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.
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