Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Singapore active senior food, travel & lifestyle diary

History of Teochew Cuisine & Hawker Culture in Singapore

Steamed_Pomfret

Teochew make up just 20% of Chinese population in Singapore but Teochew cuisine have a prominence in Singapore's food culture well beyond their numbers. Teochew dishes like char kway teow, bak chor mee, bak kut teh, kway chap, oyster omelette (orh luak), braised duck (lor ark), fishball noodles, etc are flag bearers of Singapore hawker culture.


Teochew come from Chaoshan 潮汕 which is a coastal region located in southeast Guangzhou province at the border with Fujian province. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Chaozhou, Jieyang, and Shantou (Swatow 汕头) are the three major cities of Chaoshan. Swatow is the ancestral home of many Teochew in Singapore, so Teochew food stalls and restaurants are often named after the seaport city.


Teochew first settled in numbers in the Riau islands especially in Bintan to work in Bugis operated gambier and pepper plantations in the 1700s. (Image credit: Wikipedia)


By the 1800s, Teochew operated gambier and pepper plantations expanded into Singapore (which together with the Riau islands and Johor was part of the realm of the Johor Sultanate). Teochew planters and labourers came to Singapore with these plantations. (Image credit: National Archives of Singapore)


When Raffles landed at Singapore River in 1819, there were already some 20 Teochew ran gambier and pepper plantations in Singapore. Most were not far from Singapore River mouth, some were on the slopes of Bukit Larangan, which is today's Fort Canning Hill. (Image of Bukit Larangan & Singapore River in 1823 courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Bak_Kut_Teh
It can be argued that peppery bak kut teh is the most famous Teochew dish of Singapore. It is found everywhere in Singapore, and the big brands have overseas outposts.
It's a seemingly simple dish of pork bones (usually ribs nowadays) boiled with garlic and peppercorn. That's it.
The origins of Teochew bak kut teh is usually attributed to coolies at Singapore River. It is said that coolies collected peppercorn that fell from sacks and made Teochew bak kut teh with it. This peppery style of bak kut teh is unique to Singapore and not found in Chaoshan.
Another possible cradle of Teochew bak kut teh could be the pepper plantations. At its peak in the mid-1800s, there were over 800 gambier and pepper plantations in Singapore. Gambier and pepper were always planted together as the two crops complemented each other. Waste from gambier production provided fertiliser for planting pepper.
Pork bone, garlic and peppercorns, the only ingredients needed for Teochew bak kut teh can all be found at pepper plantations, so the first Teochew bak kut teh might be brewed in one of these.
However, the origin of Singapore bak kut teh remains just conjectures as there are no records to support either theories.

The British East India Company moved fast once Raffles signed the Singapore agreement with the Temenggong and Sultan of Johor in 1819. To realise his vision of the great seaport of Singapore, Raffles needed a lot of manpower.


Singapore port's hunger for manpower coincided with the Qing dynasty's dying years which pushed millions off China's south coasts to escape rebellions, wars, poverty, and hunger. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia.)


Singapore River was a magnet for Teochew traders, craftsmen, boatmen, coolies (indentured labourers), etc. Singapore River and Swatow's Rongjiang River are uncannily similar - both sport a bay like the "belly of the carp" which symbolises good fortune and luck in Feng Shui or Chinese geomancy. (Map of Swatow courtesy of Wikipedia & map of Singapore in 1946 courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)


By the turn of the century (early 1900s), there were over 37,000 Teochew in Singapore, most of whom lived in the Teochew enclave of Boat Quay and adjacent Ellenborough Market (today's Central Mall @ Clarke Quay). The row of traders' offices and storehouses lining Boat Quay Road was known as 十八间 which literally means "Eighteen Shops" in Teochew. (Image of Boat Quay 1910 courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)

Boat_Quay


Today, 十八间 are conservation houses and re-purposed into a tourist attraction with upmarket restaurants, pubs and cafes offering cuisine from around the world such as Sichuan, Indian, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean etc.

By the early 1900s, Teochew and Hokkien twakow bumboats dominated lighterage work at Singapore River, transferring goods between oceangoing ships and storehouses at Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. (Image of twakow courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)

The bows of Teochew twakow boats were painted red and Hokkien boats sport green paint. Their colour scheme complied with Qing dynasty government regulations, which for easy identification decreed that boats from Guangzhou are painted red and those from Fujian are painted green. (Zhejiang province boats are painted white, Jiangsu province boats black but these are not seen in Singapore.)


Ellenborough Market was built in 1845 just north of Boat Quay (and opposite Clarke Quay). As it was the second market which the British colonial authorities built in Singapore, locals called it Sin Pa Sat in Teochew which literally means New Market. (The first market is Lau Pa Sat or old market, now named Telok Ayer Market.) As Ellenborough Market was located within the Teochew enclave, locals simply called it Teochew Market. (Image of Ellenborough Market in 1860 courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)   


In 1899, Ellenborough Market was expanded with cast iron structures imported from Edinburgh, Scotland.


A fire destroyed the thriving Teochew Market in 1968. A new complex with two large slab blocks and a three storey commercial centre was completed in 1970s over the Ellenborough site. There was a hawker centre with over 70 food stalls at level 3 of the commercial centre. Teochew Market was demolished in the 1990s to make way for the Central Mall @ Clarke Quay and Merchant Court Hotel. (Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)


From its first edition in 1845 to the final rendition in the 1990s, for over 150 years Ellenborough Market / Sin Pa Sat / Teochew Market had been the heart of the Teochew community in Singapore. It was a seafood and fresh vegetable wholesale centre, and trading hub of dried seafood and sundries. (Image of Ellenborough Market 1953 courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)


The Teochew enclave encompassed not only Ellenborough Market but all the streets, side lanes, back lanes, every nook and cranny around 十八间 Boat Quay, 十八间后 Circular Road, Sin Pa Sat, 柴船头 Cha Chun Tau, Hallpike Street, etc. Every corner is chock a block with good Teochew cuisine - truly a foodie haven.


As part of the Singapore government programme to house all street hawkers in food centres, Boat Quay hawker centre was built in the 1970s.


Across Singapore River from Boat Quay was Empress Place hawker centre which was also opened in 1973. Both Boat Quay and Empress Place hawker centres were demolished in the 1990s.

Every kind of Teochew cuisine can be found in the old Teochew enclave of Singapore River. When the densely populated area was redeveloped, the food stalls and restaurants relocated across the island, hence increasing the presence of Teochew cuisine in Singapore hawker culture.

Steam_Green_Wrasse_Fish

Teochew cuisine emphasises fresh ingredients. It uses the full range of ingredients from pork, beef, poultry, fish, prawn, crab, shellfish, to vegetables. As coastal Chaoshan is blessed with rich seafood, Teochew cuisine features many seafood dishes.

Teochew cuisine uses the full spectrum of Chinese cooking techniques from steam, poach, braise, boil, stir fry to deep fry. With the emphasis on tasting the natural flavours of fresh ingredients, steamed dishes are prominent in Teochew cuisine.

Use of flavourings in cooking is relatively light handed with emphasis on dipping sauces. There are specific dipping sauces for different dishes.


Teochew Muay 潮州糜 or porridge is a everyday staple for the working man.


Teochew_Porridge

Teochew porridge is almost like a rice soup with discrete rice grains in watery thin soup. It differs from Cantonese congee where the rice grains dissolve almost to a gooey paste, and Hainanese porridge which is between the two poles.


Teochew porridge is plain in itself and is eaten with a pantophagous spread of mainly savoury dishes. Examples include salted vegetables (kiam chai), preserved radish (chai por), boiled salted duck eggs, preserved radish omelette (chai por nergh), fried salted fish, fried peanuts, steamed fish, stewed duck, stewed goose, fish cake, stir fried clams and plenty more. Every Teochew porridge stall have their own signature side dishes.


Recommended Teochew porridge places include Teo Heng at Hong Lim Food Centre, Choon Seng at Pek Kio.


Bak_Chor_Mee


Bak Chor Mee 肉脞麵 is ubiquitous in Singapore. Very popular but relatively unsung "national dish" (unlike chicken rice, laksa or chili crab).


It's blanched noodles tossed in a blended sauce of soy sauce, chilli sauce, lard, shallot oil, black vinegar etc. Every stall have their secret blend of sauce and chili paste. Bak chor mee is served topped with minced pork, sliced pork, pork liver slices, fish cake, fishballs, dumpling, dried sole fish, stewed mushroom, vegetables, etc. Each stall have their own combination of toppings.


Popular places for bak chor mee include Michelin starred Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, Bib Gourmand Tai Wah Pork Noodle, Macpherson Minced Meat Noodle, Seng Poh Road Bak Chor Mee, Jin Xi Lai (Mui Siong) Minced Meat Noodle.


Fried_Carrot_Cake


Cai Tow Kueh 菜頭粿 or fried carrot cake is made of white radish and rice flour. The carrot (radish) cake is stir fried with soy sauce, egg, garlic, cai por, spring onion, occasionally dried shrimp and optional chili paste. There's the white or  the black version which is stir fried with a sweetish dark soy sauce.


Most fried carrot cake stalls now use generic factory made kueh, so I only go for stalls that still make their kueh the traditional way, such as Ghim Moh Carrot Cake, Chey Sua Carrot Cake


Char_Kway_Teow

Char Kway Teow 炒粿條. Back in Chaoshan, fried kway teow is a simple dish of just flat rice noodles, chive, bean sprout, pieces of pork with skin and fish sauce stir fried with sizzling pork lard in a hot wok. In Singapore, it is common to add egg, lup cheong (Cantonese wax sausage), or fish cake. Blood cockles are considered essential - no heartwarming blood cockles, no joy. A sweetish dark sauce is also commonly used in Singapore. Chili sauce is optional.


Popular char kway teow stalls in Singapore include Hai Kee in Telok Blangah, Outram Park Fried Kway Teow in Hong Lim


Chwee_Kueh


Chwee Kueh 
水粿 which literally means "water cakes" are watery milled rice in tiny cups cooked by steaming. It is eaten with stewed cai por which is crunchy and savoury. Optional chili paste for those who like a little heat in their chwee kueh.
In Singapore, almost all chwee kueh are now made in central kitchens and distributed in hawker centre outlets. One of the popular brands is Bedok Chwee Kueh. Chye Kee is one of those artisanal chwee kueh that sadly, didn't survive Singapore conditions.
Bak_Kut_Teh

Bak Kut Teh 肉骨茶. In Singapore, there's herbal Hokkien bak kut teh and peppery Teochew bak kut teh - the latter is synonymous with Singapore bak kut teh. The origins of Teochew bak kut teh is unclear but it is popularised by street side stalls around Teochew Market, 柴船头 Cha Chun Tau and 王家山脚 River Valley Road.


The big three Singapore Teochew bak kut teh chains are Founder, Ng Ah Sio and Song Fa. Popular boutique brands are Outram Park Ya Hwa, Lau Ah Tee, Joo Siah.


Kway_Chap


Kway Chap 
粿汁 is holding its own and gaining popularity with the new generation but it is facing continuity issues in Singapore. The dish is tedious, laborious to make, and difficult to produce in scale, so it is not attractive to "hawker-preneurs".
The dish consists of two parts - the first part is kway which is broad rice sheets. Nowadays, all kway are generic factory produced. The second component is the stewed side dishes, usually belly pork, skin and offal like intestines. These require 1 day to clean and another day to cook, hence kway chap is labour and time intensive. Other side dishes include braised egg, braised dried fried bean curd etc.
Fishball_Noodle

Fishball Noodles 魚丸麵 are fishballs, fish dumplings, fish cake slices in a soup eaten with blanched noodles tossed in a blended sauce of soy sauce, lard, chili sauce etc. Each stall have their secret blend of sauce. The fishballs etc are traditionally handmade from pure grounded meat from fresh Yellowtail or Wolf herring fish, a bit of salt and nothing else. Nowadays, factory supplied fishballs made with surimi and other substances are common.
Stalls that still make their own fishballs are Khin Kee @ Havelock Road, Ru Ji @ Holland Drive, Fishball Story @ Circuit Road.
Orh_Luak
Orh Luak 蠔烙 is a Teochew style fried oyster omelette. Egg and sweet potato starch are beaten together to make the thick batter. The batter is pan fried in lard and succulent oysters are added on top. The potato starch makes the eggy base more stretchy and chewy, which in my opinion makes it more interesting than just scrambled eggs.
Beef_Noodle

Teochew Beef Kway Teow 潮州牛肉粿条 was brought to Singapore in the 1920s by Tan Chee Kok who was a popular beef noodle hawker in Swatow. Tan Chee Kok and his son settled down at Hock Lam Street and hence his legendary beef noodles became known as Hock Lam Beef Noodle. It's fresh beef and offal in a savoury beefy subtly herbal soup with broad rice noodles.
Tan Chee Kok's Teochew beef noodles can still be tasted at his grandson Francis' stall at Old Airport Hawker Centre and his great grandson's restaurant at North Canal Road.
Braised_Duck

Braised Duck 潮州卤鸭 is cooked in braising liquid of soy sauce and Chinese spices and herbs. The braised duck meat is tender and juicy with infused savoury herbal flavour complementing the duck's natural sweetness and subtle gaminess.
Popular braised duck stalls in Singapore include Jin Ji in Chinatown and Chuan Kee in Chong Pang & Ghim Moh.
Teochew_7_Vegetables
Teochew Seven Vegetables 潮州七样菜 is a traditional Teochew Chinese New Year celebration dish eaten on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year. The dish honours Renri, the day the human race was created. The dish consists of seven vegetables each symbolising good fortune, virtues and values. Fried pork belly is added to give the vegetable dish a savoury note.
This dish is cooked at home. It is available at some Teochew restaurants such as Ah Orh Seafood in Bukit Merah during Chinese New Year.
Pork_Aspic
Pork Jelly or Aspic 豬腳凍 is usually made by boiling pork trotter with a bit of Chinese spice till most of the gelatinous tissues are dissolved. The meat is cut up and the heavy body liquid is chilled to jellify it. Served chilled, pork jelly literally melts in the warmth of our mouth. It also melts on the plate if not eaten soon after serving. There is also shark jelly made with shark meat but this has been banned in Singapore.
We can get pork aspic at Lao Liang @ Berseh Food Centre, Hwee Kee @ Hong Lim Food Centre. Most Teochew restaurants also have this dish in their menu.
Teochew_Mooncake
Teochew Mooncakes 潮州月饼 sport a crumbly flaky shell. The complex filling is a blend of lotus seed paste, candied winter melon, melon seed, sesame seed, lemon biscuit, sweet preserved vegetable, etc., traditionally held together with lard. Teochew mooncakes are lovingly made at home and rarely produced commercially. They are addictively delicious.
In this digital and factory food age, receiving a gift of handmade Teochew mooncake is like receiving a handwritten birthday card. Thank you 明嫂 for the Teochew mooncakes 😄😋🙏
Teochew_Cold_Crab
There are many more Teochew dishes like cold crab, steamed fish, prawn rolls, yam paste, Teochew fried kway teow, etc. One of the easy ways to enjoy all these Teochew dishes together at once is to visit a Teochew restaurant.
Popular Teochew restaurants in Singapore include Ah Orh Seafood in Bukit Merah, Chin Lee in Bedok, Zai Shun in Jurong East.

👌 What are your favourite Teochew dishes?


👌 What are your favourite Teochew food stalls and restaurants?


👌 What are your memories of Boat Quay, Teochew Market, Cha Chun Tau, Singapore River?


References:



Date: 27 Sep 2020

11 comments:

  1. Wow this is a really well researched piece! Thank you! I enjoyed reading about my teochew heritage which I barely can speak a word of cos I jiak kentang haha

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your travel stories are so interesting and inspiring 👏👏👏 keep traveling, keep sharing 👍💪

      Delete
  2. Nice, I am Teochew yet dunno so many of my favourite food have Teochew origins. I normally frequent Chin Lee for the fancier foods, BCM at bedok 85, kway chup at old airport, CKT at joo chiat place. BKT not worth eating at those big chains.

    Have very much enjoyed your last few history posts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you :-) I need to visit Bedok 85 again and try CKT at Joo Chiat.

      Delete
  3. For Bak Kut Teh, I recommend "Shuan Xi" at Zion Road Hawker Centre, the original founder is the grandfather of current store operator. I understand that in the early days, Ng Ah Sio used to eat here before starting his own outlet. So, this stall is more than 70years now. You must try once.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. Yes, I should visit Shuan Xi soon. Appreciate much.

      Delete
  4. You can still get decent traditional chwwe kueh from the famous stall in Ghim Moh Hawker center

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good job! Makes me proud to be Teochew!

    ReplyDelete

I share hoping that everyone will have a good time but your experience may differ from mine. I love to know how you enjoyed yourself or if you didn't. All comments with genuine identities are published.