CHAOSHAN CUI­SINE: PURE, CLEAN FLA­VOR

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TASTE - Edi­tor’s note:

To un­der­stand China, sit down to eat. Food is the in­de­struc­tible bond that holds the so­cial fab­ric to­gether. It is also one of the last strong bonds of com­mu­nity and cul­ture.

The twin cities of Chaozhou and Shan­tou form the larger Chaoshan re­gion and have been his­tor­i­cally linked for more than a thou­sand years. Mod­ern bound­aries now place the re­gion in­side Guang­dong prov­ince, but its his­toric, lin­guis­tic and culi­nary in­flu­ences lean more to­ward neigh­bor­ing Fu­jian.

In fact both Chaoshan cui­sine and its Fu­jian cousin share many sim­i­lar dishes, in­gre­di­ents and cook­ing meth­ods. But tell that to a chef from ei­ther side and you are likely to ig­nite a bat­tle of culi­nary al­le­giance.

When I was grow­ing up in Sin­ga­pore, we en­joyed the best of both and never both­ered to de­lin­eate the dif­fer­ences. A lot of clas­sic Chi­nese dishes in South­east Asia, es­pe­cially in Thai­land, re­flect Chaoshan or Teochew in­flu­ence be­cause so many im­mi­grants had come from the re­gion. So what is Chaoshan cui­sine? Tra­di­tion­ally, the fla­vors are pure and clean, with light broths and a pro­lif­er­a­tion of seafood and poul­try. The Chaoshan chef val­ues the nat­u­ral fla­vors of his in­gre­di­ents, which must be very fresh in­deed.

As such, the most fa­vored method of cook­ing is by steam­ing so that juices are locked in, es­pe­cially for seafood. A long, slow brais­ing is used to ex­tract the fullest fla­vors from meats, es­pe­cially duck, goose and pork. Deep-fry­ing is used, but only oc­ca­sion­ally.

Chaoshan cui­sine can be roughly di­vided into street food and for­mal dishes. The street food is well known and much sought af­ter. Ban­quet dishes are more lo­cal­ized and not so widely broad­cast.

Omelets us­ing sweet potato or wa­ter chest­nut starches as a base are pop­u­lar snacks. Top­pings may in­clude veg­etable mar­rows, silky gourds or luffa, clams, cock­les, prawns or crab.

The most fa­mous is prob­a­bly the oys­ter omelet with a sa­vory crisp base of egg and starch and ten­der morsels of shucked shell­fish.

An­other spe­cialty is a fish-ball noo­dle that has trav­eled far and wide and can be found in food courts all over South­east Asia with fish cakes, fish meat­balls and dumplings with skins made from fish paste. Th­ese de­light­ful morsels are served with wheat noo­dles or rice flour noo­dles, in soup or tossed with spicy vine­gar­based sauces.

Pop­u­lar with grass­roots tra­di­tion­al­ists, kuay chap is “rice noo­dles in gravy”. Sheets of un­cut rice noo­dles are served in fla­vor­ful braised of­fal soup that ex­pertly uses af­ford­able off-cuts like lungs, liver, in­testines and var­i­ous tofu prod­ucts.

In the for­mal din­ing room, the Chaoshan chefs are no less in­no­va­tive.

First on the ta­ble are ap­pe­tiz­ers. Pig trot­ter jelly is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the chef ’s fru­gal­ity. This is a col­la­gen-rich dish made by slow-cook­ing pig feet un­til they melt off the bone. The meat, skin and ten­dons are then Ngo­hHiang stripped off and poured into a con­tainer with the cook­ing liq­uid, and chilled un­til firm be­fore be­ing sliced and served.

Up next may be rolls of prawns or liver, wrapped in tofu skin and deep­fried. Minced prawns and pork are bonded with sweet potato starch and rolled into lit­tle por­tions. They are called hae cho, or prawn dates, be­cause they look like gi­ant Chi­nese ju­jubes.

How­ever, I was told prawn rolls are not the orig­i­nal recipe, and the truly au­then­tic roll calls for liver from ei­ther a goose or duck. A sort of Chaozhou foie gras in a wrap­per.

It makes sense in a cui­sine where noth­ing goes to waste, be­cause braised goose or duck is an­other ma­jor fea­ture. The birds are stewed long and slow in a gravy spiced with cin­na­mon, ginger and shal­lots. One dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tic is that the DouShuang duck or goose is al­ways served boned, in del­i­cate sliv­ers neatly ar­ranged on top of ten­der fried tofu whose sole pur­pose is to soak up the aro­matic cin­na­mon-scented gravy.

Only a mas­ter chef can suc­ceed in achiev­ing a ten­der bird that still holds its shape well when sliced that thinly.

An­other art is the per­fectly steamed fish. Like his Can­tonese peers, the Chaoshan chefs’ lit­mus test is pro­duc­ing a steamed fish that is un­sul­lied by heavy sauces. Un­like Can­tonese chefs, how­ever, they do not douse their steamed fish with oil and sauces af­ter it is re­moved from the pan.

In­stead, fla­vor­ing is added dur­ing the steam­ing. The most com­monly used fla­vors are shred­ded, salted mus­tard stems, salt-wa­ter-pick­led plums and tomato slices to add a bal­ance of sweet­ness and tart­ness.

Chaoshan lies close to the coast, and plen­ti­ful seafood is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble. Mul­let, pom­fret and sea bass are fa­vored fish va­ri­eties. They also like to steam large crabs, prawns and squid and leave the dishes to chill be­fore serv­ing.

What­ever the choice of in­gre­di­ent, the cook’s mis­sion is al­ways to pre­serve and present na­ture’s orig­i­nal fla­vors.

Seafood is of­ten eaten with a dip of salted yel­low soy­bean with shred­ded ginger and sliced chili.

The Chaoshan sweet tooth is well known, and desserts served at the end of the meal can be eye-open­ers.

One of the most fa­mous is orr nee, a sweet puree made of taro or yam. Pieces of root are steamed un­til ten­der, and then mashed. The puree is then pa­tiently stir-fried with sugar and shal­lot-in­fused oil un­til it turns into a smooth glis­ten­ing paste, which is served gar­nished with stewed sweet pump­kin and ginkgo nuts.

Can­died yams are an­other spec­tac­u­larly sim­ple sweet. Yam pieces are painstak­ingly wok-fried in a sat­u­rated sugar syrup un­til the liq­uid dries and forms a crust. The heat fin­ishes the yam off to a dry fluffi­ness. Con­trasted with the crusty sugar coat­ing it is a great pair­ing of tex­tures and fla­vors.

Any cui­sine that stands the test of time and dis­tance must have its mer­its, and Chaoshan cui­sine is cer­tainly right up there in the honor roll, de­spite a rather un­der­stated pro­file in its home coun­try.

Clockwise from top left: Teochew braised duck; Teochew style steamed pom­fret; sugar en­crusted deep fried yam sticks; Teochew nuts; deep fried rolls; sweet yam paste with pump­kin and ginkgo nuts.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

with ginkgo

Deep-fried tra­di­tional Teochew liver rolls at Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cui­sine.

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