Monday 26 March 2012

Nan Ao Island

Shantou City must have undergone tremendous amount of development in the last decade. The roads leading to the city are wide and new and public toilets are conveniently located in the major street corners. Public transportation is very cheap. A 20-minute ferry ride to the nearby Que Shi Island only cost RMB1 (20cents) while a bus ride costs between RMB1-5 per person.

Taxi drivers, on the other hand, seem to try their luck. We paid RMB100 (S$20) for a 30-minute ride to the terminal (below) to catch a ferry to Nan Ao Island. The bus fare for the same journey, we later found out, was only RMB5 (S$1) per person.

The ferry fare was so cheap but my jaws dropped when I laid eyes on the battered vessel. It looked like it had survived World War 1!

And it was just amazing how this old vessel could pack in so many cars and people!

During the 40-minute journey across the sea, many passengers were chain-smoking and milling around on the deck. The young lady sitting across me began to puke into a plastic bag when we were out in the sea.

Glancing at the torn and tattered life vests that were spilling out of the cabinets under the seats, I could only pray that the ferry would bring us to shore without any incident.

So it was with great relief when Nan Ao Island came into view. The passengers started scrambling down the steps and shoved their way to the front of the deck.

The moment we stumbled out of the gates of the terminal, several cab drivers made a beeline for us. After some haggling, we struck a deal with one who promised to bring us to the top 5 scenic spots for RMB300 (S$60).

He turned out to be a friendly chap who dispensed relevant information (in Teochew) when he felt like it. Even though it is a large island with a stunning coastline, the rocky interior makes for a hostile living environment. That probably explains why the population is only 70,000 for an island that size (130 sq km).

First stop was to see the Song Well that used to provide emperors, ministers, soldiers and their horses with drinking water.

Honestly, I was more fascinated with the little kid who was running around the garden with a puppy.

As you can see, the three wells have a history that dates back to the year 1276. Over time, the wells have sunk into the sands of the shore. Today, only one remains and is still producing fresh water.

When asked to recommend good food in Nan Ao, the cab driver said, "Seafood and more seafood". It is no surprise we ended up at a seafood restaurant for lunch.

The fishball and seaweed soup was simple but nice.

The mantis shrimp proved to be a disappointment while the bamboo clams were good.

The most outstanding dish was the 'dragon beard' seaweed cooked with minced meat and mushrooms.

Thanks to the unique climate and untainted waters, the seaweed farming industry here is a thriving one, with Japan being the main customer. The dragon beard seaweed has such a unique crunch and texture, I could see why the Japanese are enamoured with it.

Everywhere we went, we saw freshly harvested seaweed being laid out to dry - along the sidewalks, on the roads and seashore. Now I know why seaweed often tastes gritty.

As we traveled along the coast, we could see seaweed farms stretching for miles and miles across the sea.

During summer, the white sandy beaches become packed with holiday makers from the mainland.

The chalets look like they need refurbishment and a new coat of paint.

I hope they would correct the spelling mistake too.

With more than 50 areas on the island containing cultural relics and places of historical interest, we could only afford to visit the more significant ones such as the General Mansion of Army.

There are more than 30 temples here, so the driver probably felt that he should at least show us one. This beautiful temple reminded me of the one we had in our village where I grew up in.

The driver sent us back to the terminal where we caught one of the last ferries of the day. This time, we were lucky to board a younger and cleaner one. The lady who vomitted earlier was on board the same ferry. This time, she didn't get sick at all.

Food scene in Shantou

After I booked our flight to Shantou, I started having doubts about the trip. I like to be well prepared before I travel but I just couldn't find enough information (in English) about Shantou. It was frustrating. It didn't help that the airport in Shantou is a newly opened one, so the lack of travel tips made planning the itinerary so difficult.

So we landed in the spanking new JieYang Airport last Wednesday with an open mind. The airport turned out to be impressively clean and efficient, with hourly buses running to different parts of Shantou City. Unfortunately, we missed the Airport Express bus by a whisker and didn't want to wait for the next one as the sun was setting really quickly. After some haggling (in Teochew no less), the taxi fare to Golden Gulf Hotel in the city cost us RMB250 (around S$50). Incidentally, the Express bus ride is only RMB10 per person!

We made the right decision to stay at the Golden Gulf Hotel. The hotel is grand, clean and comfortable. The best thing is, we could walk to the nearby mall (Walmart and Parksons are in there), many food places and attractions like Zhong San Park and to the ferry terminal to board a ferry to Que Shi Island.

Being surrounded by Teochew speaking people, I felt quite at home in Shantou. The whole reason why I picked Shantou was because my grandparents were from there. They endured a long, dangerous and torturous journey by sea to Singapore some 100 years ago and I was curious to see where they came from. Only when I was in Shantou then I realise that I had no clue which province or village they were from. It's a big place afterall.

The food scene is also quite eye opening. In Singapore, Teochew food is associated with steamed fish, rice porridge and orh nee. During the 4 days we were there, we did not eat any of that. We managed to eat some familiar Teochew favourites though, like oyster omelette, carrot cake and kuey chap.

The oyster omelette at a streetside stall was chockful of plump oysters but a tad too oily.

The fried radish cake was served with seafood and a large spoonful of icing sugar. Quite puzzling.

Caramalised sweet potato and yam is something I grew up eating frequently, so I was glad to find it here.

One cold night, we ordered claypot crab porridge for dinner. This was perhaps the best dish we ate during the trip. The dark soy sauce chicken with chestnut was another winner. I didn't take any photos of that dish.

On most days, we ate oodles of noodles for breakfast. This is China afterall. We had noodles spilling out of our ears and I'm not such a big fan of carbs.

The rice noodles was on the sweet side. Teochews are known to have a sweet tooth and they happily add sugar to everything and on anything at every opportunity.

There was a shop operated by Muslim Chinese near our hotel. We were intrigued by the flat fluffy scallion pancakes and ended up there for breakfast one morning. The pancake was rather bland.

We also ordered the hand-cut noodles topped with a mysterious gravy and minced dried radish. It turned out to be a disappointment.

The Teochews are fond of using salted radish (top photo, left dish) in their food. These were served with the claypot crab porridge.

Salted minced radish is also featured in this street food - panfried tofu topped with spring onions, chilli powder and radish.

We came across this restaurant endorsed by a TV personality from Singapore.

The kway chap here is loaded with ingredients and the gravy is thick and flavourful.

Kway chap sheets (made with rice flour) before being cut into smaller pieces.

One of the more memorable dishes we had was at a dumpling shop near our hotel. The minced meat and chopped chives filling made the dumplings very tasty.

They were cooked and served with fish and meat balls.

We saw several Teochew piah shops in Shantou.

When we tried the tau sar piah at this little shop, we couldn't stop thinking about it and made our way back on the last day to buy some home.

The mung bean filling was so silky smooth, I couldn't help but ask if lard was used. The owner said they only use vegetable oil. I have never tasted anything that good in Singapore.

The shop also produces other traditional Teochew cakes. This mould looks like something my granny had back in those days.

I was tempted to buy some kong tng (brittle nut candy) too but had no room in my luggage.

This trip proved to be quite a culinary treat for us. We were constantly on the lookout for interesting food places. When we saw a beancurd shop, we knew we had to try some.

I ended up choosing beancurd topped with sweet green bean and red beans. If I were to let CH choose the topping, we might end up with something bizarre like 'smelly tofu'. He is not a Teochew you see.

Sunday 18 March 2012

New places and faces

This is turning out to be an action-packed month. We've had customers visiting us from India, Cambodia, Germany, China and UK. I brought our Cambodian friends to the Singapore Flyer.

The view from the top was awesome.

I met some of his friends too.

I also flew to Malaysia twice for business. The Malaysians are known for their hospitality. In Port Klang, we were treated to Bak kut teh.

During our next trip to Port Dickson, we savoured their local delicacies over breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Egg and sambal gravy over bread.

Taro nest.

Port Dickson beach.

Sunset at Port Dickson.