Wet Market to Table: A Modern Approach to Fruit & Vegetables
By Pamelia Chia
Cookbook/Epigram Books/2019/Hardcover/294 pages/$44.90/Available here
Wet markets get short shrift in the modern world. The noise, the mess and the lack of price labels can be intimidating to newcomers.
It took me a while to venture into wet markets despite having grown up with rowdier versions complete with squawking live poultry.
With the pandemic, there is now the additional worry of the lack of social distancing in cramped aisles and the recent rash of clusters seeded by the Jurong Fishery Port.
All of these factors make it a good time to revisit Pamelia Chia's wonderful celebration of the wet market, first published in 2019.
It is a bracing reminder of the gems to be gleaned from such locations, from purveyors who are finely attuned to their products to the regionally sourced produce which both encourages locavore eating and minimises food wastage.
First, a caveat about the cookbook. The author was a professional chef who worked at the Michelin-starred Candlenut restaurant, so do not look to this book for quick culinary fixes for busy work-from-home days.
That being said, ambitious home cooks groomed by endless seasons of MasterChef and multiple cooking shows should have no problems following complex recipes for dishes ranging from rojak ice cream to palak paneer gnudi.
I am still hoping to con - I mean, persuade - baker friends into making me the luscious-sounding laksa leaf pesto croissant loaf.
What I appreciate most about this book is the systematic guide to 25 ingredients which are often found in wet markets.
Calling them uncommon (as the book blurb does) is a bit of a stretch - green dragon vegetable, lotus root and laksa leaf are hardly exotica in food-mad Singapore. But celtuce, chayote and fingerroot are more unusual choices.
Each ingredient gets a full-page, fact-packed introduction and a useful sidebar of tips on how to select the freshest specimens as well as storage and preparation.
This practical two-page primer is something seasoned cooks will appreciate as it offers ideas for prepping these ingredients, even if one does not have the time to follow some of her more complex recipes.
The unusual ways Chia tweaks familiar ingredients and recipes - check out the jambu galette and jicama and roast duck salad - are also great for culinary inspiration when one runs out of menu ideas.
While there has been much attention given to cooked-food hawkers recently, given their newly minted Unesco status, the merchants operating wet market stalls have been somewhat overlooked.
But, as Chia notes in her book, these vendors possess valuable folkloric knowledge about once-common ingredients used in local cuisines and they offer personalised service in the way an impersonal supermarket never will.
- Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.