Singapore’s reputation as a haven for foodies is well-established the world over. Its ubiquitous hawker centers and iconic dishes rank high on many visitors’ lists, but ask local culinary anthropologist Nithiya Laila, and you’ll discover a whole other side to the Lion City’s dining scene – one that is committed to supporting its farmers and ensuring the region’s indigenous bounty remains relevant and exciting in an increasingly globalized restaurant scene. Here, Nithiya recommends some of her favorite farm-to-table restaurants in Singapore – from modest vegan lunches in basement food courts to coveted chef’s table bookings.
Nithiya Laila is a Singaporean culinary anthropologist. She recently appeared in an episode of “A Singapore State of Mind,” a partnership between Ink and the Singapore Tourism Board. Watch the full video here for a dizzying tour of Singapore’s wet markets, urban farms and sustainable restaurants.
For an affordable lunch: Thunder Tree
To Nithiya, the Hakka dish known as lei cha or thunder tea is “the original grain bowl”: a serving of rice or noodles topped with fresh, crunchy vegetables, tofu, nuts and the eponymous green lei cha sauce adding the final, heady kick. Singapore farm Fire Flies uses lei cha as a canvas for its delicious organic produce, via two branches of its restaurant Thunder Tree. Nithiya favors the outlet at Raffles Hospital, in the heart of the Bugis district, and recommends getting the thunder tea kolo mee, with a base of springy eggless noodles, as well as sides like the savory yam cakes and braised mushrooms.
For a rustic date night: Open Farm Community
Set in a quaint wood-and-glass space amid the wide green expanses of Dempsey Hill, a short drive from the Orchard Road shopping belt, Open Farm Community is a local poster child for farm-to-table dining and ethical sourcing. There’s an ornamental farm on-site – and a larger production farm in the works – as well as an herbicide- and chemical-free wine list. The kitchen works with local and regional farms to provide hearty comfort food with a delicate, tropical twist. For dinner, try the locally farmed red snapper ceviche with puffed black rice and ginger flower, as well as the soft-shell crab spaghetti with laksa reduction, makrut lime and coconut cream. The brunch here goes beyond the usual eggs, too.
For a bucolic day trip: Poison Ivy
Synonymous with Singapore’s small but fierce soil-based farming community, Bollywood Veggies in the northern district of Kranji is often packed with urban dwellers looking for a slice of the pastoral life. There are guided tours and cooking classes – though you can choose to just wander free through tropical fruit trees, herb gardens and vegetable patches. Stay for a meal at the on-site farm-to-table bistro Poison Ivy, serving Singaporean comfort food classics. Try the excellent chicken curry with baked crispy prata (flatbread) and the traditional nasi lemak with blue pea rice, crispy anchovies, fried chicken, peanuts and other fixings. Save room for the house-made traditional desserts, such as the kueh bingka (baked tapioca cake with coconut).
For a hot-ticket reservation: Mustard Seed
There's a three- or four-month wait for a seat at this elegant little omakase-style chef’s table tucked away in the residential neighborhood of Serangoon Gardens, but it’s worth the wait to experience the kitchen’s creative and original presentation of regional produce. Mustard Seed’s young chef Ming Kiat applies his classical Japanese training with “awareness of local ingredients such as belimbing and other traditionally foraged ingredients,” says Nithiya.
For an introduction to “mod-Sin”: Labyrinth
Modern Singaporean cuisine, or "mod-Sin" as it’s called locally, isn’t as prevalent as it could be, “because diners still prize Anglo-French-Japanese cuisine when eating out,” Nithiya says. But Labyrinth’s Han Liguang flies the flag at his Michelin-starred restaurant at the Esplanade. Sourcing local produce, livestock and farmed fish, the menu presents classic Singaporean flavors in sophisticated formats. Try Han’s take on the ubiquitous chili crab, an exciting arrangement of soft-shell crab, crab ice cream and crab foam.