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Market Talk - A young chef pays tribute to the humble wet market
WET MARKET TO TABLE
By Pamelia Chia
Published by Epigram
THESE ARE MODERN times – we get our food delivered by PMDs; head to the supermarket or specialty butchers if we want a steak for dinner; join urban farm message groups to have freshly harvested vegetable boxes sent to us; and we do not bargain but head to whichever supermarket which advertises the best prices for the week.
Who thinks of traipsing through the aisles of non-airconditioned wet markets, diving into sloppy piles of slippery fish while elbowing aunties and helpers out of the way for the freshest catch? If you even know how to tell one glistening eyeball from another in the first place. Or putting your non-existent haggling skills to work to make sure the pork seller doesn’t overcharge you for the prime bu jian tian cut or give you a few grams short of the 100gm taugeh you wanted.
The not-so-wet and wonderful sights and sounds of the neighbourhood market are brought to life with a fresh perspective by newbie author Pamelia Chia, whose book Wet Market to Table is a timely reminder for urbanites to revisit the way we used to shop, and for the much younger generation to discover the richness of their own food heritage.
Chia navigates the markets in a clear, systematic manner, identifying 25 ingredients that are easily found in the vegetable stalls. Some are familiar, some less so, but each comes with detailed descriptions on how to pick, store and prepare them in imaginative recipes that showcase Chia’s breadth of cooking knowledge. According to her, she writes with a “sense of urgency” as such ingredients make way for more global produce like vine-ripened tomatoes or tomatillos.
So, even as she expounds on each ingredient, she looks at how they can crossover from Asian to Western cuisine easily.
For example, while jambu may be more often seen in rojak or just eaten on its own, Chia ponders its versatility in a baked dessert, such as a luscious-looking tarte tartin or galette.
She also points out borlotti beans – you normally expect to see them in Mediterranean cuisine, yet the local market is well stocked with fresh pink speckled pods hiding little nuggets that the Cantonese use in slow-simmered pork soup. They are equally good when prepared like hummus, she says, or simmered with fish in a creamy sauce perfumed with rosemary.
She also peppers the book with charming stories about some of the stallholders, and even a list of tips for novice market goers.
Chia, who has a degree in Food Science and Technology, doesn’t have any formal writing experience but relies on her strength in research to provide in-depth content on an ingredient’s history and nutritional value.
The response to the book has been “overwhelming”, she says. “I wrote it with the young, well-travelled Singaporean in mind, but what I didn’t expect was for it to resonate with aunties and uncles from my parents’ generation as well.” Praise from fellow chefs and second generation hawkers has also been forthcoming.
She is already thinking about writing a second cookbook – with a focus on vegetable cooking from an Asian perspective. “So many of the vegetablefocused cookbooks out there are written from the Western perspective of salads, categorized by seasons – but I’d like to write one that’s more relevant to people living in the tropics with no seasons, and which appeals to the Asian palate.”
Until then, Wet Market to Table is a warm, fuzzy and practical tribute to a Singapore institution that doesn’t get enough appreciation. If nothing else, it’s a colourful reminder that sometimes, the best things in life can be found right in our own backyard.