A table full of dishes of Teochew cuisine.
Food & Drink

Tracing Roots through Teochew Food

In between mouthfuls of crab noodles, amidst the clatter of chopsticks and clinking glasses, I was drinking Tsingtao beer at a round table laden with food and wishing it were ice cold.

It is not uncommon for beer to be served at room temperature in this part of the world.

The welcome banquet was held on the grounds of a small stainless steel kitchenware factory, owned by one of our distant relatives. Any drop in eating pace would be punctuated by enthusiastic and repeated proddings of “Jiak!”, or Teochew for “eat”.

Men and women sat at different tables in a kind of convenient sexist arrangement no one ever questions. The dull clank of foot-operated light machinery could be heard in the background as we feasted.

We were in Chaozhou, a city in Guangdong in southeastern China where my ancestors hail from, the first time for all of us save my mother.

I didn’t know the difference between Chaozhou and Shantou before I went there. Now I know they are two different cities in the Chaoshan region, a region named after these two cities, about more than an hour’s drive apart.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the large-scale migration of Teochews to escape poverty, war and famine. Many left for Southeast Asia, notably Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia, then further afield to France, the United States and Canada.

By some estimates, there are 50 million people of Teochew descent scattered across the world today.

“It was surreal to be with my mother, decades later, in the village where she had spent her childhood.”

This was the first time my mother was back in Chaozhou since she took the slow boat to Malaysia as a child in 1957, with her mother and her great-grandmother, just before Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign that led to the deaths of tens of millions.

It was surreal to be with my mother, decades later, in the village where she had spent her childhood, seeing faded Communist slogans on some of the walls and stepping into the same cramped living quarters she had shared with her mother, now occupied by a migrant worker.

My mother grew up in Malaysia and eventually migrated to Singapore to marry my father, a second-generation Chinese Singaporean, who is also Teochew.

Most of my life I didn’t make much of my Teochew identity.

Growing up, I was embarrassed to speak Teochew, one of the few Chinese dialects retaining archaic vocabulary from Old Chinese which sounds completely unintelligble to Mandarin speakers. I couldn’t understand why my mom, who could speak Mandarin, insisted on speaking Teochew to me in public.

Years later, I was glad she had persisted.

For me, being part of the Teochew diaspora is pretty much about speaking Teochew as well as observing certain rituals and traditions such as the coming-of-age ceremony at 15 years old. 

Then there’s food, an aspect of Teochew heritage so fundamental you could see it in Teochew communities the world over. The first thing my family did after putting our bags down at the hotel in Shantou was to head out to see where we could get dinner.

We didn’t have to walk far. There was a bustling eatery not far from the hotel we couldn’t have missed even if we wanted to. 

Teochew cuisine is characterized by fresh seafood and ingredients, usually seasoned lightly to bring out the natural flavors. The offerings at this fluorescent-lit streetside stall probably cover most aspects of Teochew cuisine and, to me, this no-frills venue was the ideal place to sample it.

“Then there’s food, an aspect of Teochew heritage so fundamental you could see it in Teochew communities the world over.”

We were greeted with a spectacular display of prepared dishes such as raw marinated crabs, braised meats and salt-poached fish as well as raw ingredients including shellfish and Asian greens, all neatly arranged in rows to facilitate pointing and ordering.

The raw marinated crabs were tempting but I did not want to risk an upset tummy at the start of the trip to ruin our family holiday. Instead we ordered dishes like steamed fish, generously garnished with chilli and spring onion curls the way I like it, salt-and-pepper squid, and omelette with small but deliciously briny oysters the region is famous for.

Over the next few days, we met distant relatives from my maternal grandmother’s family in their newly-built multi-storeyed homes, an outcome of China’s economic reforms and opening up, and drank countless tiny cups of strong oolong tea, steeped and served on the spot in traditional gongfu style, in every home we stepped into.

With the help of our newly-connected relatives, we searched and located my father’s ancestral hometown, and also took a leisurely evening boatride, like locals do, on the Han River, known as the Mother River of the Teochew people, which passes through Shantou and Chaozhou.

I discovered my great-grandfather had operated a modest pastry shop still run by my grandmother’s family today, making traditional Teochew cakes and pastries, some of which could no longer be found in Singapore.

On days we were not visiting family in Chaozhou, we remained in Shantou to sightsee—and reconnect with our Teochew heritage through food, food that is familiar yet not quite the same, marked by small differences characteristic of local preferences and influences over time in Singapore.

As we slurped slippery rice noodles, sometimes with fishballs, other times with beef balls and offal, and strolled past crumbling shophouses in various states of disrepair in Shantou’s old town, it was almost bizarre to hear Teochew spoken everywhere, a language that has long been relegated to family gatherings and hawker centres in Singapore partly because of the government’s push to popularize Mandarin since 1979.

Tracing my ancestry, it was also hard not to think how my life would have taken on a wildly different trajectory if my mom had not left Communist China. Well, I might not even have been born since she would have never met my dad.

Today, as a mother of two young half-Chinese Singaporean children, I’m still not done figuring out my own identity but one thing I’m sure of is the need for them to have Teochew first names, like mine, a practice that is slowly disappearing in Singapore partly due to the lack of a standardized Teochew romanization system.

Likewise, just as I had reconnected with my Teochew identity through the various food and flavors of my childhood, I suppose I am trying to build the same foundations for my children today.

I am secretly joyous that my almost-five-year-old is a fan of her grandmother’s salt-poached fish, sugar-glazed sweet potato and taro, and birthday noodles in sweet red date longan broth—Teochew food she does not yet know will be key in unlocking the process to explore her own identity one day.

Written By Wee Ling Soh Writer & Photographer Wee Ling Soh is a Singapore-based freelance writer and photographer with a soft spot for street food.
Wee Ling Soh is a Singapore-based freelance writer and photographer with a soft spot for street food.