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SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - In the heart of heavily urbanized Singapore, amid the high-rise towers and traffic, banana trees are blooming, chillis and bell peppers are ripening and parsley, basil and coriander are turning hotels green.
In a country which imports almost all its food and half its water, organic, home-grown produce is a real luxury, but one that's become more accessible thanks to a few high-end city hotels that have embraced gardening with a passion.
"Growing their own herbs allows chefs an opportunity to personalize every meal, from the initial planting of the seeds to the last garnish on the plate," said Walter Santos Navarro, marketing and communications manager at the Fairmont Singapore, which has since 2008 cultivated a small garden on its rooftop.
"Our facility produces the freshest herbs and staple ingredients for many of our restaurants, including lemons, curry leaves, bell peppers, lemongrass and mint."
Using more locally sourced, organic produce isn't really a new trend, and it's one gaining significance because of the environmental benefits of lower greenhouse emissions, particularly as nations wrangle over a new pact to fight climate change in Copenhagen.
But for Singapore, it's quite a challenge.
Singapore, a cosmopolitan Southeast Asian economic powerhouse that is home to almost 5 million people, is self-sufficient in eggs, but imports almost everything else, ranging from fresh and processed foods such as vegetables, fruits, meats and cheese.
Food is imported from as far afield as the United States and Brazil and even the Middle East, as well as from neighbors including Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia, which makes produce -- especially premium organic -- relatively expensive.
There are a handful of restaurants that grow their own food here, but they are in the few bits of countryside that tiny Singapore can boast of, far away from the city center.
The Fairmont, however, is located in the central business district, while the Four Seasons, which also started to cultivate a garden this summer, is on a patch of prime real estate just off the main shopping strip, Orchard Road.
"Just a few ingredients are all it takes to enhance a dish," said Stefano Andreoli, chef at the Four Seasons.
Andreoli plans his weekly specials around the produce he is able to harvest. His favorites include the garden-grown pandan leaves and ginger, which are used to flavor a signature chicken dish, and the chillies that go into the XO sauce.
The garden here is fertilized with organic compost waste from the kitchens while at the Fairmont, thousands of worms that live in the soil provide the nourishment for the herbs.
At the Hangout Hotel, nestled in a leafy hill not far from Orchard Road, chef Willin Low also grows herbs, vegetables and fruit to use at his restaurant.
Low's nearby bar, Wild Oats, also has a garden, and the homegrown produce makes all the difference, he said.
"The herbs in our garden have so much more flavor. It's highly unusual to grow your own food here in Singapore, so we're proud of what we're doing," he said.
Singapore prides itself on the diversity of cuisines available and is positioning itself as a regional gourmet hub.
The government also supports homegrown green initiatives, with the National Parks Board encouraging residents to set up rooftop, or community, gardens on the tropical island that had several orchards and plantations as recently as 40 years ago.
For Low, a Singaporean, having a garden a stone's throw from Orchard Road is especially rewarding.
"It's ironic that Orchard Road was once really orchards, not malls, and I am glad to be part of a sort of revival," he said. "So many people who come to the restaurant ask about the garden. I hope it encourages them to go back in time."
Editing by Jerry Norton