In Singapore one of my favorite activities is wandering around local markets. I’ll have little conversations with the vendors, even though I’m constrained by language and accent. I don’t speak three of the four official languages and some Singaporeans have difficulty understanding my accent.
It is a bit of a treasure hunt. There’s always the ordinary (stuff I know), the strange (stuff I don’t know) and the mysterious (stuff which I recognize but don’t know for sure).
On one trip I spied a large plastic lined bin filled with pickled leafy vegetables. It looked just like my mother’s ham choy. My mum used to make it at home and we’d always have a supply in the fridge, ready for our favorite week day supper dish, Pork & Ham Choy.
The stall vendor saw me looking at the bin.
“What is this called?” I asked in slow, carefully enunciated English.
“Ham choy,” she said in slow, carefully enunciated Hokkien.
Actually, what she said was ‘kiam chye’ which sounds like ‘ham choy’ in Hakka and ‘hum choy’ in Cantonese.
Ham Choy is made by salting the leafy stems of Chinese mustard greens (gai choy) and then pickling them in a sweet and sour brine. It is the Chinese equivalent to German sauerkraut. Highly unreliable historical sources say that the Great Wall was built by laborers rationed on rice and ham choy. Highly imaginative kids like my younger self, used to fantasize about patrolling the wall, guarding against invading Mongols and eating bowls of steaming rice topped with luscious chunks of Pork & Ham Choy.
Truth be told, those dishes probably didn’t taste like my home style favorite. Certainly, in Singapore kiam chye is used differently, in a variety of Hokkien and Teochew dishes. The most famous dishes being Kiam Chye Ark soup and Kiam Chai Boey. Kiam Chye Ark soup plays off the savory tang of kiam chye against the fatty richness of duck. Kiam Chai Boey is a stew made with roast meats, fresh and pickled mustard greens. It is the day-after dish made with leftovers from family reunion dinners at Chinese New Year.
Reaching back into my memory, I vaguely recall a Chinese Jamaican recipe using roast pork (siu yuk) mixed in with Pork and Ham Choy. I remember thinking that it was an awful waste of siu yuk‘s crispy crackling skin. Maybe though, it was a variation of Kiam Chai Boey. After all, the Hoklo, Hakka and Cantonese all emigrated from the Fujian and Guandong provinces; it seems inevitable that cooking styles and ingredients crossed ethnic lines.
The recipe for kiam chye is relatively easy to find. Uncle Phil, a Singaporean in Australia gives wonderfully clear instructions in How to make Kiam Chye. He hangs the fresh vegetable in the sun to wilt and dry before curing them in a brine made of rice water and salt.
Initially, I was puzzled at the use of water left over from washing rice. It was strange and (wait for it …) unlike what my mother did. She used a mixture of vinegar and sugar to make ham choy.
On reflection though, it’s not so strange. Rice water left at room temperature will ferment into vinegar and fermentation is key to making this kind of cold pressed pickle. In all likelihood, this was the only option for workers on the Great Wall so many years ago. My mother’s way was just a modern day convenience to speed up the process.