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Singapore Food Is So Much More Than Chicken Rice and Chilli Crab

Pamelia Chia, founder of Singapore Noodles, tells us how she is documenting the depth and diversity of Singapore’s food heritage while based in Daylesford, Australia.

By SGN | 10 Oct 2022

Photo: Rachel Ng/Mothership

In 2019, when Pamelia was working at Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne, her head chef asked if she could cook chicken rice for a staff meal. It was a dish that he often made at home and that a few of her colleagues had tasted in Singapore.

“It scared the living daylights out of me,” she says. “I had never cooked it before, even though it’s my favourite Singaporean food. This comes as a shock to a lot of people, because they imagine that we grow up making chicken rice and chilli crab.”

The incident left her with a sense of imposter syndrome. How could she, a Singaporean chef, not know how to cook food from home?

In search of authentic Singaporean recipes

Pamelia buckled down and resolved to master Singaporean cooking, but looking for accurate and authentic recipes was harder than she expected. 

For instance, she found that recipes for kong bak pau (a Hokkien pork bun) frequently omit the step of deep-frying and blistering the rind and call for the pork belly to be braised in too much liquid, which would make it lor bak instead.

Knowledge of the craft behind these heritage dishes is gradually fading for a number of reasons, she believes, including the abundance of affordable local food at hawker centres and coffee shops. Younger Singaporeans likely have all their meals taken care of for them, and even those who are keen to venture into the kitchen may be kept out by critical, territorial mothers and their high standards. 

The lack of clear instructions and precise measurements can also be daunting. Unlike Western cooking, Asian dishes rely heavily on oral tradition and intuitive estimations, or agak-agak. “During a livestream with my mum, I asked her how much Shaoxing wine to add to the chicken,” Pamelia recalls. Her mother replied, “One round,” while making a circular drizzling motion. 

Pamelia has worked at restaurants such as (left) Candlenut in Singapore and (right) Etta in Melbourne.

Deep dives and detailed documentation

Just a few months before the state of Victoria went into COVID lockdown, Pamelia moved to Daylesford – a hundred kilometres from Melbourne – with her husband Wex, who was starting a job in agritech there.

With more time on her hands, she went deeper into her research and documentation of Singapore recipes and launched an online platform to collect and share her findings. Though this comprehensive resource is meant to shed light on Singaporean food, she ironically named it Singapore Noodles, after the dish of dubious origin that is found overseas but nowhere in the eponymous city.

In just two years, the library of articles and recipes has grown tremendously. There are now well over 150 entries, including a four-part guide to pineapple tarts and a nine-lesson course on how to make Hainanese chicken rice, a recipe that Pamelia took three years to perfect. Instead of “five-minute shortcuts with fewer than 10 ingredients”, she insists on versions that “require a little more work but preserve the integrity of the dish and give people the best flavour experience”.

Indeed, sourcing for all of the right ingredients in Australia can be a challenge. Basics like tamarind paste and dried shiitake may be found in Daylesford, but for ingredients such as fermented tofu or Kashmiri chilli powder, she has to drive 45 minutes to the Chinese, Indian and Filipino grocers in neighbouring Ballarat, while items like tempeh or herbs for nasi ulam require a 90-minute journey into Melbourne. 

One of the online courses offered by Singapore Noodles presents a recipe for Hainanese chicken rice that Pamelia took three years to perfect.

The problem with defining Singaporean food

Given that Singapore is a country of immigrants, its cuisine is far from monolithic. “It’s really hard to tell a foreigner exactly what Singaporean food is other than it’s very rojak (mixed),” Pamelia says. “It is basically a mishmash of cuisines and flavours, with a lot of sharing of ideas and ingredients among different cultures.”

Singaporean food is commonly understood to be what may be savoured at hawker centres and restaurants, yet Pamelia believes that the country’s food heritage should encompass what families cook at home, and that exploring this can provide a window on an altogether different picture.

We think of Indian food as heavier fare like roti prata and biryani, but may not be aware of rasam, a nutritious clear soup that is cleansing for the body. We may be familiar with sambal goreng, but not its fancier cousin sambal goreng pengantin, a true labour of love that’s enriched with beef offal and the hallmark of a superior wedding feast.

Although Singapore likes to showcase its unique or fusion creations (chicken rice, chilli crab, fish head curry), Pamelia argues that dishes with origins in other countries (dal, adobo, lontong) are worth celebrating as Singaporean too because of the strong connections formed among locals. 

Ultimately, however the boundaries of Singapore food are drawn, Pamelia hopes that Singapore Noodles can help preserve the richness of the country’s food heritage, something that often goes underappreciated.

“Singaporeans just don’t know what a gift it is that we have. We tend to devalue Singaporean food in comparison with Western cuisines, thinking of it as cheap street food,” she says, pointing out that roti prata can be as artisanal as sourdough bread, and that kueh requires as much intuition and technique to make as a soufflé.

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Discovering the community connection

In the course of growing Singapore Noodles, Pamelia has discovered the power of community. “Singaporean food is so diverse. We have all been coloured by our upbringing, our experiences. No one person is able to document everything herself,” she says.

Increasingly, it became important to her to include diverse voices, be it through The Singapore Noodles Podcast – where she interviews a stunning range of thinkers and tastemakers in Singapore food culture – or through Seasonings, a quarterly magazine that invites contributors to share festive food memories.

“Sometimes when I’m speaking to someone or reading their story, I think to myself: Gosh, I can’t believe we’ve been living in the same country, because this person’s experience is so different from mine.”

Pamelia co-created the quarterly magazine Seasonings, which explores Singaporean food in relation to festivals and cultural practices.

During virtual cookalongs with the Singapore Noodles community, Pamelia is always touched when participants gather friends and family to cook together or share afterwards how they now see everyday dishes in a brand new light. Once, during a chap chye cookalong, a young Singaporean offered her finished dish to her father, who said it tasted like what his mother used to make and he’d had “no more chap chye to eat until [she] cooked it”.

Before moving to Australia, Pamelia had expected that living abroad would make her more Westernised – but the very opposite happened. “When you’re in Singapore, you long to explore the world, but out in the world, you get homesick and look for something to anchor yourself to,” she muses.

Through her explorations of Singapore’s culinary heritage, she has become – more than ever before –knowledgeable about her culture, connected with her people, and proud of being a Singaporean.

Learn more about Singapore Noodles

Subscribe to receive a weekly newsletter, join monthly cookalongs and access Pamelia’s full archive of Singapore recipes.

About Pamelia

Pamelia is a chef and writer who has worked at Michelin-starred Candlenut in Singapore and Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne. She is the founder of Singapore Noodles, a digital community and library of Singaporean recipes, and the author of the bestselling cookbook Wet Market to Table. 

Connect with her here.

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