When I was growing up, I had a doting amah (domestic helper) from Shunde. She was part of our family for close to 40 years, and was also our unofficial doctor-cum-bomoh (folk healer) who seemed to have a remedy for every ailment.
I remember waking up one morning with my voice a few octaves lower. She immediately diagnosed “heatiness” and made an infusion with water and two aged, salted calamansi. “Drink fast,” she ordered. “It will soothe your throat.”
And it did. She was a jealous guardian of a cache of those calamansi. Once every few years, she would corral the other domestic helpers to scrub and pat-dry a few kilograms of calamansi and bury them in coarse salt. She would fuss over the calamansi for the next few weeks, sunning them, then topping up the salt.
“Aiyoh, we used kumquats back in China, but Singapore can only use calamansi,” she would moan. As the fruit dried, turning into “mummies”, she packed them into glass jars and stood them in rows.
She would give some away to close, privileged friends, keeping the rest for us, her family. Those calamansi were a precious link to the world she had left behind. As I spent lots of time with her, she taught me cooking, as well as homespun healing methods.
Some foodstuffs, I learnt, were useful to both callings. “Dried tangerine peel is good for minimising strong odours in meat,” she would explain, holding a 25-year-old specimen and proceeding to show me how to soak and scrape off its white pith. “Don’t use too much. A little will do as aged tangerine peel is strong and expensive,” she said.
I was a kid then, and while it would be some time before I learnt the value of money, I instinctively knew to use such ingredients carefully. I credit my dear amah for acquainting me with the concept of the rare, the premium, the artisanal. Later on, I learnt that among the southern Chinese, especially early immigrants from Guangzhou, preserved and cured fruit, vegetables and meat were a common part of the larder.
Apparently, the skills that the southerners picked up from a long history of trading salt and sugar made them experts in curing vegetables and meat for practical and medicinal purposes. This explains why Singaporeans like me, who have southern Chinese roots, grew up eating and liking preserved foodstuffs such as salted vegetables, salted fish and chai poh (preserved radish).
Then, when I moved to Hong Kong about 10 years ago, living among some of the most informed and discriminating eaters in the world introduced me to a different level of connoisseurship. I paid attention to quality, when it came to preserved and cured foodstuffs and artisanal products. I noticed year-of-manufacture, grade and provenance. I learnt that some commodities such as premier-quality fish maw and cordyceps were available off the shelf, while others as mundane as artisanal preserved black beans and Pu-erh tea were procured through “networks”, or first-hand from growers and manufacturers in outlying villages and towns. Some were affordable, while others were worth more than their weight in gold. There were subtleties and nuances to look out for; and my efforts to explore them took me across Hong Kong and north to China.
The aged tangerine peel is a case in point. Peels above 50 years old are rare. A wellknown food writer-cum-TV personality in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Philip He, introduced me to a man in China whose family survived the Cultural Revolution by burning all their family land leases.
All his family’s valuables were also confiscated or destroyed. Fortunately, the family’s trove of dried tangerine peel was left intact as the Red Guards knew nothing about Cantonese culinary habits. “Some were as old as 80-plus-years,” he said, handing me a few peels to sniff. They had a mellow, musky fragrance, with a light hint of citrus.
However, the real test was in the cooking. The tangerine peel made a pot of braised beef brisket robust and rich, with the tangerine taste coming through gradually and lingering. Another memorable experience I had was in Puning, a Teochew-speaking county to the south-east of Guangdong province. While chatting with Zhang Xinmin, a leading food journalist and chef in Shantou, the subject of aged chai poh, which I read about in some old recipe book, came up.
Chai poh, or preserved radish, is prepared by stacking it in layers separated by sea salt. A heavy rock is placed on top to squeeze out any liquid, and the radish is rinsed with brine and sunned until it turns golden brown. After this laborious months-long process, the radish is stored in an earthen container. Every autumn, it is taken out to dry, gradually turning charcoal black. Zhang told me aged chai poh was hard to find, even in this area.
The next day, I was visiting Puning on the invitation of a friend I met on Weibo. Huang Jian was a young entrepreneur who owned two chains of restaurants in the city. I raised the subject and he promised to look into it for me. On the last day of my visit, he handed me a bag of aged chai poh and said: “It is impossible to find, so my mum is giving hers to you.” Apparently, that aged chai poh had been prepared by his mother some 20 years before.
On another trip, this time to a Ming-period village in Chaozhou, I came across a house where an old man was sunning his preserved chayote in the courtyard. I was curious and asked about the fruit. He explained: “The fruit comes in two shapes. The finger-shaped ones are called zhi foshu or Buddha’s fingers; the fist-shaped ones are called quan foshu or Buddha’s fist.”
He told me that preserved chayote is a home remedy for coughs and mouth ulcers. “They are known as lao xiang huang, and the longer they are aged, the higher their medicinal value. I preserved these when my grandson was born and he’s 15 now.”
During my stay in Hong Kong, one of the hottest food collectibles was soya crystal, obtained from the fermentation of soya sauce in urns under the hot sun, as the liquid content evaporates, leaving hardened crystals behind. These concentrated crystals have a robust and intense flavour, and are available only at soya factories that still use the traditional way of manufacture.
One cottage-style factory in Hong Kong known to connoisseurs is Dai Zai Jiangyou. The limited “harvests” of soya sauce the factory produces are often reserved by regular customers, and soya crystals are even more limited. Crushing them into powder and sprinkling it on steamed fish or grilled steaks guarantees a sublime umami sensation.
On one of my many trips to Panyu, a rural district in Guangzhou, in search of good food, my companion told me li yunzi was in season. I was excited because I had never heard of, or eaten, li yunzi, which is mangrove crab roe. The roe is found beneath the crab’s carapace and collected only once a year during mating season. As the crabs are only about 3cm in size, collecting a sizable amount of roe is extremely tedious. Wastage is high, too. Five kilograms yields only 50g of roe, due to the need to sieve out impurities. However, the taste is heavenly and robust, filling the mouth and lingering even after the meal.
An interesting aside: I made many of my best foodie friends through Weibo, where I regularly write about and discuss food. These friends have become my “teachers”, as well as “informers” on rare and artisanal ingredients. I remember writing about nian gao (glutinous rice cake) on Weibo two years ago and receiving a response from a man. His village in Hainan would harvest sugar cane just for making this Chinese New Year snack, he told me. They would press sugar cane, collect the juice and boil it until it caramelised. He gave me his village’s recipe, and the nian gao I made from it was far more fragrant and robust in flavour than others.
It’s a cliche, but, when it comes to food, it’s the thought that counts – sincere thoughts, kind intentions and the effort invested. I remember my amah collecting orange and tangerine peels after the Chinese New Year festivities and even from our daily meals. She would wash, dry and set them aside. The peels were “too young and too citrusy to eat”, she used to say, so she boiled them and kept the water for the final rinse of my bed linens and bath towels. “The scent will help you sleep,” she said.
Aromatherapy before it became trendy? Indeed.