Chao mian, the progenitor of chow mein, is now a popular Surinamese dish that has evolved from its Chinese Cantonese origin. This highly popular dish – in Suriname it is called ‘tjauwmin’ – made mainly of stir-fried noodles, is different from the 炒面 chao mian served in China and the other countries where Chinese people have migrated to.
The Chinese people first came to Suriname in a small group of 18, recruited from Java in 1853, followed by a larger group of 500, in 1858. Considering their harsh living conditions and the absence of traditional utensils, ingredients and sauces, it must have been difficult for them to cook authentic Chinese food. But knowing how much the Chinese cherish their vegetables, it is likely that they brought some seeds along with them. Unfortunately, there are no records of what they cooked and ate.
One of the earliest articles in a Surinamese newspaper about a venue with Chinese food, is from 1912. It talked of a “Chineesch speelhuis en een Cook-Shop”, a Chinese gambling house and a cook shop, with the interesting Surinamese name of “So swiet no de”, meaning there is no food better than this, but the clipping didn’t include actual items on the menu.
The first Chinese menu published in Suriname was an advertisement for a new location in the Maagdenstraat, in 1917. It listed a variety of fish, pork, beef and chicken, all served with rice. Traditionally, the Chinese names of dishes describe the source, the size, and sometimes a location and flavor. However, from this advertisement, we cannot reconstruct the flavors.
In 1946, two advertisements were published next to each other. Both advertise a more modern Café Restaurant, and a more detailed menu. Both included the same noodle dish, but Café Restaurant Chung King called it Chow Min, and Café Restaurant Tjon Tjin Joe called it Gebakken Min, Fried Min, describing it as delicious Chinese spaghetti.
Uncle Jack, as I used to know him, was an immigrant. He grew up helping out in his father’s restaurant. Restaurant Tjon Tjin Joe was started on February 23, 1946. According to Uncle Jack the flavor of tjauwmin has changed dramatically. The most important change is the use of vegetable oil, instead of reuzel [lard]. Lard, imported in 5-pound cans, was the main fat used for cooking. Today, restaurants no longer buy a whole pig from the butcher as they did then. No part of the pig was wasted. Left-over scraps, skin and fat were used to render flavorful lard, which was then used to make tjauwmin. Other by-products of rendering lard were the crispy skin and fat parts. These were used together with hot peppers to make the sambal, which was given as additional flavoring.
In 1969, the term tjauwmin was used by Café Restaurant Fong Foek Jie. Several popular restaurants also served this dish which was usually eaten in the restaurant. When take-out became popular, the tjauwmin was wrapped in wax paper and held together with two rubber bands. Bringing your own pot was also an option.
Eventually the recipe crystalized, and nowadays a standard tjauwmin is made with yellow egg noodles stir fried slowly over low heat, with eggs, onions, and small pieces of kailan vegetables. The dish is finished with a choice of small pieces of roasted chicken, pork, and fashong (roasted pork sausage) mixed in, and/or with a colorful selection of slices of the same roasted meats placed on top. The roasted meat on top of the tjauwmin is what makes it typical Surinamese. A small bag of sweet and sour pickled cucumbers and sneysi pepre, a local version of the red habanero, are always included.
After 1975 and the mass emigration of Surinamese citizens to the Netherlands, one of the precious things they took along with them was tjauwmin. In the Netherlands you will find different varieties of Chinese food, including authentic Cantonese Chinese, Indonesian Chinese and Surinamese Chinese.
Text: Patrick Woei, December 2019
Patrick Woei started working in the kitchen of Torarica, somewhat jokingly, at a very young age. As a twelve-year-old he would help out a bit during his vacation. He was often teased and was put in charge of troublesome tasks such as cracking and separating eggs. But this experience in the patisserie actually motivated him. The adrenaline rush he subsequently got from working at the grill as a teenager, further contributed to his decision to pursue a professional education at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. And the rest, that is “all a great adventure!”, as said by Patrick himself.
Photography: Charles Chang & IMoesan Multimedia