Locavorism may have been embraced by the crème de la crème of the gourmet world as proof of diligent sourcing of sustainable ingredients, but going farm to table in Singapore is tough.
Home-based farmers and producers now meet less than 10% of Singapore’s appetite. While the government has plans to bring it up to 30% by 2030, massive challenges still exist.
Firstly, there simply isn’t enough land for aspiring farmers to develop due to rapid urbanisation.
Secondly – and not surprisingly – most locals do not have the same kind of respect for domestic produce as the Japanese or the French. And Wong Jingkai, managing director of 21-year-old fish farm business Ah Hua Kelong, wants to change that.
No Fishy Business
Wong, who was in the digital marketing industry prior to partnering Teh Aik Hua, the owner of Ah Hua Kelong, says he got into the fishing trade in 2014 by chance. Since then, the millennial has been trying to bridge the gap between locals and local seafood.
“From the start, my goal was to increase the consumption of locally farmed seafood by reaching out to locals and educating them,” shares Wong.
According to the 30-year-old, the real challenge is not in selling their produce, but in getting people to want to buy them.
“Many Singaporeans have the mindset that the quality of local produce isn’t as good as foreign ones, and that local fishes have a ‘muddy’ taste. What they don’t know is that the ‘muddy’ taste is actually caused by geosmin – a bacteria-produced non-toxic compound that accumulates in the bloodstream of fishes when they do not have enough oxygen, or when the water is too shallow and/or muddy.
“Both our Sembawang and Changi farms are out in an open sea, so our fishes don’t get exposed to those kinds of bacteria,” Wong added.
Taste the Freshness
Though Ah Hua Kelong is not open for visitation from the general public due to regulations by the Singapore Food Agency, Wong is bringing his prized possessions from the sea to the mainland through his restaurant, Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant is housed in a two-storey shophouse unit located along the quirky Haji Lane. While it is no old-school kelong, Scaled exudes similar charms through its rustic interior and friendly servers.
Unparalleled freshness is the name of the game here. With their Changi floating farm just five minutes away from the mainland, fish can be delivered to Scaled in less than 30 minutes.
Seabass, golden pomfret, pearl grouper (a hybrid of tiger grouper and Queensland grouper) and the occasional wild-caught seafood, such as flower crabs, blood cockles and green-lipped mussels, are just some of the fresh catch diners can expect to see on the menu.
With Scaled, Wong wanted a platform to showcase local produce in ways that were unthought of. Together with his head chef Jovan Lim, they did just that.
Seabass fillets are first smoked, then blitzed down into a paste consistency with dill and lemon juice before being made into a pâté. Served with a cherry cardamom jam and toasted sourdough procured from nearby bakery Mother Dough, the dish is the perfect starter to whet one’s appetite.
The green-lipped mussels, which are native to local shores and wild caught just off the kelong, are lightly cooked in a house-made curry and served with deep-fried mantou.
“Although we don’t exactly farm them, green-lipped mussels are a produce that we have put a lot of effort into, because everything is done by hand. We have to dive into the waters to harvest them by hand, clean the barnacles off one by one, and then deliver them,” explains Wong.
Even the classic Cantonese-style grouper is done differently here. Steamed using sake instead of the usual Chinese cooking wine, and lala (clams) instead of sugar to add some sweetness to the broth, the unassuming fish dish is just packed full of umami.
If you’re up for some bespoke drinks to go with the dishes, you can even opt for a cocktail pairing from Bar Stories, which shares the same space as Scaled.
While there are Asian and Western elements, Scaled’s menu does not fall under any particular cuisine. Much like how Singapore bears influences from both the East and West, the fusion of flavours at Scaled comes across as vibrant and cohesive.
Farm Fresh at Home
Aside from supplying to their own diner and several big name restaurants such as table65, Labyrinth, Salted & Hung and LeVeL33, Ah Hua Kelong also does home delivery.
Pearl grouper is one of their best-sellers. Alternatively, Wong suggests getting the green-lipped mussels, which are difficult to mess up even if you are a novice.
“Mussels are really easy to cook up – just put in a bit of garlic and shallots, pour in some sake or white wine, and let it simmer. If you want a cheat code, you can add a little bit of chicken stock or seafood stock; it really helps to bring out the flavours. Serve it with toast and you’re done!”
On the future of Ah Hua Kelong and Scaled, Wong shares that in addition to ongoing education efforts, he has plans to scale up both businesses.
“I’m currently looking into a land-based structure or spot where we can actually have a proper processing site and a holding ground for the seafood before it gets moved out,” says Wong. “We’re looking to open a central kitchen as well.”
While educating the general public about local produce never ceases, continuing sustainability efforts is also vital to Wong.
“Everyone has a different way of looking at ‘sustainability’. In layman terms, sustainability means that if you’re a farm in Singapore, and I’m in Singapore and I buy from you, it’s sustainable. But it’s not that simple. We want to reach the level where we can be awarded the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) farm certification.”
Pausing thoughtfully, Wong adds, “Nobody in Singapore has yet to get it, and we still have a very long way ahead of us prior to achieving that.”
Perhaps in the future, fish will be feeding the multitude once again.