China. With over 1.3 billion tastebuds, food is truly at the heart of the Middle Kingdom. It is a foodie’s paradise, where one constantly stumbles upon something new, exotic and exciting – anywhere, anytime. I have already devoted numerous posts to exploring the delights of Chinese cuisine – from the fiery spices of Sichuan to the delicate dim sums of Canton, or some wokstar flair by yours truly. This summer, I explore the everyday culinary world of the Middle Kingdom, as I live it and eat my way through it. Our first stop: my hometown in the coastal south.
The Chaozhou region is at the northern tip of the thriving economic zone of Guangdong and close to neighbouring province of Fujian. It has traditionally been the home of many overseas Chinese (like me!) My grandmother lives in Shantou, a coastal town in this region which saw its rapid transformation from a fishing village to a busy port over the past three decades of economic reform. Luckily, it is not touristic and over-developed as other Chinese cities. In fact, it is little known outside China
Chaozhou cuisine makes the most of its natural endowments from its seaside location. Seafood is fresh, cheap, diverse, and plentiful, and found in almost every meal. Locals flee to the fish markets by the sea every morning to snap up the best catches of the day.
A well-known dish is ‘gao’, savoury and sweet cakes made from rice, corn, or potato flour with a variety of ingredients. Savoury gaos often consists of prawns, dried shrimps, mini clams, cured Chinese sausage, radish and shallots, served with a mild chilli sauce. Sweet gaos can have red bean, taro, peanut paste, black sesame, etc. Gaos are your typical Chao-Shan street food, found in every snack shops around the corner. As my cousin explains, ‘while not haute cuisine, it is likely to be the first meal you have with your first high school sweetheart’.
A perfect accompaniment to gaos, especially on a hot summer day, is a cool bowl of sweet soup (‘tang shui’). It is subtly sweet, with a mix of vegetarian delights such as lotus seeds, red dates, and wild fungus. It may also be served hot, which also makes it a perfect and nourishing dessert in the winter.
And no meal is complete without a special ‘kungfu tea’ ceremony, which I will explore in the next post.