By SGN | 2 Oct 2023
When Pamelia and her husband moved to Melbourne in 2019, she witnessed the effects of climate change at close range.
It was bushfire season, one so severe that it killed more than a billion animals and became the costliest natural disaster in Australia’s history. “On some days, the sky was completely red,” she recalls. “At one point, the air was so smoky that visibility was quite bad.”
Though the fires hardly encroached upon the city, Pamelia knew colleagues whose families had to evacuate from their homes in the countryside. Online, she saw graphic photos of koalas and kangaroos devastated by the unquenchable blaze.
After moving out to the small town of Daylesford, she had to download an emergency app for bushfire alerts. “Because, if you were to see fire, it’s too late. The fire will reach you before you can escape,” she explains.
These experiences made Pamelia seriously think about cutting her consumption of meat – the production of which accounts for 15% of global emissions. While researching ways to boost her veggie-cooking repertoire, she found that Western cookbooks leaned heavily towards leafy salads and Eastern ones tended to recreate meat-centric dishes with faux alternatives.
Something was missing. She wondered: What if we could tap more deeply into Asia’s wisdom on cooking and enjoying vegetables? And what can Asia contribute to burgeoning conversations around the world on veganism and vegetarianism?
Vegetables can be the star
Typically pursued for ethical, religious or health reasons, vegetarianism is associated more with sacrifice and abstinence than with abundance and pleasure. With her new cookbook Plantasia, Pamelia wants to showcase the full potential of vegetables for deliciousness and dispel the preconception that eating greens is a joyless obligation.
Her recipes steer clear of mock meats and literal imitations of animal-based dishes. That’s because vegetables should be celebrated as the star, she says, and not filling the role of a second-rate substitute.
She wrote the book for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. “My goal is not to convert anyone to vegetarianism – I myself am not one,” she clarifies. “But my hope is that people realise how vegetables can be as dynamic and satisfying as meat.”
Growing up in Singapore, Pamelia was immersed in a food culture that exalted meat and seafood. “We give a lot of love to dishes like chilli crab and roast duck, and often order vegetables just to balance our meal,” she says.
It was only after living abroad that she realised how worryingly scarce veggies are in the Singaporean diet, particularly in the hawker setting. Chicken rice and nasi lemak come with a few slices of cucumber, and the only trace of greens in mee siam and bak kut teh might be snips of spring onion or a sprig of cilantro.
A celebration of Asian food cultures
For years, Pamelia has been an avid student and champion of Singapore’s food heritage. To expand her knowledge on how diverse Asian cultures – from Indian to Indonesian, Thai to Tibetan – appreciate vegetables, she knew she needed help. Consequently, she interviewed 24 experts who contributed their stories and recipes in Plantasia.
Some conversations opened up for her new ways of thinking about food, such as the Japanese emphasis on shun or seasonality and the Chinese concept of food as medicine that brings a yin-yang balance to the body.
Others laid bare the differences between Asian and Western approaches to fruits and vegetables. For instance, chef Wayan Kresna Yasa shared how Balinese cuisine favours cooked vegetables, saying that “if he were to prepare a raw salad, his mum would call him a rabbit”.
From chef Gayan Pieris, she learnt that jackfruit was highly revered in Sri Lanka long before it became a global vegan trend. “The jackfruit tree is known as the rice tree because it saved the country from starvation on many occasions. And so they put as much care into this ingredient as they would into meat,” Pamelia says.
“What I took away was that vegetarianism and the way we embrace plants is not monolithic at all. Every culture attaches such a different meaning to it.”
Along the way, Pamelia’s understanding of Singapore’s food history was also enriched. Hairil Sukaime told her about a village called Kampung Tempeh – in the Sixth Avenue area where multimillion-dollar landed properties now stand – where families like his produced artisanal tempeh and foraged simpoh air leaves to wrap the fermented soybean cakes.
These rich cultural dialogues inspired many of Pamelia’s recipes in Plantasia, as did Singapore dishes that are warmly familiar to her. Her thunder tea kimbap uses nutty, herbaceous Hakka leicha as a dip for Korean-style rice rolls. Her Hainanese eggplant is a play on the classic pork cutlet dish that chars and peels the vegetable before smashing, crumbing and deep-frying it like a schnitzel. “The charred and deep-fried eggplant has a really robust flavour that makes you forget you’re eating vegetables,” she says.
Writing for a global audience
While Pamelia’s first cookbook Wet Market to Table – currently in its fifth print run – was written with a Singaporean audience in mind, Plantasia is aimed at a global audience.
Without a social media following to rival the top celebrity chefs, she deemed a book deal with an international publishing house unlikely and decided to go independent.
“It is definitely scary to take on the risks of self-publishing, but I think the biggest benefit has been gaining creative control,” she shares. Although she had to bear all production costs at the outset, her vision for Plantasia – a heftier tome with more recipes and lengthier interviews – may not have been fulfilled by a publisher.
Details could also be tweaked to her satisfaction. In addition to ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ labels in the recipe index, she included one for ‘allium-free’, catering to Buddhists who shun ingredients like garlic, onion and leek. In reverence for each Asian culture, Pamelia chose to render food terms in both English and their native script. “It also helps the reader to find the right ingredient when they see these characters on the packaging,” she adds.
Along with major booksellers in Singapore, she has secured partnerships with stockists in Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and the US. “I’m so grateful to all the local independent bookstores who placed orders with me and lent me so much support, even if the margin is smaller compared to ordering from a distributor,” she says.
New adventures in Europe
In mid-2023, Pamelia’s husband was posted to his company’s headquarters in the Netherlands, prompting the couple to relocate to Breda, a tranquil city near the southern border.
“I really love it here,” she enthuses. “I think the Dutch are quite similar to Singaporeans in that they’re very direct and to the point. You don’t have to do a lot of small talk. And they pride themselves on efficiency.”
The presence of a large Indonesian community in the Netherlands means certain Asian spices and ingredients are easy to procure, although she does miss the Indian grocers that were more common in Australia.
On the travel front, the couple is excited to take advantage of Europe’s connectivity and explore more countries in the region. Antwerp, Belgium, is a 30-minute drive away (“It’s almost like driving into Johor Bahru from Singapore.”). Paris, where Pamelia will be holding a book event in November, is only three hours by train.
But first, to kick off the book tour, she can’t wait to fly to Singapore in October and celebrate her latest work with everyone back home.
Plantasia: A Vegetarian Cookbook Through Asia
Whether you are a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, Plantasia is your guide to upping your vegetable-cooking game. Learn how Asian cultures celebrate vegetables and get inspired by the potential and abundance in plant-based food.