Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Quests for Authenticity

Read my Lips - This is Teochew Food (Lick my Lips).

overcast 31 °C
I had a fried carrot cake today from Lau Goh in the Zion Riverside hawker centre, which is one of the six top hawker centres that mentioned the most in official tourist literature. 'Lau' is old in Chinese - an affectionate yet respectful title given to someone. Mr. Goh is deaf (all right, hearing impaired) and so he relies on reading the customers' lips for his order. If that fails, you simply point at the large menu on his counter. Besides, there's only two dishes in the menu - black and white fried carrot cake. In fact, they are the same except for the two different sauces. The black sauce is the sweeter soy sauce. I prefer the white sauce, which is also soy sauce, just more salty than sweet. This is how the carrot cakes are sold throughout the hawker centre in the island - just the black and white variety.

Although some places (such as Holland Village Hawker Centre) may put extra stuff like cockles in.
Mr. Goh's fried carrot cake is quite good. To me it's a 8/10. The one in Food Republic in Vivo City is even better, it deserves a 9/10. It has a mysterious ingredient that Chinese call wok chi.
I'm a sucker for fried carrot cake, it brings back memories of growing up in Cholon - the "Chinatown" in Saigon (former Ho-Chi-Minh City). Most people who fled Saigon before the 1990's still call this city Saigon. Atta loves fried carrot cakes too, and nostalgia doesn't play a part in her case. It's just tasty. In the mid 1970's, the fried carrot cakes in Saigon were sold in stands on street curb at the corner outside Chinese restaurants (many old-styled Chinese restaurants in SE Asia are wrapped around city corners). I don't know if these fried carrot cake folks have now moved into food courts or such thing. The last time I visited Ho-Chi-Minh City was more than 10 years ago, and things are changing there as fast as China (actually almost in lock-steps).

Even though HK is an (Asian) food heaven, fried carrot cake is hard to come by. It shouldn't come as a surprise. HK local cuisine is dominated by Cantonese food. To be exact the cuisine from Guangzhou - the capital city of Guangdong province. For one thing, HK people commonly speak Guangzhou dialect (or what we call Cantonese), which they don't consider a dialect, but a official language of the province of Guangdong. They refer other dialects within Guangdong such as Teochew as "village dialect". There's a tinge of elitism in that term.

Actually Teochew people (also Teochiu, and many more other spellings just to confuse the bejesus out of foreigners) comes from a city called Chaozhou (zhou by the way is the closest thing to a prefacture in Japan. It could also be a provincial capital city: Fuzhou, Hangzhou, Zhengzhou, etc). So it's not really a 'village' as both places end with zhou. Chaozhou is a city quite close to the Gangdong-Fujian border, and just north of Shantou (also better known as Swatow). This proximity explains why the Chaozhou dialect sounds more like Hokkien than Cantonese. I can understand a bit of Hokkien dialect from a Teochew heritage on my mother's side. When I grew up in Vietnam, a Hokkien family lived below us, and I could hear and understand some of what they say, especially their family squabbles that coming to us loud and clear. That was the closest thing to attending a Chaozhou Opera (a traditional art form that dated over 500 years old. Predate Beijing Opera for about 3 centuries). My last trip to Haifeng in China made me realised that most of the natives living in the coast in Gangdong speak a variation of this dialect. This is the first time I realised how widespread this Teochew (and its variations) are spoken in Gangdong, far from being a dialect spoken by only a county-level city. And how numerous and important are the Teochew people in Guangzhou in terms of its cultural, historical and even economic influence on Guangzhou.

While the people from the hinterland of Guangzhou provides the shapes for HK food, Singaporean food's influence coming from a more diverse and watery source. It came from the people living on the Chinese southeast shore as far north as Hokkien people in Fujian, down to Teochew people in Guangdong, and all the way down south in Hainan Island. This is because during the political and economic turmoils in China in the last few centuries, the SE coastal Chinese sailed south to SE Asian to look for livelihoods and peace.

The Singaporean food evolved from these Chinese migrants. Hokkien people gives us Hokkien noodles. Hainan chicken comes from people of Hainan Island. But don't expect to order a Hainan chicken the next time you visit the lovely island. So I was told, as this is a dish invented by Hainamese migrants in the Malaysian Peninsula, not Hainanese locals in China (just as Chinese fortune cookies weren't invented in China, but by immigrants in California -maybe Japanese, maybe Chinese, the matter hasn't been settled). And last but not least, fried carrot cakes are brought into Singapore by Teochew. There's no argument here.

Fried carrot cake (not to confuse with the western carrot cake that you eat as dessert) isn't common in Sydney either. Only one restaurant (as far as I know) sells this Teochew fried carrot cake - it's the biggest yum cha place right next to Cabramatta station. And it's quite good too, and earns a rating of 8.5/10 from me. The Cantonese food had been the main influence in Sydney until 1990's when Mainland Chinese food begun to spring up in places like Ashfield, and then spread to Burwood in Sydney. Singaporean food hasn't really taken hold in Syndey. There is one Singaporean restaurant in Burwood (opposite the station), but can't say its business is swell. A few dishes are quite nice. Its Hainan chicken tastes as good as its presentation (7.5/10).

After trying the dim sim in Sdyney - Daniel (A Singaporean colleague who came to Sydney to work) - commented that Sydney yum cha outclassed Singapore ones by miles. I wasn't surprise by this because yum cha is a Cantonese tradition, and some of the best HK dim dim chefs migrated to Australia during the 1980's and 90's, while Cantonese influence in Singapore is minimal. Sydney has some of the best Cantonese restuarants in the world outside HK. If Atta's dad says it is, you can bet it's true. I had tried the dim sim in Singapore, yep, I would stick to the Singaporean local food.
The reason why this Cabramatta's yum cha restaurant sells possibly the only Teochew food in Sydney is because most Chinese living in this suburb come from SE Asia, and majority of them are actually Teochew (espacially Chinese from Loas and Cambodia where virtually ALL are Teochew). Oh, by the way, Cabramatta probably sells some of the best Vietnamese food in Asia outside Vietnam. (Cabra is a Vietnamese ethnic enclave in Sydney).

Speaking of Vietnamese cuisine in Asia, the three months we stayed in HK, we searched high and low for Vietnamese restaurants (Atta's fave past-time - looking for great food, and developed a critical tastebuds for it. I think it runs in the family). The problem with Vietnamese restaurants (or other national cuisine) in HK is that it lacks a thing calls authenticity. The Saigon chain store of Vietnmese restaurant isn't too bad. I tried out the one in Causeway Bay on Hennessy Rd in Wanchai, and it's authentic. The waitress there looked Vietnamese and so I decided to order the menu in Vietnamese, and she understood me. I imagine the cook would be Vietnamese too.
About a dozen doors from Saigon but in another block is Pho Tai. We actually tried this restaurant first. There were good number of customers. The interior decoration looks better than Saigon, quite swanky in fact. I always suspicious of good-looking restaurants because they might just rely on their looks to attract customers (all looks and no skills). Right next to our table is a large magazine writeup by some English food critic on the wall. The title of the article is Pho Real. I said to Atta, this title is an endorsement of its authenticity. I ordered a pho tai, the restaurant's namesake. Afterwards, I said to Atta, the article should be renamed to Pho Fake or Get Real. No, none of the staff looked Vietnamese, and I didn't even try to order in Vienamese.

Another HK's Vietnamese restaurant we tried was Nha Trang (name of a southern coastal city, now a tourist beach resort) locates in Hopewell Centre in Wanchai. Although the food here caters for local HK tastes, but it isn't bad. There's also a fusion element of Cantonese and Vietnamese. Definitely worth a try if you're nearby.

I also had tried a few Vietnamese restaurants in Singapore, but decided to stop putting myself through the misery, not one had even up to scratch. As for Western food, their prices are doing a good enough jobs of stop me from entering (Everything Western seems like they are converted from British Sterling. I had a coffee in Great World City opposite Zion River hawker centre. It was average tasting, and the shop's decor was decent, but not wowing me in any way, when the bill came, it was $11.5 SGD/AUD. It was my first week in Singapore, and I was naive enough not to look at the prices because I was thinking to myself how much can a coffee cost? As it turned, an arm, a leg, and a pound of flesh). In general, HK's food standard is higher than those in Singapore, for all national cuisines.

The reason why Vietnamese restaurants in Asia isn't as authentic in general is because these countries aren't the Land of Immigrants, which Australia is (as are the English-speaking New Worlds of USA, NZ, and Canada). In Australia, you know Vietnamese restaurants are run by Vietnamese, not Russians. And pizzeria are operated by Italian, not Thai. No Indian restaurateur is crazy enough to cook Greek food and compete with the Greeks, in short, there's no ethnic food turf wars. In general, ethnic restaurants are catered for their fellow countrymen anyway. You just possibly can't get away from cheating their own people on authenticity, and in general they demand authenticity.

Of course the variety of fresh food in Australia as cooking ingredients also make Sydney food so great whatever the national dishes happen to be.

Things aren't always like this in Sydney. Asian immigration to Australia didn't happen until the 60's because of the White Australia Policy. The number of immigrant are very small then. This is understandable. You don't go from zero to 100,000 in one decade. One of the earliest Asian who came to Sydney were HK migrants. Because HK was part of the British Commonwealth, that made it easier to migrate to Australia. The Vietnamese refugees, c'est moi, landed in Sydney in the 80's. The Asian restaurants with any significant number were run by HK migrants. There is no other Asian restaurants like Indian, Thai, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese to speak of. But funny enough, there was a Burmese restaurant of all Asian restaurants! It's the only Burmese restaurant in Australia. How do I know that? I worked there while I was still studying high school on Friday and Saturday nights, at first as kitchen hand, and then later as waiter. According to the Burmese cook, there were a total of 35 Burmese living in Sydney then. He knew them all.

Before the 90's, the Cantonese food in HK restaurants are catered to Western tastes buds. That's how we explained the foreign and disgusting tastes of those dishes. It takes great talents to cook food that managed to taste that bad. E.g. ingredients like bamboo shoots - that's not used very often in Cantonese food, were used liberally. Also, strange and many canned veggies were also used as raw ingredients. Nearly all the customers were white Australian and they all dined Chinese food with forks and spoons, and rice on plates. In fact, all these HK restuarants' food tasted so similar to each other, yet so different from the authentic HK tastes that I wonder if they all graduated from the HK School of Cooking Lousy Chow for Non-Chinese.

That was how the Chinese restaurants then. By 1990's they have all but disappeared from the city everywhere, died of a Natural Selection of Good Tastes process. The extinction of those pretend-Chinese restaurants suggests that I'm not as picky as anyone else. My taste bud is Mr. Average. These days the only places you can still find this type of Australianised Chinese restaurants would be in some remote outback towns with a population of less than 3,000, where the typical things on the menu include the usual suspects: Beef with Black Bean Sauce, Lemon Chicken, or Sweet and Sour Pork and Fried Rice (or flied lice). The waitstaff is usually a white kid. Judging by the large and increasing number of white Australians who patronised the authentic Chinese restaurants these days (whether it be Cantonese or otherwise), one has to conclude those revolting 'Westernised' tastes were the Chinese idea of Westerner's taste buds. But it's also possible that white Australians have learnt to eat or acquired the Asian taste buds. The Anglo-Australian now dine East Asian food with chopsticks and rice bowls (and most hold chopsticks correctly compare to some Asians - I'm guilty as charged. It was learnt correctly in the beginning. A bad habit is hard to break).

I'm actually surprise by how unauthentic Vietnamese food is in Singapore as much as I'm surprise by the number of times I heard Vietnamese being spoken in Singapore - not just in touristy places and large shopping malls, but also in suburban MRT, buses, or simply on the streets, and some of the most unlikely places.

The same can be said about the Western food in Asia, not so authentic, they taste Asian. With the exception of Japanese food, which are quite authentic (and very popular throughout Asia). Perhaps because most of the Japanese restaurants (actually ALL) are Japanese franchises that spread throughout SE Asia, and Japanese make sure they are measured up to their standard (that sounds like Japanese) - the reason why they are so popular.

Paris suffered this Asian food taste authenticity the most, which was quite a shock because we think of Paris as the food connoisseur of Europe. Apparently, not Asian food. We went to Paris' "Chinatown" to check out their food, thinking we were going to get a feast. Firstly, there were few Chinese restaurants. Secondly, all restaurants selling Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food ALL in one restaurant. I don't think they hired three or four chefs from different nationalities. They just have one - I suspect either Chinese or Vietnamese - to cook the lots. Never mind the taste authenticity, at this point in time, we just hoped for good taste, and we were sorely disappointed. We tried one more the next day so as not to jump the gun. Well, I think you know the result. They reminded me terribly of those Sydney's suburban Chinese-lookalike, but taste-dislike restaurants in the 1980's. Eating Asian food in Paris made me felt like buying LV knock-off handbags in China. Perhaps Paris was low on Asian population. Or that the French are simply not interested in trying anything else?

A UK colleague who travelled to Paris regularly told me that London do have much better food and restaurants than Paris. Sacre bleu! C'est impossible!!! Even the French restaurant which highly regarded by a highly regarded travel book (I won't name names) was all right, not worth the tons of ink that praises it. I grew up in Vietnam and I had developed a love for French food along with Chinese and Vietnamese food. Maybe the hype is simply hard to measure up.

There was some Chinese restaurants outside Chinatown, in fact near our hotel in Montmartre, it was not bad (7/10). But the way it sells it wasn't too classy. Most of the food was pre-cooked and leave it on tray like some cheap smorgasbord in Sydney. The food was charged by weight...well, we're not impressed. Surprisingly, Frankfurt - a city to France neighbouring country - has quite a number of decent Chinese restaurants. Perhaps the cold Frankfurt weather also worked me up to an appetite. Rome has also better Chinese restaurants than Paris. But that was 10 years ago, perhaps things have changed since. Perhaps, this explains why Olivier - Atta's French boss in Bahrain (a former French chef) - has not such a hot opinion about Chinese food.

Our taste buds is one part of our body that benefits alot when we travel overseas. Singaporean (ok, make that Chinese) love to eat and this guy is a testimony to this. He writes a blog ( to document all his food samplings in Singapore, and I intend to try out at least some of his recommendations.

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