This food journal was inspired by the Grub Street Diet series and more specifically Bon Appétit Food Editor Claire Saffitz’s piece, who I adore and whose love for bread might even surpass mine. It’s also extremely timely for me to write because of the very recent switch to a 90% plant-based diet, which I decided on after reading Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Besides existing for sheer documentation, this journal also allowed me to write about where majority of life-changing conversations take place – around good food and coffee.
Thursday, 6 June
I start my day off by meeting my friend Tassha at Micro Bakery & Kitchen along Upper Bukit Timah Road. I recently left my full-time brand consultancy job at a creative agency, so having breakfast at 930am on a Thursday morning and taking my time at it is one of the perks of freelancing. This bakery-cafe in particular is a favourite of mine. Sandwiched between an auto repair shop and an ice cream parlour, it’s relatively easy to miss out among the foliage and piles of rubber tires.
Since it is raining torrentially, I immediately order my first coffee of the day – a cappuccino. The coffee beans are from Common Man Coffee Roasters, a local roastery and one of the originals. The barista brews the beans so well that the cuppa is strong without being astringent.
To share, we get a hazelnut praline sea salt brownie, a macadamia and pink peppercorn blondie, and a grilled, triple-cheese sandwich for savoury. My favourite of the lot is the blondie – the chunky macadamias give a meaty bite to the overall texture that no other nut can and the scattered, cracked pink peppercorns give a slight and pleasant heat. The grilled cheese is outstanding too, made with brie, cheddar, and mozzarella between two slices of country loaf, buttered and toasted till crisp. Together with a side of arugula and tart homemade tomato jam, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect breakfast.
I love bread. It’s an exciting time for bread-making in Singapore. Though the cafe scene exploded here in the late 2000s, it’s only now that artisanal bakers are coming out on their own, people who are seriously passionate about grain quality and the science of baking. One of the Micro bakers is Jaslyn, who once let my friend Alex and I try some “test kitchen” eggplant pizza with peppers and seemed genuinely interested in our thoughts about it. I love it when chefs or bakers are game for a chat about the food they make and the flavours that good ingredients impart – the dialogue is important to creating better tasting food and for forging a larger community.
Tassha leaves for school at about 11am and I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead for another hour. I then takeaway two more of the blondies, one for me and one for my friend Jon who I’m about to meet for lunch. Jon – or Cho, as people call him – is a fan of Micro bakes and is super excited when I hand him the white paper bag. I like having friends that get as excited about food and coffee as I do.
We decide to go to MUJI café because it has great hot and cold vegetarian dishes. I get the egg and tofu omelette with pumpkin butternut sauce, the stone fruit salad and an onsen egg. Cho has a shrimp and quinoa salad with the vegetarian omelette as well. I’m trying to cut down on caffeine so I get some iced tea while Cho has black coffee.
Everything is very well made but I love the 16-grain rice the best. The barley, red rice, brown rice, glutinous millet and other grains means you get different textures with every mouthful. The pinkish mound of grain is a thing of beauty, speckled with dark husks and so delicious and impossibly sweet.
We dine slowly over one and half hours and talk about God, music and work. We have been writing songs together with our other friend Calvin for a while now and recorded some rough demos recently. It’s fun and I’m excited to see what’s down the road for all of us.
I have four hours to kill before dinner time, so I head over to Millenia Walk and settle in at Patisserie G to do some work, a café recommended by Cho. I get a beautiful, shiny chocolate eclair and an oolong green tea. I love how the eclair is sprinkled with raw cacao nibs at the top – the bitter crunch is a nice contrast to the rich chocolate cream, crisp choux pastry and dark chocolate icing.
Needless to say, I have a sweet tooth. Dessert is a must, even if it’s just a piece of chocolate or fruit. There’s just something about ending your meal with a sweet note, or a sweet-salty, or my favourite, sweet-sour. A good dessert can cover up for a bad main course any day.
At 5pm I’m struck again by a hunger pang. I pick out a cookie – candied lemon and chocolate buttons – displayed on the counter and nibble at it guiltily. In Saffitz’s Grub Street Diet piece, she sums up what I feel about eating with this statement: I experience hunger and appetite as two totally distinct feelings. Basically, I’m always in the mood to eat. I totally get what she’s talking about.
Dinner is a mushroom and avocado salad at Tokyo Chopped Salad, a place that my friend Ainsley and I settled on simply because she doesn’t quite believe that I would have a salad for a meal. The word “chopped” means that all ingredients are cut up into small pieces with a large curved blade which I later find out is called a mezzaluna. As far as salad goes, this one is a little sad. It has corn and romaine lettuce and tastes so strange with the mushroom and avocado. When chopped into little pieces, the entire texture of the salad just becomes a mushy mess. Strike one for salad.
To make up for the bad dinner, Ainsley says she’ll treat me to ice cream. I tell her that I’ve had too many sweets the entire day but she insists. Before long, we’re sitting at The Dark Gallery – where they make the best chocolate ice cream in town – with a luscious milk chocolate and a sea salt butterscotch between us. It’s a sweet end to a day of eating.
Friday, 7 June
Today gets off to a slower start. I’ve had the sniffles since the night before so I let myself sleep in till eleven.
Lunch is homemade glutinous rice dumplings from my aunt, a traditional treat made to be eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. I don’t know much about the Chinese festival’s origin but I love the sticky dumplings synonymous with it. The ones my aunt makes are so good; bursting with dried shrimp, crumbly chestnuts, orange-red salted egg yolks and hunks of soy-simmered pork belly.
The pork is the first shred of meat I’ve eaten in 48 hours. I savour it. I am trying to shift my diet to a more plant-based one because of well… a book. Earlier this week, I started reading a book my friend Leng gave to me – Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food – and it struck me unlike any other treatise on sustainable farming and eating I’ve read before.
Before that, everything I knew about Barber came from watching his feature on the Netflix hit, Chef’s Table. The episode profiled both his restaurants, Blue Hill NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Back then, the ecological farming philosophy held little appeal to me as did every other “green-eating” movement. I had even read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (which I knew converted many sworn omnivores to vegans…yikes!) and felt next to nothing. Even though I never said it out loud, I guess I just didn’t believe one person’s dietary choices could have any observable impact on the earth. And if I was being completely honest, I just enjoyed meat too much to give it up.
As I read the book, however, I was completely overwhelmed by the state of agricultural practices in America and the world, as well as the effect protein-rich meals had on the environment. To frame the narrative correctly, Barber’s book is centred around a triptych tracing on the evolution of American dining, a three-plate-illustration if you will. Here’s an excerpt about the first two plates:
“The first plate was a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables – in other words, the American expectation for much of the past half-century. It was never an enlightened or particularly appetising construction, and at this point it’s thankfully passé.
The second plate represented where we are now, infused with all the ideals of the farm-to-table movement. The steak was grass-fed, the carrots were now a local heirloom variety grown in organic soil. Inasmuch as it reflected all of the progress American food has experienced in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate was that it looked nearly identical to the first.”
He then went on to give many examples about how the second plate diet, while seeing improvements in terms of animal quality of life and organic produce, did little to ensure sustainable eating. After reading essay after essay, it became clear to me that not only was our farming and dining culture completely unsustainable, but would culminate in a complete exhaustion of our planet’s soil and human sustenance in the (very) near future.
I’m not sure why, but in that moment, something clicked. The word stewardship came to mind and more specifically, how poorly we’ve taken care of our land for so many years. The problems of climate change, world hunger, mechanised meat production and animal cruelty were all interlinked and tied together by these two things – farming and dining. It’s a supply and demand thing. In the seminal work, The Unsettling of America, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry encapsulated this farm-food relationship in a single sentence: Eating is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.
But more on that later. I’m late for an appointment at Apartment Coffee, a beautiful corner space in the Lavender area. Its high ceilings, full-length windows and white walls remind me of Scandinavian art galleries. While waiting for my friend Sam, I order an iced pour over made from beans of Ethiopian origin. I don’t know much about coffee but I do know that Apartment is one of the few places I drink black coffee and actually like it.
Sam arrives and we discuss a freelance writing piece that we’re doing together – a website for a local restaurant. Sam is a graphic designer and we get along very well because he likes creating beautiful things and yet understands how words elevate those objects of art. He also knows a lot about coffee and half of his commentary on his cuppa flies past me. Before we know it, the afternoon is over. It’s been a super productive day despite me being sick and I’m pretty happy with the work I did.
On the way home, I get takeaway mala hot pot, or 麻辣香锅, for dinner from a foodcourt near my home. Mala is a Sichuan dish that has origins in Central China cuisine. Basically, you choose a bunch of ingredients that the chef slices up, parboils and then fries in chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns and a mix of other spices. The dish is usually topped off with roasted peanuts and sprigs of freshly cut cilantro to cut through all that fat. Today, I pick lotus root, potato, mung bean sprouts, broccoli, a brick of Maggi noodles and a bit of pork belly. It’s extremely fragrant and burn-off-your-face spicy, just how I like it. I eat the entire dish in twenty minutes but feel the tingly sensation of the peppercorns burn my tongue for hours after.
For dessert, I try but fail to avoid the frozen Milk Bar corn cookie that’s been sitting in my fridge. My friends recently made a trip to USA and were kind enough to accede to my ridiculous request of bringing six cookies back. Their signature corn cookie, warmed up in the oven, is delicious if a bit over-sweet. It’s the last of the lot and I’m already thinking of when’s the next time I can have one again.
Saturday, 8 June
At 930am, I make my way to Knots Cafe & Living for a church-related meeting and end up staying most of the day, long after my companions Nick and Aunty Yu Ming are gone. The two-storey space actually functions as a florist and homeware store as well as a cafe, and is a great place to work because of all the natural light and green plants. You feel like you’re in an actual greenhouse.
Lunch is a sweet-savoury salad – strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, and spinach leaves, which would have been amazing with very good olive oil or a balsamic vinaigrette. Instead, it’s served with a creamy, sticky dressing of miso paste-like consistency. It tastes like something went bad and it also makes the greens stick to each other in a very unappealing way. I’m extremely disappointed – strike two. It is so hard to find a decent salad in Singapore. It probably has to do with the lack of fresh produce – yesterday, I found out that 93% of our leafy vegetables are imported from elsewhere.
I nip at Aunty Yu Ming’s truffle fries to console myself. It’s the fifth time in three days that I have to explain my new diet and the rationale behind it. It helps that I’ve prepared myself for a lot of skepticism and bewildered laughter because that’s been what I’m getting most of the time, along with comments like I give you three months, tops and climate change isn’t real and God created animals for us to eat. I remind myself that I once used to take similar jabs at my vegetarian or vegan friends and silently chastise myself. So, I explain the third plate diet, completing the triptych of images.
“Finally, the third plate kept with the steak-dinner analogy – only this time, the proportions were reversed. In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef. The point wasn’t to suggest that we’ll be reduced to eating meat only in sauces, or that vegetable steaks are the future of food. It was to predict that the future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift… I was looking forward to a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and – like all great cuisines – begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.”
Together with his team of chefs, horticulturists, and breeders, Barber has dedicated the better part of the last two decades to create a balanced farming and dining ecosystem on 80 acres of owned land, 30 miles from New York City. This is represented through an interesting trinity: Blue Hill Farm (plant and animal farm), Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture (scientific laboratory and educational centre), and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (restaurant).
Famous freshly harvested vegetable course at Barber’s restaurants.
The binding principle that held all three entities together was this: that Barber and his team would create their restaurant menu based on what the land could offer in its own time and season, with as little human manipulation to the ecosystem as possible. One did not farm more chickens because the demand for eggs were high, or raise corn-fed cattle to feed America’s protein-rich diet. With no breeding of animals for the sake of conventional meat demand, the sustainable 90% plant-based menu was formulated, its balance dictated not by man but by nature. The Third Plate.
I went on to share about how my turning point while reading the book was not hard data, but a recorded conversation between a Mennonite bishop and a farmer. The bishop asks the farmer: When do you start raising a child? Not at conception or birth, as one would suppose. According to the bishop, child rearing begins one hundred years before a child is born. Because that’s when you start building the environment they’re going to live in.
There was no writing on the wall nor did the heavens open up when I read this, but I remember that the statement hit me particularly hard because it spoke of a failure within a generation and between generations, a failure to steward this beautiful earth for the next generation. This short-sightedness is essentially a lack of stewardship, something I carry close to my heart. And I think stewardship is something to be viewed in totality – not just with regard to finances or time, but spanning our children and the generations that proceed us.
In the earlier mentioned book Eating Animals, Foer says that he only started to think seriously about the food he was eating and where it came from when him and his wife were expecting their first child. I think he’s on to something: legacy. One’s lasting imprint on the earth.
It’s about 2pm. Nick and Aunty Yu Ming head off and I stay behind to finish up some slides for a music camp we’re running together. For a midday snack, I drink a ginger beer and eat half a bag of sour gummy worms that I’ve kept in my bag. Did I mention I have a sweet tooth?
Before I know it, the afternoon has passed and it’s time for dinner. At this point I’m so exhausted from looking at my screen for hours that I can’t think of nutritious food to eat for dinner. So I grab a 20-piece box of spicy mcnuggets from Mcdonalds – the worst kind of meat – that I shame eat with a large coke and fries while getting lost in the YouTube blackhole. Dessert is more gummy worms, a small milk chocolate bar, and Häagen-Dazs cookies & cream ice cream eaten straight out of the pint carton.
Before I fall asleep, I imagine a frowning Dan Barber in front of me and feel extremely guilty. I make a promise to eat more salad and less sugar tomorrow. No meat.
Sunday, 9 June
Sunday means church, but it also means coffee shop breakfast. Without the traditional Singaporean breakfast of coffee or tea, half-boiled eggs and thick slabs of white toast slathered in kaya (coconut jam made from coconut milk, eggs and sugar), Sunday mornings would feel incomplete. I get the whole lot from the coffee shop near my block. The entire meal costs less than four dollars and is delicious.
That day we have a guest speaker from Cambodia but I can hardly concentrate on what he’s saying. I keep thinking of the verses from the book of Genesis I read last night in John Mark Comer’s Garden City.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Genesis 1: 26 – 27
I read the book a few months ago but somehow with all this talk about ethical agriculture and a self-sustaining ecosystem and what not, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reality of the Garden of Eden. What’s even more interesting to me is Comer’s thoughts about the second coming of Christ – he writes about God one day restoring the world to the edenic state it was always meant to be. What would it be like to live in a Garden City?
After service, my friend Jordan and I grab lunch at Mother Dough, an incredibly popular halal bakery located along North Bridge Road, just across the magnificent Sultan Mosque. Standing outside the bakery, you can see the golden dome and gilded facades of the mosque. Muslim men and women stream in and out all day for prayers. We enter and are incredibly happy to find seats, a rare feat on a Sunday afternoon. Ramadan is over, but many Muslims are still doing their visiting on the weekend after, which explains the empty bakery.
We order too many things: their signature sourdough baguette, a ginger poached pear danish, banana and walnut bread, a summer berries brioche and three iced lattes because it’s hot outside and we are parched. For a while, I’m not in total agony about having a meat-free day. I love every single thing on our table but my favourite has got to be – not surprisingly – the baguette. It has a well-balanced tang and goes well with the salted French butter and citrusy olive oil (yes, both).
We chat a bit longer, luxuriating in a weekend afternoon without agenda until the sleepiness hits. Sunday naps are another ritual. We say goodbye and grab a couple of cabs home. By mid afternoon I’m snoozing in my bed, only to be woken up by my mom at a couple hours later. Our extended family on my dad’s side is coming over for dinner and she needs help in the kitchen.
At 7pm, everyone has arrived and dinner is served: sausage casserole with roasted pumpkin and garlic, mac and cheese, green salad with eggs and pistachios. It’s not perfect – the mac and cheese is pretty dry – but I reckon a home-cooked meal tastes better than nearly anything you can get outside. I eat mostly salad although the pork sausages are tempting.
Dessert is macadamia nut ice cream and sliced peaches, perfume and sweet, that my aunt brought back from Japan. We watch an action movie which everyone enjoys. It’s close to 11pm by the time everyone has left and every dish is washed and stashed away.
I read a little of Carol Ann Duffy’s Sincerity poetry collection before going to bed. The poems are very political, which I like. For post-post-dinner dessert, I have two store-bought chocolate and peanut butter cookies. Delicious.
Monday, 10 June
This is rare thing now, but I’m up early at 730am and at Park Bench Deli by 9am with a breakfast sandwich and a flat white. I’m meeting someone to quote for a freelance writing job and thankfully, the meeting is over by 930am. I enjoy the sandwich (scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelised onions, sriracha mayo), catch up on texts, and people watch. The Telok Ayer area is always busy all the day long because it’s right smack in the middle of the CBD (Central Business District). I get a tomato soup because the sandwich hasn’t quite filled me up, and start working on other projects.
Close to noon time, the deli starts filling up, so I head over to Dumpling Darlings to queue. I found out about this little spot through my ex-colleague Gloria, who told me that it was branded by Foreign Policy Design Group, a creative agency we both admired. I went to check out the design and stayed for the amazing food. They serve the best gyoza-style dumplings in Singapore. It’s a super popular lunch spot and even though I’ve arrived before 12pm, I have to wait 20 minutes before I’m seated at the bar. It’s an extremely narrow restaurant space, and noisy too.
My friends Claire and Oscar arrive shortly. They both work nearby so we’ve been meeting here quite often for a quick lunch. We order the egg noodles – miso mushroom for me, braised pork for them – and a whole bunch of dumplings to share. My favourite is the fried pierogi, which has smoked bacon, truffle potato, caramelised onion, cheddar, all sitting on a schmear of sriracha crema. Unfortunately, their veggie dumpling is the only disappointing thing on the menu, probably because the tofu-spinach-mushroom combination makes for a very watery dumpling. Otherwise, they do great pork and smoked duck dumplings too that I choose not to eat today.
Claire has to go but Oscar still has 20 minutes of his lunch hour left, so we take a short walk to Plain Vanilla, a bakery that’s famous for their cupcakes. My favourites are the earl grey lavender and the cinnamon brown sugar. Though I’ve been eating non-stop since morning, I can’t resist getting a matcha latte and a mixed berry galette. Oscar, who has a sweet tooth like me, gets two cupcakes and an iced black. We sit outside the cafe, perspiring and feeling the onset of an afternoon food coma.
Once again, the conversation finds its way to my newly-acquired diet. Oscar is surprised and also very devastated – we used to go for Korean BBQ buffets together all the time and he would watch me with amazement as I inhaled slab after slab of marinated pork belly without pausing – but because he seems genuinely curious, I don’t mind talking about it. Since we’ve both read Comer’s Garden City, I talk about the verses that I’ve found so compelling and about how I’ve been struggling to relate them to this spiritual conviction about stewardship.
Oscar, who studied theology for over year and is especially interested in genesis and eschatology tells me that the word dominion has its roots in a Latin word dominus, which translates more accurately to “lordship”. We talk about how it’s interesting that God, Lord of both Adam the first man and humanity at large, would entrust the earth and all the fish and birds and livestock that dwell in it into our hands, installing it under our “lordship”. Lordship over our house; our greenhouse.
It’s past one. I would have loved to talk to Oscar all day but he has to leave. Instead of going home, I sit at the cafe a little while longer and think deeply about the last few days and all the conversations I’ve had. I think about the verses in Genesis and also the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew, a sobering passage about the kingdom of heaven and how good stewardship pleases the Lord.
Let them have dominion.
If we have the same frame of reference, that is, to please God, how is it okay that we are continuing to eat like this, to lay waste to the earth that is under our dominion? As God has exercised a just lordship over those under His care, are we not to do the same? We are, after all, made in His image.
Earlier on during lunch, my friend Claire – who isn’t a Christian – made a passing comment about how only God could convict me over something like this. She does so with an eye roll but she’s completely right. I love the taste of bacon or a well-made steak far too much to ever be swayed by anything else.
There are so many things that are screaming for attention in an information-saturated world. In our lifetime, I think that we only get to be advocates about a certain number of things before we run out of energy. Hopefully, our generation will be passionate about the right thing in ours.