Unfamiliar Traditions

While I’m a big fan of Google Search, I’m a bit more skeptical of Google Translate. I’ve learned that what works for some languages work poorly for others. Sometimes though it’s not the technology that’s wrong.

My friend from Suriname had pointed me to a Facebook page with a recipe of stuffed bitter melon called niong fu gua in Chinese. This is a well known Hakka dish which my mother made regularly for my picky eating father. It was a family favorite and culinary proof I thought, of the shared legacies between Chinese in Jamaica and Suriname.

The recipe was written in Dutch and I used Google to translate it to English. When ‘sardines’ came back as an ingredient, I put it down to a dodgy translation. Stuffed fu gua, as I knew it was made with bitter melon stuffed with minced pork and fresh shrimp. Who would stuff fu gua with sardines? How could that even work?

A Facebook friend came to the rescue. She said

… My mom’s recipe calls for tangerine peel and salted fish (she used canned sardines as a substitute). I never did like Stuffed Fu Gah…too bitter. But have come to enjoy it, first for nostalgia but also a new version: omit both tangerine peel and sardines…I like it much better!

Sardines were a substitute for salt fish! Aaah. Huh? There’s salt fish in stuffed fu gua? I didn’t know that. When I mentioned this to my Dad his reaction was immediate.

“Yes, my mother used to make it with salt fish too!”

He’d never liked it because of the smell. He recalled that his mother would cure fresh fish with salt, wrap it with newspaper and hang it out to dry. It sounded like something I’d seen in old Chinese shops: paper wrapped fish, hung by their tails and strung up for sale.

Dried fish is a common feature in Asian cooking. In Seoul’s Gwangjang market, dried pollack is especially prized and schools of petrified fish are tied up with yellow ribbons and hung like banners from the ceilng. In Singapore’s Chinatown, entire sections of the market are devoted to dried goods and dried fish, shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish and scallops.

Cambodian markets are a bit more rustic and their uniquely styled fish is splayed into concentric circles and offered for sale with dried sausages and cured meats.

In Laos, roadside stalls sell fish hung from the rafters along with wrapped and unwrapped selections laid out on tables. In these open displays, where the fish is naturally dried and closer to its source, the smell can be overpowering. Swarms of flies hover over the display, moving and settling as rotating fans wave them away. Seeing and smelling this, it’s easy to sympathize with my father’s dislike of dried fish.

My Dad said that some people (not him, he emphasized) love the taste of fu gua stuffed with pork and salt fish, claiming that the additional aroma of fish make it truly authentic. My mother and her mother have always made the filling with ground pork and fresh shrimp. I grew up thinking this was traditional. Apparently not. In a quick poll with my Hakka friends, I discovered that

  • most people don’t make stuffed fu gua at home anymore,
  • those that do, make it wholly with pork and
  • they’ve never ever made it with shrimp.
Stuffed fu-gua, as I make it

So where did my mother’s recipe come from? Did her mother come from a different village in China? or did my father’s abhorrence of salt fish force a new tradition? My mother is long passed and I’ll never know.

This experience though, had me poking at what’s truly authentic heritage food. Is it defined by recipe or taste? Is it specified by ingredient or by flavor? Within each family, do traditions evolve according to preference and a what time does preference get molded by tradition ?

Growing up I’ve never eaten Chinese salt fish. I admit to being curious. Last week I tried a Cantonese style fried rice cooked with egg and shreds of dried salt fish. It wasn’t bad. Maybe I’ll add it to my next batch of niong fu gua.

Toronto, Canada. September 2020

7 Comments

  1. This is great! I love how you capture local culture through such stories…makes them so much easier to connect with. Food can be familiar and surprising at the same time! I have been writing a post (should be up this week) that talks about Bengali food and I have had these exact thoughts before and while writing…how does food evolve and why? tradition, specific taste, family twists, regional accessibility to certain ingredients etc etc…the role that each of such factors play in the final presentation of particular food/dishes is quite significant. It keeps evolving and while I like experimenting with food a lot, there are some things that I like just the way my mother makes them. During one of her visits here, I gave her a note copy and asked her to write down in the Bengali language the recipes of all the dishes I like to eat the most, just the way she makes and also add some of her signature dishes, that may or may not be a to my liking. I look at it when I am making something ‘traditional’. I am also in the process of curating family recipes from my aunts and some other members of the family as I think it would be a good piece of tradition to share with the future generation, assuming they would cook Bengali food 😉

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    1. I’m glad that you like this Moon. Responses like yours make me feel good about writing these posts.
      Writing & curating family dishes is a wonderful way to maintain your family history. I do that as well in the hopes that my kids will eventually want to read it.
      I look forward to reading your post.

      Like

    1. Signature foods – I like that!

      Tastes change with time don’t they. On the one hand, I’d like to reproduce my mother’s cooking (even if she never had the patience to write it down 🙂 and on the other, I could never can do it exactly – Ingredients on hand differ and I have different shortcut cooking techniques.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I suppose food may be traditional but it is a dynamic phenomena. Like language it is constantly evolving. This is often apparent in a country of immigrants like Australia. People who live here for many years return in their elder years to their native country and find everything has moved on. Trends come and go and traditions are lost or reinvented with each generation. Therein lies the value of recipe books, capturing the food traditions of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you have any traditional family foods that you can trace back to the old country Amanda?
      Its certainly true that after living away for years, going back can be a shock. Going back by generations is even more so.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I do have traditional foods, Sandy. Mostly I have adopted them later on, but my Danish-German Grandmother did have an influence on me. Her German mother always had traditional German foods, like Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. I sometimes have sauerkraut but especially like the traditional Danish foods like Ris ala mande for Christmas and special occasions. And then I made quite a few Norwegian/Scandi pastry items such as Waffles and Lingonberry slice.

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