In 2022 I picked up a new hobby, which is going to the wet market. I remember the first time I visited the market with my mom–it was Shunfu Market, the only market in the Upper Thomson area where I lived for most of my life. Unfortunately, my mission at the market back then was just to enjoy a bowl of dry prawn kway teow mee and grab some Chocolat N’ Spice muffins. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, I just never took an interest in the wet market at the basement level.
Sometimes, my mother would take the chance to grab a bunch of vegetables after our breakfast and I would follow her to the market for a short while. I remember being overwhelmed by what I saw, what I smelled, and what I heard. (Now I’m still overwhelmed, honestly) A rather pungent stench of salted fish in open pails and the dusty shelves of condiments at the dried goods stall, stall owners shouting in Hokkien, and just hordes of people squeezing past each other like it’s a mosh pit. Yet, it was a good kind of overwhelming. It was nice to see our markets still abuzz with life, with most of the crowd being of an older age group still making their rounds to what to them is their hangout spot.
When I started cooking more meals for myself in recent years, I started frequenting Shunfu Market for certain produce that was cheaper than supermarket produce. Western produce like portobello mushrooms, avocados, brussels sprouts, and vine-ripened cherry tomatoes became my staples after I returned home from exchange in Leeds, because they are so tasty when simply seasoned with olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper. I would go to the middle stall at the back row of Shunfu Market just for these ingredients (and partly also because the uncle accepts Paylah).
I started exploring more Asian-centric cooking in the last two years, inspired by my David Chang phase where I was lost in the pages of Eat A Peach and hooked on episodes of Ugly Delicious, and also tempted by Lucas Sin’s godly creations on his very loud and personable Instagram. Not to forget our local hero Pamelia Chia, who gave our wet markets the due credit they deserve in her first cookbook, Wet Market To Table. I slowly wandered into wet markets with a different objective in mind: to procure Asian ingredients and make a meal out of them. Then came my obsession with chilli padi–both red and green–ginger, ginger flower, lemongrass, calamansi, curry leaves, lime leaves, all of which can be added to my basket in any quantity I wanted. Sometimes, the stall owners would even just throw them into the bag at absolutely no cost.
But the real purpose of going to the market, for me, is to live among the chaos. People can jostle past me, people can scold me for not knowing what a bunch of spinach looks like, and people can shout at me for obstructing their passage, as they should. Among all of that clutter, I found something fascinating about how no two stalls are the same, about how no two markets are similar. It draws me time and time again back into the fray. All of them have their unique, old, musty charm that tickles the retrophile in me. So what if I’m clueless, there’s always so much to learn from each adventure.
So I dive headfirst into the unknown every week. I look forward to rewarding myself with a coconut pancake and a huge cup of fresh soya milk (iced, unsweetened) thereafter.
This year’s goal is to continue documenting wet market trips on The Slow Press with a renewed spirit to learn something new on each trip and also go with more people to the market, because everyone’s understanding and experience adds a whole new layer of discovery, which led me to invite the guests we have here with us today. I went to the market with the chefs of Magic Square on their grocery run last week. If it’s your first time hearing about them, they are an experimental restaurant run by a team of young Singaporean chefs who are redefining Singaporean food in a more refined and unconventional way. Bringing to the table a wealth of experience from Michelin-starred restaurants that they have previously worked at, the lineup of chefs has always never ceased to disappoint with their menus by taking ingredients familiar to us and treating them in a very different light, with any kind of techniques and influences. We did a feature on Jonathan for Menufestations last year, a series I started and am looking to continue this year.
At Tekka Market, the chefs shared that they have fostered close relationships with some suppliers like the seafood guys and the only buah keluak stall. While a bulk of produce at the restaurant comes from wholesale suppliers from abroad, they still turn to local markets in search of inspiration for R&D purposes, rarer ingredients that are unique to Asian cultures, as well as fresh of fruits and vegetables that they cannot otherwise obtain. As we walked around the market, I shyly tagged behind as stall owners curiously shouted out to them, “You all are chefs ah? From what restaurant?” I mean, that’s a pretty spot-on guess!
I spoke to Keefe, Marcus and Jonathan after the chaotic morning passed, to hear more about what they like about our local wet markets and their significance to the generation of young Singaporean chefs. What do you usually look out for at the market? Do you go there with a purpose or do you just go there and pick things based on what you see?
Keefe: For me, when I head to the market. I try to look out for new produce or things that I have never came across. This forces me to think outside the box to learn and understand produce before making it into something delicious.
Marcus: It’s a mix, normally I go to different places to find certain things and see what’s in season as well, but I do love listening to music and just roaming through markets to see what they have while chatting with market vendors too.
Jonathan: I think it’s a bit of both. The market is a great place to find inspiration when you’re planning for a new menu and to learn about ingredients that are used by other races which we Chinese may not be the most familiar with. Also, it’s nice to find out the seasonality of our local fruits!
What fascinates you the most whenever you visit the market?
Keefe: It’s really the people there. Be it the conversations with the stall owners or the people buying produce, it’s really wholesome to learn from others who have been cooking our local food for the longest time. Learning new ways to prepare certain things helps me to not only grow as a chef but to also preserve heritage cooking.
Marcus: Fruits and vegetables are always the first to catch my eye! They tend to be of better quality compared to the seafood and poultry available in Singapore. I’ve always loved to see vegetables as I do enjoy dabbling in fermentations and pickles! Jonathan: Seeing ingredients that I have never heard of and finding out from the locals or even the stall owners how is they are normally used in dishes is always very interesting to me.
Are our markets still relevant to Singaporean chefs today? Why?
Keefe: It depends both on the chef and the restaurant. Take Magic Square, for example, we are driven by local ingredients. Heading to our local wet markets has always been our main focus. Whereas places like the three Michelin-starred Restaurant Zén where I was from, have zero local produce. They are a Nordic restaurant and most of the ingredients used come from Japan and France. In today’s modern society, the rate of visiting markets has declined significantly as one can simply order groceries online and have them delivered to your doorstep.
Marcus: Most definitely, it’s still relevant and should always be. Of course, there are ingredients from Europe and Japan that are superior but markets are an opportunity to see what’s indigenous to our region and understand our roots and background, which I feel is really important.
Jonathan: Yes, local ingredients from the market allow us to create flavours that we Singaporeans can relate to even when we are trained in other cuisines.
What are some aspects of the market that you personally feel should be preserved?
Keefe: The ability to buy in small amounts. This not only helps to reduce food wastage but also helps small families with lower incomes to save money. Marcus: I feel the aspect of how different markets have different items for the neighbourhood it is in should be preserved. This creates a niche for these markets and their communities and encourages produce from different areas of Asia to be highlighted. Like Tekka Market has more produce and dry goods typically used in Indian cooking, Geylang Serai has more fresh herbs like ulam raja that is used in Malay cooking, and Chinatown has more fish and seafood. The specialisation of markets prevents them from becoming a “one-stop shop”, thus losing their appeal as a unique market.
Jonathan: Both the wet and dry areas of the market should be preserved. The dry area deals with herbs and spices which are important in creating flavors that locals are familiar with. While the wet area deals with seafood and poultry which allows us to learn how different cuisines use a particular meat or fish.
How different is obtaining ingredients from the market vs an online supplier? In what cases would you choose to visit the market over online options?
Keefe: The difference is huge. I would say when you obtain ingredients from a market, you get to touch and feel the quality of the ingredient, whereas when purchasing online, you have no telltale signs of the exact quality of what you will receive until it reaches you. In the case where I am buying fresh seafood, I would rather head down to look at it before purchasing it as compared to buying it online.
Marcus: Online suppliers are of course more efficient but you will never know the size or quality until it gets to the restaurant. A lot of times we order items that come unripe, overripe, in different sizes, you name it. Obtaining ingredients from markets works better for me as I tend to be more spontaneous and some days I do not have time to R&D. So when I do, I always go to the market to pick stuff, as we can buy small amounts to test. However, with online suppliers, we always have a MOQ (minimum order quantity) to hit, so sometimes to test say an orange, I need to order 10kg of that!
Jonathan: The market is definitely fresher and you get to see and feel the quality of ingredients you buy while online ordering relies heavily on the morals of the supplier. I would also go to the market when I really want an exotic ingredient that I can’t get from a normal supplier.