After she was married and relocated from the United States to Australia, Singaporean food writer and former professional chef Pamelia Chia was forced to deal with a void in her culinary repertoire.
She admitted she was a great cook of dishes with seafood or meat; however, she put a different amount of effort into cooking vegetables. After a few plates of delicious blanched greens, her husband who works for a breeding firm – complained.
“He was the one who said, ‘You know, I think you need to learn how to cook vegetables better because they’re horrible’,” she laughs.
The 31-year-old has come far since her first cookbook and is scheduled to release her next cookbook, Plantasia: A Vegetarian Cookbook Across Asia, in the coming month. The book, independently published, contains sixty of her recipes and contributions by 24 food and cook writers, showcasing the diverse cultures across the continent.
Pamelia Chia is a food writer and professional chef from Singapore who is currently based in the Netherlands. Photo: Pamelia Chia
It’s a wide range of flavors and influences, from Hong Kong-inspired typhoon shelter mushrooms and zucchini fritters made with the peanut podium.
Connecting all of it, Chia’s I,dea of the venture: showcasing the rich tradition of Asian cooking using vegetables and challenging ideas of what meals based on plants could be aesthetically and taste like.
I wanted to provide people with recipes that would not have them think, “Oh, this is an alternative to the meat dish.’
Despite her initial dislike of vegetables, they have been Chia’s main focus in both cookbooks. The first, Wet Market to Table (2019), is a celebration of the fruits and vegetables that can be found in Singapore’s wet markets, which range from the common (lotus root and the jackfruit) to the less well-known (celtuce moringa, chayote, and jackfruit).
The book was a national bestseller shortly after its publication and is currently in its fifth printing.
In a video chat from the Netherlands, Chia, with her spouse, had just moved to Breda, a city in the southern part of European country. Chia clarifies the reason for this. “Wet Market To Table was about her young self examining her family history.
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However, Plantasia was motivated by several personal and professional shifts she had to undergo after she departed from Singapore, which forced her to cut back on the consumption of animal products.
Chia’s cover on her new cookbook.
After completing her food technology and science degree, Chia cut her teeth in the kitchens at some of Singapore’s most well-known restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Candlenut.
She continued to cook professionally following her move to Australia in 2019. First, she moved to Melbourne, then later to Daylesford in Victoria. She was amazed to learn how easily vegetarian options were on the menu.
“It was eye-opening that the restaurants I worked at had vegetarian or vegan offerings baked into the menu,” she recalls. The chefs were not just not frightened by requests for vegetarian alternatives. They would create dishes that were more than able to hold themselves up to meat-based options.
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It was an entire world from what she grew up as a child living in Singapore, where protein reigns supreme on the dining tables and in the food culture.
“I mean, when you think about a lot of our national dishes, it’s all about chilli crab or salted egg chicken or chicken rice – it’s all about the protein, right?” she adds, noting that seafood and meat have been often linked to concepts like the status of hospitality, wealth and status.
Even in the establishments where she worked, vegetarian choices were frequently considered unimportant. “It is like saying”Pam, you should cook whatever you can you want for the guest.’
Chia’s egg tofu recipe with map mushroom sauce is vegetarian. Photo: Pamelia Chia
The chefs might smile at themselves as if, ‘Why are these people coming here for food if they don’t have any prawns? And no belacan? What does that mean? Be any good?” she remembers.
Her move abroad forced her to face the fact of climate change. After arriving in Australia, the country was devastated by the devastating “Black Summer” bushfires.
Chia and her husband, living in Daylesford, a tiny town in the countryside, needed to install an emergency application and track warnings about fire. Families of colleagues were forced to leave their residences.
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“These were things I never had to care about when I was living in Singapore,” she says.
At that point, Chia decided to take off her chef’s whites and switch to writing about food. (Although she continues to work from home at the Australian cookery school, Chia operates an online platform dedicated specifically to Singaporean food culture. The site is named Singapore Noodles, in a playful reference to the dish that has been criticized.)
However, when she attempted to search for a book that would approach the plant-based recipes using the Asian perspective, she had a hard time.
Chia started her career in the food industry, working in some of Singapore’s most prestigious restaurants before moving to Australia, where she now works from home for the Singaporean cookery school. Photo: Pamelia Chia
While Chia is a massive fan of chefs, such as the British-Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi, known for his vibrant salads, the ingredients he prefers are not the ones she was raised with.
In addition, for her, the biggest issue with eating drinks like green and salads is that they reflect the long-running Eurocentric way of eating.
After she wrote a piece on having more veggies for a Singaporean news publication on the internet, users accused her of not recognizing the privilege of eating food and the cost of salads.
I am filled with Asian pride. I’m thrilled that this book is truly an amalgamation of all our experiences.