Pedro, “what are these?”Me, “Mooncakes”Pedro,” what are they for?”Me,“you know those people burning stuff today? After the ghost festival which ends in about 2 weeks, the ghosts go home to purgatory hell and then a lady flies to the moon. Don’t argue with this logic, it’s 4,000 years old. The Chinese* have 2,000 years on Jesus.”Pedro, “….…why is this tom yum flavoured?”
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!
North Korean restaurants hit the news recently, when the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant in China defected en masse.
Enthralled by the tale, I started reading up about these restaurants. Like everything else from the Hermit Kingdom, details are difficult to come by.
A Swedish journalist reports that these restaurants are part of the North Korean government’s money generating arm, known as Room 39. It’s definitely the least morbid part of Room 39, and potentially its most legal.
South Korea’s government believes there are over 100 restaurants in over 12 countries, with the majority located in China and Southeast Asia.
While all the restaurants put on a cultural show each evening, the type of entertainment varies. The shows themselves consist of multiple song and dance routines, usually of the traditional North Korean variety; although there are reports of a Beatles cover band in Yangon.
The staff are always pretty young women, chosen for their musicianship and strong ties to North Korea to reduce the risk of defection.
A visit to the North Korean restaurant in Saigon
I was pretty excited at the prospect of visiting a North Korean restaurant and booked in as soon as I found out about the restaurant. The experience turned out to be just as strange as I thought it’d be. Twin Peaks meets Fargo would probably be the closest I could get to explaining it.
When we arrived, we were greeted by our North Korean hosts and immediately asked where we were from. Our host was jotting this down on a clipboard, which proved mildly terrifying.
When it came to my turn, the response “Australia” clearly didn’t satisfy them. Gesturing to their faces, they actually said, “but your face!”. I smiled and shrugged.
The tension was palpable in there, but Mr Dumpling inadvertently cut through it when he pointed to a laminated A4 sign on the wall with Korean script all over it.
“What’s that?” he asked,
“Health tonics”, our hosts started giggling.
One of them slipped away before returning with a box. “Health tonics” turned out to be herbs to help with bedroom performance.
Mystery solved, we turned our attention to the very large menu.
The North Korean specialties of raengmyŏn, cold noodles made from buckwheat, potato and sweet potato, and dog stew were on offer.
Sadly, we were only game to try the raengmyŏn, since our table was full of dog lovers.
Other than that, most of the food resembled South Korean dishes and were pretty familiar.
What we were all there for was of course, the entertainment, and entertained we were.
The crew assigned to Saigon took a cultural approach, and decided to school us in North Korean ways. From the opening greeting song in traditional dress to the North Korean state-sanctioned songs, the oppressive silence and no photos policy suddenly gave way to an 80’s-era variety show with photography encouraged. We were transported to a world very different from our own.
The highlight for me had to be a very talented hostess who played Arirang on the gayageum and started riffing. She was also the drummer of the band, and had a great singing voice. I did wonder what she would have done if she had grown up in a different country. Maybe not taken up music lessons at all?
As suddenly as it had started, the entertainment ended. The fluorescent lights came back on and the costumes were off. Soon, we were ushered out. And while the door wasn’t literally shut on us, it may as well have been, as our hosts immediately turned their attention back to the people remaining.
Outside, we stared at the looming apartment block next to the restaurant.
“This is most likely where they stay,” my friend gestured with a cigarette in hand.
“What makes you say that?” I ask.
“I did some reading online, they’re not allowed to go out except for some basic shopping. They don’t get to move much.”
As we contemplated the lives of our hosts, another friend emerged from the bathroom, “I didn’t see any cameras in there!”
“I’m sure there are.” The rest of us chorused.
“Who wants dessert?” I asked, keen to chat about our experience without being watched.
“Yep!” everyone responded, as we made our way into the night.
Located far down an alleyway, you have to really look for Curry Shika to find it.
I find that Vietnamese food, while delicious, is lacking in spices (not chilli), and so I have to hunt for spice on a semi-regular basis. I can’t even find much in grocery shops!
Curry Shika is a Japanese curry joint, the curry is flavour packed and they also have a curry udon.
They also specialise in home made mochi!
While I’ve had my fair share of daifuku and mochis, I’ve never seen a clear mochi before.
I’m a nerd
I’m a bit of a nerd, and love reading food books. I like to know about food (and everything, really), where it’s from, what makes it work. J. Kenji López-Alt is my hero. I knew I loved him when I read about his wife begging off chocolate chip cookies.
I’m that annoying person you meet who wants to learn a skill or take a course just because they want to know things.
I might come across as a bit of a wanker
My poor partner has to put up with my weird pronouncements and wanky sounding proclamations all the time. “I want to pick up pottery”, “Let’s visit Bhutan! They have a National Happiness Index.” or “I want to study Spanish, it’s one of the most-spoken languages in the world!”.
It’s worse when it comes to food. “I want to try the cau lau in Hoi An. The noodles are made with ash only found in the region, with well water from slightly out of town.”. It works both upmarket and down market, I once made the poor man queue for over an hour for some doner kebab in Berlin. (Mustafa’s. The trick is to buy the also-famous currywurst, then eat it while in line for the kebab. He didn’t think it was worth it, because he doesn’t queue for anything, I really like it. Incidentally, have you heard about how currywurst came about? No, don’t encourage me.)
ANYWAY. Now that you know how much I research everything that flits by me, it’ll come as no surprise that I started a list of foods to try.
I’m on a mission to eat all of the food
I started a list with the mission to try at least one new thing per week. I’ll see if I can post regularly!
One Star House Party is a bold new project from some intrepid chefs with absolutely no airs or wankery.
6 friends, 20 countries, 20 months, 20 pop-up restaurants.
Sounds insane? Yeah, I think so too.
Their plan is to travel the country for a month, learning about the ingredients and indigenous ways of cooking. This culminates in a pop-up restaurant that lasts a week before they move on to the next country.
The friends started out in Hong Kong and had so much fun that they decided to take it on the road. The idea caught the imagination and even led to a New York Times writeup.
When I spoke to Kevin, one of the intrepid six, as I shall refer to them from now on, they’d already gotten themselves into some crazy situations.
For their Vietnamese endeavour, they had planned on riding the length of the country on motorbikes, Top Gear style. During that month, Trish, one of the team, broke her leg after being thrown off the bike. She had to be carried around for most of the way,but stayed on the trip and was seen playing a very fine hostess on the evening.
The team bought kevlar pads after that, but another accident sent Kevin skidding on all fours on his pads, while his bike went in the other direction.
YEEEEIKES. And here I am, four months into my move to Vietnam, still refusing to learn how to ride a bike, while these guys having ridden the length of Vietnam!
I dropped into their Vietnam pop-up purposely not been following their progress on social media as I wanted to surprised.
I knew the basics: they are chefs, they usually live where they host to save costs, they’re bootstrapping each new location with the earnings from the previous dinner.
Because I hadn’t done my research, I wasn’t prepared for the 45min taxi ride through narrow hems (Vietnamese alleyways) that led to a beautiful furniture showroom where they were holding their pop-up. It turns out one of the crew knows the owner of the showroom – and so there, amongst the fabric and leather swatches, fancy furniture and designer light fittings, was where we had our dinner.
Greeted by the intrepid six, their translator and their rotating intern for the night, what followed were seven courses, mostly served in pairs.
What impressed me most about One Star House Party wasn’t their amazing food, but their sense of adventure, passion, and resilience. The team’s genuine curiosity about the world around them and willingness to engage were really inspiring.
At one point during the trip, they somehow convinced a barbecued pork seller to allow them to help out at her stall. For their pop-ups each evening, they called in a local hawker to make rice pancakes for their customers. They also constantly post fun facts about food, which really endears them to me.
They have also embarked on a plan of getting interns to work with them at each location, in the hopes of a cultural and gastronomical exchange.
I have no doubt this is something they’ll continue to do, as they cook and discover across the globe.
If you want to see more of what they’ve been up to, including but not limited to: night fishing on a squid boat, hosting a pop-up in the corridors of a moving train, and scoffing Sichuan peppers, I recommend that you follow their social media and YouTube channels. I swear they didn’t pay me to say any of this, I just want to watch them kick ass.
I can’t wait until they hit the Mount Everest base camp. Will there be momos?