Taishan is a city in south-western Guangdong, China, that is famous for exporting people, which is why it is often called the “first home of the overseas Chinese”. In America alone, over 500,000 Chinese Americans are said to be of Taishanese descent.
In fact, dig a little deeper and you’ll find quite a starry line-up of people who descend from Taishan, including Hollywood silent movie actress Anna May Wong, Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen and Australian chef Kylie Kwong.
I learnt all this while speaking to home cook Nicole Ann Ho Choon Fah, a 52-year-old second generation Malaysian whose eyes still gleam with pride when she talks about the homeland of her ancestors.
Ho grew up in a kampung in Butterworth, Penang, where many of her elders originated from China. This fostered a culture of constant culinary exchange that spurred the safe-keeping of many heritage recipes. In fact, her own mother, 78-year-old Liang Kim Bee, learnt how to cook authentic traditional Taishan food from her grandmother, who hailed from Taishan.
“The elders made a lot of traditional cookies and dishes from China during festive seasons or even for everyday meals. So that’s how my mum learnt. And I spent a lot of time with her. Whatever she cooked, I observed and followed. Most of the time, she cooked traditional Taishanese food,” says Ho.
Which is how Ho grew up surrounded by the food of her forebears, an immersion process that has imbued her with a lot of pride in her culture and heritage. In a strange twist of fate, Ho married a man who also originates from Taishan and is just as passionate as she is about their roots. Which is why all three of Ho’s daughters can speak the Taishanese dialect (a dialect she says few Taishanese have preserved in Malaysia) and are able to cook the family’s traditional food.
“Now that my daughters have grown up, we make an effort to pass down the traditions so they are proud of their ancestors’ homeland. I have taught them all the heritage dishes, so they are able to make them independently,” she says.
Ho visited Taishan 10 years ago and was pleased to find that many of the dishes she makes here are similar to what can be found in Taishan. Like braised chicken with dried mandarin peel, which features a lightly nuanced but zesty sauce.
“This is normally our Chinese New Year dish, but now we cook it whenever we feel like it,” says Ho.
Dried mandarin peel is an element that Ho says is popular in Taishanese cuisine, but she always thought it came from normal oranges. Instead, on her trip to Taishan, she discovered that the skins of an inedible orange were used for this dish.
Then there is the rich and sumptuous dish of stewed lamb with sugar cane. Ho says people in Taishan often eat this warming meal at the start of winter. Although fresh sugar cane is a Taishan specialty, it’s harder to find it here, which is why Ho uses dried sugar cane instead.
“Our ancestors used to eat this meal during winter to warm their bodies. But because lamb is very heaty and the herbs are very heaty, they used a bit of sugar cane to tame it and also to add sweetness, so you don’t have to add sugar,” says Ho.
Glutinous rice balls and Chinese sausage soup features Taishan’s famed dried oysters. The dish is light and flavourful, and best served piping hot as it is another winter favourite. “Many years ago in Taishan, they used to serve this with spare parts like intestines and stomach. When times were better, they added more premium ingredients – my mum puts in prawns,” says Ho.
Another Taishan dish with glutinous rice is a dessert that Ho and her mother love to make and have perfected to a fine art.
“We normally make this for the first day of Chinese New Year because it is sweet and has a lot of auspicious elements. It is not difficult to make, but you must have a lot of patience to stir-fry the rice. Whether it’s nice or not all depends on the rice. In my kampung, we used to cook this over a wood fire, and it had such a nice smell,” says Ho, smiling
According to Ho, hardly anyone makes this dessert anymore. “My mother said that in the old days, when married daughters went back to their hometowns, they would make a lot of this dessert because it represented their gifts to their family. But now, I don’t see anybody doing this at all and people don’t seem to want to eat it anymore,” she says.
It is this element of tradition being wiped out over the years that has motivated Ho to press ahead and continue to cook heritage Taishanese dishes and encourage her daughters to do the same.
“I feel that very few people know about Taishanese food but I am very proud that I have had the chance to learn it. So I want more people to know how to do it, because it’s a dying art here,” she says.
BRAISED CHICKEN WITH DRIED MANDARIN PEEL
500g chicken, cut into pieces
10 mushrooms, soaked till soft, drain water
5 water chestnuts, peeled and cut into small pieces
6 red dates
5 cloves garlic, peeled
5g dried mandarin peel
1 tbsp fermented soya bean paste
1 piece dried bean curd skin
dash of salt
light soya sauce to taste
Put all the ingredients except bean curd skin, salt and soya sauce in a pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add bean curd skin and seasoning and simmer for another 10 minutes. Serve hot with rice.
GLUTINOUS RICE BALLS WITH CHINESE SAUSAGE SOUP
Serves 5 to 6
Glutinous rice balls
120g glutinous rice flour
8 medium sized dried oysters, soaked
30g dried scallops
4 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked and sliced
200g pork liver
20g dong cai (pickled vegetables), washed and squeezed dry
1 radish, sliced
2 tsp sesame oil
dash of pepper
1 piece Chinese sausage, thinly sliced
a few celery leaves, for garnishing
For the glutinous rice balls
Mix glutinous rice flour with water until it forms a dough. Pinch off a small portion and roll into a rice ball. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
In a pot of boiling water, cook the rice balls. When they float to the surface, scoop them out and drain excess water. Set aside.
For the soup base
In a pot, bring water to boil and add dried oysters, dried scallops, mushrooms, liver, dong cai, radish, sesame oil and pepper. Cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add Chinese sausage and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Put rice balls in bowls. Pour soup into bowls and garnish with celery. Serve hot.
STEWED LAMB WITH DRIED SUGAR CANE
Serves 5 to 6
500g lamb chops
3 tbsp oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled
200g dried sugar cane
3 pieces dong guai
1 piece nutmeg
3 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
1 tbsp fermented bean curd
soya sauce to taste
In a pot filled with boiling water, blanch lamb until the meat no longer smells. Drain the lamb.
In a clean wok, dry-fry lamb until water evaporates from the meat. Remove from the heat and set aside. Heat oil in another wok. Add ginger and garlic and stir until softened. Add the remaining ingredients and the lamb and stew for 30 minutes or until the meat is tender. Serve hot.
GLUTINOUS RICE BALL DESSERT
Serves 5 to 6
200g glutinous rice, washed and drained
5 pieces candied winter melon, finely chopped
5 red dates, seeded and finely chopped
To make syrup
In a pot, cook sugar and water till sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool.
To cook rice
In a clean wok, dry-fry rice on low heat until golden brown and aromatic. This should take 30 minutes or more. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Blend rice in a food processor till fine. Transfer to a bowl and add chopped candied winter melon and red dates (reserve some red dates for decoration).
Slowly pour in syrup and mix well to form a dough. Divide dough into small portions and shape by hand into balls. Arrange on a plate, stud with red dates and serve.