SWF and Pamelia Chia tackle food privilege in Singapore
Author of Wet Market To Table, Pamelia Chia, co-presents a session on food privilege as part of Singapore Writers Festival. (Photo: Gold and Grit Photography)

SWF and Pamelia Chia tackle food privilege in Singapore

Purportedly ‘healthier’ food options – produce advertised as organic, for example – tend to be pricier than everyday alternatives, and this can leave the financially challenged feeling left out.

This is one aspect of what has become known as ‘food privilege’ and raises the question of how we balance nutrition, value for money and great-tasting food.

Pamelia Chia is the author of Wet Market to Table: A Modern Approach to Fruit and Vegetables and founder of Singapore Noodles – an online channel that documents recipes, demystifies traditional cooking through video tutorials, and shares podcast conversations to keep Singapore’s food heritage alive. Together with cookbook writer, blogger and sourdough baker Anne-Marie Bonneau and Malay cuisine advocate and chef Shamsydar Ani, she explores issues around food privilege on 14 Nov as part of Singapore Writers Festival.

The A List asked Pamelia for her take on food privilege and about her own journey from avid meat-eater to passionate advocate for a more mindful, environmentally sustainable approach to eating.

How would you define food privilege?

Food privilege, to me, is simply having choice over what one consumes. 

In what ways does food privilege show itself in Singapore?

I currently live in rural Victoria [Australia], where there’s a real sense of connection to the land. We can buy meat, dairy and vegetables directly from farms and producers. I’m lucky to have access to all this great produce, but being abroad has made me keenly aware of the wonderful Southeast Asian produce and seafood I’m missing out on such as stingray, laksa leaves, Thai basil and calamansi. It’s just that people don’t think these ingredients are as precious as things from the West. They don’t see that getting access to wet market produce is a food privilege in itself. 

Secondly, I’ve learnt that the vast amounts of meat and seafood we enjoy in Singapore is a huge privilege. In his book The Third Plate, Dan Barber observes that meat was traditionally enjoyed as a luxury, and non-prized parts of the animal were all consumed. But now, with greater affluence, the ratio of meat to the other components on our plates has shifted. In Singapore, there is meat or seafood not just in every meal but in almost every dish in some form. And it wasn’t something I felt was really wrong because it is such normalised behaviour.

Meat is so intertwined with pleasure, generosity, happiness, abundance and community in Singapore that it is difficult to reduce it, especially when it comes to convincing older folks who have experienced hardship in life. For them, meat-eating symbolises how they have arrived! Learning about sustainability and the impact the food we eat can have on the environment, I became more mindful of how much meat I was consuming.

Most people here eat hawker food most days, and often every day. How does the concept of food privilege apply?

I’ve become aware how unhealthy most hawker dishes are, in that they are heavily skewed towards carbohydrates and scant on vegetables. This was probably because Singaporean hawker food culture evolved from providing labourers with cheap, filling meals that could sustain them for long periods. They also tend to be high in fat and oil. When I lived in Singapore I was lucky to eat home-cooked food that was nutritious and balanced, and that is really a case of food privilege. Those in Singapore who can only afford hawker food have little control over how healthy or balanced their diets are.

If more people knew how to cook fresh ingredients – the type of ingredients one can pick up quite cheaply at a wet market – would food privilege become less of an issue? In other words, is it a culinary education issue as much as a financial issue?

The internet, with its blogs and platforms like YouTube, has really democratised education. People can find recipes and instructional videos to cook virtually anything they want, so it isn’t really a culinary education issue. As for the financial side of things, I feel that we can eat healthy, tasty food on a small budget. If COVID has taught us anything, it is that the things that one can do with something as pedestrian and economical as a can of beans, or a carton of eggs or a bag of flour, are endless! I think the crux of it is having energy and time, but it’s all about priorities. If people are able to set aside time for Netflix every day, why not do the same for the food you put into your body?

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.

Pamelia Chia will be discussing her book, Wet Market To Table, at Singapore Writers Festival on 6 Nov, and Food Privilege (with Anne-Marie Bonneau and Shamsydar Ani, moderated by Tan Joo Hymn) on 14 Nov. Find out more about Food Privilege at SWF 2021 here.

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