices and there is a much better selection than the grocery stores. This morning I cycled over to Ghim Moh Market which is not far from the NUS campus. Usually when visiting new markets I have a few goals in mind:

  1. Learn about and try new foods that I’ve never encountered before
  2. Compare prices between vendors
  3. Understand where and how the foods are being grown or caught

Ghim Moh Market space is fairly large and is divided between hawker centre and the raw goods stands. I started out with a nice cool glass of Balonglong juice (the specialty). It had a nutty sweet flavor.


There is an extensive selection of fruits and vegetables. Lots of types of spinach that I had never seen before. Out of about 15-20 stands of produce, I only came across one that advertised as being organic. Most of the prices between stands seemed comparable, though sometimes certain stands would have a special offer on items they were trying to push.


The market also a variety of seafood. The fishmongers are very knowledgeable and helpful in selecting the right fish. As much as I love fish, I’m always wary about how and where it was caught or farmed, especially considering the recent events of Fukushima and how it’s affecting the supply.


Aside from the seafood, they also had ornamental fish in case you want to start your own aquarium!


And of course, can’t miss out on the dry goods. Lots of nuts and dried fish!


Unfortunately, after scouring the market for Tempeh, I discover that the soybean stand was out of stock. Have to come earlier next time! Finally returned home with the bounty. Eggs, mangosteen, passion fruit, bananas, cashews, corn, and honey melon.


My favorite find was definitely the mangosteen. I new of this fruit as I’ve had it mixed in with beverages, but never had the opportunity to taste it in it’s original form. If you’ve never tried it, the texture is like a grape or lychee and has an amazing complex flavor to it. This fruit has all kinds of health benefits. The pericarp (rind) is also supposedly quite good for you as well, though very bitter and astringent.


Ghim Moh Wet Market Market is open 06:00am until 12:00pm daily, though I recommend going early if you want the good stuff.



Do Coconuts Float?

If you said YES, you guessed correctly! Do you know what this means??? You’ll find out in next weeks episode of “Swimming with Coconuts”.


And in case you don’t know how to open a coconut (as I didn’t), here’s some tips.



Corporate Responsibility

I’m a firm believer in corporate social responsibility in all aspects ranging from employee treatment to environmental impacts. I’m particularly critical when it comes to food establishments. In general, I oppose the idea of franchises because much of what I value about food is the infinite combinations and unique qualities of each meal. Franchises aim for homogeny. I understand this may be a highly subjective opinion being that there are many that go to franchise restaurants for precisely the reason that they know what to expect. I also believe there should be a direct proportion between the impact of your brand identity and the amount of responsibility a corporation takes on. Large corporations should serve as role models and lead the way.

A particular example that has been coming up frequently is Starbucks. Though in its infancy, I believe that Starbucks helped reinvented the coffee culture in the US, its sheer size has had some negative effects.

  • Focused on brand rather than quality of coffee
  • Any positive changes to policies take years (or never) to propagate throughout the stores
  • Did not start thinking about recycling until 2008
  • Do not compost food waste
  • Overshadow smaller mom and pop coffee shops
  • No emphasis on organic food products

I also believe there policies are in no way innovative. These companies need to be proactive in their approaches to social responsibility rather than wait for the demands of the consumer.

Starbucks: how about charging an extra $10 for those who don’t bring own container? Now THAT would be something!



Food Art

Who ever said it was bad to play with your food?!? It’s great to see upcoming artist/cooks who have a “fresh” take food art. Some of the most inspirational works come from  Samantha Lee and Hong Yi. One of the aspects of their work that I really appreciate is their documentation of process. It is really an art form within itself. It’s also great to see that they are using healthy ingredients. This is especially relevant in the case of Samantha as her pieces are geared towards the younger audience who are just beginning to develop their understand of what food means.

Hong Yi

Samantha Lee



Celebrating the Life of Red Burns

I just discovered the news of the passing of Red Burns who founded the ITP program over 30 years ago. I had the opportunity to participate in the program during the 30 year anniversary. Thought I probably didn’t get to interact with Red quite as much as I would have liked, I still felt her impact by proxy though the classmates I was and still am constantly surrounded by. There are those who leave life with unfinished business. I believe Red Burns left this earth having done what she came here to do. These short but sweet words really say it all.



Farewell NYC

Could you leave everything behind and start from zero again? Pick one thing, and one only, and be absolutely devoted to it? Make it the reason for your existence, the thing that contains everything, that becomes everything, because your dedication to it makes it last forever? Could you? -Frederico Fellini

5 years ago to the day I arrive in NYC without knowing anyone. Now, I have become inextricably entangled with hundreds of passionate people, many of which are very dear to my heart and played a major part in who I am today, from my values to my character to my professional and social life. I have (temporarily) ripped myself from this web or rather, taken a step back to look at my own passion for food systems and sustainability from a fresh perspective.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in square holes. You are the ones who see things differently. You’re not fond of rules. And you have no respect for the status quo. I can quote you, disagree with you, glorify or vilify you. About the only thing I can’t do is ignore you. Because you change things. You push the human race forward. And while some may see you as the crazy ones, I see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. -Apple Inc (remixed)

I feel incredibly lucky to have developed the relationships I now have. My first year in NYC, as is for many, was a struggle. The differences in culture between Los Angeles and NYC, I may as well have been in a different country. But I learned to adapt. Riding my bike through the city, the psycho-geographic map began to form in my head. Living at Mckibbin Lofts and getting my masters degree at ITP gave me the opportunity to meet numerous creative intelligent people, many of which I now consider very close friends. These are two of the many ways I was able to integrate myself into a city with potholes (both literal and metaphorical) down every road. But the struggle remains. A friend was recently caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting and shot in the chest. Thankfully, he lives to tell about.

Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day. But they’re waiting for us at the gate and we can’t let them down. -James Blake

Don’t let our lack of freedom get in the way. Fly free, but most of all remember you are only on piece of of a larger puzzle and without the others the picture ceases to exists. By committing ourselves to realizing how our part of the image matches with another results in a symbiotic relationship that we call “collaboration”—a force that multiplies, not adds, our strengths into something of unimaginable power.

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. -The Great Dictator

There are many in NYC whose stress on the inner soul has destroyed a sense of greater collective spirit. This is not a judgment on their character but simply an explanation of the affects from a specific geographic location impacted by social, political and, economic factors. Yet there there are also many who are selflessly fighting for unity and equality. How does one reconcile this? We must not let the fire of revolution burn dim. Walk the walk.

Complacency is the enemy of progress. -Dave Stutman

See you back on the other side and don’t forget to wear your helmet.