Shortly after arriving in Melbourne, where she relocated to in 2018, chef Pamelia Chia quickly realised how woefully misunderstood Singapore food culture was overseas. Her husband’s Australian colleague, upon finding out that they were Singaporean, said, “Oh! I know a great Singaporean dish – Singapore noodles.” Which is what inspired the naming of her new online platform and podcast. The reference to this dish, which is commonly spotted on menus overseas but completely absent within the local food scene, emphasised what little knowledge of Singapore food culture was available to the global market.
With time spent in the kitchens of Candlenut and Carlton Wine Room, a degree in Food Science and Technology and just following the successful launch of her national best-selling cookbook Wet Market to Table, she felt well equipped to introduce the world to her much loved food culture.
We chat with Chia about her favourite hawker stalls, the need to make trusted recipes available to the public and how podcast interviews with older generation chefs have her seeing Singapore Noodles as more than just an introduction to local cuisine, but rather a form of activism.
What prompted you to start your online platform last year during lockdown?
I always felt that there is a lack of a gold-standard, trusted recipe resource when it comes to Singaporean recipes. When we want to make a good oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl) or aglio olio, there are great blogs or online resources that we turn to. I saw a gap, there was no equivalent for Singaporean recipes.
Though there are YouTube channels that specialise in Singaporean cuisine, they tend to focus on the best hits or easy recipes and omit the traditional dishes that tend to be more laborious.
I set out to create a repository of well-researched, tested recipes for as complete a range of Singaporean dishes as I can. Whether it is the well-loved chicken rice, or the simpler hairy gourd and tanghoon (glass noodles) dish that I eat at home, I want to document it all so that wherever you are in the world, you will be able to recreate the flavours that we know and love.
What was it like to start a podcast with no experience?
I figured it out as I went, through doing research on the web and listening to other podcasts. I chose to create a podcast for the platform because I realised that I can’t just share recipes without sharing about food culture in the form of stories – the two are inextricably linked. Also, food media has, for far too long, focused on the stories of chefs and what we can learn from them. But the heart of Singaporean food, for me, lies with the uncles and aunties at home, our wet market vendors and our hawkers. I’m so grateful that I have a platform to help make these voices heard.
What do you hope that the platform can achieve?
I hope that Singapore Noodles can be a comprehensive and trusted resource for anyone who is trying to learn about Singapore food culture.
Many resources of Singaporean food – cookbooks or YouTube channels – tend to serve an audience that demands quick and easy recipes. Because of that, they tend to gloss over traditional techniques and offer shortcuts. For example, the typical recipe for Teochew chestnut chicken wouldn’t teach you the traditional way of deep-frying the chicken before braising because that would intimidate readers. Also, instead of encouraging readers to make their own stock, many recipes in local cookbooks would call for the use of chicken powder instead.
Living in rural Victoria has shown me how the sheer range of the food we have [in Singapore] is such a gift, and something we should not take for granted
They also tend to not be representative enough of our diverse food culture. Either they only share the best hits (think hawker classics such as chicken rice and satay), or they share dishes that are predominantly Chinese. Many also do not expound on the richness of the other cuisines in our country, or delve into techniques such as making a rempah (spice paste) to tempering spices (tadka). How can these works be said to be representatively Singaporean if they do not capture the true “rojak” nature of Singaporean food?
How will Singapore Noodles capture the true “rojak” nature of Singaporean food?
I hope that Singapore Noodles can be a platform that features Singaporean cuisine in all its diversity and will bring members of the minority races into the conversation in order for a truer depiction of the Singaporean food tapestry to be achieved. When I cook something from a different ethnic group, say rendang (dry curry), I sometimes get emotional to be from a country with such diversity; to know that a Chinese person like me can be cooking rendang in my home, or could have eaten rendang all throughout my growing up years is pretty powerful stuff. Living in rural Victoria has shown me how the sheer range of the food we have on our island is such a gift, and something we should not take for granted.
I also hope that my podcast and the Singapore Noodles platform as a whole can be one that breeds understanding between our different communities. When I speak with the older generation such as chef Damian D’Silva or chef Devagi Sanmugam on the podcast, they speak of a truly multi-cultural Singapore where there was rich cultural exchange. Children would visit one another’s homes on special occasions. Recipes would be exchanged between the races. There would be a sense of pride to want to share about the unique features of one’s culture and heritage.
When I heard them describe such a Singapore, I was moved. What a beautiful picture that truly depicts what our pledge – regardless of race, language, or religion – stands for. In a way, Singapore Noodles is a form of activism, not just in the advocacy for wet markets and local food culture, but also an effort to nudge our society towards what it was like in those days. Hopefully through listening to the podcast episodes, the platform would help foster understanding between the different ethnic groups in Singapore, including between migrant workers and Singaporeans, even if it is in a small way.
[Hopefully] the platform would help foster understanding between the different ethnic groups in Singapore
As you’re currently based in Melbourne, what are some of the Singaporean ingredients you miss most?
Calamansi. It is not anything fancy, but its flavour is vastly different from your regular lime or lemon. Hokkien mee without calamansi just tastes different! I also miss the abundance of fresh seafood like stingray, mud crabs, small squid with purple tentacles (they only have big fat white lobes of calamari here!), and sea snails like siput and gong gong.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.