When I was living in Singapore, I’ve heard of the dish tau kwa pau, rumoured to be close to extinction. I thought to myself, “How good can a dish with firm beancurd as the star be?” and never bothered making a trip to Dunman to have a taste. It wasn’t until recently when I spoke to Susanna for a series that I collaborated with Our Grandfather Story that I got excited about making the dish. According to Susanna, who knows the dish as ‘hor pau’ (translated to purse in Cantonese), the Peranakan ladies used to purchase these auspiciously named snacks for their gambling sessions.
This dish apparently originated from an enterprising Teochew braised duck vendor who learnt the technique of stuffing firm beancurd from a bibik and decided to market it as a golden pouch filled to the brim to appeal to the superstitious nature of the Nonyas. What resulted was a Teochew-Nonya hybrid of sorts, where chopped duck offal and meat braised in Teochew master stock was chopped up and mixed with cucumber, fish cake and deep-fried yam, a beloved Teochew ingredient. The fried beancurd cubes were deep-fried till golden and copiously filled with the mixture, which provided tenderness, flouriness, crispness, unctuousness and springiness all in a single bite. Some braising liquid would be thickened with cornstarch and drizzled over the ‘purses’ and the lot would be served with the same chilli sauce typically served with duck rice.
Given that this dish was inspired by and created for the Nonyas, I naturally wanted to channel a little of the Nonyas’ meticulous nature when it came to cooking and decided to dice everything to the same size rather than chop it to a rubble, as is common at hawker stalls. The Nonyas, when serving this, seem to prefer large taupok, that look similar to Japanese tofu pouches, over taukwa but I couldn’t find taupok of the right size so taukwa it was for me! The result was an absolutely addictive, auspicious-looking little treat that I’d be happy to cook for family and friends come Chinese New Year!
For the braising sauce and ingredients:
2-3 tablespoons oil
1 onion, peeled and sliced thinly
50g unpeeled galangal, cut into thick coins
1 head garlic
¾ tablespoon five spice powder
1 cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
1 tbs gula melaka
135g light soy sauce
600g pork belly
350g chicken gizzards
Peeled hard boiled eggs
2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with a little water to form a slurry
For the purses:
20 pieces of taukwa, measuring about 5.5cm x 3.5cm x 3.5cm, insides dug out
150g skinless taro, cut into 5mm cubes
150g braised pork belly (see above), cut into 5mm cubes
150g braised chicken gizzards (see above), cut into 5mm cubes
150g deep-fried fish cake, cut into 5mmcubes
150g cucumbers, seeded, cut into 5mm cubes
3 red chillies
2 cloves garlic
½ thumb length old ginger, peeled
60ml vinegar or more
½ tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Heat the oil in a pot or in a wok. Fry the sliced onion until slightly caramelized, then add the rest of the ingredients, except the eggs. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 hour, turning halfway through to encourage even colouring. You don’t need to braise the pork belly for more than an hour because you don’t want it to be tender to the point of falling apart – you want it to have some bite. Remove the pork belly and gizzards after an hour and turn off the heat. Add the eggs and allow to sit in the braised liquid, turning to colour the outsides evenly. Remove the egg from the braising liquid and cut into eighths lengthwise, then in half crosswise. Bring the braising liquid back to the boil and add the cornstarch slurry to thicken the liquid into a sauce.
Using a knife, trace out a rectangle on the surface of the taukwa and using a spoon, dig out the insides of the rectangle with a teaspoon – be careful to not break the tau kwa. Place the tau kwa in salted water to brine for half an hour. Remove from the water and drain on paper towels. Pat dry thoroughly. Deep fry until golden brown in hot oil (200C). Drain on paper towels to get rid of excess oil. In the same oil, place the taro cubes in a sieve and deep fry until golden and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Toss the taro with the other diced ingredients and fill the taukwa using a teaspoon.
Blend the chillies, garlic, ginger, vinegar, salt and sugar until smooth. Add more vinegar, salt and sugar to taste. Top each filled taukwa with a little braised sauce, then with a coriander leaf and a small piece of egg. Enjoy with the chilli sauce.