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Every place has a story. KNKX Connects showcases people and places around Puget Sound. Through audio, art, photography, music and journalism — discover a new connection with Seattle's iconic Pike Place Market.

Leila Rosas turns to her market community to source Oriental Mart's signature sinigang dish

Leila Rosas stands with her arms crossed looking at the camera. She's wearing a dark blue apron and a lighter blue top under it. Behind her is a sink with pots and pans above.
Parker Miles Blohm
Leila Rosas is a self-taught cook and never held a restaurant job before opening Oriental Mart's kitchen in 1987.

Pike Place Market is known for its fishmongers and numerous eateries with menus created with local ingredients. For James Beard award-winning chef Leila Rosas, that local connection goes back to her childhood.

Rosas runs the kitchen at Oriental Mart, the grocery her parents started in the 1970s. The elements of her signature dish come from vendors in the market who she grew up alongside.

Rosas opened the kitchen in 1987. It was her mother’s idea, to help sell the Asian products at the grocery by showing customers what they could make with them.

"My mom asked me, 'you think you could cook for like 100 people?' I said, 'Well, I'll try," Rosas recalled.

The dish she's best known for is her salmon collar sinigang. It’s just one of the things that helped Oriental Mart win a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic Award.” The award is given to businesses deemed to “have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”

Oriental Mart’s kitchen is tucked behind a storefront filled with all sorts of knick-knacks catering to tourists like magnets, postcards and stickers. The small kitchen seats just 18 people at the counter around the stall. Decorating the walls of Rosas' kitchen are colorful posters with things like “Think before you ask, it may be the stupid question of the day!” and “To all you knuckleheads, don’t talk to me while I’m cooking!”

A bunch of colorful paper signs are taped on a wall. Things like "Just don't give me your ticket unless we make eye contact" are written in sharpie.
Parker Miles Blohm
The signs that cover Oriental Mart's kitchen have an array of reminders for customers. But there's one that hangs above Leila Rosas' head that is just for her: "Remember Leila you love your job!"

Everyone who has met Rosas will tell you her hospitality goes beyond the extra mile. But also that she’s someone you don’t want to mess with. After cooking in the middle of Pike Place Market for decades, she has little patience for people with bad manners or dumb questions.

On a recent visit to Oriental Mart, Rosas showed me how to make salmon sinigang. According to her, the secret is fresh fish. Which is why our first stop was across the way at Pike Place Fish. You know, the one where they throw the fish.

Rosas explained that she didn’t always use salmon. Even though you can make sinigang with any kind of meat like pork or beef, she usually ate it with milkfish. That is what she first used when she put the dish on the menu.

"It was too bony for the Americans to eat so it wasn't working out," Rosas said. "And then I use the bangus belly, which is boneless, and that was also good but for the price of it, it would shrink and you'd just get this little tiny thing in your bowl."

Her solution was salmon collar, the part of the fish just behind the gills. It’s usually thrown away along with the head.

"Back then nobody bought collars. They didn't know what to do with it. So I started buying that, cooking it, and it just worked out. And it's great," Rosas said.

Rosas' salmon sinigang is so great that celebrity chefs like Andrew Zimmern and Marcus Samuelsson have stopped by to get a taste of it.

Ever since honing in on her sinigang recipe, she’s been getting her fish fresh from her “fish boys” across the street. Jaison Scott greeted her when we walked over. He is one of the co-owners of Pike Place Fish and basically grew up in the market since his mom worked there.

"I used to be in a banana box behind the counter and then when I was old enough to run around I would mostly be hanging out over there with Joy and Leila and eating good food and checking out all the cool snacks and little toys they have," Scott said. "I call her the queen because when she's gone, everybody starves."

Rosas doesn’t have a set menu, she cooks what she wants, which is largely dependent on what’s in season. Right now, in May, it’s halibut and Copper River salmon. Both will make it into this day’s sinigang.

All of the fishmongers know Rosas and what she buys. But on this particular day, she’s being helped by a new guy who doesn’t quite know the routine. He mistakenly put each fish collar in a separate bag. Before leaving, Rosas has a reminder for the young fishmonger.

"And remember, you only sell that to me," Rosas shouted.

"You know what happens if she comes over here and we don't have any collars for her?" Scott asked.

"She hits your head," the new fishmonger said.

"Yes, correct," Scott responded.

As Rosas departed, Scott called out “I love you” in Tagalog. She responded in English: “Me too, to you.”

Like the fish, Rosas also gets the produce for her sinigang in the market. She stopped by Frank’s Produce to get tomato, green onion, jalapeno and some spinach. On the way, she ran into a childhood friend, Elinor Dofredo. As kids, the two were dragged to the market by their parents who worked there. Rosas told Dofredo to meet her back at Oriental Mart to be fed.

 A bowl of cut vegetables including green onion, tomato, jalapeno, and onion sit in a bowl in front of a packet of tamarind soup mix, a bottle of fish sauce, and a large rice cooker.
Darrel Saunar
Salmon sinigang gets its sour taste from a tamarind soup base. It's a fairly simple and easy dish to throw together and has become a staple of Oriental Mart's ever-changing menu.

Back in the kitchen, with her fresh fish and vegetables, Rosas walked through how to prepare her famous sinigang.

"We got our green onions, our jalapenos, tomatoes and regular onions," Rosas said. "For a small batch, we're going to do two packages of the tamarind base and a little bit of fish sauce. Very simple."

Rosas chopped everything up and put it in a pot of water. She waited for it to boil before adding the fish. And that’s it, that’s all it takes to make Rosas' infamous salmon collar sinigang.

Rosas' friend Dofredo arrived at the counter with another friend. Rosas told them to take a seat and she'd bring them a plate of food.

"I brought a container!" Dofredo shouted.

When Rosas asked what she’s doing that day, Dofredo said this was it. She had to get some sinigang, it’d been too long.

KNKX Connects is an ongoing series showcasing the people and places of our diverse and vibrant region. Your support helps KNKX connect listeners throughout Western Washington, presenting a much deeper look at the place we call home. Donate to this vital community service today.

Grace Madigan is KNKX's former Arts & Culture reporter. Her stories focused on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.
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