Going NATIVE: talking cocktails, concrete jungles and composting at Singapore’s top zero-waste food bar

Hidden up a discreet stairway off the bustle of Amoy Street, the four-year old NATIVE sits three years running on the World’s Fifty Best Bars list. It’s built its name on a vision of zero-waste sustainability and an eclectic menu of cocktails sourced from local distilleries and mixed with local ingredients. 

Mine is the ‘Concrete Jungle’, a smooth and spicy blend of nutmeg leaves, ginger, and filtered ‘local mead water’, gathered from a local city spring. A garnish of lightly fried, pollen-dusted, wild pepper leaf topped with Temulawak – a Javanese ginger powder –  sits atop a single ice cube bobbing lazily like a moored rowboat. 

For a bar that first found fame on the back of their insect-inspired ‘Antz’ cocktail, NATIVE’s current menu is more mellow. Many flavours are familiar faces from well-loved regional dishes. There is the tropical pandan plant, zingy laksa leaves, sweet and smoky Gula Melaka palm sugar. All this is part of founder Vijay Mudaliar’s aim to replicate “the recipes I grew up with from my parents, and my grandparents”. 

A zero-waste mission

Yet it is also part of a wider mission. NATIVE prides itself on being one of the nation’s only ‘zero food waste’ bars. Egg whites unused in the oyster omelette are used to froth the hibiscus sours. Water left over from the sous-vide, where they slow-boil the succulent pineapple skins used in the Pineapple Arrack, washes everything, from the floors to the toilets. A compost system treats food waste and the lotus leaf coasters, turning the debris into fertilizer at NATIVE’s urban farm in hipster art district, Gilman Barracks.

Shunning more typical citruses, the mixologists use calamansi, the plump zesty mini-lime of the Philippines. This is more than just a burst of regional zing. The larger lemon – at half a rind per sour – would rack up more than twice the waste than their petite counterparts.

NATIVE’s crew are equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of its ingredients, and an infectious passion for nature. Joining me for a chat, J. one of the senior bar-tenders tells me about the camaraderie amongst his colleagues, a culture where “everyone is happy to get their hands dirty: often literally!”. They forage for ingredients in the concrete jungles, and real jungles further afield in the Southeast Asian region. 

The magic then happens in the ‘Lab’ on the bar’s second floor, where foraged finds are turned into cocktail components, sometimes at the speed of 4000/5000 reps of force in the stocky centrifuge sitting  behind the bar. Miso mead, pandan pepper and calamansi husk all sit in labelled jars, like an alchemists’ elements. 

Homegrown flavours at home

The pandemic sent shockwaves through the F&B industry, as restrictions put a stop to gatherings: both social, and of ingredients. Yet, as bars closed, NATIVE found innovative ways to bring their local flavours home.  Their home shop offers an easy way for cocktail cravers  to “stay home, stay safe, and enjoy the drinks!”, including their best seller ‘Foragers Garden’, a plump bottle of rich, regal purple containing Matcha Gin, calamansi, and vibrant blue pea flowers, all inspired and sourced from surrounding farms and gardens. 

Bringing local flavours worldwide

Home-grown comforts are a multi-sensory experience. NATIVE’s décor is locally sourced:  from the sunbaked bricks, to the handmade candles by Singaporean atelier Sally’s Room, drinks are served in ceramics by neighbourhood crafts line Ummuramics, against a soundtrack by regional musicians. You enter, and leave, past a vibrant mural by Singaporean artist Rajesh Kumar.

The ship-shaped setting also gives a nod to Singapore’s maritime origins. Ribbed banquettes, the copper bar curved like waves, wallpaper patterned with fluffy gusts of wind: all reflect a past shaped by the diverse cultures of seafaring settlers and explorers.

And, perhaps, a forward-facing future. As Mudaliar gains renown on the international bar scene, J. tells me stories of “people going crazy for pandan” in the US, and once travel restarts, dreams of “bringing local flavours of Asia, to the rest of the world”. It may have sprung from native roots, but this small hideaway gem is out to conquer the world, one sustainable sip at a time.

Amanda Oon

Amanda Oon is a freelance journalist, content producer and communications professional, based in Singapore. She has written numerous articles on Southeast Asian business and culture, with a specialist focus on technology, sustainability and ESG.

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