Exploring My Roots in China’s Fujian Province

Oyster Omelet

Two weeks ago Warren and I left Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport bound for Xiamen (廈門), a major southern port city of Fujian (福建) province where my ancestors are from. The first thing I noticed onboard our Xiamen Airlines airplane was that the pre-flight announcement was in the Southern Min (閩南) dialect that I spoke with my grandparents. During my travels in China over the last decade I’ve never heard any local dialects used in such official announcements. So this was surprising to me since China’s central government pretty much dictates people’s life including the language used for official or business purposes. I knew then that I was about to witness a very different independent minded part of China. This spirit probably helps explain their unique culture and cooking customs as well.

Xiamen Waterfront

South Putuo Temple in Xiamen

Known as Min (閩) cooking, the cuisine of Fujian is one of the eight main cuisines of China. Being a coastal province the food is characterized by an abundance of local seafood ingredients. It is also shaped by the people from two major waves of central Chinese migration. The first wave was a group of retreating imperial families and their households from the Western Jin Dynasty (西晉) during its waning years early in the 4th century CE. The second was during the period after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty around 9th century CE when again the defeated people moved to the relative safety of the coastal region. These people brought with them their cooking techniques, and adapting to local ingredients created a unique seafood-based cuisine. They also brought with them the defiant and resistant characters to their culture.

Xiamen Seafood Markets

Xiamen Markets

Although not very well known in the U.S., Min cooking holds a major place in Chinese cuisine. Among the many fine dishes of the cuisine two are celebrated as banquet delicacies. The first is a soupy stew of very expensive seafood cooked in a compound meat stock. The seafood ingredients include shark fin, sea cucumber, abalone and dried scallop. These are highly desired expensive banquet items. The stock, made from pork, chicken and ham, is so rich that, combined with the seafood, the dish exudes incredible aroma and has intensely complex flavors. The dish is called Buddha Jumps Over the Wall owing to the legend of a traveling monk who was so overcome by the smells that he jumped over the wall of his wayside inn and abandoned his vegetarian diet just to savor this dish.

The second dish is Lychee Pork, in which pork tenderloin is cut into lychee-shaped pieces before being cooked and coated in a sauce of red wine lee. The dish gets its name from its semblance to lychee fruit. But there is no actual lychee in the dish. It has a delicately sweet and sour flavored sauce and is usually served in a fanciful presentation to resemble a bunch of lychee.

Chinese Oysters

Like everywhere in China what really characterizes a cuisine though is often the common home cooking and snack dishes. In Xiamen one of the most representative snacking dishes is the oyster omelet. Growing up in Singapore I remember this dish being a favorite in the many hawker centers throughout the city. The omelet is made with small thumbnail-sized Chinese oysters. First they are mixed into a sweet potato starch batter and fried into a pancake. Then a beaten egg is spread around the pancake to make it into an omelet. Finally pieces of garlic chive and scallion are scattered over the omelet and a sweet chili sauce is splashed on top before eating. It is a truly rustic snack with a taste of the sea.

I grew up eating this oyster omelet as well as many other home-style Fujian dishes. Visiting Xiamen and encountering these same dishes gave me a comforting sense of familiarity. I’m moved by the fact that even though I’d never been there before, visiting Fujian felt like going home.

Fried Pork Ribs in Steamed Buns

Steamed Pumpkin with Bean Paste Sauce

Squid in Soy Sauce

Fujian Catfish in Soy Sauce

Fujianese Soups in Xiamen

Variety of Stuff Bread

  • Oyster Omelet (海蠣煎)

    • 4 ounces shucked Chinese oysters
    • 4 tablespoons sweet potato starch
    • 1/3 cup water
    • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
    • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
    • 1 egg, beaten
    • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic chives
    • 1 tablespoon chopped scallion
    • 2 sprigs cilantro, for garnishing
    • Small Chinese oysters can sometimes be found in Chinatown markets. If they are unavailable you can use regular American oysters such as the Blue Point. Cut up the Blue Point oysters into about 1/4-inch square pieces.
    • Mix the sweet potato starch, water, garlic, ginger, salt and ground white pepper together until completely blended. Add the oysters and mix well.
    • Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the vegetable oil and spread evenly around the pan. Pour the oyster and starch mixture into the pan and swirl the pan to spread the batter into a pancake.
    • Cook the pancake for about two minutes then flip it. Pour the beaten egg in a swirl over the pancake. Sprinkle the chopped garlic chive and scallion over the top of the pancake. Then flip the pancake over and cook for another minute or so.
    • Remove the pancake-like omelet from the pan and serve it on a plate with cilantro sprigs. Offer sweet chili sauce as condiment on the side.
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11 Comments

  1. Michael
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful and delightful report!

    • Posted April 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Michael, It really was a thrill for me to visit our home town. I felt so much at home there. The language and food are all familiar to me.

  2. Posted April 11, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    I love Min Cuisine! It’s just a matter of time before people in the US learn to appreciate the fantastic dishes from that region.

    • Posted April 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Simon, Min cooking has not been explored here in the U.S. by the public. I think it is time to start introducing some of the wonderful dishes from this cuisine here.

  3. Posted April 12, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kian,

    I’ve really been enjoying your blog and envy your trip to Fujian to explore your Min roots. Although I was born in San Francisco, my father’s family was Longdu (隆都). Longdu is a subdialect of Min, but the people speaking it have lived in Guangdong province since the Yuan Dynasty. Longdu sounds nothing like Cantonese. I’ve been told that it sounds like an archaic version of modern Fujian.

    I don’t know how much Longdu cuisine has deviated from Min. I’m sure that over the past 800 or so years of being surrounded by Zhongshan (中山) people, there have been a lot of cross-fertilization. Incidentally, one of my mom’s specialties was little dumplings she called 角仔 which is her version of fun gor (潮州粉果) — a ChaoZhou specialty that resembles Min cooking and is a standard item in Cantonese dim sum menus. I’ll be publishing her recipe soon on my own blog.

    Keep up the good work and I’m looking forward trying your red cook pork recipe.

    Roger

    • Posted April 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      Hi Roger,

      Thanks for the great comment! Longdu is right next to ChaoZhou and is very much part of the ChaoZhou speaking group of people. Yes, their cooking is very similar to Min cooking and the language is similar to the Southern Min dialect. I can in fact understand a bit of the ChaoZhou language.

      ChaoZhou cooking really should be considered Min cooking because they are of the same origin. Anyway, I look forward to learning about your monther’s fun gor.

      Kian

  4. Posted April 13, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I love oyster omelette! I think I’d really enjoy Min cuisine. Will have to try to seek it out soon.

  5. Ana Chiu
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kian, is sweet potato starch the same as tapioca starch? If not, can I substitute with tapioca starch? Thanks!

    • Posted April 20, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      They are not the same kind of starch. Sweet potato starch is not as sticky but form a sturdier batter. If you use tapioca starch I would recommend you increase the amount slightly. The pancake will be a bit stickier but taste just at delicious.

  6. Cindy Chang
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Taiwan was largely populated by people from southern Fujian. Many of these dishes, including the oyster omelet 海蠣煎, can be found in Taiwan and in Taiwanese restaurants here in the States.

    • Posted May 5, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      You are absolutely right Cindy. Thanks for pointing this out. Here in New York City there are a few Taiwanese restaurants in Flushing that make very good oyster omelet. Not too many people though know enough about the cuisine to order them.

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