When my father was 18, he left Swatow for Beijing. My grandmother wept for him: “They don’t have congee up there – you’ll have to eat wheat noodles!”
This was one story of bitter sacrifice my nainai told me over tea in her Swatow apartment when I visited this past summer. Food is so intrinsic to the Teoswa people’s identity that my father’s journey north to the imperial city of wheat buns and pancakes may as well have been across the Pacific Ocean (another journey that he would eventually make). After many meals of new tastes and textures in the southern Chinese city, I returned home to Los Angeles and began searching for the captivating flavors of Teoswa cooking. What I thought would be a simple search instead turned into a fascinating history lesson, and introduced me to local stories of the global Teoswa diaspora.
First things first. “Teoswa” is likely an unfamiliar term, though you may have heard of “Chaoshan” or “Chiusaan,” the Mandarin and Cantonese names for the people, culture, and region of eastern Guangdong province. “Teoswa” is how residents of the cities of Teochew, Swatow, and Jieyang identify themselves in their local language. Teochew (aka Chaozhou or Chiuchow) has the longer history – dating back a couple millennia – as a southern center of economic and cultural significance. In more recent centuries, Swatow (aka Shantou or Santow) has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a major Chinese port. In the past few decades, Jieyang has emerged from under Swatow’s administration to become its own prefecture-level city.
Carolyn Phillips, an expert on regional Chinese cuisines, calls the southern area encompassing the Teoswa, Hakka, and southern Fujian cultures the “Golden Triangle.” Thanks to geography and history, these three culinary traditions share many similarities. Teoswa and southern Fujianese cooking utilize salted and preserved ingredients just as Hakka cuisine does, albeit to a lesser degree. The Teoswa and southern Fujianese share a fondness for seafood, soups, and homestyle preparations that showcase the natural flavors of ingredients. Similar to the better-known Cantonese culinary tradition, Teoswa cooking prizes freshness and delicacy of flavor and texture.
What distinguishes Teoswa cuisine is a penchant for mixing sweet and savory, and a love of desserts that is rare in most other regions of China. Phillips attributes this to the sugarcane industry that once thrived in the area. Seafood and fish – both freshwater and saltwater – are the dominant proteins, thanks to Teoswa’s coastal location, and the people cleverly utilize all sorts of marine varieties (it is one of the few cultures in the world that consumes horseshoe crab roe.) The larger and meatier fish are enjoyed whole, while smaller and bonier specimens are made into fish sauce, an important ingredient in local cooking. While at sea, fishermen steam freshly caught fish over seawater to better preserve the perishable flesh for the journey back to markets onshore. These, along with goose meat and offal, are some of Teoswa’s most prized delicacies. Common accompaniments include Puning bean paste and kumquat sauce, as well as shacha sauce, a tropical-tinged condiment that points to the region’s close ties to Southeast Asia.
Even in a country remarkable for its attention to eating well, the Teoswa obsession with food and tea is notable. Mention these well-known dishes to someone with Teoswa roots and expect to hear a nostalgic sigh: oyster omelette, beef meatballs, braised goose, rice noodle soups, raw fish salad, bak kut teh (the Teoswa version of this meat bone soup is also a treasured comfort food in Singapore), sweet taro paste with ginkgo nuts, and all sorts of sweet and savory kueh (rice flour cakes).
In my extended Swatow family, relatives show their affection by filling the table with dishes and each meal is an opportunity to discuss the next one. The breaks between meals are opportunities to digest with the aid of gongfu tea (tea brewed with intention in prescribed steps) or to keep tempting the appetite with “small eats.” Streetside snack stalls are common throughout China, but in Teoswa, shopkeepers gossip with customers over a gongfu tea set. At dim sum parlors, families turn up their noses at the subpar tea leaves provided by the establishment, and instead tote in canisters of their own preferred brew. The restaurants – fully prepared – supply electric water kettles and empty teapots for each table.
Seeking opportunities abroad, many Teoswa set sail for Southeast Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries, spreading their language and culture, and facilitating a two-way exchange of culinary ideas in the process. The most significant export from Teoswa may actually be the people themselves; estimates have placed the share of Teoswa living outside of China at around 50 percent. Teoswa people retain a strong sense of their cultural identity – no matter where fate or fortune leads them in the world – and commonly speak their dialect at home while deftly catering to the tastes and languages of their adopted countries.
This explains why Teoswa are often fluent in many languages, and how the journeys of many Teoswa families to America took detours through Southeast Asia. In Los Angeles, Teoswa eateries proliferated in Chinatown in the 1980s, but many have since been shuttered. It now takes a little investigative work to identify some of the area’s Teoswa restaurants, which may seem Cantonese or Vietnamese at first glance.
I talked with a few Teoswa restaurateurs to learn about how their families arrived in Southern California, and about the globetrotting food they share with their guests.
(Interviews have been translated in parts, and edited and condensed for length.)
Cathy Hui, Noodle Cafe
“I would call the food we serve ‘old-school Vietnamese-Chinese fusion.’ There were a lot of Chinese who migrated to Vietnam during the civil war, and they made their own culture and stye of food. My grandma moved from China to Vietnam, and my dad was born in Vietnam. My family arrived in the US in 1980, and I was born here. Many of the boat people from Vietnam have Teochew roots.”
Richard Li, Mien Nghia Noodle Express
“I would say we are a Chinese restaurant, except that we have fish sauce on the table. So I would call it a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant. There are no secrets; I can train anyone to cook this food. It’s all about the quality. Quality is the most important thing. I don’t really cook for the restaurant anymore – my son runs the restaurant now – but I still buy the produce and the meat myself.
“My father was born in Chiuchow. I was born in Vietnam and came to the US when I was 22. My son was born in the US. My father worked as a cook in Vietnam, and he worked seven days a week; it was a hard life. When we came to the US, I trained to be an auto mechanic and did that for a while. Then my father called me one day and said he put down a deposit on a restaurant in Chinatown. I originally said I would just help for two years!
“We ran a Chiuchow noodle soup restaurant. I would see my father using chicken bones and pork bones to make the broth. I would ask ‘Why?’ and my father said, ‘I only know how to do this, not why.’ I got interested in the chemistry behind soup-making so I borrowed books from doctor friends and family and I spent 12 years learning about the chemical processes involved. I only got a high school education, but it’s never too late to learn.”
Wendy Lam, Newport Seafood Restaurant
“The food we serve at Newport Seafood is primarily based on Teochew recipes, but we've added influences from other countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. To our Teochew guests, we call our food ‘American-style Teochew.’ We aren't too conservative, sticking only to traditional recipes, and people seem to like our bolder flavors. Food in Swatow and Teochew is very lightly seasoned. We've adapted our dishes here a little so it appeals to everyone, so that people from all over will enjoy it. Our most well-known dishes have been on the menu for 20 years, and they haven't changed.
“My grandparents were born in China, and my parents were born in Cambodia. I was born in and grew up in Cambodia, speaking Teochew at home. In Cambodia, Chinese families spoke their native language at home.
“I was 20 when I arrived in the US as a refugee. My first stop was Dallas, where I stayed for a month. It was June, and Dallas was so, so hot! Everybody said that there were a lot of Teochew, a lot of Chinese, in California – so we came to Los Angeles. At that time in Chinatown, at the corner of Broadway and College in the 1980s, there were a lot of Teochew restaurants. I had just arrived and had no money, so when I passed the restaurants I would say, one day I'll make money and eat at all these restaurants.
“Teochew food requires a lot of effort, but restaurants can't charge very much for it, so it's hard to sustain. We've kept a few well-known Teochew specialties on our menu over the years. Some guests who have come from China, from Teoswa, they say, ‘How come we haven't eaten anything this delicious at home?’"
Want to try Teoswa food for yourself in Southern California? You can find it at these restaurants:
Kim Ky Noodle House. 1108 S. San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Kim Kee Noodle House. 9646 E. Garvey Ave Ste 108, South El Monte, CA 91733
Kim Chuy. 501 W. Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91803
Macky’s Noodle House. 917 W. Duarte Rd, Monrovia, CA 91016
Mien Nghia Noodle Express. 7755 E. Garvey Ave, Rosemead, CA 91770
Newport Seafood Restaurant. 518 W. Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Noodle Cafe. 441 W. Garvey Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91754
Seafood Palace. 9669 Las Tunas Dr, Temple City, CA 91780
888 Seafood. 8450 Valley Blvd #121, Rosemead, CA 91770
Thanks to Carolyn Phillips for sharing her knowledge of Chinese cuisines, and to David R. Chan and Robert Lu for their help identifying Teoswa restaurants.
photos by Rob Stenson & Diana Zheng
Diana Zheng is writing a cookbook about the food and people of the Teoswa diaspora. For more, check out jiacookbook.com.