Teochew Traditions

Teochew muay with first course side dishes
“Chiak muay thoi hee,” literally translated, ‘eating Teochew porridge while watching a show’ was one of the highlights of the Lunar 303 festival held in the evening of 25 March. 

This was an attempt at bringing back the nostalgia of a bygone era when the only entertainment available was live shows performed by street entertainers.  It was a then a tradition that entertainment was provided for the diners’ enjoyment on special occasions. 

Since 2002 the Teochew community in Johor Baru has been keeping the annual tradition of celebrating the third day of the third lunar month to commemorate the birthday of the Teochew diety, Yuan Tian Shang Di or Tuah Lau Yiah in short.  This celebration, dubbed the Lunar 303 Festival, kicked off on 23 March with a grand opening ceremony held in the forecourt of the Johor Ancient Chinese Temple
or Johor Gu Miau on Jalan Trus. 

A section of Jalan Trus was transformed into a banquet hall

Some of the cultural and traditional activities in the 3-day festival included opera performances, a Teochew opera karaoke singing contest and a fund-raising food fair that featured typically Teochew specialties in the morning of 25 March.

For the Teochew porridge event, the section of Jalan Trus in front of the Johor Gu Miau was closed to vehicular traffic and transformed into an open-air banquet hall that seated almost 800 guests.  While waiting for dinner to be served, the audience viewed a recording of a news broadcast by the Teochew Broadcasting channel with scenes from the recent Johor Chingay procession that featured the guest appearance of a Yinge dance troupe from Shantou. 

Diners on Jalan Trus enjoying the Teochew muay meal

Johor Baru’s 140-year tradition of the annual Chingay celebration which had its origins in China continues to be held on a progressively grand scale here and at this year, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak presented the Johor Baru Tionghua Association with a certificate to recognize the Johor Chingay procession as a national cultural heritage. 

Johor Baru has the distinction of being once known as Little Swatow because most of Johor’s Teochew community originated from Swatow or Shantou [Mandarin] a Teochew district of the Kwantung province in China.  This community has a distinctive cuisine that uses less oil and features flavours that depend heavily on the freshness and quality of the ingredients.  The cooking methods for Teochew food are usually poaching, steaming and braising as well as the Chinese method of stir-frying.

Platter of eight items in first course side dishes
to savour with Teochew muay [rice porridge]
One of their favourite meals is Teochew muay (plain rice porridge) accompanied by a variety of dishes that have contrastingly stronger salty, sour or spicy flavours.  Unlike Cantonese rice porridge which is a smooth gruel, Teochew rice porridge is virtually a watered-down version of boiled rice where individual grains of fluffy rice remain intact in the rice broth.  It is such a light and tasty meal that many Teochew families in Johor still maintain a lifestyle of eating Teochew muay at home.

At the event, each table was served with a steaming hot pot of this soupy rice porridge that was refillable upon request.  Every dish served to savour with the plain porridge was cooked in the Teochew tradition in recipes that have been handed down through generations.  The impressive first course of dishes featured a platter of eight condiments that included preserved olives and chopped vegetables, braised peanuts, slices of salted fish, crunchy preserved lettuce stalk, ngoh hiang rolls, egg omelet with chai poh preserved vegetables and cubes of fu-yee pickled beancurd paste.

Teochew favouries like braised duck, braised tofu and
popular kway chap ingredients like pig's skin and tongue
This was followed by nine more courses of Teochew favourites like braised duck and popular kway chap ingredients, steamed or her or black fish in taucheo sauce, boiled squid rings and salted egg halves, and a platter of two types of stir-fried vegetables – leeks with tofu and meat slices and the other dish of salted vegetables with minced meat.  Another Teochew staple served was pig’s large intestine stewed in a spicy pineapple sauce.  This sumptuous banquet ended sweetly with a dessert of caramelized sticks of yam and pumpkin.

Throughout the evening, there was live entertainment with traditional Teochew music and lion and dragon dance performances.  While six finalists in the Teochew opera karaoke contest took turns to sing, the Baby Lion Dancers featuring children as young as age 5, made their parents so proud and the dragon dancers of the Fifteen Storey Flats Troupe showed off their skills with a lighted dragon.  A master drummer from China, 70-year old Tan Teng Siak, known as the King of Chinese Drums, made a guest appearance with the traditional music band from Zhen An Gui Miau, Stulang Darat, Johor. 

From opera singing, traditional arts and music to dining on food typically enjoyed by this dialect group, the Teochew in Johor Baru is determined to keep traditions alive to strengthen and unify the community while passing on their proud heritage to the younger generation. 

Tan Teng Siak, King of Chinese Drums [Centre] perfom as guest artiste
with traditional band from Zhen An Gui Miao, Stulang Darat

Teochew-style steamed or her or black fish in taucheo sauce

Boiled squid [Left] and salted egg halves

Peggy [Right] with C P Tan [Centre] and friends sitting on Jalan Trus
for the Teochew muay dinner

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 5 April 2012

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