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If China were America, the Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton, would be the Gulf Coast. On Guangdong's southeastern rim is a city of 1.2 million residents called Shantou (formerly Swatow). The cuisine of Meng Lei's homeland is variously referred to as "Swatow," "Chao Chou," "Chiu Chow" and the chef's preferred term, "Chau Zhou."
"Chau Zhou is a Mandarin spelling of something that is in the Cantonese genre," clarifies cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, speaking by phone along with her husband, fellow food writer Fred Ferretti, from their home in New Jersey.
Many consider Lo's The Chinese Kitchen, published in 1999, to be a definitive guide to the nation's regional cuisines. "Though they are referred to as Chiu Chau, Ch'ao Chou, Chaozhou, Teochiu, or Teochew, depending on where they are, they refer to themselves as Chiu Chow, at home and in Hong Kong, where they live by the millions. I shall therefore defer to them and call them Chiu Chow," Lo writes in a passage devoted to this specialized cuisine.
"'Chiu Chow' refers to a people, a region and a cuisine," Ferretti clarifies. "They were sort of poor traders, and over the years they migrated inland and became a dominant group of people, particularly in Hong Kong."
Lo: "They are very smart people, and they work very hard. They have their own language, their own opera and their own cuisine. And they are a very rich people in Hong Kong."
Ferretti: "Over the centuries they've become Hong Kong power brokers. And because of the way that the Chiu Chow have integrated into the Cantonese Hong Kong people, many of their dishes have been, to coin a word, Canton-ized."
Meng Lei's menu contains a number of Cantonese dishes. One of the best combines bean curd, ground whitefish and egg white, which Lei whips together, then cuts into matchbox-size rectangles. After coating each with a light batter flecked with scallions, he flash-fries them. He also prepares a Cantonese-style dessert, which looks like a half-dozen jumbo doughnut holes on a plate, only pale white. They're made from lightly sweetened taro root purée, wrapped in a dough of glutinous rice. In the center of each ball, Lei has nestled a greenish-yellow ginkgo seed, which has the texture of a cooked almond and is said to be an aphrodisiac. Lei collects the seeds from local parks each fall. (During downtimes at the restaurant, he sometimes makes fresh nougat, which he individually wraps, first in rice paper, then wax paper, and sells in packages of ten for $2.)
At lunch one day he prepared a plateful of dumplings in a pool of golden stock. The skins were crêpe-like, made from a batter heavy on the egg white. Each pancake was stuffed with a mixture of fish and vegetables, then gathered at the top and tied with a chive ribbon, looking like nothing so much as a platter of cartoon money bags.
Owing to the region's proximity to the South China Sea, the original Chiu Chow people were seafarers. The cuisine features a lot of seafood, along with fowl (chiefly goose and duck) and lightly steamed fresh vegetables. "When we cook vegetables, we require that you taste the flavor of the original food," Ming Lei says. "It's important that you still be able to taste the flavors. And with the fish, you will still taste the flavor of the fish." Lei says his food emphasizes "refreshing" flavors. He doesn't use much salt, he says, and never MSG. He doesn't like extreme flavors, nothing too sweet or sour. He tends toward seasonings that linger in the mouth a long time, that float on your taste buds.
A sign in Chinese hangs on one wall of Lei's dining room. "It is an introduction to the Chao Zhou area," explains Jian Leng, associate director of the Center for Humanities at Washington University and one of my translators/dining mates. "The sign describes a lovely land: a very rich area, beautiful, in southern China, with lovely water. All year long it is spring and warm. 'A lot of poets wrote there,' it reads, and then tells of the fine traditions of cooking and of tea growing. Chao Zhou is also where oolong tea comes from. It mentions their stock and their crop, as well as their tea ceremony."
Lei's ancestors were Chiu Chow, but he grew up in Macao, a hangnail of a peninsula southwest of Shantou, along the South China Sea. With a population of a half-million people over about eleven square miles, Macao perches on the western edge of the delta formed by the Pearl River and the West River, with Hong Kong 37 miles to the east across the sea. A gambling capital, until 1999 Macao was a Portuguese colony. Now, like Hong Kong, it is a "special administrative region" controlled by the Chinese government but allowed relative autonomy.
In Macao, and across southern China, the Cantonese style now called Guangdong style is the most popular. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that Macao has its own distinct cuisine, which combines Cantonese and Portuguese influences, Lei concentrated on Chiu Chow from the start. "A lot of banquets use [Cantonese] style," Lei says through Eric Huang. "My food is cooked more as a day-to-day snack rather than at official banquets. It's more casual. Like, blue-collar food."