Food for thought – the magnificent markets of Asia

One of the benefits of visiting different countries for work is the food. Fresh yak yoghurt, mutton kebabs and fried sweet potatoes in Xining, China, jackfruit curry and roti canai in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, banh xeo pancakes in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, fish amok in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, tom kha gai in Phuket, Thailand, dried cow lung and my absolute favourite beef rendang in Mataram, Indonesia, sum up the last few months.

I’m now based in Singapore, a nation of ‘foodies’, surrounded by things that make your mouth water. There’s also plenty to make conservation-minded folk wince, and some that I can’t fathom who might be keen to try. Pig-organ soup anyone?

The first three weeks in my adopted country, hotel-bound, gave the chance to explore hawker stalls and eateries, though having to eat every meal out is not as good as it sounds and not great for your health, especially when you have a penchant for prata and the restaurant next door is called ‘Prata Paradise’.

Moving to a serviced apartment, the holding cell whilst waiting for employment passes and the office to be finalised, opened the opportunity to cook.

The romance of shopping

The romance of shopping in fresh fruit markets came to an abrupt end with a visit to Tiong Bahru market, where the ‘exotic’ fruits of plums, grapes and apples came from the USA and at a price. This seemed perverse and my image of the sumptuous, bountiful fruits of Asia was not to be fulfilled.

Anna's marvellous markets Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

Next stop, Cold Storage (where the expats shop), sent a shiver down my spine. The familiarity of pesto and neat bags of washed rocket seemed oddly out of place and sterile. My heart sank.

Then, on a foray for food, I found what I was looking for. No further than Cold Storage (supposedly the only supermarket near the apartment) was Fair Price. Piles of squishy bags of fresh coconut milk, mountains of greens from Singapore’s Kranji farms and from neighbouring Malaysia, bags of galangal, turmeric, ginger, limes, and multi-coloured chillies, which are all now refrigerator staples.

A little more exploration and the market nearby, where old men bring their caged birds to sing on the weekend (mostly white eyes) and cats look on licking their lips, there are joys to be found, bundles of kaffir lime leaves for 25p, candlenuts and blocks of tamarind complement the store cupboard.

Food for thought

Now salads come with an Asian twist, I happily make some form of coconut curry every 1-2 weeks, rendang, thai, gulai ayam, stir fries always have a splodge of shrimp belachan, that peranakan favourite. Mornings are best; I derive the greatest pleasure from expertly cutting juicy Thai mangoes, a new-found skill never practiced before, despite numerous trips to Asia.

If you delve a little deeper, however, there are the same issues replicated in supermarket shelves across the world; the meat and milk travels from Australia, you can buy organic and it’s great the fresh goods are local, though one can’t be sure of the land used or the inputs added for the majority.

Living, breathing and eating palm oil

Moving to the dry goods, having spent four days living, breathing and eating palm oil in Kota Kinabalu at the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) ‘RT9’ one can see the challenges of achieving the RSPO’s newly announced vision ‘to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm’.

Big name brands, such as Unilever and Cargill, made commitments to make all their palm oil certified sustainable by 2015, however, on the shelf too are countless, mostly Chinese, brands I’ve never heard of; who knows what vegetable oil is used and how it’s produced, though in my random sample palm oil was frequently labelled.

In Europe, new food labelling rules state that by 2014 manufacturers must indicate the origin of all vegetable oils used in food. Fauna & Flora International is hopeful that the resolution submitted with Zoological Society London, WWF and Conservation International will be approved at the General Assembly early next year. This is, to ensure that all RSPO members submit time-bound plans to achieve Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, showing member’s intent and progress towards this goal.

An ingrained mentality towards the use of resources

The supermarket trip invariably ends with a tussle with the bag-packing cashier. Pride in customer service is a Singapore characteristic, however, despite being one of the more environmentally enlightened Asian countries, good service in the local supermarket means an average of two items per bag, separating categories of goods. Greeted with bemused looks if you take matters in hand to fill the bags yourself, a brief lapse in concentration will see your efforts ‘helpfully’ double bagged! It’s not the excessive use of bags, per se, that niggles, more the indication of an ingrained mentality towards the use of resources. That said, you get a friendly smile and 10 cents back if you bring your own bags.

Heading home laden with goodies in the heat and humidity is something to get used to. The offer of one dollar from an old man in the checkout queue to get a trolley to lighten the journey was tempting, but the idea of walking anywhere, even nearby, caused much bemusement. I’ve no doubt however, that not one shopping trolley ends up in the canal network of Singapore unlike in the UK!

Final thought: As Christmas approaches, that time of over indulgence, I prepare to go home. The culinary delights I cherish most, and that bring a nostalgic smile, are the humble combination of pickled egg, salt‘n’shake crisps and a pint of warm beer in the local!