Eat your way through Chaoshan
Although Chinese chefs can debate ad nauseam about what "true" Shanghainese or Sichuan cuisine is, there's one regional cuisine, Chaoshan -- an area I recently traveled through -- whose food has stayed true to its roots over time.
Chaoshan is a coastal region located in east Guangdong Province on the border of Fujian.
Although part of China’s eastern seaboard, Chaoshan lags behind the other economic powerhouses on the Pearl River Delta, keeping to itself with many of the residents speaking a dialect -- locals claim it's one of the oldest in China -- incomprehensible to both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. Relative economic and linguistic isolation (most people do also speak Mandarin) has helped maintain the area's local traditions, which has turned into a boon for foodies.
Chaoshan cuisine, similar to Cantonese cooking, builds meals around fresh seafood, poultry and vegetables.
One of my favorite outings when there visiting my wife's family there is going to the local market in the mornings, when local farmers bring in their freshly picked vegetables and other products for sale.
Once fresh produce is bought, most cooking is done by steaming or stir-frying, and to a lesser degree, deep frying.
Unlike Cantonese food where barbecued meat is arguably one of the more representative dishes, the most famous culinary method in this region is marinated broth stew (卤水), where poultry (especially local geese) and other meat are slow cooked in a highly flavored broth.
Chaoshan cooking is also characterized by use of different ingredients such as galangal, Chinese basil and pickled vegetables. There are also unique local sauces such as puning soya bean sauce, shantou sweet and spicy sauce, garlic white vinegar sauce and fermented fish sauce.
Char Kway Teow (炒粿条), rice porridge (糜), fish ball soup noodles (鱼蛋粉) and oyster omelets (蚝烙) are some of the must-try dishes in the area. They're best served not in restaurants though, but sampled at street-side hawker stands and at small family-style restaurants. Grab some chopsticks and dig in.
Char Kway Teow (炒粿条)
As rice is abundant in the region, Chaoshan chefs produces an assortment of rice sheets which are then steamed and cut by hand into various widths, transforming them into rice noodles (or rice strips).
The name of this dish is the literal translation of the way the dish is prepared: stir-fried rice strips.
Stir fried over high heat in a wok, Chinese scallion and diced garlic are added to this simple vegetarian staple. The dish has become popular outside of Chaoshan, and is serves throughout Southeast Asia with various meats and sauces added.
In Chaoshan, Char Kway Teow is served only with chili paste to jazz up the flavor.
Fish ball noodle soup (鱼蛋粉)
Lying on Guangdong’s coast, there's no shortage of seafood in Chaoshan, and the abundance of fish is often used to create fish balls -- fillets of fish are crushed into balls or fishcakes, which are then lightly fried.
The fish balls and thinly sliced fishcakes are often then boiled together with the aforementioned hand-cut rice noodles in clear broth to make a hearty bowl of fish ball noodle soup, accompanied by a few leaves of vegetable as garnish.
In addition to being popular in its home region, this popular dish can be found in many Hong Kong restaurants, and variations abound in South-East Asian countries.
Oyster omelet (蚝烙)
In additional having an abundance of fresh fish, the Chaoshan coastline is also home to large shellfish farms. Clams, cockles, oysters and conch are local favorites.
As the name suggests, this dish combines freshly shucked oyster meat and egg batter.
There are several methods of preparing an oyster omelet, but the simplest is a mix of egg batter, oyster meat, corn starch, coriander and seasonings, which is then fried in vegetable oil.
Before serving, a few fresh coriander leaves and grounded white pepper powder are sprinkled on top as garnish.
Rice porridge (糜)
For breakfast, Chaoshan rice porridge is accompanied by a myriad of condiments ranging from pickled cabbage and radish, to cold steamed fish, dried shrimp, marinated baby squid and fried tofu. Even a locally produced, bit size, fresh cheese that resembles feta can be added. Far more interesting than some of Shanghai’s often bland congee.
For lunch and dinner, this dish is eaten plain after all the main dishes are served, supposedly to aid digestion.
Another type of rice porridge is called clay pot rice porridge, where raw rice and water are cooked in a large clay pot over high heat. Found in many Chaoshan region food stalls, this dish can also include meat, fish or vegetable for extra flavor, including bull frog, pork ribs and sea crabs.
Gong fu tea (功夫茶)
To aid digestion, gong fu tea is a staple of Chaoshan meals -- the daily beverage of choice throughout Chaoshan region.
Mostly brewed in an iron goddess, pu’er or the locally grown fried tea leaves are essentially Chinese espresso: half a cup of loose tea leaves are brewed with equal amount of water in a teapot.
What results is a concentrated, strong tea that's poured and sipped in a tiny egg-holder size teacup.
The tea leaves, according to the quality, can then be re-brewed several times.
By adding more boiling water to the teapot, different flavors will develop as the tea leaves gradually open up with each re-brew, just like a bottle of good wine that develops as it breathes.