CHAOSHAN CUISINE: PURE, CLEAN FLAVOR
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.
Deep-fried traditional Teochew liver rolls at Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cuisine.