Friday 26 September 2014

Singapore Teochew Festival 2014: Celebrating tradition with modern approaches

There’s nothing like a feast of Teochew delicacies to anchor an event celebrating its culture
By Don Mendoza, TODAY, 25 Sep 2014

As far as jingles go, few are as infectious as singing “Teochew nang, kaki nang, hey-o, hey-o” to the tune of Jambalaya.

And it’s not the only thing moreish about the 11-day Singapore Teochew Festival, presented by the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan in conjunction with its 85th anniversary celebrations. Let’s just say that a lesson in a little culture and heritage is best paired with good food. And that’s exactly what this event will be serving up to complement the arts and crafts and some good ol’ Teochew opera.

Occupying more than 4,300sq ft of space at the Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza are 15 vendors. They are comprised of both local and overseas vendors dishing out a sumptuous array of Teochew specialties. These include Ng Ah Sio’s homegrown brand of uniquely peppery bak kut teh, while some may even be surprised to learn that famous hawker dishes, such as fried kway teow, fried carrot cake and fried oyster omelette, are all of Teochew origin. Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cuisine is serving its famous rendition of fried kway teow with preserved radish, alongside Chin Lee Restaurant and its signature suckling pig, prawn and liver rolls; while 70-year-old confectionary Thye Moh Chan prepares its handmade baked goods, which includes its enduring sweet-salty (and uniquely Singaporean) tau sar piah and Teochew mooncakes.

Thye Moh Chan owner Katherine Lee said: “Teochew piah is an integral part of the Teochews’ love for pastries. There’s definitely renewed interest in understanding traditional culture better so we do expect to reach out to younger customers at the festival.

The special highlights that Thye Moh Chan will serve include Teochew yam and D24 durian flavours, in addition to the favourite salty and sweet mung bean fillings.”

Speaking of preserving the Teochew cuisine, chefs Daniel Koh, Eric Low and Heman Tan (all proud Teochews) will be also be conducting 90-minute cooking demonstrations featuring both classical and modern interpretations of dishes such as Pu Ning fermented bean marinated chicken, sugar-cured pork jowl and black olive with minced pork noodles.

“These are very classic dishes but are seldom found in Singapore,” said Koh. “Take the sugar-cured pork jowl; the perception is that it is very fatty so few would even venture to eat it. Over time, recipes may not have been passed down and the skills are not imparted. As such, fewer chefs attempt to cook such dishes.”

Low added that the cuisine faces the threat of extinction if nothing is done to preserve its recipes and authenticity. “For a start, Teochew cuisine is not even taught formally in local culinary schools here. Secondly, it does not enjoy enough prestige locally — unlike western cuisine and Cantonese cuisine — which means that fewer apprentice chefs are interested in learning the art. Some of the old school Teochew restaurants, such as Tai Seng and Mong Hing, have closed, while existing ones are facing a bleak future in terms of succession by the next generation.”


While it’s easy to recognise the allure of a compressed bean curd (tau kua) salad with Teochew vegetables (chap kiam), or a Teochew muay (porridge) meal, it’s harder to define just what makes the cuisine stand out.

Low, who runs his runs his own private consultancy Lush Epicurean, said: “I feel that Teochew cuisine is often underrated as it is not recognised as one of the eight major schools of flavours in Chinese cuisine, but rather as a sub-division of Cantonese cuisine.”

The participating chefs did, however, agree that Teochew cuisine is synonymous with fresh ingredients, with an emphasis on seafood, minimal handling, clean natural flavours coupled with subtle seasoning and light cooking methods such as quick stir-frying, poaching, braising and steaming.

“A more unique and differentiating feature,” Low continued, “is that unlike any other cuisine, it has successfully blended together ingredients that are typically used for savoury dishes into the preparation of desserts and sweets. Teochew sweet dishes use pork meat, pork lard, shallots, spring onions, fresh coriander leaves, fermented red taro curd, quails eggs, compressed bean curd, Chinese celery and fresh egg noodles.”

The sugar-cured pork jowl, in particular, is one that Low remembers fondly. “This is one of my grandpa’s signature dessert dishes when he was the executive chef of Old Hung Kang Teochew Restaurant in North Canal Road in the ’60s. In those days, Teochew yam paste was considered a ‘second class’ dessert. Really lavish Teochew banquets end with this sugar-cured pork dish, as it requires at least one week’s preparation and skilful control of the fire to manage the recipe.”

The jowl meat is slightly salted and cured in sugar for a few days, before it’s cooked in the same sugar syrup over low heat, cooled down to a warm temperature, then sliced thinly and served over slightly salted glutinous rice with sweetened gingko nuts.

“The unique point about this dish is that the cooked pork fat texture of jowl meat is not the same as fat from other parts of the pig,” explained Low. “The crystallised fat does not taste greasy after cooking and has a crunchy texture similar to a cross between water chestnut and candied winter melon.”

Koh believes Teochew cuisine, celebrated for its attention to detail and precise cooking methods, is one of the best out there, adding that there are important aspects of Teochew cooking that must be preserved. However, while tradition still has a place in the hearts of the chefs, some are in favour of taking bold approaches to modernising the cuisine without compromising on flavours, such as Tan, who is the group executive chef of JP Pepperdine Group, which oversees Jack’s Place, Korean Kkongdon Barbeque and Japanese Hoshigaoka restaurants, among others.

“Many people think that orh nee with coconut milk is Teochew, when in actual fact, it isn’t,” he said. “The traditional Teochew version comes with pumpkin, gingko nuts and pork lard.”

“Of course, we cannot expect the ingredients that are currently available to taste the same as those from 20 to 30 years ago,” Koh added. “Chefs will need to understand ... and adapt the cooking methods and seasonings to try and recreate the authentic flavours.”

Singapore Teochew Festival runs until Oct 5, 11am to 10pm, at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza. Tickets at S$5 (at the door).

Teochew festival opens in Orchard
11-day cultural event aims to ignite interest in youth
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2014

TRENDY will meet traditional from today, when cross-talk and opera set up stage in Orchard Road.

An 11-day Teochew cultural festival will hold court at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza, with an aim to target the young people most commonly associated with Singapore's premier shopping belt.

Organisers said they hope the showcase of Shantou lantern-making, pottery and Teochew food will draw young people. "We want to celebrate Teochew culture, help the young become familiar with it and develop a sense of pride towards it," said Mr George Quek, president of organisers Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan.

He said he expects that 30 per cent of the estimated 8,000 people thronging the fairgrounds every day will be young people.

It is the first time the clan association, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, is holding such a large-scale festival.

The $3 million event, supported by donors and sponsors, will be divided into three sections: culture and heritage; food and beverages; and arts and crafts. There will be 15 food vendors, at least four different cultural performances, and booths featuring traditional art forms such as Shantou woodcarving demonstrations.

Tickets to the event cost $5 each and can be bought at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza or from the shops of participating vendors, such as BreadTalk, SK Jewellery and Jumbo Seafood Restaurant.

Mr Quek, 58 said the hope is that the festivities will ignite interest in the many facets of Teochew culture.

"It is our hope that the festival will give the public a vivid representation of the Teochews through enlightening glimpses into their daily lives and, to a larger extent, also highlight an important aspect of Singaporean-Chinese culture," he said.

The 500,000-strong Teochew community is the second-largest sub-group of Chinese in Singapore after the Hokkiens.

The Teochews, who came to Singapore since the early 1800s, were from eight counties in China's southern Chaoshan region.

Most of them were poor farmers, fishermen and labourers, said Associate Professor Lee Chee Hiang, who is the deputy head of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore, and also the festival committee's adviser.

The early immigrants worked in a variety of occupations and were involved in the planting and trading of gambier and pepper plantations.

Prof Lee encouraged Teochews to head down to the festival to learn more about their history. He said: "Ethnic culture, or the culture of your own dialect group, is part of your family's history and an important cornerstone in personal identity."

Young people wanted for ancient coming-of-age ritual
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2014

IN A bid to attract young Teochews, the 600-member strong Singapore Kityang Huay Kwan set up a new youth wing last month.

The Teochew clan group plans to hold a coming-of-age ritual called Chu Hua Yuan, or "coming out of the garden", by next August.

The practice involves a 15-year-old biting the beak of a steamed chicken while clad in red attire and clogs. It originated from a Ming dynasty legend and symbolises a young person's potential to achieve success as he or she enters adulthood.

Youth wing leader Goh Beng Yeow, 35, a management consultant, aims to get 70 young people involved. Reintroducing the ancient practice could help young Teochews "develop a sense of belonging to the dialect group", he said.

He sees the youth wing, which has 60 members, as helping to recreate the sense of bonding that clans fostered in the past.

The committee's secretary-general, arborist Leonard Tan, 26, agreed.

"Whenever you see Teochews, you refer to them as ka ki nang, or our own kin. It's important that we start building up networks and connections among our own people from an early age," he said.

Old clans woo young
An association of Teochew clans is using social media to draw the young
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Sunday Times, 28 Sep 2014

If you are under 50 years old and a member of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, you are considered a youth by the umbrella body of Teochew clans here.

And you are in the minority - only a fifth of the association's 5,000 members are aged 50 and below, while about 200 members, a mere 4 per cent, are younger than 30.

Most Teochew associations worldwide see members aged below 50 as youths. Still, in Singapore, the numbers paint a stark picture of its greying membership and its struggle to attract younger members.

The association is launching a number of initiatives to woo younger members, which include leveraging on social media.

A series of short video clips that feature children, a couple and a barbershop quartet singing a jingle to promote the inaugural Singapore Teochew Festival has drawn praise from Facebook users. Within a week, its Facebook page garnered more than 5,000 "likes".

The message in the videos echoes a familiar Teochew saying: "Teochew nang, kaki nang", which translates to "Teochew people, we are the same people".

The festival opened on Thursday and will run till next Sunday. It also celebrates the association's 85th jubilee this year.

"We wanted something simple but specially crafted to touch people and remind them of their heritage," says association president and festival organiser George Quek of the video. He is better known as the founder of the BreadTalk Group chain of bakeries, restaurants and food courts.

The 11-day event, which will feature the arts, culture, history and food of the second biggest dialect group here, also brought in an opera troupe, actors, dancers, singers and chefs from Shantou.

Mr Quek says that the team went to Shantou to pick the vendors who can best represent Teochew culture for the activities.

One Teochew whose interest was piqued by the videos is project manager Koh Wee Liang, 37, who downloaded the jingle as a ringtone for his mobile phone.

Mr Koh, who will visit the festival with his wife and two daughters, Kyra, nine, and Thea, seven, says: "I'm looking forward to sharing the food that I used to eat with them, including black carrot cake and png kueh (rice cake). Hopefully, they can learn something about their roots."

To produce the videos, Mr Quek and his committee roped in 10am Communications led by advertising veteran Lim Sau Hoong, who had previously headed the Speak Mandarin campaign. Five of the 10 videos were shot in Shantou, the home city of Teochews in China.

One challenge was to capture the richness of Teochew culture yet bring to it a "rejuvenated perspective", says Ms Lim. "The campaign needed to be fresh and memorable to resonate with an increasingly Westernised audience."

Mr Quek and his team took the same approach in putting together the festival. Expected to draw up to 120,000 visitors, the festival is the association's concerted push to draw younger members, he adds.

"When people think of us, the image is of older folk. This event is a chance to welcome more youth to join and to find good talent to carry on our work," he says.

His team took about a year to plan the festival, which cost more than $1 million. They intend to make it a biennial affair.

Polytechnic student Lim Chun Eng, 17, a Teochew, says there is much to learn. He is volunteering at the festival at the behest of his parents, who both run a family jewellery business.

He says: "I honestly don't know the customs that well. I speak Teochew because my grandmother can only converse in it."

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