Chinese Cuisine's Southern Comfort


Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

The moment the bowl of porridge hit the table at Singapore's Swa Garden Restaurant, I knew we were at a solid Teochew restaurant.

The liquid was just slightly milky, yet clear enough that I could make out individual grains of rice. And the rice was done perfectly—soft enough that it practically melted on the tongue, yet not so soft that the grains had disintegrated into mush. The dish tasted plain and clean—satisfying on its own, but also a lovely foil for the subtle-tasting dishes we knew were on their way.

A giant fish came steamed with ginger, tomatoes, and preserved plums—the hallmark of steamed Teochew fish.

Porridge is something that, like rice or potatoes in the United States, is often taken for granted in a Chinese dinner tableau. But in a Teochew meal, muay (as porridge is called in the dialect of this Chinese ethnic group) is the backbone. And here at Swa Garden, after tasting the muay, I knew we were in good hands.

After spending months learning how to cook Teochew dishes from my relatives in Singapore, I had been keen to sample the cuisine in a restaurant. Sure, I'd learned to make the braised duck and the salted vegetable soup of my people—but I was curious to see how the professionals did it.

Teochew cuisine, which originally hailed from the Shantou region in Southern China, is one that has its roots in necessity. Fish was abundant in the nearby waters, so steamed fish with ginger became a staple. Yams and sweet potatoes proliferated in the fields, so not only were they turned into desserts such as or nee, a gooey soup made with sweetened, mashed yams, but sweet potato leaves also became the vegetable of choice many stir-fries.

When I recently found out that Ignatius Chan, chef-owner of a well-regarded, high-end restaurant in Singapore called Iggy's, was also Teochew, of course I asked where he thought the best food of our kaki-nang (or "own people") could be found. Swa Garden it was.

As soon as I could plan it, we—along with Willin Low, another Singapore chef who grew up in a Teochew enclave and is well-versed in the cuisine—trekked to Swa Garden to check out its offerings.

The food started arriving the moment we sat down. Iggy, as he prefers, had called ahead to order some of his favorites that often sell out pretty early. Pomegranate chicken was one. This dish, named not because it has pomegranate in it (which it doesn't) but because this deep-fried beggar's purse containing chicken and minced vegetables resembles the fruit, arrived hot and delicious. Bite into the tongue-searing crust and an avalanche of diced chicken spills out. You find yourself wishing you were gauche enough not to care about picking up bits with your fingers and popping them into your mouth.

A giant fish came steamed with ginger, tomatoes, and preserved plums—the hallmark of steamed Teochew fish. The plums, though salty, also lend a sweetness to the fish and its juices, which are lovely drizzled over piping hot muay or rice. Prawn balls came crispy and perfectly fried. A dish of yellow chives stir-fried with prawns was unfussy and fresh. And the pièce de resistance was goose wing braised in a super-sweet, dark soy sauce—deboned and so tender that it was almost like eating cotton puffs.

As the eating slowed, Iggy and Willin explained what they admire about this cuisine, which is intrinsically peasant food—a far cry from the complicated Western or East-meets-West dishes that they serve in their restaurants. (Both chefs noted, however, that they've tried to add elements of Teochew cooking to their menus. Iggy once served a ravioli with a reduced Teochew-style braised duck sauce, while Willin has a pasta with braised duck ragu on his menu.)

"We are so exposed to very trendy, new, fine-dining dishes that sometimes you just want to go back to your childhood days," said Iggy, whose early memories of eating out involve his uncles taking him to Teochew restaurants as a special treat. "It's very comforting."

As for Willin, he isn't kaki-nang but he grew up with a Teochew aunt who cared for him daily, plying him with homecooked muays along the way. The chef, who is best known for Singaporean-Western dishes like laksa pesto pasta at his Wild Rocket restaurant, said he often finds himself craving the simplicity of the dishes he grew up eating. "It's very cheng," he said, using the Chinese word for "clear." "You don't have so many different flavors fighting for your attention."

At the meal, I realized why I'd never sought out Teochew food outside of home-cooked family dinners. The urge when eating out is often to seek out the daring and the flavorful—whether it's fiery Sichuan dishes or hearty Indian curries.

As dish after dish at Swa Garden came out, however, the subtlety of Teochew flavors began to grow on me. Willin was right when he praised Teochew food for being cheng.

The best dish turned out to be the most basic. It was a simple omelet scrambled with chye poh, or salted radish. The eggs were fluffy, and the chye poh lent the dish a deliciously salty earthiness.

Two ingredients, two flavors. And yet weeks later, it's still seared on my mind.