Blanched Gailan ft. Fried Shallots: Teoswa (Chaoshan) Food With Diana Zheng
Tasty Chinese You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of
Just when you think you’ve schooled yourself on most—or at least many—of China’s regional cuisines, along comes one that is wildly interesting and influential but also surprisingly obscure—even in China itself. I’m talking about Teoswa cuisine from southeastern Guangdong province. After a dozen years of food study and travel to China, the sum total of what I know about Teoswa comes from 2019. That is when Netflix unleashed a documentary series on the region’s foodways and when I met Diana Zheng, who wrote a Teoswa cookbook published in late 2018.
Both the series, Flavorful Origins, and the book, Jia: The Food of Swatow and the Teochew Diaspora, are revelatory. When I met up with Diana in Los Angeles earlier this year, she assured me that I was not the last to learn about Teoswa food. In fact, both the cuisine and her own Teoswa heritage were a mystery even to her until some chance encounters and epiphanies led her on a search for the truth about both just a few years ago.
There are good reasons, she quickly learned, that the food is not better known, starting with the region’s name. The Teoswa region is made up of the twin cities of Teochew and Swatow, as they are called in the local dialect. But in Mandarin, the region is known as Chaoshan and in Cantonese as Chiusan. Diana, 30, knew that she was born in Swatow, her father’s hometown, where she lived until immigrating to the U.S. at age four, but she did not connect it to Teochew, much less to its better-known Mandarin name, Chaozhou. When traveling in Singapore on her honeymoon, she became aware of the pervasive influence of Teochew Chinese food there, looked into it, and discovered much to her surprise that her ancestral home was part of that food culture.
That discovery eventually led her to travel several times to Swatow to cook with her aunts and cousins and to Singapore and Bangkok to follow the Teoswa diaspora and collect recipes.
The most profound revelation for us readers is that while most of us are not familiar with Teoswa food by that name, we are nonetheless familiar with it through its strong influence on Thai, Singaporean and Vietnamese food. Turns out that legions of Teoswa people have immigrated to Southeast Asia over the centuries (Bangkok’s Chinatown is overwhelmingly Teoswa), and in turn many of them eventually immigrated to America, bringing the tastes and traditions of Teoswa to some of our local Vietnamese and Thai restaurants (and Cambodian and Malaysian if you are so lucky to live near one of those).
Of course these traditions have mixed with local tastes over the decades to form something new, but according to Diana the link to Teoswa is still tastable in those cultures’ noodle soups and stir-fried rice noodles, among other dishes. So in her cookbook, you’ll find recipes for a Teochew noodle soup that will remind you of Viet and Cambodian noodles and for Singapore’s char kway teow, the beloved rice noodle stir-fry with shrimp, fishcake and Chinese sausage that has its origins in Teoswa.
And if that doesn’t blow your mind, then wait till you learn that Teoswa locals ate raw fish for eons before the Japanese adopted it as their now-signature food. A whole section of Diana’s book is devoted to Teoswa’s wide range of raw seafood, including very thin slices of chilled fish served with a dipping sauce based on taucheo, which is the fermented yellow soybean sauce local to Swatow (the best of which, as seen in one Netflix episode, is still made very similarly to Sichuan’s long-aged Pixian bean paste, in large earthen crocks that get hand-stirred daily).
I wanted to share a recipe from Diana’s book, but I didn’t want to ask you to hunt down yet another artisan Chinese bean paste, so I chose a green. There are several wonderful recipes for greens in the book, reminding you that all of China may eat gailan, yuchoy, bokchoy and pea leaves, but every region eats them a little differently. It should not now surprise you that Teoswa cooks like their gailan, or Chinese broccoli, the typical Cantonese way with oyster sauce but they then top it with a ton of fried shallots. This speaks both to Teoswa’s uniqueness within China, where that is not a typical garnish, and to its ties to Southeast Asia, where that flourish is ubiquitous.
The crispy, sweet shallots and salty-rich oyster sauce make what is otherwise just a blanched green into a super flavorful treat. (And, by the way, we are currently carrying a fantastic, all-natural, gluten-free oyster sauce from Thailand at The Mala Market.) Because that oyster-sauce-and-shallot-oil sauce is so tasty—and because we are sauce lovers—I have doubled the sauce but otherwise not changed the recipe.
It seems there’s always a “new” Chinese cuisine to intrigue us. Many thanks to Diana Danxia Zheng for opening our eyes to this one. This is a very personal cookbook, the kind I savor most nowadays, where you follow a cook who’s emotionally involved with every dish and each story. If you enjoy that kind of cookbook, you can buy Jia directly from the author’s website.
For more all-purpose veggie recipes like this blanched gailan, see my post on Technique for Stir-Frying Greens: Or How to Feed a Chinese Girl in America.
Blanched Gailan ft. Oyster Sauce and Fried Shallots
- 2 large shallots
- about ¼ cup oil
- 1 pound gailan (Chinese broccoli)
- 1½ tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- Slice the shallots very thinly, which is easiest done with a mandoline. Put the shallots in a wok or a very small sauce pan, tamp them down and add just enough neutral oil to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook at a low bubble, stirring occasionally, until they are just golden, which will take 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels; they will crisp as they cool. Retain the shallot oil.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the salt. Trim any dry ends or discolored leaves from the gailan and add to the boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, cook the gailan for about 3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks, until cooked but still slightly crisp. Remove and drain in a colander.
- Mix 2 tablespoons of the shallot oil, 2 tablespoons oyster sauce and 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl. Plate gailan, drizzle with the sauce and top with the crispy shallots.
[…] Gai Lan with Fried Shallots […]