“Ultimately cooking is about pleasing rather than impressing”

Updated: Nov 3

Singaporean chef and author Pamelia Chia realises something new about food – particularly Singaporean food – every day. She’s eager to share that knowledge with us on her platforms, at events such as the 2021 Singapore Writers Festival, and here.

Last year it was “intimacy”. This year it’s “guilty pleasures”.

I’m talking about the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), which features the latter as its 2021 theme. 👍 Now on its 24th edition, the event will be held from 05 to 14 November.

Guilty pleasures. Hmmm… If I relate it to 2020 and 2021, I honestly don’t even know what to think, and where to begin.

But that’s okay, because I have Pamelia Chia to articulate her thoughts about it instead. 😊 Based in Australia, the Singaporean chef and author of Wet Market to Table – and founder of Singapore Noodles, “your go-to resource to learn about Singaporean food” – will be a presenter at the programmes “Wet Market to Table” on 06 November and “Food Privilege” on 14 November.

Pamelia Chia
Pamelia at work (Photo by Gold and Grit Photography)

So what comes to mind when Pamelia hears the term “guilty pleasures”?

“Conformity – things that you secretly enjoy but don’t want people to know, because you’d be perceived as ‘uncool’, ‘unhip’ or not like everyone else,” she muses.

“In my teens and early 20s, I had a lot of guilty pleasures owing to my own insecurities and desire to fit in and belong. But the precious thing about ageing is that you learn to be so much more comfortable in your skin, and more assured in your own identity.

“Over the years, I have come to embrace my own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, and am way more authentic in the expression of my own preferences.”

She’s also found it rather amusing to reveal them. Her guilty pleasures include “old-school R&B and soul music, for sure – Boyz II Men, Usher, Al Green. When I put my favourite tracks on, my friends laugh and say that it’s baby-making music, and my sister asks, ‘Why are your songs so outdated?’

“Also classic Mandarin pop tunes like your standard Jay Chou and Wang Lee Hom,” she adds. “I studied at Anglo Chinese School, where everyone wore their poor grasp of the Mandarin language like a badge of pride, and I used to be so embarrassed whenever a classmate would catch me listening to Jay Chou while working on a lab report.

“It is still very uncool to be listening to these decade-old songs that I grew up with now, but I still do!”

When it comes to food, though…

It gets real and personal. “Food, like everything else, is a social marker,” Pamelia observes.

“When I first started being serious about cooking and working as a chef, heritage food or cooking wasn’t an ‘in’ thing. All I wanted to cook (and post on social media, hahaha) was food from the West. But at a certain point, I started to realise that I had to be honest with myself and my own flavour preferences.

“I remember the first thing I ever cooked for my popo (maternal grandma) was a Jamie Oliver dish of griddled asparagus with bacon and poached eggs,” she recalls. “The photo in the book made it look so good, and when I cooked it for her and she ate it, I could tell what she was thinking: ‘That’s it?’

“Compared to the feisty curries and complex braises we are used to in Singapore, that plate of food felt so plain and ordinary. I thought to myself that I really had to be more honest with myself and cook food that I myself love eating, in order to be a better cook – because ultimately cooking is about pleasing rather than impressing. That realisation is what kickstarted my love affair with food from Asia.”

“I thought to myself that I really had to be more honest with myself and cook food that I myself love eating, in order to be a better cook – because ultimately cooking is about pleasing rather than impressing.”

What’s more, “Working on Wet Market to Table and Singapore Noodles has shown me that the ‘packaging’ (literal or figurative) of ideas is really important,” Pamelia states.

“In order to encourage young people to go to the markets more or to cook more local food, you have to angle these things in a way that is fresh and exciting for them, so that it is no longer a ‘guilty pleasure’ for Singaporeans to like cooking our food or to go to the markets, which can seem like a very ahma or old-person thing to do.”

About food privilege

It’ll be interesting to hear what Pamelia has to say during the SWF programme, “Food Privilege”. What have been some of her experiences like, and some of her memorable encounters, with instances of food privilege?

“I guess right now I have a lot of food privilege because I am living in Australia, where I get access to incredible produce, sometimes direct from the farmers themselves,” she admits.

“In Singapore, a lot of our fruits – our peaches, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, etc – are imported from overseas, so they are most likely picked early so that they are less delicate and can withstand the transport. When I moved to Australia, I tasted the best blueberries, pumpkin, cabbage, tomatoes and peaches I’ve ever had in my life, and they made a vegetable/fruit convert out of me. But also when it comes to meat, there are so many great options here.

“Provenance of food is a big thing in Australia – from seafood down to pantry items like honey and olive oil – and that’s a concept that Singapore lacks a little,” she continues.

“I remember once being at the wet market and a Caucasian lady was trying to ask a vegetable vendor whether the vegetables were organic or sprayed with pesticides, and the vendor auntie was really confused. We just don’t really have that kind of connection to the land in Singapore because everything is imported.

“My friends sometimes say that I’m really lucky to have access to all this great produce – and they are right! However, I do also see a flipside to it,” Pamelia says.

“Being abroad has also made me keenly aware of the wonderful regional Southeast Asian produce or seafood that I’m missing out on, such as stingray, laksa leaves, Thai basil or calamansi. It’s just that people don’t really think these are as precious as things from the West. They don’t see that getting access to wet market produce is really a kind of privilege in itself.”

Pamelia shares more:

What are some of the things you’ve found most people get right – and not-so-right – about food privilege?

“I think food privilege is not just about the ability to procure great produce, it is also about energy and time. My friends who have recently gotten married only cook once a week and takeout the rest of the time, because they either lack the energy or time to prepare meals for themselves. I am lucky because, as I no longer work as a chef, working from home gives me so much more time and flexibility to prepare healthy, wholesome dinners from scratch for myself and my husband.”

What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt?

“Something I’ve also learnt is that eating the vast amounts of meat and seafood that we enjoy in Singapore is a huge privilege. In his book The Third Plate, Dan Barber writes about how traditionally meat was enjoyed as a luxury, and non-prized parts of meat were enjoyed. But now, with affluence, the ratio of meat to the other components on our plates have shifted.

“When I was living in Singapore, there would be meat or seafood not just in every meal but in almost every dish in some form. And it wasn’t something that I felt was really wrong because it is such normalised behaviour. Meat is so intertwined with concepts such as pleasure, generosity, happiness, abundance and community in Singapore that it is really difficult to reduce it, especially when it comes to convincing older folks who have experienced hardship in life, and now meat symbolises how they have arrived!

“Social media posts of people enjoying extremely marbled slabs of beef, or thick bone-in tomahawks, continually signal status and privilege – and maybe that is the intended effect of people posting about such meals. Learning about sustainability and the impact that the food we eat can have on the environment, I became more mindful of how much meat I was consuming. Now, my husband and I only eat meat or seafood several meals a week, and don’t feel like we are compromising on anything.

“Changing our diets also has made me aware of just how unhealthy most hawker dishes are, in that they are heavily skewed towards carbohydrates and are extremely scant on the vegetables. This was probably because Singaporean hawker food culture evolved out of having to provide labourers with cheap and filling meals that could sustain them for a long period of time.

“For example, a plate of chicken rice is mainly just rice and chicken, with a sprig of coriander and several slices of cucumber. They also tend to be high in fat/oil. When I lived in Singapore, I was lucky to have home-cooked food that was nutritious and balanced, as much as I loved eating at a hawker centre. But that is really a case of food privilege. For those in Singapore who can only afford hawker food, they have little control over how ‘healthy’ or ‘balanced’ their diets are.”

What do you hope people think about and take away from this issue, and the issue of food privilege?

“I think ultimately, food privilege means different things to different people. To have any form of power to choose what you eat is a privilege. That said, I feel that many of us can eat healthily and tastily on a small budget (if privilege is equated to the amount of money one has). If COVID has taught us anything, it is that the things one can do with something as pedestrian and economical as a can of beans, a carton of eggs, or a bag of flour are endless!”

About wet markets and wet market ingredients

It’s been two years since Pamelia’s book, Wet Market to Table, was published. Has her perspective on wet markets changed since then? Hopefully we’ll discover how and why (and more) at the SWF programme, “From Wet Market to Table”. In the meantime...

“I never used to enjoy going to the markets, to be honest. It was the writing of the book that helped me fall in love with them,” she confesses.

“You see, markets are not exactly the kind of places where introverts thrive. You have to have a thick skin, learn how to banter with the uncles and aunties, and make sure you are not taken advantage of by the vendors.” But Pamelia soon got the hang of it; you can as well.

So what are some of the things she usually expects, and still loves to look out for, at a good wet market?

“The ingredients should look fresh and inviting, almost begging to be cooked with! It should also have a good array of regional produce,” Pamelia stresses.

“Lots of wet market stalls these days are starting to sell things like cherry tomatoes on vine or endives, but I feel that it is real shame if these Western ingredients were to start replacing our unique Asian vegetables and fruits.

“I guess I still view wet market ingredients the same way – I see them as just as worthy of our attention as any other ingredient from the West.”

Singaporean food, too

We finally come to an intriguing question, and it’s probably one that Pamelia encounters often. What exactly is Singaporean food? 🙂

Not to worry. Pamelia and Singapore Noodles could give you the information, answers and recipes you seek.

“I feel that what we define as Singaporean food should go beyond the best hits such as chicken rice or laksa,” she says.

“Singaporean food includes food at home, food at zichar, food at the mamak stall, food at the kopitiam, etc. It should go beyond the heavy focus on Chinese food, and shine a greater spotlight on food from other ethnic groups in Singapore.”

As a teaser for SWF and her talks (and a nice ending to this post), let’s ask Pamelia for her suggestions on what Singaporean dish to eat next – as well as which recipe and cooking technique to use next. (They might end up in your list of guilty pleasures.) 😉 Try them before or after you attend SWF.

What’s the…

• Most recent “old” recipe you’re amazed to have come across, and you know will definitely be a keeper?

“Hakka radish meatballs. When I first heard of the dish, I didn’t think much of it – I assumed they were plain ol’ meatballs that had daikon mixed into a raw pork mixture and steamed. But the more I read about them, the more fascinated I was. The pork is cooked, not raw. So what binds the mixture together is starch. There is also an addition of lightly browned, crispy noodles that add great texture and flavour. My mind was blown when I tasted it for the first time – it had a QQ, glutinous texture, and was so full-flavoured.” ⬇️

• Recipe that you’d love to remake?

“I would love to cook Eurasian smores again. It is something I’d never eaten before prior to starting Singapore Noodles and it is absolutely delicious.”

• Food problem or issue that you wish people would get united to solve right now?

“The fact that cooking has become so unpopular or foreign amongst young Singaporeans.”

• “Inauthentic” Singaporean meal – or what’s supposed to be a Singaporean dish that you had overseas, but actually is not or cannot be found in Singapore – that you liked?

“Nothing comes to mind except Singapore noodles, which I actually can’t bring myself to try because it just sounds so unappetising – stir-fried turmeric noodles with a random mix of ingredients like prawns and charsiu.”

• Local food, prep, or cooking technique that you think is quite genius?

“Velveting. It is the technique where you coat meat in a cornstarch slurry and oil-poach it gently. The cornstarch slurry forms a coating over the meat and protects it from overcooking, and gives it a really lovely, silky texture.”

• Singaporean dish you’ve had the most this past month? This past year?

“ABC Soup. It uses ingredients that you can find anywhere in the world.” ⬇️

• Singaporean comfort food you end up having when you’re going through something?

“Steamed ginger chicken. I gravitate towards clean-tasting, simple food when I feel under the weather. I particularly enjoy this dish that requires a handful of ingredients.”

• Event and/or author at SWF that you’re excited to meet, learn from or listen to?

“Tan France! I watched him on Queer Eye and I love his personality and accent.”

Find Pamelia on Instagram; also check out Singapore Noodles on Instagram and YouTube.

For more information on the Singapore Writers Festival, go to their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.