What makes a journey memorable? To me, a sense of connection and discovery is most important; and that was what I found on a recent visit to Shunde, a district in China’s Guangdong province. Because it brought me back to my childhood: to the roots of the cuisine I love and to the strange, enigmatic breed of women who figured so vividly in my growing up years – the amah.
The landscape on the hour-long drive from Guangzhou’s airport to Shunde was almost Arcadian: a quilted patchwork of ponds and green fields and a family-run restaurant every kilometer or so, it seems. For thousands of years, fertile soil brought prosperity to this part of China. Silk was a major produce, and Shunde became one of the nation’s largest silk production centers. The men of Shunde grew the mulberry leaves that fed the worms while the women wove silk at home.
During the Depression era of the 1930s, silk’s demand fell and many people left Shunde. Some of its women left China altogether, and made their way to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. They found work mainly as domestic help, and were easily recognizable by the black-and-white samfus they wore and their tied-back hair buns. These women were fiercely loyalty to their employers and earned the affectionate nickname ‘amah’, or mother in Cantonese, for their devotion. As a child I met and befriended many amahs in Singapore, and through them came to know of Shunde and its food.
My first stop was Jun’an, a rural town in Shunde. A spot of trivia: Bruce Lee’s father was born in Jun’an and Bruce lived here briefly as a child. The town, quick to capitalize on its fame, had built a theme park in Bruce’s honour, but was otherwise a laid back agricultural community that produced fine freshwater carp. On a visit to the Lee ancestral hall I met a 105-year-old female inhabitant of Jun’an. She was amazingly quick-witted for her years, and reminded me so much of the wizened yet resilient amahs I knew.
Amahs remained unmarried for life, with many taking a formal vow of spinsterhood that was out of step with the traditions of the time. They formed strong bonds with their fellow ‘sisters’, and because they never returned to China it was common for a group of amahs to share a small rented house after retirement, where they would live together for the rest of their lives.
At Jun’an I tasted its vaunted pork for the first time in my life. The whole pig -- de-boned and marinated with five-spice powder, salt, and sugar – was placed spread-eagled on a pole inside a large wooden drum and steamed for an hour over charcoal. The tender pork that was produced was sliced thinly and served with a sprinkling of sesame seed. The spices intensified the porcine flavors yet were so subtle as to be virtually untraceable; this made the quality of the meat paramount.
There is a saying to epitomize Shunde cooking – 粗料精做，妙在家常 -- meaning to be able to cook refined home meals out of cheap ingredients. And in fact, evidence points to Shunde as being a major progenitor of Cantonese cuisine as a whole.
The freshwater carp that Jun’an breeds in abundance is a key ingredient of Shunde cooking. An architectural fixture of the region is the pond in front of the house, stocked with fish. For a meal, Shunde women would gather vegetables from the farm and catch a fish from the pond; from these they would conjure a feast without wasting a morsel. Shunde frugality and skill with humble ingredients in the kitchen was renowned, and when these women became amahs in Singapore, these same qualities became hallmarks of their cooking style.
The Shunde Raw Fish is a showpiece dish and a must-try. The live freshwater carp is slaughtered and its most tender flesh – lying between the belly and tail end -- is sliced thinly and placed on ice to keep it fresh. A mix of pickles, lime leaves, peanut and soy sauce is then tossed in with the sliced raw fish and eaten. The story goes that Masterchef Hooi Kok Wai of the Four Heavenly Kings fame took his cue from this dish and made of it one of Singapore’s national dishes, the Chinese New Year’s Prosperous Yusheng.
Other parts of the fish are used for steamboat; sliced or beaten into fish paste. Another dish is steamed carp’s head, where the very tip of the head is cooked with black bean paste. On the tongue, the softness of the brain and the savory sweetness of the fluids in the fish head were amazing. Nothing goes to waste. Even the bones were boiled and made into porridge.
It is usual for an amah to work her entire life with a single employer, becoming a trusted family member, and in some cases, a surrogate ‘mum’ and even de facto matriarch. They would send the bulk of their salary back home to their families in China, most particularly during the difficult period of the Cultural Revolution. With what money that remained, they would indulge in cookouts with their ‘sisters’ on off days. During the once-a-year Hungry Ghosts Festival, when Cantonese opera troupes from Hong Kong would often arrive in Singapore to perform, a surprising side of the amah emerges. They would dedicate huge celebratory placards to their favorite opera artistes, adorned with borders of folded ‘flowers’ made from hundreds of their hard-earned dollar bills.
Forty-five minutes from Jun’an is another small town called Leliu and its award-winning roast goose. At the street stall, the cook explained the details to me: each bird is carefully selected and bred to its ideal weight of about 2.5 kilograms where it is slaughtered. The marinade used is specific to each chef and is jealously guarded, but the basic ingredients appear to be Sichuan pepper, five-spice powder, aged tangerine peel, galangal and soy sauce.
The Leliu roast goose is not crispy skinned like its counterpart in Singapore. Its skin is loose and wrinkled like a Shar-pei’s, and that apparently accounts for its fuller flavor. After the goose is removed from the oven, it is usual to ‘rest’ it in the open; but in Leliu the resting is done in an enclosed space away from the wind. This triggers a sort of ‘braising’ process that causes the skin to wrinkle, while drawing the juices from the flesh. And when chewed, the skin releases the intense flavors it has absorbed as well as those of the marinade.
Another must-eat while in Shunde is the famed rice noodle unique to the town of Chencun. It is said a man named Huang Dan developed the technique of making the noodle some 80 years ago. First, newly harvested rice is stored for six months, then rubbed under water for at least 20 minutes to remove excess starch before being ground with a stone grinder. The resulting flour is then used to make an extra-thin, extra-smooth flat noodle derived from the traditional sha hor fun. In Hong Kong, where the noodle quickly gained popularity, it is called Chencun Fen after its place of origin. Chencun Fen is eaten in a variety of ways: steamed with meats or used like bread to soak up the gravy at the end of the meal, or even as a dessert with red bean paste and coconut cream.
The Shunde dishes that served the amahs so well in their employers’ kitchens also saw them through retirement. I remember seeing, in the 1960s, ex-amahs selling Shunde fare such as dried sole porridge, fried noodles, and steamed glutinous rice. In the morning, they would prepare the food and set up their makeshift ‘stalls’ of stacked wooden crates along the five-foot way. The meager takings probably helped stretch whatever savings these old women managed to accumulate from earlier times of service.
My final stop, the sub-district of Daliang, was a manufacturing boomtown, home to the production facilities of major Chinese brands like Kelon and Midea. The skyline was typically mainland urban: with gleaming high-rise towers and hulking shopping malls gradually elbowing out the traditional buildings – and foods – of the streets and side lanes.
Happily, some traditional foods still abounded -- meat porridge, chee cheong fun and deep-fried rice dumpling. The Shunde district produces some of the finest rice in southern China, so the variety of rice-based dishes on its streets should come as no surprise. Rice is used in subtle, complex ways here. There are rice of various strains – pearl, jasmine, glutinous – and different ‘ages’, such as ‘new’ or recently harvested rice, or ‘old’ rice that has been stored for a period of time. It’s known that a ‘simple’ bowl of porridge uses three to four types of rice to achieve balances of texture, consistency, and fragrance. Learning to distinguish and appreciate the gradations and differences in flavor present in plain rice was an education in itself.
The sight of the deep-fried rice dumpling was a different matter for me: it was like bumping into an old friend again after 40 years. I remembered buying deep-fried rice dumpling from a retired amah in Chinatown, Singapore. Amahs were most commonly seen in Chinatown in the 1960s. It was where they lived in retirement, sharing tiny shophouse cubicles. It was where they congregated on their rest days; and it was where they died: in the so-called ‘death houses’ along Sago Lane, where the terminally ill were housed and cared for until the last.
Eating that dumpling on the street in Shunde, I recalled watching the amahs in Chinatown sitting at the professional letter-writers, having their mail read to them or written. I recalled watching them chat and gossip among themselves, and cooking and sharing food from their homeland of Shunde; and I think -- isn’t it wonderful how homesickness can be assuaged, and memories ignited, with a bite?
All photos by Mark Ong