A Sunday morning walk seemed the perfect idea, especially when after several days in a foreign land, mostly taking in touristy sights. The weather was all right, warm above twenty degrees Celsius, although with a cloudy outlook. We wanted to feel what a weekend can be for the Shantou locals, and not just in trying the food, but in aiming to have a grassroots perspective.
Shantou, or Santow in Teochew, has its origins from the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), and experienced massive devastation during the 1922 typhoon. Almost a hundred years later, the city has bounced back, in no small part due to the grit, determination and passion of its people. The Tropic of Cancer passes just north of the city and so the area has a sub-tropical climate.
After a quick snappy breakfast of millet porridge and steamed buns, we eagerly propelled ourselves to the street markets located only a few roads away. There we were, savouring in what must be lost in contemporary cities that have moved the provision of food to climate controlled bland buildings.
Our first impressions were the sheer sight of eager but small businesses laying out their fresh produce on stalls out of a moveable table, or sited in what seems to be a hole in the wall. More was to follow, like the buzz of commerce in eager eyes and careful buyers. The colour, chatter and connectivity between producer and consumer. The energy of butchering, crafting and cooking skills. The sheer urgency to break even in trade and money before the sun rises up too high over the southern China coast.
Yellow bean curd for cooking, freshly made each day.
I was convinced, that day, I was brought back in time to a few decades earlier. The streets are retro but were mostly clean, save for some debris discarded from the relentless push to sell and the passing by of market goers. This was what perhaps Western society calls a wet market - and the stalls ran around a few streets, lanes and side alleys.
The aisles between stalls could be the road itself or as narrow as a motor bike rider could push through, with wares and all. We looked ahead at where we were possibly heading whenever we turned into a new path, conscious of the unknown, excited at the possibilities and our senses fully in tune with what greeted us.
If I was to think of one sentence to describe Shantou, it is the adage of "the early bird catches the worm". And yet I am told that the Teochews love to participate in their midnight suppers.
Yes, I had planned for snacks like freshly steamed Teochew cakes, quick bites of savoury stuff and quaint drinks. In the end, I ended up not having an actual bite of anything, even as we strolled along a journey of the wonderful, interesting and captivating. Maybe we were too busily engrossed in discovering the new and the mysterious. I was fascinated by the craft of the butchers, with their speciality choppers , intense focus and experienced ways. And yet there are vegetables, fruits and seafood as well.
Whole legs of pig trotters, heads of goats and careful cuts of meat were displayed in a manner that opened my eyes but in another land, may have also made political correctness to display written warnings before one enters these markets. Some of the sellers recognised the presence of sticky beak visitor-photographers who are intent to record everything on their dangling equipment. Other let it be and were tolerant. I was happy to record a lifestyle that is still vibrant in Shantou but have disappeared from many neighbourhood markets long ago.
Shantou oranges are well known, especially in south-east Asia and appreciated during the Lunar New Year.
I had set my eyes and taste buds on these biscuits.
The aroma, the sounds and the overall feel all rolled for a contented me. This to me illustrated a real holiday, where one does not sit on deck chairs for long hours but gets immersed in the every day life, the practical regime and the soul of the locals. I wondered what dishes the local women were planning for their kitchens with their fresh purchases of the day.
This was Guangdong province, where it is a must and tradition to source fresh and to eat fresh. Many market goers knew their suppliers well. My group of six engaged to obtain the roast goose - not any goose, but that of the Lion head. This is a goose species that was larger than usual. There were already a few stalls that were selling the roasted versions and we had seen the live noisy quacking ones in some farms miles away from here.
Lotus flower roots, ingredients for soups and stir fries.
The buildings surrounding the markets can be quaint and could have seen better times, but truly on closer inspection, there are pockets of renovation, columns of wear and tear and echoes of previous prosperity. Would I have preferred gleaming marbled walls, smooth and seamless floors and a uniformity of what seems to be modern business architecture? Absolutely not!
In my mind and attitude, the character is enhanced of the place with all this sincere heritage look. Times may not have been good when you see cheap tiles, cracked walls and rusty facades, but they all tell a story of frugality, weather worn effects and previous building periods. Shantou is truly an old city harking back to hundreds of years, but the people are determined, passionate and hard working. There is a certain rare charm about Shantou that one misses in so called modern hubs....is it the accumulated work of various generations, or is it the hope that bounces out of every child we meet, dotted upon by loving grandparents? Is it in the way each trader conducts himself or herself in trade? I find there is, underlying all things, a desire to improve one's lot.
Can someone please educate me on what this is? Could they be the pork jelly, or Ter Ka Dang in Teochew?
In the West, we yearn for the slow movement, in trying to shorten the journey of food and produce from source to our dining table. Here in Shantou, I see this happening, even in the second decade of the 21st century. The cynic in us may also raise doubts as to the integrity of the food, as to whether excess pesticides are used, as to whether farm animals have been humanely kept and whether there are any artificialities like plastic used in producing rice and milk.
To me, the answer is simple - we use our own judgement in the taste of the food we choose to eat - and we ensure that we are moderate in consuming any thing. Richness is in variety - and from what we saw in the Shantou markets, this was a place of what it means to be truly living. There are grains and nuts, shelled fish and swimming seafood; there are meats and other parts of grazing animals; there are the vegetables the goodness of edible flora; there are home made creations of desserts, biscuits and cakes; and there are snacks and drinks.
The much desired roast Lion Heads.
I admired the detailed dedication of this young butcher in attending to his art and livelihood.
Steamed, baked, poached, braised or stir fried ? I pass by the oyster omelettes and duck in soups enhanced in taste by preserved vegetables. Dumplings can be filled with a combination of dried shrimps, chives, ground pork, peanuts, mushrooms and radish. The fish are best steamed, the duck is often braised and the chicken poached. Congee is served thinner when compared to their cousins in Guangzhou.
I noted that there are not many diary based products here, being away from the temperate zone. Shantou cuisine emphasises on using garlic, ginger, bean curds, soy based seasonings, dried and fresh seafood, rice based mixtures and vegetables.
Known in Singapore as Png Kueh, these pink lovelies stand out amongst the crowd.
Eggs are preserved by coatings on the outside of the shell and the result is a pickled snack that can be used when required.
Every corner and space is utilised to create a tight neighbourhood.
Some may question the standards of cleanliness of such outdoor markets, but as long as one consumes food and drink that is made in front of you, or well cooked, you do not have to worry. I am more interested in the harmonious combination of textures and flavours that Teochew cuisine can offer. Some dishes are bland but have accompanying sauces that uplift the taste. There is no extensive use of chillies as in Sichuan culinary traditions, nor the variety of grills as in the north of China. What then does Teochew food stress upon?
In the Guangdong practice and preference, freshness is important. In Teochew cuisine, subtlety is also appreciated, like in the proper making of broths and stock soup. At the same time, the preferred tea blend is an Oolong called the Tei Guan Yin, named in honour of the Goddess of Mercy, prepared and offered as Gong Fu tea. To my understanding, this all smacks of a common theme - that of attention to details, whether in the precise cut of a meat, the fine texture of vegetables so they can absorb flavours and condiments or in the lifting up of seafood to its fresh best.
The flurry of activity at these Shantou markets make me forget that this is part of a country ruled by the Communist Party. The desire to be self-sustaining at the individual and family level underlying this model in China is an alternative to a government having to provide extensive social security benefits, like in Western nations.
Maybe we are all caught up too much with economic and political labels. In Shantou, I witnessed sheer human drive, a smart way of doing things and a strong sense of community and family. These factors are important to any culture and nation.I urge anyone to come visit China to see the reality and to realise the difference from the buzz that can permeate Western media.
The versatility that Shantou displays can be illustrated in its variety of working and living languages - Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin. It is like at the crossroads of culture and trade locally and regionally. The people you meet at the markets just want to complete a deal and move on.
There is this traditional utilisation of red coloured focus lamps at roast meat stalls. Shown here are the Lion Head Goose.
These may not be for the faint hearted, but emphasises a good practice to use every part of the bird or animal.
Lion Head goose are special to the culinary heritage of Shantou and its heartland - there are stewed and roast versions, of which I prefer the latter. Spices, sauces and wine are used to marinade the goose in both versions. The goose is more gangly than duck, more earthy than chicken and the roast from Shantou has a deeper bite.
The unique Teochew sauce is the Sha Cha Jiang (in Mandarin) made from several ingredients of Brill fish, soybean oil, garlic, shallots, dried shrimp and chillies. A mate suggested that this is not to be confused with the Sriracha sauce made in California but originating from Thailand - and making waves in fusion food and ethnic suburbs around Western countries.
Snacks and biscuits, including several that use sesame seed.
This guy is not selling food, but demonstrating the various uses of his cooking utensils.