On the 19th year of Michelin-starred Putien, we travel to Fujian where inspiration for the restaurant’s much-loved cuisine is from. With Fong shu shu as our guide, we pay a visit to see how Heng Hwa bee hoon is made, seaweed is harvested and more.
Seated on a 360-degree rotating platform, we follow a story of belonging and nostalgia produced by renowned director Zhang Yimou. His fifth instalment in the Impression series, Impression Dahongpao is a 70-minute action and light show set against the natural landscape of Wuyi Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Created with a budget of US$29 million, the show pays a grandiose tribute to the Chinese tea culture in Wuyi Mountain.
It’s an aural and visual feast on a scale comparable to the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. In one scene, more than a hundred dancers run onto stage with four-meter high bamboo sticks as an acrobat swings over their heads. In another, a projection of a white horse tells the story of two lovers then disappears across the river. It’s only then that you notice a row of boats gliding silently downstream, each illuminated by a sole lantern.
A fitting end for our week-long trip to Fujian, the elaborate show of pride in local produce is what we’ve come to expect but perhaps there is no one more passionate than Putien’s founder, Fong Chi Chung or affectionately called Fong shu shu (meaning ‘uncle’ in Mandarin). Since opening the first eatery on Kitchener Road in Singapore, Fong has expanded the restaurant chain to 66 outlets in 11 regions within Asia. The outposts in Hong Kong and Singapore gained Michelin recognition when they each won a star.
Home of Heng Hwa cuisine
Born in Fujian, Fong grew up in Putian on Heng Hwa cuisine. His hometown lies on the southeast coast of China, which explains why seafood features heavily in local cooking. Mostly mountainous with subtropical temperatures, the province is a major exporter of rice, sugar cane, longans, lychees, tea and, of course, seafood. A variety of less common sea critters such as crabs, eel, snails, mantis shrimp and river fishes often show up in dishes at mealtimes.
Another notable Fujian dish is the bee hoon, one of Putien’s bestsellers. In the Pu Xiu factory located about 30 minutes away from the city, big vats of Thai rice, Chinese rice and corn starch are mixed mechanically. The famed fine springy noodles are washed and portioned out by hand then put on a long snaking conveyor belt to dehydrate under controlled heat. It’s quite a sight to see how much of the process is still done by hand.
Equally labour intensive is harvesting pomelos, a prized fruit the province is known for. Rows of pomelo trees grow on hillsides in the town of Tu Wei where, thanks to their position, they thrive on optimum sunlight and spring water from a nearby river.
Under the relentless sun, farmers pick the fruit from trees 20-years-old and older, carry basketfuls up and down slopes to where a group of women sort them out. The 400-acre orchard was awarded the Protected Geographical Indication Product in 2010. Huddled with us under the shade, Fong shares a tip: don’t buy a pomelo with a hole on the bottom because that means a worm has wriggled its way in.
Anything For The Best
Acquiring produce of the best quality requires more than a discerning eye. For Putien’s founder, it could even mean overlooking certain eccentricities and quirks such as a bad temper or high prices. Once a student of the arts, he believes that great artists tend to have their idiosyncrasies and the same can be said for a producer of top caliber ingredients.
It explains his insistence on getting the best, right down to the basics. Even the salt used in his restaurants come from a salt farm in Putian. Seawater from the Taiwan Strait in the East is left to evaporate in large rectangular pools, each a perfect mirror image of the sky and wind turbines in the distance. Salt residue collected each morning dry out in small mounds before they’re thrown onto the white mountain of salt nearby that’s eventually further processed.
The Taiwan Strait is an important source of food for Fujian people and also is crucial to what Fong calls ‘the best seaweed in Putian’. We drive into the quiet village of Jiang Shan, where empty multi-storey mansions line the narrow streets. It’s considered one of the richer neighbourhoods in Putian and locals who’ve made their fortune elsewhere build massive houses for family members.
The mansions overlook the coastline decorated with rows of horizontal bamboo poles placed parallel to each other in the mud, lines of rope stretched out in between like guitar strings over a fretboard. Draped on the ropes are flimsy black seaweed that at low tide, flutter in the wind like tiny flags. When they grow long enough, farmers cut them off and dry them out. As seaweed cultivation is dependent on the tide, farming the algae can take a long time.
A Teacup Full of Stories
Sometimes to fully appreciate the time and effort spent on cultivation, the method of consuming becomes ritualised and turns into an art form of its own. This is how China’s tea culture was born, a practice especially prevalent in Wuyi Mountain, home to one of the most expensive teas in the world—Da Hong Pao.
A dark oolong tea variety, it is one of the four main Wuyi rock teas named Si Da Ming Cong grown on the volcanic or red sandstone slopes. At Rui Quan Tea Factory, we’re treated to a tour of where the tea leaves are steamed, stored and appreciated. Akin to a museum, we walk through rooms with a display of antique teapots and cups, shelves filled with tins of tea leaves and books on tea.
In almost every room is a kung fu tea table set, a brewing tray with pitcher and accessories used in the preparation and presentation of tea. A cha xian (meaning ‘tea fairy’) brings us through a kung fu tea ceremony using locally sourced spring water, explaining the notes from the Da Hong Pao as she rinses, strains and serves it to us. On the seventh pour, the initial astringent flavour has mellowed to allow the tea’s mineral, earthy notes to come through.
Tea shops are aplenty in Wuyi Mountain and each with a kung fu tea table set of their own. Up in the plantation, the original Da Hong Pao trees have turned into a tourist attraction as busloads of tourists stream in to look. Weary sightseers rest in a small tea shop nearby, tucking into tea leaf eggs and tea-infused ice cream.
With a history of more than a thousand years, tea is an integral part of Chinese history. Myths and legends surrounding tea culture span from one dynasty to the next. Told in an elaborate performance or by the dining table, it is these stories that imbue meaning to the food that we cook and consume. In the same way, Fong’s determination in using produce made by his people at Putien restaurants makes the culinary narrative of his hometown Putian all the more authentic and powerful.
The trip was sponsored by Putien as part of their 19th Anniversary celebrations.