Thursday, July 13, 2006

Teochew Chinese Rice Porridge Meal: A Zen meal

A dinner menu is like a musical composition. Harmonious and balanced, with a theme, and if possible saying it in a special way that unerringly identifies you as the composer. Each country has it's type of cuisine that reflects the psyche of it's people. And so the sophistication of French cuisine, the 'friendliness' of American cuisine and the stodginess of the British. But in China, there is no national Chinese cuisine, as each region and it's peoples are so different. The Cantonese can be likened to the French, their sophisticated cuisine reflects an obsession with food, with elaborate sauces and concoctions using animals and parts of animals that no one else would use. The fiery people of Szechuan and Hunan need to keep themselves warm in such a frigid climate and this is reflected in their cusine. So too, the robust cuisine of the poor Fukien peasants of coastal South China with it's clumps of noodles and fatty pork dishes for people who only get to eat like that once in a while. Besides the 5 main schools of Cantonese, Szechuan, Shandong, Shanghai and Foochow , there are many sub-schools which are just as distinct.

One of these is Teochew cuisine. The Teochew are a dialect group from the mountains of Guangzhou province. Though they live in the same province as the Cantonese , Teochew people are very different. They are refined people, having a sing song dialect, a fondness for poetry and song, and their women are much fairer than the Cantonese women. Their refinement is reflected in their cuisine. Not for them the elaborate Cantonese cuisine nor the German-like robustness of their Hokkien neghbor's cuisine. Teochew people eat plain, simple food cooked in the natural juices and usually steamed and not fried.

The very essence of Teochew cuisine and their psyche can be seen in a meal of Teochew porridge. Here, bland rice that has been cooked into a sticky gruel is accompanied by a variety of small dishes which complement the blandness of the porridge. A meal like this is almost Zen-like! It exemplifies the notion that Less can be More when it comes to food. As you nibble a miniscule piece of salted beancurd and wash it down your throat with the smooth rice porridge your taste buds explore the melange of flavors that are in that small piece of beancurd. And as you eat a piece of Pomfret fish that has been steamed with pickled mustard green, sour plum and ginger, you know you would rather have it than a slab of the belly of the most expensive sushi Tuna .

In Hong Kong and Singapore jaded millionaires who tire of Sharks Fin and Beijing Duck seek a reprieve in Teochew porridge for the re-balancing of their Yin and Yang. To me, living in the USA , when I need a relief from the American diet of meat and more meat, fat and sugar, I have a Teochew Porridge meal. It restores the balance in my body as well as my sanity.

The pictures below show Teochew porridge eaten with Tofu, Cilantro, steamed Alaskan crab, minced meat and collard greens.

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