Foochow or Fuzhou could trace their ancestral roots back to the fertile Henan province during the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu and Wu) era. Henan literally means south of the river or the mighty Yellow River or Hwang Ho. The province was a fertile plain and its fertility was both a blessing and curse. Crops were lush and abundant, attracting the envy of its neighbours and constant ravages of war.
Foochow are of ancient Han Chinese stock, industriously hard working, tenaciously loyal and stubbornly proud, just hardened in the forges of their tumultuous history. They migrated south to present day Fuzhou city, Fukien province to escape famine and death, and from constant warfare and threats of war seeking peaceful utopia.
Their mass migration occurred during the reign of Emperor Yong Jia (Jing Dynasty-308 AD) and Emperor Guang Qi (Tang Dynasty-887 AD). They settled peacefully in the 10 districts around Fuzhou City, namely Min Hou, Lian Jiang. Yang Tai, Zhang Le, Fu Ching, Min Qing, Pin Nan, Gu Tian, Ping Tan and Luo Yuan amongst existing local Min populace.
They considered each other familial as members of one family. They spoke in similar yet subtly distinctive intonated dialects, e.g. Hock Chew, Hock Chia, Hock Chiang, Heng Hua etc. The dialects were all parochially improvised from the core Foochow dialect, which in turn, was an assimilation of ancient Wu and ancient Chu, probably as spoken by Lui Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with the local Min language.
Foochow are considered clannish, often to the extreme. In the olden days, marriages outside the clan were frowned upon, even ostracised. Trades and businesses were always kept intra-clan. In disputes, Foochow always stand together with the clan, always, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the issue on hand. Sigh.
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were truly and purely Hockchew. They heralded from Min Hou district. They migrated to Malaya during the early 20th century, however neither came through Sibu nor Setiawan, the two main destinations for early Foochow migrants back then. My paternal grandparents came through Ayer Itam, Penang to settle in Sungai Petani, Kedah whilst my maternal grandparents through Bangkok and Haadyai, Thailand and finally Guar Chempedak, Kedah.
Another area kept distinctively clannish is food. Foochow culinary fares are very different, a unique sort of North-South Chinese fusion. Their ancestral Northern wheat-based cuisine was over time intricately fused with those of the Southern rice-based ones. Generally, Foochow cuisine taste rather light, never overpowering, as compared to that of some other Chinese cooking styles, and often have a mixed and balanced sweet and sour taste, never spicy though.
Hong Chow Chew soup is an indispensable dish in most Foochow celebrations, e.g. birthdays and New Year, and most essential post-natal diet. It can be cooked in various ways together with poultry or pork or seafood and Mee Sua (air-dried and salted hair thin vermicelli). Hong Chow Chew is basically the red rice wine of the Foochow, the elixir of life for all true blue blooded Foochow, a must have for all Foochow. Sweet, full bodied, fragrant and pack with a mild punch. Its residual is never wasted but used to flavor meat dishes or soup. Many would initially find its color unpleasant but are usually and easily converted by its heavenly taste.
Hong Chow Chew is fermented using red yeast rice or red rice koji. The rice acquires its bright reddish purple colour from being cultivated or overgrown with the “Monascus purpureus” mold culture, and “Monascus” in turn is used to produce Monacolin, a statin drug which inhibits cholesterol synthesis. It is now no wonder, Hong Chow Chew is reputed to be a healthy hearty nutritious rice wine, good for hearts, potent cholesterol buster.
Snack foods such as dumplings, Hua Pa, Mo-Mo and in particularly Kong Piang, are also an important part of and uniquely Foochow food culture. Kong Piang are hard wheat tacks once trooper’s staple, charcoal oven baked to perfection over 400 years of history. Being dry, Kong Piang last without preservative. When threaded together through a hole in the middle, Kong Piang could be transported with great ease. Today’s Kong Piang are enjoyed as snack rather than staple, and are filled with fragrant fried shallots or spiced minced pork. Their taste alone is heavenly and definitely worth dying for. Kong Piang to Foochow is like “Lembas” bread to the High Elves in the LOTR.
Other typical Chinese fare like mooncakes, fish balls, wantan wrappings and nian gao to mention a few are prepared and cooked very differently by Foochow, and are distinctively and uniquely Foochow. Interestingly, Foochow mooncakes are thumb-size biscuits. The ubiquitous fish balls with pork filling are actually Foochow fishballs. Foochow wanton are wrapped in air-dried paper-thin wrappings made of mallet mashed pork (Yenpi) and Foochow Nian Gao is not golden yellow but translucent white with lard fillings. Bet you didn’t know that. Even the world renowned “Buddha Jumped Over the Wall” is reportedly of Foochow origin, a commoner’s fare. Bet you didn’t know that either.