The nature of Singapore’s food is well documented on the surface. Lots of immigrants converged on a former swamp and created delicious hybrid food. You will find loads of articles about Kristang and Peranakan food – about fish head curry (Indian-Singaporean) and popiah (Chinese-Singaporean).
But what about the ingredients that are uniquely Singaporean?
How did jicama end up in popiah? How did Singaporeans ever start eating fish heads?
Home cooking isn’t glamorous enough to be sold in hawker stalls, but has also experienced hybridisation. How else can I explain harissa in a family stir-fry recipe?
Which brings us to taucheo, fermented soy beans used in home cooking.
The case of taucheo
“The earliest reference to a relative of jiang in Southeast Asia was by the Dutch scientist Prinsen Geerligs in 1895 and 1896.”
Having spent most of my life living away from Singapore, I’ve also spent a lot of my life seeking out ingredients that I will never be able to find.
In the 90s, I couldn’t find belachan. Today, I find myself unable to find doubanjiang (I miss mapo tofu and stir fried green beans) or taucheo. It’s nigh impossible to find non-Cantonese Chinese food in Vietnam, so I’m trying to replicate food at home.
On my hunt for taucheo, I realised that it has its own Wikipedia page, and is an ingredient native to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Down the rabbit hole, I realised that fermented soy products have a pretty serious following on the food etymology trail.
“Soybean jiang has long been used in Malaysia (where it is called tau-cheo or tau-chio ) and in Thailand (where it is called tao-chio or tau-cho cheaw ), but little is known of the history or present status of these products.”
Yes, yes, you can’t really find them because everyone is using it at home and searching for recipes under “taucheo” or er, “salted soy beans”. No really.
My best guess is that intrepid new Chinese migrants tried to recreate doubanjiang, realised it wasn’t working, named it taucheo, then started chucking it into stir-fries. It wasn’t long before they were really getting into it and using it everywhere because who doesn’t love umami?
So now that you know all this, how do you find it?
If you live anywhere with an Asian grocery, you may be able to find this. You can use miso as a substitute in a pinch, but the texture will be different, and taucheo is sweeter.
And how do you make it? Luckily for me, a Singapore food blog stalwart has preserved his grandmother’s recipe. Uncle Phil doesn’t update as regularly as he used to, but I’ve copied the recipe here in full. I’ll make tweaks to it when I make it myself!
Uncle Phil’s Grandmother’s Taucheo Recipe
2 cups soyabeans
6 cups water
1/3 cup sea salt
To make two cups of soya bean paste, soak the soyabeans in cold water overnight or at least 8 hours and drain.
Heat a wok over medium high heat and add soaked soyabean to toast for about 30 minutes. Making sure the soyabean is not burnt and set aside to cool.
Place the soyabeans in a paper bag and roll over with a rolling pin or a wine bottle, to remove the skins. Discard the skins.
In a big pot, add the soyabeans with 6 cups of water. Bring it to a high boil and immediately decrease the heat to medium low heat to prevent boilover.
Boil gently for about 2 1/2 hours or until soyabeans become tender. Transfer the soyabeans onto a bamboo tray lined with cheese cloth.
Cover loosely with banana leaves and keep in a very warm place to ferment for 5 days.
In a bowl, combine the fermented soyabeans and mash with the sea salt. Transfer the the soyabeans to a earthen or ceramic jar with a lid. After mellowing for a week, they ready to be used but it best kept in a refrigerator to turn into taucheo. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator and they will keep fresh for months.
I recommend Wendy Hutton’s Singapore Food for socio-historical context, in case the articles online don’t cut it.
Here’s an entire list of fermented soy products, just in case you’re in a Wiki-hole. It’s okay, you don’t need to come down here with me.
Recipe for doubanjiang, if you want to make it.
Original recipe for taucheo. Thanks Uncle Phil.
Bonus: Recipe for mee siam, which I didn’t realise uses taucheo. +1 for extra hybridisation!