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.