Foraging: The New F Word


By Carolyn Oei, 04 July 2017

(Cover photo by Marc Nair)

“…nothing embodies life quite like food does.”

– “Hungry City”, Carolyn Steel

Food is representative of so many things in our lives – freedom, development, progress, instinct, violence, slaughter, love, hope, community, independence.

In the context of the urbanised space in which more than half of the world’s population lives, “you take land away from people, you disempower them,” says Alexius Yeo, urban farmer, CEO of Carbon Inq and founder of Project 33, an urban-farming special interest group.

For a country like Singapore where few people have the luxury, or wealth, to own private garden space, and where 90% of food is imported, there would seem to be a deep sense of disempowerment.

Still, there’s little that anyone can do about the scarcity of land. But perhaps they could try to claw some of their independence back in other, primarily symbolic, ways.

Foraging, for example.

In Yeo’s opinion, “Foraging symbolises a profound connection with the earth and specifically the local (environment). It is a very empowering process for me because it fosters a certain confidence in self while, at the same time, (the process is heavily dependent) on Nature to provide what I need.”

Laletha Nithiyanandan, aka Lita, shares Yeo’s sentiments, “Foraging represents my childhood in Singapore - climbing trees and picking fruit and eating it. I feel in some ways it’s our birthright; it’s what we grew up with and generally people who forage have respect for the environment and do not take more than what is needed. I feel it helps us build a connection to places, builds memories and transports us back to childhood.”

Along with artist Steve Chua, Lita co-founded Gastrogeography of Singapore (GOS), a food experience initiative that is focused on introducing, and reminding people to appreciate the things that are “growing in our own backyard”. Lita adds, “What piqued my interest was the realisation that many people didn’t notice what was around them or they didn’t know; it’s a lost heritage in some ways.” 

Photo: 26 May 2017, ArtScience Museum: Lita (left) and Steve Chua at the Tastings and Mappings event held with Foodscape Collective as part of the TFF (Thought For Food) Summit 2017. Credit: Marc Nair.

Photos: Chutneys, bite-sized torch ginger balls, spreads and plenty more were laid out for tasting at Tastings and Mappings. Credit: Marc Nair.  

Lita and Chua previously collaborated with artist Kristine Oustrup Laureijs on Mamakan Art Collective (now known as Mamakan), which produced art exhibitions that utilised edible plants and other botanicals to explore the concept of belonging in an urbanised environment. The exhibitions were shown as part of the Singapore Biennale 2016.

These and the multitude of food-related events – Dîner En Blanc, master classes with renowned chefs, regular pot-luck parties organised by special interest groups – all reinforce how food connects us.  

Which makes foraging an extremely sexy notion.


“People definitely are interested,” Yeo says. “There’s so much about it to like.”

It’s easy enough to see how a tagline like “Eat Your Weeds” would light eyes up or the fact that jam made from some mystery fruit tastes like, well, jam. For the more anarchic amongst us, foraging represents one small way of loosening the supermarkets’ chokehold on food sources.

Yeo recalls a foraging tour that he’d organised for Project 33 members. “Fifteen people signed up, but sixty showed up on the day! The MRT station was packed and I had to find a small rock to stand on to address everyone. Like a rally!”

Clearly, word about the tour had spread.

Photos (L to R): Just some of the edible flora that is accessible in many parts of Singapore. Daun kaduk (wild pepper/betel), myrtle (a local berry), oldenlandia and "elephant's foot". Credit: Carolyn Oei  

Although not a new concept by any measure, foraging in Singapore seems to have some way to go in terms of general knowledge and understanding.

Fostering awareness is one of the motivating factors behind Oustrup Laureijs’ art and events. She explains, “Plants are the ideal symbols of connectedness to the soil, our roots. They teach us a sense of gravity, while we are floating around in cyberspace… many children in Singapore are starved of outdoor experiences and also unaware of how to find food in nature.”

In June this year, Mamakan presented its first installation, “Treasure Island”, at the National Museum of Singapore. According to Oustrup Laureijs, “it was a highly sensorial installation and the public could even join tastings during the week-ends.”


As enticing as foraging might be, neither Yeo nor Lita sees foraging as a viable alternative to farming or buying food, and certainly not in Singapore.

For one thing, you’d have to know what exactly you were foraging for in order to be remotely successful. This is because the national landscaping programme implicitly discourages foraging; a high proportion of the city’s greenery comprises inedible flora. Yeo, who used to work with the National Parks Board, understands why the government doesn’t encourage foraging.

“We just aren’t ready for it.”

The average person’s lack of knowledge of local flora is compounded by a culture of fast-fashion and quick-and-easy consumption. We hazard a guess that more menacing, however, is the Singaporean compulsion to grab whatever is free, even if it isn’t needed. One only has to attend a People’s Association community event to understand this; people grab at freebies in goodie bags simply because they are there for the taking.

Community gardens are another battlefield where thieving freeloaders deny hapless gardeners the joy of steaming kale they so lovingly and patiently cultivated. When these gardens have to be fenced and padlocked, you know there’s a fundamental problem with trust.

If Singapore went the way of an edible urban landscape, there’d be bald spots everywhere. And that would not be a good look for the Garden City.

Trust, honour and bald spots aside, Lita highlights that foraging cannot be an alternative for Singaporeans; it simply isn’t practical. What we can aim for though, is to share a meal with one another; a meal that contains even just one thing from the garden, whether foraged or harvested from the trough of herbs sitting on the balcony.

Photo: A mere sampling of the edible plants that are commonly found in backyards and, if you know your local flora, by the roadside. Credit: Marc Nair.


1. Gastrogeography of Singapore

2. Carbon InQ

3. Project 33

4. Mamakan Art Collective

5. Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore

6. Urbanised Population Statistics

7. “Hungry City” by Carolyn Steel