There is a Chinese expression called ren qing wei that commonly translates to human warmth. The easiest way to understand it is to see it through the lens of wet markets. Picture the auntie telling you why her fruits are the best and how you can tell by its colour or smell, the uncle boasting that he can measure out one kg of dried shrimp to the gram without eyeing the scale, the butcher remembering your preferred cuts of meat, the vegetable stall owner telling you to pay them back on your next visit since you’re strapped for cash – then you’ll get a glimpse of ren qing wei.
For Pamelia Chia, 29 year old Singaporean chef and best-selling author of Wet Market To Table, the impetus to visit your wet market is simple. She reasons, where else can you find fresh seafood, coconut and tapioca grated on the spot, or vegetables that are unique to our region? “I love wet markets mainly because of the ingredients they carry. The concept of seasonality and ‘terroir’ has been celebrated in the West – but what does that mean for us as Singaporeans? I believe that it means to take pride in what is unique to our region that we can’t find abroad.”
Local wet markets are a prominent aspect of Singapore’s heartland heritage and they’re a microcosm of Singapore’s multi-cultural society. “There is a wet market in every neighborhood – so as the regulars frequent their own wet market, they form a tight-knit community. In such a way, relationships are deeper and go beyond that of a seller and buyer. That is the biggest difference between placing an order through a click of the mouse and going down and getting vegetables from your favourite uncle or auntie.”
The scientific documentation of heritage food
Growing up in a large extended family, it was commonplace that this Singaporean chef would compete with her cousins for delicacies like crispy lobes of fish roe as they emerged from the fryer. “There was also an appreciation for the whole hog, things people typically consider cheap, humble or ‘dirty’. We would fight for the ears, tail, trotters, and stomach of the pig – delicacies which were never second-rate in our opinion.”
This veneration, combined with her degree as a food scientist gives her a sui generis perspective on the plight of heritage food in Singapore. “Traditional food in Singapore is characterized as being agak agak or full of artistry, but its scientific nature hasn’t really been explored. While there are so many research papers and cookbooks documenting the science of meringue or kombucha, few have shone a spotlight on our regional techniques.”
“Take, for example, pecah minyak or minyak naik – this is a technique where over an extended period of time, oil begins to ooze from your rempah and it evolves from being a wet paste to one that fries itself and develops all manner of caramelised notes. Despite this technique being so integral to our cuisine, I don’t think I’ve come across this term in any cookbook I’ve ever read. Being of such anecdotal nature and given the oral history of our food, our cuisine is nowhere as well documented as the great cuisines of the West. That’s where I hope my scientific background comes in.”
Singapore noodles and the singular narrative
Visit any Singaporean, Malaysian, or South-East Asian eatery outside of Asia and you’ll likely see the dish Singapore noodles on the menu. Singapore noodles is somewhat of a misnomer, it’s a dish that doesn’t exist in Singapore, and yet so many foreigners iconically associate us with it. With this irony in mind, Pamelia created a platform in March 2020 to feature food that actual Singaporeans cook and eat, naming it Singapore Noodles.
“Singapore Noodles seeks to, first and foremost, spread awareness and share the beauty and craft behind our food. My vision for Singapore Noodles is for it to provide some form of representation of our food on a global level. I also try to highlight the cuisines and perspectives of the minority races by always being open to contributions from the community – my perspective, knowledge, and expertise are limited, compared to the vast repertoire of food in our nation. For example, I’m no expert when it comes to Eurasian or Indian food as that’s not the food I grew up eating. So, rather than misrepresent a culture or cuisine, I try to reach out to home cooks whom I feel are cooking authentically, from the heart, and respecting traditions. The vast majority of recipes on the site, however, are my own.”
Violet Oon’s nasi ambeng incident in June brought to surface conversations around cultural appropriation and authenticity in food. Pamelia shares, “As someone of a dominant race, representation and making sure that a diverse range of dishes, stories, and perspectives are explored is always an intentional decision, because it is so easy to delve into what we are comfortable and familiar with. But I believe that once a platform, cookbook, or channel has the word or descriptor ‘Singaporean’ or ‘Singapore’, it cannot only feature a single race’s experience, food, or culture.”
Change of perspective
Having moved to Melbourne in 2018, Pamelia was separated from the rich culture of wet markets and hawker dishes and took to recreating her favourite Singaporean dishes in her own home. The laborious process was a steep curve into the masterful craft of Singaporean cuisine that heartened a greater reverence for the food culture here.
“Take prawn mee, for example, you have a broth made up of prawn shells and pork bones that have to be cooked enough for it to be robust. Then you have the chilli which involves a rempah. And not forgetting the vegetables, pork, and prawn that make their way into the dish. Then, if your prawn mee is good, you need to fry the lard and shallots yourself. This is not the same as making a prawn aglio olio that can come together in half an hour.”
She goes on to share, “What frustrates me is that many Singaporeans are willing to pay for things like cheese, charcuterie, or pasta from the West but are extremely price-sensitive when it comes to local food like ondeh ondeh, Hokkien mee, or rempah udang. Why is it that we are not equally interested in making our local equivalents like our mee hoon kueh (our version of pasta), appam or thosai (our version of sourdough), or curry puff dough (our version of puff pastry)?”
As Pamelia remarks, “If we don’t give our food the esteem they deserve, and show our appreciation not just through words but through being willing to ‘vote with our dollar’, then soon, what we will be left with is local food that will not be as good as what we have now – because why would anyone make things the proper way when their efforts are not remunerated fairly?”
Anthony Bourdain said it best, “Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.” We think dishes like bak kut teh, nasi padang, and biryani are simple because of their accessibility and economical prices. But simplicity is relative. Take a look at the other side of the coin and we’ll see the arduous effort that goes into these simple dishes. From the long hours of braising to get the pork fall-off-the-bone tender, relentless pounding for a homogenous sambal belacan, and meticulous preparation for a saporous biryani – when we take their weight in gold, then we’ll come to see that maybe simple food is not so simple, and maybe that’s what makes it good food.