Yet another quick post! I just came back from a hearty discussion with two friends at Starbucks over homemade kueh sarlat and their matcha frappucino on heritage cuisine and some exciting projects that will be happening soon on this blog. All that talk of food made me very very hungry naturally. Just wanna eat some comfort food, something which would bring me back to the days of my childhood, something easy and fast yet full of flavour. There is only one dish I can think of, my mum’s 高丽菜饭 Kor Leh Chye Png Chinese Cabbage Rice.
Teochew cuisine is characterised by a wide range of seafood dishes. Blessed with the long coastal line in the Chaoshan region in southeastern China, the Teochew people are accustomed to having seafood as part of their everyday lives. From cold crab (潮州冻蟹) to braised cuttlefish （卤墨鱼), their famous shark’s meat jelly (鲨鱼冻), and of course fishballs (潮州鱼丸) the Teochews are well known for their seafood fare, and their innovative use of the precious produce from the oceans. When folks think of Teochew porridge 潮州糜, the first thing that comes to mind is individually grained porridge often cooked with sweet potatoes, enjoyed over a wide range of condiments and dishes, sometimes as simple as preserved olive leaves (橄榄菜), pickled lettuce stems (菜心罐) or salted duck eggs (咸鸭蛋), to pickled radish omelette (菜脯蛋) or even steamed threadfin (蒸午鱼) or braised duck (卤鸭). Otherwise, it would be something as wholesome as a one pot meal like Chinese Pomfret Porridge (斗鲳糜). Yet for most of the Teochews in the past who lived and breathed frugally by the sea, the expensive Chinese Pomfret or threadfin (午鱼) may not be an everyday indulgence. As such, other varieties of Teochew porridge evolved and most notably, shark’s meat porridge 潮州鲨鱼糜.
When we were young, we met up a lot with our other relatives at my grandparents’ place. My parents moved out after they got married but always made it a point to go back and visit whenever we could. It was the same with our uncles and aunts who had moved out. Gatherings were a noisy, but also joyous affair, playing with cousins and also neighbours’ children whom we all grew up with. Apart from the regular weekend visits, what was particularly worth looking forward to were the “important days”. Usually it was the numerous marked Chinese-related festivals and celebrations, from Chinese New Year, and Chap Goh Meh at the beginning of the lunar calendar year, through Cheng Beng and dumpling festival right up to “bulan tujoh“, mooncake festival and finally Tang Chek. Apart from my own grandparents’ birthday celebrations, there were the birthdays of deities and of course the “ari see kee”, i.e. death anniversaries of our ancestors. Most of these “ari besair” were marked with an elaborated prayer session in the late morning or early afternoon and of course a pig out session that followed, enjoying the laok semayang that were prepared to honour the gods or ancestors first before being devoured by us. Many of the dishes were eaten as it is, but some were “transformed” into other delectables, and sambal timun was one of them.
When I made Som Tam for Asia Food Fest Thailand two years back, I fell in love with how it tasted. The assemblage of piquant flavours from sugary to sour, savory and spicy came together beautifully to stimulate one’s palate. And now I turn to using green mangoes in place of papaya, for Som Tam Mamuang. Needless to say, it was equally, if not even more moreish and appetite whetting!
Whenever we visit Taiwan, we love to bring back some of their local delights home. The usual culprits would be their 凤梨酥 pineapple cakes, 咔哩咔哩 twirly rice crackers and more recently organic fruit conserves using local fruits. But we also like to buy back some ingredients and condiments to prepare some dishes which allows us to savour those unique yet familiar flavours. Their 龙眼蜜 longan honey is more superior than those produced in Thailand while their 黑酱油 dark soya sauce is more aromatic than the varieties we get back home. Oh oh oh! And we love their seasonal fruits of course like 玉荷包 lychees and 艾文 mangoes! Quite recently, I was recommended by a friend，SF to try the Taiwanese pickled manjack berries known locally as 树子 shu zi, or more colloquially in Taiwanese dialect as 破布子 po bu zi. I love the Taiwanese 豆腐乳 fermented beancurd cubes so I thought their pickled manjack berries couldn’t taste that bad. And indeed, it was love at first bite!
Taiwan is famous for many of their local snack-like delights called “小吃” which literally means “small eats“. As the name implies, many of these snacks come in small portions which aren’t enough to fill the stomach at one go. Nor is it meant to, as that is the exact intention, i.e. to allow one to sample as many of these different local “small eats” as possible. Tainan, as I’d written previously, is the origin of many local “small eats”, largely brought over by the migration wave from China during the mid Qing Dynasty. Many of these have very humble beginnings as street food stall vendors which we call “hawkers” in this part of the world. Some of these hawkers did not even have a permanent stall, but instead, carried their food, cooking ware, and everything else wherever they go , in two large bamboo baskets delicately balanced by a thick bamboo pole called 擔仔 Dan Zai or “tah-ah” over the shoulders. This was most characteristic to those who sold glutinous rice dumplings colloquially known as “bak chang” (肉粽), often heard before they are seen walking down the alleys of residential areas peddling their bak chang late in the evening. Wafts of aroma from these freshly steamed glutinous rice dumplings wrapped into a pyramidal shape by bamboo leaves permeated the cool air of the night as one hears the familiar calls “烧肉粽!” or “shio bak chang!” in Taiwanese Hokkien. This often set one’s tummy a rumbling, dashing down to buy a bak chang or two from the hawker before his calls fade away as he vanishes around the corner.
Like bak chang, many other street food vendors too make use of these baskets with bamboo poles to peddle their ware. Another signature “small eat” from Tainan comes in the form of small bowls of fresh noodles in piping hot soup, embellished with an assortment of condiments. The noodles were also initially peddled around the streets of Tainan with makeshift stoves and baskets carrying crockery straddled across a 擔仔 bamboo pole, and that is how its name 擔仔麵 Dan Zai Noodles came about…