5 Minutes With… Pamelia Chia, Food Scientist-Turned-Cookbook Author
Growing up in a family “where adventurous eating was encouraged and cooking was taken very seriously”, it is no wonder that Pamelia Chia has fond memories of the wet market. “I used to live on Marymount Road, and the Lakeview Market was in front of our house. I visited the hawker centre regularly with my grandparents for breakfast, and we would often bump into my kindergarten school teacher. It felt like a tight-knit community space where everyone gathered together,” enthuses Chia.
It was the same story over at the adjacent wet market, where Chia would go grocery shopping with her mother. There, the roast seller would remember Chia’s favourite slab of char siew, and the fishmonger, her favourite assam fish dish. While wet markets are a microcosm of Singapore’s multicultural society, they are increasingly losing their place to supermarkets and online grocers. “What clearly distinguishes a wet market from a supermarket is the fact that it almost forces human interactions upon you. With no labels, no price tags, no self-checkout machines, one has to talk to the vendors and person shopping beside you. Relationships are fostered and there’s a spirit of generosity in the sharing of tips and [stories] of one’s life,” says Chia.
Keeping this spirit of wet markets alive formed the impetus for the food science and technology graduate, who later worked in the kitchens of homegrown restaurants such as Michelin-starred Candlenut, to write her first cookbook, Wet Market to Table. The book features over 80 recipes using uncommonly used vegetables, fruits and herbs found in Singapore’s wet markets, peppered with anecdotes from market vendors.
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What sparked your interest in food?
Pamelia Chia My father’s family is very westernised. On special occasions, his sister would take us to [savour delicacies] such as foie gras and terrine. My mother’s family is traditional Chinese. Soups are always on the table, and every ingredient is respected. We relished underappreciated parts of the hog such as the ears, stomach and tails. This upbringing impacted me as a cook and made me realise that cooking is about using the best ingredients and treating them simply, with reverence.
What is an uncommon ingredient you can use in Asian cooking?
PM One such ingredient is celtuce. Western chefs describe it as nutty or asparagus-like, but to me, it’s pandan. When chilled, it becomes crunchy and refreshing. In the cookbook, I have a recipe for pickled celtuce, to be eaten with kao soi or Thai curry noodles. The crunchiness and acidity of the pickled celtuce help cut through the richness of the curry.
Where are your favourite wet markets?
PM The smaller markets such as Pek Kio, Shunfu and Empress are my favourites. I love buying vegetables from the uncle at Empress market—he has a great selection and is generous with his knowledge.
How can we keep the spirit of wet markets alive?
PM Fishmongers are using WhatsApp to update their regular customers on the latest catches of the day; and Jeffrey Tan of Dishthefish, who is profiled in the book, is vacuum packing his seafood so customers don’t have to worry about the wet mess. There will never be a way to keep the markets as they were because they are a reflection of the times. What I hope we can keep is the ren qing wei or human warmth.
What will you be writing on next?
PM I’m thinking about writing a second cookbook on making vegetables delicious, with recipes that appeal to the Asian palate. In Singapore cuisine, vegetables are always sidelined. Think about our national dishes, such as chicken rice: it’s chicken, chicken‑flavoured rice and three slices of cucumber. To encourage people to eat more vegetables, we need to develop recipes that taste delicious.
Wet Market to Table: A Modern Approach to Fruit and Vegetables is available at epigrambooks.sg
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