In major cities, you can go for a jog for free. You can do yoga and endless squats at home for free. But the gym membership you have and which yoga studio you visit are signs of how on the pulse you are and what your taste is.
Food falls into this category, too. It’s not just a necessity but a lifestyle. On a Friday night, where are you eating? Have you been to this new restaurant? Do you know the scene? Even your grocery choices become signifiers of who you are. Whether you shop at a specialised European butchery, a fancy cheese shop, an expensive, highly curated supermarket or a chaotic wet market depends on your values, your free time and your income level. When you make that choice between biodynamic yoghurt, sugar-free Greek yoghurt or whatever brand the local prata (fried flatbread) shop uses, you’re making choices around your identity.
At the same time, you can’t ignore the fact that you live in a city, where there are few farms and most people have to work full-time. My job has to do with food, so I can spend a lot more time on my choices, but most people have to take into account the limitations and access they have. You could be a working mum with two kids, doing the best you can, and if eating sustainably is inconvenient, you’re not going to start.
So, begin by asking the little questions: where does my produce come from? Go to the local wet markets when you can and support local traders. Sustainability is not only about fewer air miles, but participating in the local economy – not just supermarket chains but small grocers, too. Find a list of nearby local farmers and buy from them – many do deliveries. When you do that, though, you’ll encounter vegetables you haven’t cooked before. “What’s molokhia,” you might ask in Singapore. “What’s sawtooth coriander? What am I going to use ulam raja for? I know moringa is a superfood powder, but how do I cook all these fresh, affordable moringa leaves from the market?”
Taste is another bridge that needs to be rebuilt. Our palates have become more adapted to nachos, burgers, steaks and risotto, and less familiar with the herbs and plants that grow in our region. Many wild Southeast Asian plants are hardy, need longer to prepare and are more work to chew. So, the next step is to cook more, if you have the time, for yourself and for your friends. When you start to cook regularly, you’ll begin questioning where your food comes from. You’ll look for better versions of the ingredients. You’ll go to wet markets and local farms, and eventually you might start growing herbs at home.
There’s also the matter of how those of us who straddle culinary cultures and have the disposable income value local ingredients. For example, green jackfruit is the big new alternative to pulled pork. But it’s also been used in South Indian and Malay cooking since forever. In India, you can have jackfruit chips, jackfruit curry, jackfruit candy, you name it. Why might we be OK with paying S$18 for a chipotle jackfruit grain bowl, but think twice about paying more than S$4 for nangka curry at the nasi padang shop? Moringa powder packaged in Australia is S$12 for 200g, but it’s S$2 for fresh moringa leaves at Tekka Market in Singapore’s Little India.
I’m not saying nasi padang shops should raise their prices until the community that eats there can no longer afford to. But I do think we should get a bit more comfortable finding value in the things that grow in our backyard without that value first being defined by the West. French cuisine never needed that from Asian diners in the same way. Pandan leaves are great, but not because they’re now being used in a bar in New York. This is something we’re still struggling with.
But eating sustainably is not about self-exile from your immediate surroundings. I’m not trying to pretend I live on a ranch. I live in the city. I like to go out and do all the things that people do in the city. I eat grain bowls. I go to supermarkets sometimes if I need ingredients in a rush. I go to the gas station late at night for a cheap cookie that I could have made at home. But I try to not waste food. I buy the best possible ingredients that I can afford, prioritising nutrition over volume. And I encourage the places I love to employ sustainable practices and work with local farms.
It’s about finding a balance. And it’s about conscious consumption: what are you buying and who are you supporting with your money?
Nithiya Laila recently appeared in an episode of “A Singapore State of Mind,” a partnership between Ink and the Singapore Tourism Board. Watch the video for a dizzying tour around Singapore’s wet markets, urban farms and sustainable restaurants.