One of the hazards of reading information written in another language is relying too heavily on Google Translate. I use this app all the time to translate menus, signage and web pages. Sometimes it works very well. Sometime, not so much. When I came across a FB page with a Surinamese version of stuffed bitter melon (niong fu gua) I eagerly translated the ingredients written in Dutch. When ‘sardines’ came back, I put it down as a dodgy translation. After all who would stuff fu gua with sardines? How could that even work?
In response to one of my Hakka Heritage posts, Simone Tai clarified the mystery to me. She said:
Great post! And love your thoughts at the end….does it really matter? I know whenever I meet someone who knows about Stuffed Fu Ga that they are Hakka and likely Chinese-Jamaican! … 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 Simone’s reply 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 corn fresh fish with salt, wrap it with newspaper and then 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 delicacy 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 suspended poles.
In Singapore’s Chinatown, entire sections of the market are devoted to dried goods and dried fish, shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish and scallops are laid out in pristine displays.
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 overpoweringly strong. Swarms of flies hover over the display, settling and moving as fans of air or hands wave them away. With this context, it’s easy to sympathize with my father’s dislike of dried fish.
My Dad says that some people (not him) love the taste of fu gua stuffed with pork and salt fish, claiming that the additional aroma of fish makes 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, I discovered that 1) most people don’t make stuffed fu gua anymore, 2) those that do, make it wholly with pork and 3) never ever 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 substitute which then became a new tradition? I’ll never know.
This experience though, has 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. My Dad is in another country, thirteen time zones away. He won’t mind.
Singapore. November 2016