Food has the power to bring people and communities together. In Singapore, festivals and celebrations are the best times for families and close friends to gather – to show their love, to feel grateful and also to feed. Food connoisseur Pamelia Chia (of online platform Singapore Noodles and also the author of From Wet Market to Table) and local illustrator Hafizah Jainal have formed a formidable alliance to shed light on the festivals of Singapore through a new food quarterly quite validly called Seasonings. We catch up with the duo on the first issue and more.
Tell us more about the platform Singapore Noodles.
Pam: Singapore Noodles is an online resource on Singaporean food that shares heritage recipes and conversations with food artisans to preserve and keep alive. 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 or aglio olio, there are great blogs or online resources that we turn to, such as Just One Cookbook or Bon Appetit. 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 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. I also hope to reach foreigners, because Singaporean food is woefully misunderstood overseas. My husband’s Australian colleague, upon finding out that we were Singaporeans, said, “Oh! I know a great Singaporean dish – Singapore noodles.” Which was how Singapore Noodles got its name – I was being very tongue-in-cheek in naming this resource of the real food that Singaporeans eat after a pseudo-Singaporean dish.
We’re very excited about the good quarterly, Seasonings. Do share more!
Seasonings really came about as an extension of the Singapore Noodles 2021 Planner that I worked with Lim Qin Yi on. When I moved to Melbourne, I experienced for the first time what it meant to be eating with the seasons. Coming from Singapore, where there is only one season, this was completely new to me. In my first year of living abroad, I felt really homesick because I couldn’t be home in time for Chinese New Year steamboat and I could not eat bak zhang (glutinous rice dumplings). It was only out of homesickness that I learnt how to make bak zhang from my mother-in-law. Making these dumplings at the same time as Singaporeans back home did connect me to my roots and heritage even when I was far away from home. It was then that I realised that we also have our own “seasons” in Singapore that dictate the way people eat throughout the year.
The planner received positive feedback from Singaporeans globally, and there were a few who asked if there was potentially a cookbook in the works to document the food that we eat seasonally. A cookbook felt too intense a project to take on, so I thought maybe a quarterly food publication would work better, where every issue is a deep dive on a single “season” in Singapore. The mission of Seasonings is to give readers an insider’s view of festivals that we celebrate in Singapore. Festival food and culture seem to exist behind closed doors, inaccessible to people outside of their ethnicity.
For example, I didn’t understand what Hari Raya is really about before working on Seasonings, and Hafi knows nothing of Hungry Ghost Festival. Even though we know Singapore to be a place where different races mingle and coexist, it feels as though the ethnic groups remain very much distinct – how much do we truly know of one another’s customs and food? With each issue, we hope to pull back the curtain and take you into the homes of actual Singaporeans to see how these special occasions are celebrated.
Food has that magical ability to bring people together and transport you to a certain memory in your life.
Why do you think food is such a big part of festivals?
Pam: Many festivals in Singapore are a celebration. For that reason, a lot of dishes that appear on the table during these seasons tend to be more intricate and elaborate than most. Because of the time and elbow grease involved, preparing these dishes – making pineapple tarts, stuffing yong tau foo, wrapping bak zhang, weaving ketupat, cooking bubur, or frying murukku – often require the coming together of a whole community. That’s why a lot of these food items are very close to our hearts and are redolent with memories. Even the food served on festivals that are more solemn in nature, such as Qing Ming Festival, tend to be special because of their symbolism.
Hafi: Any celebration would not be complete without food. Food has that magical ability to bring people together and transport you to a certain memory in your life. I like the social aspect that food brings. I've always believed that eating together or communally, makes the meal taste better. Food isn't the only thing that is being shared when eating in a communal setting but conversations, stories, love and a sense of camaraderie. Growing up in a Javanese Malay family, communal eating has always been a part of my life. We eat together during family gatherings, most times on a tikar, eating delicious home-cooked food on a dulang while sharing jokes and laughter with my cousins. With the world's current situation right now, I do miss having a feast with my extended family. It is something that I wish I could revisit in the near future.
How did you find each other?
Pam: I found Hafi through the wonders of social media! I saw a few illustrations she did of women in kebayas using sepia film photographs as a reference – I thought it was really beautiful, both the art itself and the way that she highlighted parts of her own culture. Back then, her bio said something like “paid collaborations only” and that made me want to work with her. I always feel that creatives and artists tend to skirt around the issue of money, as though talking about money or making a profit demeans the craft.
That’s a toxic mentality that needs to be eradicated, because what’s there to glorify the notion of a starving artist? I went onto her website and read that she cares about representation and diversity, and instantly felt like she was the perfect person to be collaborating with on this project. Working on the first issue with Hafi has been such a wonderful experience. I feel that we have very similar working styles, and both of us are equally driven and invested in this project – so crucial in any collaboration. She did a deck coming into our very first Zoom call – I was so impressed! So much of my conversations with Hafi are of me asking about her culture and the food her family eats, and she would sometimes ask her mom if she doesn’t have the answers to my questions!
Hafi: One fine day, Pam followed me on IG. I recognised her name as my flatmate was always raving about Pam's book, Wet Market to Table. I messaged Pam to tell her how much of a big fan my flatmate is. A few weeks later Pam dropped me a message asking me if I would like to collaborate on a project. Of course, my answer was yes. That initial project didn't pull through but we still kept in contact – and Pam, being so enthusiastic and persistent as always asked if I would like to work on a quarterly food publication – and the rest is history.
The mission of Seasonings is to give readers an insider’s view of festivals that we celebrate in Singapore. Festival food and culture seem to exist behind closed doors, inaccessible to people outside of their ethnicity.
Did you learn a lot putting together Seasonings?
Pam: I learnt more about Hari Raya Puasa in the months taken to prepare this issue than over two decades of living in Singapore. I’ve come to realise that you cannot truly comprehend the joy of Hari Raya Puasa, without understanding what Ramadan is about. Also, I never knew that what is truly precious to Muslims during Ramadan is not so much the food, but the sense of community and oneness that the month brings. As for a fun fact that I’ve picked up, I’ve learnt that rendang can be made with vegetables and with fish!
What can we expect from the first issue?
Pam: There are so many goodies in this first issue, so I’ll share a few of my favourites! We have a deep dive into rendang – readers can learn about the symbolism and philosophy of rendang, the different variations of it, and the finer points of making it. I’m quite a food nerd so this was such a thrill to write and research. There’s a cook-your-own adventure spread on making your own sambal goreng. This was inspired by a conversation Hafi and I had of our favourite things to read in magazines, where Hafi mentioned one of those personality quizzes that took the form of a flowchart, like “What’s your perfect pet?” or “Which Spice Girl are you?” We applied that format to sambal to help people find their forever sambal goreng! You can also expect Seasonings-exclusive recipes for opor ayam, bubur lambuk, kuih bakar berlauk, and more.
What is your favourite festival food?
Hafi: Food eaten during Hari Raya Puasa is very special to me. I've mapped a lot of happy memories from eating my nenek's special rendang - which uses offal, hence its intense black colour and rich flavour. Serunding would always remind me of my late nyai, whom we lost last year – she made the best serunding and no one can ever replicate that taste. A Hari Raya feast is always a smorgasbord but every year, I always stick to the same combination, ketupat, nenek's rendang, serunding and chicken curry with lots of gravy.
Pam: From a gustatory point of view, I love pineapple tarts and bak zhang the most. I never thought of even attempting these until recently, after I’ve moved to Australia. I was amazed at how much better homemade ones are compared to the shopbought variants, but it was definitely an ordeal preparing them alone. I never thought I’d be saying this but yu sheng (raw fish salad) has really grown on me. I hated it growing up – it was always that obligatory dish that appeared every Chinese New Year that you just had to eat for tradition’s sake. But after spending several Chinese New Years abroad, it is always the videos of people tossing yu sheng that hits me in the gut and really makes me miss home.
Order your copy of the first issue or subscribe to Seasonings here.