A few years ago, chef Pamelia Chia complained to her husband that there wasn't a book that offered a comprehensive look into Singapore's wet markets, one that captured the breadth of produce in their labyrinth of walkways. ‘Why are you waiting for someone to publish such a book?’ he asked. ‘Why don't you write it?’
This challenge struck a chord in Pamelia. ‘My husband, who's an avid gardener of south-east Asian produce, used to pass me certain ingredients – such as roselle leaves [a leaf similar to spinach] – and I'd draw a blank,’ she recalls. Even though she was then a chef at Candlenut, a Peranakan (a term for mixed Chinese and Malay or Indonesian heritage) restaurant in Singapore, she hadn't come across some of these ingredients, which are available only in the island's wet markets.
The wet markets in Singapore, and across Asia, are a central hub of community life, where people go to buy fresh meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices in open-air structures. They're not just a treasure trove of fresh produce, but a home for the unique food culture in Singapore, Pamelia says. They're at the heart of each neighborhood and transcend just being a place for the transaction of goods and groceries.
Following a two-year span of research and writing, her first book, Wet Market to Table, was born. It's a cookbook that demystifies the fascinating and uncommon vegetables, fruits and herbs spotted inside Singapore's wet markets, such as fingerroot (a kind of ginger) and tatsoi (a green similar to bok choy). The book has since become a national bestseller. Yet Pamelia's goal through the process has remained the same: she wants a new generation to take a chance on the wet markets so they don't fade into obscurity. Fewer Singaporeans today choose to shop in them, let alone work in one, so they're at risk of disappearing.
Set up against supermarkets and the rise of gourmet specialty stores, the hot and humid shopping experience of the wet market in Singapore may not possess the same allure to young professionals. ‘In Singapore, we nurse an inferiority complex, where we continually look to the west,’ says Pamelia. ‘Yet there are lots of chefs from the US and Europe who are enamored by ingredients found in our wet markets, such as celtuce [a type of lettuce].’
Local crop moringa has also gained a following overseas – deemed a superfood, it's often sold in capsule or powder form – yet it's an overlooked vegetable by Singaporean home cooks. ‘To excite young adults about venturing into wet markets, I wanted to show how we could be as creative with Asian fruit and vegetables as we are with European produce,’ she says.
Wet Market to Table's release marked the start of Pamelia's role as an advocate for Singapore's culinary heritage. After moving to Australia with her husband, she started Singapore Noodles, an online resource that explores the ins and outs of Singapore's cuisine. Pamelia's vision for
Singapore Noodles took shape from a gap in the market: ‘There was no gold standard resource for Singapore cuisine catered towards millennials, like Bon Appétit for western fare or Cooking with Dog for Japanese food,’ she says. Numerous recipe blogs on local food would take shortcuts to appeal to the mainstream audience. Fine dining restaurants from the country may feature in glossy magazines, but Pamelia believes that the heart of Singaporean cooking lies at home.
What started as an Instagram account to encourage locals to embrace their heritage is now a subscription service that offers in-depth recipes and interactive cookalongs. A free podcast series featuring culinary change-makers complements the paid offering. Pamelia's goal, ultimately, is to ensure that Singapore's food, particularly of the hawker and home-cooked variety, won't be dismissed or forgotten.
‘Judging by the time needed to prepare them, and the culinary ingenuity involved in fashioning these dishes, they're artisanal in every way,’ she says. ‘I hope that people realize that our food involves just as much craft and technique as dishes from the west, because there's much to be proud of.’