Journey to the heart of Teochew food

(Left) Crab marinated overnight with soy sauce, spring onion, garlic and ginger, and eaten raw; (right) braised goose head

CHINA - As the saying goes, you are what you eat. But few take it quite as seriously as the folks in Chaoshan, where no conversation can begin without a cup of Gongfu tea, a social etiquette strictly adhered to since the Song Dynasty. The brewing of tea is itself a ceremonial ritual, and often, guests get to sample the best pick of the host's tea collection.

The Teochews - as the natives of Chaoshan are called - guard their history and culture so fiercely that even as other Chinese cities rushed to embrace the modern new lifestyles that economic growth brought, the Teochews paced themselves. Although Shantou was one of the four original Special Economic Zones, the city didn't develop as fast as Shenzhen, Xiamen and Zhuhai.

Shantou is part of Chaoshan, itself a prefecture of Guangdong Province together with Chaozhou and Jieyang. With a population of three million, this former fishing village is today a major toy-manufacturing centre in South-east China. As with many fast-growing cities in China, there is a sharp contrast of old and new, and modern high-rise buildings and old shophouses mingle cheek-by-jowl. Navigating the streets is easy, but be prepared for big city hassles such as bargaining with the taxi drivers (slashing taxi fares by as much as 40 per cent is possible!)

Even the food in Shantou has undergone some changes. While the majority of the residents prefer traditional food, the young have been seduced by Western and foreign cuisines. Journalist/author Zhang Xinming, an expert on Teochew cuisine, explains: "It is impossible to resist the changing of taste buds. The world has evolved, and people are exposed to new concepts and ingredients through various media."

Together with some friends, Mr Zhang recently set up Chao Cai Yanjiu Hui, a resource centre to promote Teochew cuisine within the prefecture as well as overseas. "It's a place to promote and exchange information about our cuisine and heritage," says Mr Zhang. "We even have a kitchen for training young chefs in both cooking techniques and plating."

Most Singaporeans strolling the stall-lined streets of Shantou will find the food familiar, even if the taste isn't what we're used to. Which is to be expected, considering that the recipes that the early immigrants prepared in Singapore have been modified over the generations. For instance, we eat our kway chap steamed while Shantou residents would pan-fry the rice sheets to give them a light crust. Even the broth is slightly starchier.

Supper is a compulsory ritual here - a full-blown version of Teochew porridge. Instead of boneless braised duck, though, the Teochews jostle for the more esoteric goose head. In fact, it appears at almost every meal as appetizer, with the Teochews being so finicky about it that a special breed of goose, known as Lion's Head Goose or Shi Tou E, is farmed for its head and liver only. Each head, after braising, weighs about 2kg, and costs as much as S$200 at a fine-dining restaurant.

An hour's drive from Shantou lies Chaozhou - Chaoshan's most famous historical and cultural city. For centuries, it was a rich arts hub known for its prowess in opera, music, tea drinking, lion dance and of course, cuisine.

The history of Chaozhou could be traced back more than 5,000 years. Many archaeological sites have been unearthed, including many Buddhist relics, and Ming Period architectural ruins are found within the city. Most social gatherings are still held at the local teahouses, accompanied by string ensembles, and in the north lies the famous mountain known for its Wu'long Chinese tea.

Driving into town, you can't miss the many porcelain shops with huge signboards. For more than 1,300 years, Chaozhou was a major porcelain-manufacturing centre; in recent years, it has also become a leading manufacturer of apparel, electronics and foodstuffs.

However, it is the rich cuisine of the city that attracts food connoisseurs. The Teochews are famed for their deft handling of seafood, in particular their skill at extracting the best flavours with various cooking methods, including some very simple ones. It is common to find fish, prawn or crab served raw, at most accompanied by a sauce, or cured with soy sauce. On the other hand, delicacies such as shark's fins, abalone and sea cucumber are often elaborately prepared for lavish dinners.

Puning, within Jieyang, is a relatively new county formed in the Ming dynasty. Most of the ancestors of the current 2.3 million residents of Puning were immigrants from Putian during the tumultuous period of the Song dynasty. It was under the Ming however, that the city became fully developed as a centre for agriculture and Chinese medicinal herbs.

Puning boasts a relatively small town centre, which resembles Singapore in the 80s. Outside this can be found many Ming-style villages that lie around the city. Although the buildings suffer from a lack of proper maintenance, the famed Teochew style of mosaic porcelain-work known as chien nien, or cut-and-paste porcelain, still form magnificent elaborate motifs along the roofs and archways.

Life in this city is laid-back, and many traditional foods can still be found along the roads and at makeshift stalls in the villages. Many traditional, artisanal businesses still exist, such as a three-generation-old noodle shop whose recipes have remained unchanged for more than 100 years. Everything, including the noodles, is still made from scratch each day. At another stall a husband and wife would arrange simple wooden boxes and stools to sell deep-fried ngoh hiang (five-spice meat roll).

Puning is home to the famous Puning miso sauce and tofu. Its makers treat the simple task of deep-frying tofu as seriously as studying for a university degree. Each family has its own recipe and method of achieving the crispy yet moist tofu, and little else. For them, and the people of the region, ensuring that they put simple, but fine-tasting and fortifying food on the table for family and friends is all that truly matters.

One can easily fly directly to Shantou from Singapore. For those who would like a holiday detour from Guangzhou, Shantou is only an hour's train ride with the newly launched express train.

Addresses

Shantou

Zhuang Shi Xiang Ji
Zhongshan Lu
No 2 Guo Rui Jian Cai Jie Ju Zhong Xin
0754 88360111

A private-room only Teochew buffet restaurant. Minimum one order from the a-la-carte menu, starting around S$20, will entitle you to more than 70 dishes from a high-quality Teochew selection.

Wu Di Goose Noodle
Adjacent to No 5 Fa Lu Jin Jun
Hua Yuan Lu Xi Qu

One of the best-kept secrets in Shantou, this roadside stall serves some of the best braised goose dishes in town.

Hai Gan Kway Chap
Dong Xia Nan Lu

Do not expect the kway chap that is offered in Singapore. This kopitiam-style stall offers the authentic version, where the kway is pan-fried rather than steamed.

Chaozhou

Sheng Long Xin Shi Fu
Nan Jiao Xi Lu
No 3-6 Jin Yu Lan An
0768 2125088

This restaurant is helmed by Chef Qiu Xinfa, who is known for authentic Chaozhou cuisine, especially raw fish and marinated raw seafood.

Puning

Zheng Fa
Guang Da Bei Lu
0663 2914342

Known for its late-night supper with a wide selection of porridge, snacks and a-la-carte dishes.

Xin Lu Shan Zhuang
Da Nan Shan Zhen Xin Lu Cun
0663 2674888

A chain restaurant that is popular for its innovative soups and snacks in Puning.


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