A culture through food (The vastness of it all, One lifetime is probably not long enough … to sample the whole of Chinese cuisine)

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From history, a conquered population usually ends up blending their culture and lifestyle with those belonging to the conqueror who dominated them. Whatever the conqueror or invader had to offer would cover up a larger portion of those from the local people. Even though traces of the natives may remain, their cultures and traditions were very often lost forever. But that has never been the case with mainland Chinese people who were far from immune to attacks from outside. Their conquerors, the Mongolian and the Manchu, for example, instead assimilated their own food, customs, traditions and ways of life into those of the local Chinese whom they had overpowered. (Not to mention the Japanese and Korean who borrowed from the Chinese and thus have a similar Chinese background to date.) Suffice to say, China as a country when one first sets foot in it is overwhelmed by its vastness … everything is just big, big and big. By far, the Chinese civilization is the only civilization in the world that was never destroyed or swallowed up by others. Chinese culture, in particular their food, is so powerful and inspiring that it overshadowed even the most intense dishes from other cultures throughout the world. Foreigners, notably Westerners, were not able to nor did they intend to overtake or destroy the Chinese culture. Not only did foreigners mimic Chinese culture and inherit some of the traditions in conjunction with their own, but they also absorbed it to pass down from generation to generation. Sabah, a unique state in Malaysia and hardly lesser known, is no different as far as Chinese food is concerned.

 

For so long, Sabahans have felt put off by the suggestion from outsiders that there is nothing to eat in Sabah. But of course, whatever Chinese food is elsewhere can also be found and enjoyed in Sabah. Apart from her ethnic food, namely Kadazandusun, Bajau, Malay, Indian and Nyonya, the food from the Chinese community in Sabah is no less delicious, innovative, intense, and authentic than those elsewhere. And what better way to show a display of Chinese culinary marvel than during festivals. Older generations of Chinese may still refer to the Winter Solstice festival (Dec 22nd) as the greater and more significant celebration than the Lunar New Year. But not so for the younger generations of Chinese who believe the New Year is the biggest celebration on the Chinese calendar. Both festivals share the same theme … a time for family reunions. Chinese food is classified into eight great culinary traditions (Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong, Shandong, Jiangsu, Ansui, Fujian and Zhejiang) even though some people, gourmets especially, have good reason to believe there are more. For better understanding, Chinese food in general can be divided into four main culinary regions… Northern (hearty dishes), Southern (creative dishes), Eastern (mild and more duck-based food), and Western (hot and spicy dishes). While Sabah Chinese food in recent years has included these vastly different eight or more groups, the most famous dishes hail from the Cantonese cuisine (South) following a popularity for Cantonese food throughout the world. (Do not forget some nomadic people from the North moved to the South etc.) Apart from its long history, Cantonese cuisine represents many special, uniquely styled dishes and tastes. It is most popular among Westerners who for many years have learned to enjoy Chinese food. Cantonese cuisine is made up of a combination of Guanzhou (Canton), Teochew (Chaozhou) and Hakka (Dongjiang) food.

Guangzhou food naturally became the representative because the ingredients sourced are more widely spread, while styles of cooking and presentations of the different dishes can be so diverse that they are uncountable, complicated, wholesome and refined, all at the same time. Protein is sourced from almost anywhere…those flying in the sky, those crawling on land and those swimming in water can be used in Cantonese cooking. The combination of these three food types may be considered a late starter in the culinary world. However, its influence is deepest, widest and farthest. Chinese restaurants in London, Paris (which has the largest China town in the world… one is surprised to see so many Chinese faces in the City of Light. Many also work in renowned French bakeries.), Hong Kong, Macau and other cities in the world sell mainly Cantonese food, except for Taipei, Taiwan, where they have their own varieties, mainly Hokkien or Minnan dishes and their crossovers. (Taipei is more famous for its beef-noodles and numerous snacks. You must have tasted their unique homemade sausages, as Taiwanese dishes are no less inventive than Cantonese ones.) Even though many of them speak Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew or other dialects fluently, most Chinese living in Sabah are of Hakka decent. (Mandarin, the official Chinese language, I think is more likely sprung up from the Shandong or Beijing dialect, in particular.) Sandakan, in the East of Sabah, also known as Little Hong Kong is a seafood haven, however, most of the Chinese descendants speak mainly Cantonese.

Dongjiang cuisine is another name for Hakka food. Hakka people originated from the steppes region in the interior of mainland China. During the end of the Han dynasty and late northern Sung period, to avoid war and famine, the Hakka people moved to the south to concentrate more in the Guandong, Dongjiang province. Despite the migration, the Hakka language, their many versions of it, their customs and traditions still retained the charm and beauty of where they came from … the central steppes. Among the Hakka, mainly Huizhou and Meizhou food represent the Dongjiang cuisine. Meat is widely used, while sauces, gravies, dips, condiments and other accompanying side dishes are simpler and more straightforward. What stands out is the main dish; often an aromatic hot pot (poon choi) is prepared from specially chosen ingredients, all of them comparatively particular species. Popular during Chinese New Year, the feast is ideal for traditional reunion dinners or any big family dinners. The original version may be cooked with excessive oil and leans more towards the salty side.

This Hakka specialty of poon choi is still a relative novelty in Kota Kinabalu but can often be prepared upon special request. You’d be surprised how few visits to your favourite Chinese restaurant it takes to ‘train’ the waiters how you like your food prepared. Poon choi needs to be pre-ordered, as it would take days for the proprietor to source the proper ingredients. As the name implies, poon means basin and so, poon choi is basically food in a basin, a large metal platter, instead of the traditional deep bowl… and a large amount of more than ten varieties of foods are stacked on the platter.

pun choi sabah kota kinabalu
Hakka Pun Choi. Photo by @samwong.183

 

The different types of cooked food, namely meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and the like are spread into the basin layer by layer. The bottom part of the platter is filled with items braised in flavourful gravy — pork knuckle, chicken feet, pork cuts, tau kan, sea cucumber, fish stomach, canned abalone, bai ling mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and konnyaku noodles. On the top of the braised items are the dried items piled up, like a half portion of roasted duck, half portion of poached chicken, fried tiger prawns, deep-fried deboned ma yau fish stuffed with fish paste, and blanched cauliflower and broccoli.

A variety of sauces — coriander, ginger, onions in oil, plum. Chilli and tau cheo is also served with the feast. Since the Chinese generally eat in groups, it is delightful to see members who tend to dig deep into the basin in search for the type of food they prefer. The fun is foodies are spoiled for choice. One can expect a vegetarian poon choi to consist of a number of blanched mushrooms. Some of them turn out to be unlikely ingredients (monkey head, Chinese, white king oyster, champignons, abalone, straw), arranged with a few types of vegetables and tofu dishes (mock char siew, mock roasted duck, mock roasted meat and bean curd stick), by the most savvy of their vegetarian chefs. Served directly on top of a gas stove, the seasoning ingredients, namely vegetarian oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, dark soy sauce, vegetable stock, pepper, sesame oil are boiled in water in low heat, whereby corn starch is added for thickening. Then it is poured over the poon choi and ready to be served. Another typical Hakka dish Lui cha or ‘thunder tea” is one of the most famous Hor Poh dishes. The Hor Poh are a sub-group of the Hakka clan. Lui cha in Kota Kinabalu can be found in small tucked away restaurants or coffee shops. An always authentic rendition of the dish can be ordered by request. The dish is basically blanched vegetables, condiments and rice mixed with a creamy tea; some prefer to call it soup. It comes with a platter of finely cut stir-fried long beans, spring onions or leeks, tapioca leaves, bok choi, flowering cabbage and sweet potato shoots, along with dried bean curd, preserved radish (chai poh), and dried prawns. A steaming bowl of tea made from mint and green tea, peanuts and toasted sesame seeds completes the dish. Mix all the condiments into the rice and stir the tea in. The dish turns aromatic and creamy because of the peanuts, with the ingredients retaining their distinct flavour. However, it is best to mix the condiments in small portions. As the dish is an acquired taste, it is advisable to drink the tea separately. Some may find the taste a bit “green” because of the mint leaves. On the whole this dish makes for a very light, healthy meal which has a refreshing flavour from the soup.

yong tao foo sabah
Hakka Yong Tao Foo

Stews or soups with chicken meat are a staple of any Hakka menu. Although a lot of them are in relatively small portions, Hakka dishes are substantial and tasty. Other notable Hakka dishes include yong tau foo (stuffed bean curd, white or dried), stuffed bittergourds, brinjals, okras (lady fingers), chillies, capsicum, cauliflower, steamed chicken, Chinese yellow wine chicken which can be heady and potent, stewed pork with preserved vegetables, steamed pork with taro (kaw yoke), etc. Apart from the quintessential chicken in salted crust, Hakka roasted pork with black fungus is another signature dish in the New Year get-together can be exceptionally succulent and juicy with a mouth-watering aroma from the fermented bean curd. Some Hakka families also like to include chilli fish, chicken with herbs, paper bag chicken and trotters in vinegar in their New Year menu. For many of the Hakka dishes, the unique taste of the village or countryside is retained as far as possible. Old Teochew belonged to Minnan and so, her language and customs are close to it. When later Teochew fell into Guanzhou, she was effectively influenced by places around the fertile Pearl Delta. Teochew dishes, while retaining the Mei, Cantonese and Han specialties were able to hold her own. Teochew specialties in Cantonese cuisine are mostly fish and other seafood dishes. It is well known that Teochew chefs are particular in the way they use their choppers or knives to slice their food before cooking. Teochew dishes score on aroma, thickness, freshness and sweetness. The famous fish sauce came from them, so are sa cha sauce, may ko sauce, ginger wine and other seasonings. Teochew duck is prepared by first rubbing duck skin with thick soya sauce and inserting salt, langkuas and five spice powder into the cavity of the duck. Then sugar is cooked in oil over low heat until golden brown to add in the duck, lengkuas, cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves and ginger slices. Cover and cook until soft. Then the Teochew duck is ready to serve. A Teochew meal consists of rice and a few side dishes probably a meat soup, fish fillet or fish balls cooked with salted vegetables, tomatoes, sour plum ginger and onions. There may also be crisp sole fried with fermented soy bean (tau cheo) chilli and ginger or some claypot seafood which comes with fish slices, prawns and squid cooked with vegetables and fermented soy bean, dark sauce and chilli. All Teochew dishes are combined in an equally skillful manner to contain elements of the culinary traditions of both Guangdong and Fujian.

Yee Sang
Yee Sang

While the famous oyster omelette is a Teochew specialty, yee sang, a raw fish (most commonly salmon) salad with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments is an important addition that must not be missed during the New Year. It is considered a symbol of abundance, prosperity and vigour. To prepare yee sang, pickled ginger, pickled leek, parsley, spring onion, sweet pickled cucumber, pickled papaya, jelly fish, carrot, radish and crisp are shredded. Plum paste, lime paste, sugar and water are brought to a boil and set aside. All the shredded ingredients are arranged on a big, round plate. And then the salmon sashimi is added, along with the lime juice, five spice powder, pepper, chopped peanuts and sesame seeds and sauce. Ready to serve. The numerous different regional cuisines in China are bewildering, as we remember our Shandong community on a particularly hilly region in KK … where bamboo trees seem to thrive…Confucius was from Shandong. Jinan, a city in which pupils took the entrance exams for the imperial civil service in ancient China is the capital city of Shandong. And as one of the indisputable eight great regional culinary traditions of China, Shandong cuisine centres mostly on seafood. Fish symbolize abundance. They form an essential ingredient of the New Year festivities and other celebrations. Among our Shandong friends’ favourite dishes are sweet and sour fish (usually a whole fish, not fillets) steamed fish and a Jinan-style roast pork. Game meat is stir-fried with leek, spring onions, shrimp with ginger … green beans potpourri, and wok-fried squid .

Dumpling or better known as Wo tie in Sabah
Dumpling or better known as Wo tie in Sabah

The festive season also has various types of dumplings being dunked in a sauce composed of vinegar, soy sauce and chopped garlic. Note that the first pioneer dumpling sellers in KK are Shandong people. Leek and garlic are often eaten raw Shandong style, as this strengthens the body’s natural defences. Confucius ate what? Very simple and hearty … pork with bell pepper spicily fried with cornstarch, for one. Foochew, Foochin, Foocha … I am rather confused myself, because of the Foo are in Fujian, or for us, Hokkien… famous for dark, thick sauce, deep-fried lard crisps and chicken liver. Here and there these are to be expected on the reunion and New Year dinner table. Their staple is not rice. Dumplings are or what I should add, pastry, perhaps.

The way Westerners eat bread, I presume. Huge meat and vegetable-filled pancakes, buns (man tau), jiazi (dumplings), steamed or fried and baozi are common on their dinner table. There may also be noodles in various preparations. Their main dishes are fish or seafood-based. Ginger and leek are wildly used. Sabah is able to sustain the culinary traditions of the various Chinese clans because of our seafood availability. It is not a surprise to find Peking duck being served alongside yuen thai (chilled pork knuckle) in a Shanghainese household during the New Year. Pork knuckle? I had always thought it was actually stuffed skin of pork, tied up with strings and made to look like pig trotters. A must-have dish for some households during the New Year, it’s a cold dish and it’s kept in the freezer until it is time to savour it. Bok choy (napa cabbage or Chinese leaves) steamed in chicken stock is also common on the New Year table. They say it helps to cool down and balance the body because of the over consumption of meat and related food during the festive period. Sichuan and Hunan dishes are particularly fiery. But mainly on the menu is Sichuan food which derives flavours from chiles and Sichuan pepper. While the hot, dry fried French beans with minced meat, dried shrimp, dong cai, spring onion, garlic and slices of ginger comes to mind, other signature Sichuan dishes are gong bao chicken, ma po tofu (I want to be sure this is also called Ants Up a Tree), meat of returning wok, fish fragrant hot shredded meat with bean curd and spicy pig kidney. Not forgetting stinky tofu, a dish famous in Taiwan, is also a Sichuan favourite. The stink can be nausea-inducing for some, but the reward is the softest, creamiest tofu wrapped in a crispy casing to be savoured with pickled cabbage and chilli sauce. Stinky tofu is made by marinating the tofu in a mixture of vegetables and Chinese herbs. Do not assume in Sichuan cuisine that only the hot and spicy dishes stand out.

The ordinary and non-descriptive napa cabbage dish in a warm, clear chicken stock is cooked painstakingly, separating the oil from the stock. The result is a very clear chicken soup completely deprived of oil. The freshness of the chicken soup combined with the sweetness of the cabbage make for a perfect balance in the ever hot and spicy Sichuan spread. Sichuan, meaning Four Rivers, pickled cabbage is prepared with cabbage, carrot, cucumber, red chilli, Chinese peppercorn, gao liang (sorghum) wine, salt and cold water. Steamed pumpkin or melon (honey dew or winter melon), a pineapple or papaya with seeds and fibrous core discarded are used as containers as part of a dish. For example, minced meat or meat cut into small pieces, marinated and cooked with added seasoning are poured into the vegetable or fruit containers to be served. Some families include banquet style dishes for the New Year…fish maw soup with abalones, scallops, mushrooms and sea cucumber in double boiler or better known as Monk Jumps Over the Wall, Dong Po meat, Eight Treasure Duck …for example. They thought without these and others, the New Year celebration would not seem right.

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Joanne Lee

Chief Eater Extraordinaire of Sabaheats
I cook, I eat and I always looking for good food!

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