Frances Wilks delves into the ever expanding market of “organic” and “natural” food and discovers some of the best ways to shop organically in Penang.
I can remember, back in the 80s, looking at the organic section of one of the major supermarkets in London. Some hideously misshapen carrots, a few nameless, shabby greens, and some strange-looking potatoes (which looked as if they had definitely been conceived off-planet) were all that was available, and at four times the price of the regular offerings, they were not really tempting. But things have moved on. Organic produce is now more mainstream, of a higher quality, and fast becoming popular. Unfortunately, this has led to the term “organic” being so fashionable that it is used for just about everything, especially in countries where legislation on labelling isn’t strict.
According to Georges Darche, a Canadian Agricultural Consultant on an extended holiday in Penang, there are two essential points to understand in the quest for genuine organic food. “The best way of making sure that the produce you purchase is truly organic is to know your supplier,” he says, “and the other is to read the labels on food carefully. If your grandmother couldn’t have pronounced or understood the ingredients, then try not to eat it.”
Most of us can’t go that far because we live busy lifestyles and depend on convenience food at least some of the time, but the better the quality of the food that we eat, the more chance we have of becoming – or staying – healthy. Chemical pesticides and fertilisers may make it easy to grow crops, but they leave residues behind which must be processed by the person who eats the food. This places the eater’s digestive system under stress, and it is the liver in particular that has to deal with these toxins. There are also indications that food additives such as E numbers, colourings and flavourings that can be seen listed on food labels also stress the body and may be part of the cause of chronic and serious diseases. The effect is most likely cumulative, so it’s never too late to choose to eat more naturally and organically.
In order to follow Georges Darche’s advice about getting to know your supplier, I visited the Comfort Farm in Balik Pulau. The owner, Lui Teik Hock, started the farm because he passionately believes in the value of the organic lifestyle for improved health and a sense of well-being. On a few hectares he has created a wonderful, thriving organic farm and he would like to extend his current range of over twenty crops (including fruit, vegetables, and fish) if he could get the right labour to help with work.
“Organic farming is more labour intensive than ordinary methods of farming because you can’t spray the weeds with a chemical. You have to remove them by hand, which takes time and manpower,” he explains. This problem is partly overcomes by planting two crops together to balance the environment, and he also imports IOM (indigenous micro organisms) from overseas to nourish the soil naturally. His produce is sold in Jusco supermarkets, both on Penang island and on the mainland, under the “Comfort Organic” label.
If you can’t visit a supplier personally, then you can rely on the IE Organic Shop in Pulau Tikus, as the staff go to see all their suppliers personally. Sam, who manages the shop, is passionate about the way the food he sells is grown. “I look with my own eyes and see if people really care,” he says. Sam’s shop sells a range of vegetables and chicken as well as rice, flour, wheat, and other dry goods, all organically produced. A part of the shop is devoted to lifestyle, so cosmetics, organic cotton clothing, and cleaning materials are also on display. For a taste of organic food without having to cook, pop into their café next door to the shop. Food served in the café is prepared slowly over a low fire because intensive heat and microwave ovens destroy essential nutrients (especially vitamins B and C). Not everything on the menu is totally organic, but everything is clearly labelled.
Another organic shop well worth a visit is the newly opened Cilantro Farmers Market in Tanjong Bunga, where a variety of organically produced vegetables and meat can be purchased. The salads, including frisee lettuces and mini coriander are especially delicious, and they have the best range of mushrooms (from both Asian and European producers) that I’ve ever seen. Cilantro also sells items which are hard to find in Penang, such as parsnips flown in from Holland (although they could be grown in the Cameron Highlands).
Organic and natural foods can be found in ordinary supermarkets, and not just in “organic” sections. Read the labels carefully, and look beyond the words like “natural” that many manufacturers use misleadingly to attract customers. Scan the ingredients list with a gimlet eye; the shorter and simpler the list, the better.
One word that you might not be on the look-out for is “wild”, as in, “St Dalfour’s Wild Blueberry Jam”. If an ingredient is “wild”, it means that human beings haven’t cultivated the plant so it is organic: as nature intended. Another tip from Georges Darche is to check out organic baby food. Adults can eat it too, and it is a good idea to keep a pot or two in the cupboard as a healthy snack if hunger suddenly strikes.
While it does take more effort to eat naturally and choose food without preservatives, additives, and chemical fertilisers, many people find it is worth it in terms of health, and eating naturally leaves behind a greater feeling of wellness.
Comfort Farm, Balik Pulau
Produce sold through Jusco supermarkets. Visitors to the farm by appointment only. Groups are encouraged to contact Lui, who is happy to explain the importance of organic farming.
Cilantro Farmers Market, Tanjung Bungah
Located near the IWA Office, IWA members get a 10 % discount.
IE Organic Food Centre and Café, Pulau Tikus
Located at 11A Jalan Pasar (near the Pulau Tikus wet market), IWA members get a 10% discount.
This article was written by Frances Wilks for Penang International.
Source: Penang International August-September 2012
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