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Food, History

Vietnamese Savoury Mooncakes!

September 16, 2017
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?”
Yes. I think my favourite bit about Vietnamese mooncakes is that they come in savoury flavours, and varieties include a shelf-stable snowskin! Unlike the real snowskin mooncakes from Hong Kong which are served cold, the Vietnamese ones are made of glutinous rice and called “bánh dẻo” or “sticky rice mooncake”.  
I scored myself a thập cẩm flavoured mooncake, which is Sino-Vietnamese aliteration of the Cantonese word 什錦which is mostly used to describe stir frys. In the Vietnamese version of the word and in mooncakes, it’s a mix of salty and sweet, including meat and candied orange peel. Don’t knock it till you try it. Other savoury flavours I’ve seen include roast pork and the aforementioned, tom yum.
In the north of Vietnam, it seems that the tradition includes dogs made out of pomelo!

For those of you not in the know about mid-autumn festival, I recommend experiencing once in your life. It includes lanterns, pomelos and lots of tea. and mooncakes.
For the full deal, I recommend the Wikipedia article.
*The Vietnamese believe it’s a man and a water buffalo in a banyan tree that has flown to the moon. 
**alternatively, a Chinese faction used it to win a war by stuffing mooncakes with secret missives that smuggled into prisons
***Also alternatively, the Chinese and Vietnamese use it as a time to spend time with family over Harvest Season and pray for babies #alternativemyths
Food, History, Recipes

Uniquely Singaporean Ingredients – Taucheo

February 6, 2017

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.

image of mass produced taucheo

Confusingly titled “taucu” here, because we Malaysians/Indons/Singaporeans/Thais can’t keep our names straight.

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.

Further Reading: 

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.

Misunderstood Malaysian ingredients


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!