Teochew Mooncakes: A Big Tease


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This time last year, I was in Singapore, learning how to make mooncakes, learning about my family.

The lessons in the kitchen were both informative and intense. Along with their braised duck recipes, the women in my family imparted their tales, their advice. I won't go into detail — you'll just have to buy the book when it comes out in February.

But I found myself thinking about my aunties and their life lessons as the Mid-Autumn Festival (which falls today) approached and mooncakes began appearing in Chinatown stores. The celebration, also known as the Mooncake festival, marks the day that the moon is supposedly the brightest during the year. In Singapore, we also call it the lantern festival because it's the night that children wielding lanterns in the shape of dragons, dogs, even Hello Kitty, take to parks and playgrounds to create a river of bobbing lights. 

In China, the celebration also commemorates the 14th Century rebellion against the reigning Mongols. Members of the resistance spread word about their planned uprising via notes tucked into cakes, which they smuggled to sympathizers.

While I learned to make traditional mooncakes in Singapore — filled with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks — my aunties also taught me a version that's indigenous to my Chinese ethnic group, the Teochews. Filled with sweet mashed yam and wrapped in a decorative rippled fried dough, these "mooncakes" were simpler, less cloying — and just lovely with a hot cup of Oolong. 

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Shantou: Going Home


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Some girls are Daddy’s little princesses — as for me, I was more like Daddy’s little eating partner.

My dad and I, our obsessions are numerous. But the one dish that we find ourselves constantly craving is ta meepok (also known as meepok ta), a tagliatelle-like Chinese noodle that’s tossed with bits of crunchy, fried pork lard in a chili-soy-black vinegar sauce and topped with fish balls, fish cakes and bits of minced or sliced pork.

It’s a simple dish by the Teochews, an ethnic Chinese group, that we’d eat for breakfast in Singapore every day if we could. (More important, if our bodies could handle it.)

So the moment I landed in the Teochew city of Shantou, China, for our trip back to the village where my great-grandfather was born, I knew what we had to eat right away.

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Mooncakes: The Taste of Sweet Rebellion


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You know you’re walking into a hardcore kitchen when the first thing you see is stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with gorgeous home-made mooncakes.

The women on my Dad’s side of the family in Singapore — they’re fearless cooks.

Pineapple tarts, bak-zhang (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), black vinegar-braised pig’s trotters? They could whip those together with their eyes closed.

Recently, however, the task at hand was Chinese mooncakes, eaten to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls this Saturday.

Now, there are a few old stories that explain the reason for eating these little cakes, which usually are filled with sweet lotus-seed paste and come either with a thin, baked crust or a soft, pliant dough skin that’s scented with pandan, a vanilla-like flavoring used in many Southeast Asian desserts. My favorite is the one of Ming revolutionaries planning to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China during the Yuan dynasty and spreading word via letters baked into mooncakes. (Julia Child would’ve been so proud!)

During my Singaporean girlhood, I’d known the stories, I’d eaten the cakes. As for making them? That seemed so laughably difficult it never once crossed my mind.

It turns out, however, they’re incredibly easy to make — you just need the right teachers.

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Braised Duck A L'Aunty Alice


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When I think of the family feasts of my Singapore girlhood, there’s always a duck in the picture.

To say that my people — that would be the Teochew ethnic group from Southern China — adore duck would be a major understatement. During a recent trip to Shantou, the area in China where my great-grandfather lived as a boy, duck and goose were inescapable at every dinner table.

So it’s more than slightly sacrilegious to say that I often avoid duck simply because it isn’t one of my favorites. (Hey, I’m a big hunk of red meat kind of gal — what can I say?)

I do make an exception for some versions, however — and Teochew-style braised duck is one of them.

While I’m really good at eating it, making it is another matter altogether. But this was something my Aunty Alice, the best cook among my mother and her sisters, was intent on fixing right away.

On a recent weekday, she arrived at my Singapore home armed with two ducks and a bag of ingredients and the tutorial began…

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Singapore: Grilling The Satay Man


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I’ve been on a hunt.

The object of my obsession has been a man who is one of the last of his kind in Singapore — the traveling Satay Man, a person of a breed so rare that, sadly, he’s not likely to be replaced when he finally he hangs up his tongs.

For the last 32 years, this particular satay man has plied his trade almost every day in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood in central Singapore. He spends hours pushing his little wooden cart along the narrow sidewalks near Tiong Bahru market, pausing occasionally to bellow, “Sa-TAAYYYYYY! Sa-TAAYYYYYY!”

Those who live there know to run down quickly when they hear him — you never know how long he’ll stop for. And, at 40 cents (about 28 U.S. cents) for a stick of satay, he often sells out pretty quickly.

I’m happy to report that I finally did catch him. And the news, I fear, is not good.

At 43 years old, he’s looking to quit. There’s a home in China he’s dreaming of retiring to, you see. As soon as he can comfortably close shop for good, he’s gone.

For now, however, he’s got a job to do. And what a job it is — after having tasted his satay, I rank this guy up there with Santa Claus in the “bringing joy (and calories) to folks” category.

Seriously, people, we’ve got to find a way to clone him.

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