34 Province Project: Jiangsu 江苏

Jiangsu is one of those provinces most people may have heard of, but know little about. Just north of Shanghai, it’s named after its two largest cities Jiangning, now better known as Nanjing, and Suzhou. Located on the Yellow Sea at the mouth of the Yangtze River, with a population of some 80 million people, it has been a powerhouse of commerce and industry since around 500 BC and is today second only to Guangdong in income per capita. Nanjing, the Southern Capital to Beijing’s Northern Capital, has been the seat of government for 10-odd dynasties and pretenders, was the world’s largest city for a spell in the 1400s, and to this day the Taiwanese government claims that it remains the de jure capital of the Republic of China.

With this pedigree, it’s hardly surprising that Jiangsu cuisine (苏菜 Sū cài) is one of the Eight Great Traditions, and its fancy subset Huaiyang cuisine (淮揚菜 Huáiyáng cài) is considered one of the Four Great, right up there with Cantonese and Sichuan. Yet with the arguable exception of Yangzhou fried rice (扬州炒饭 Yángzhōu chǎofàn), aka the eggy fried rice with ham bits served up in varying degrees of fidelity at every Chinese restaurant on the planet, I don’t think I’ve ever had Jiangsu food before. Clearly it was time to try it out.

There are really only two dedicated Jiangsu restaurants in Singapore, and since Yechun Teahouse in Marina Sq gets consistently appalling reviews, my choice was easy: Nanjing Impressions (南京大牌档 Nánjīng dàpáidàng), a Chinese chain whose sole local outlet takes up a large chunk of the 4th floor of the Plaza Singapura mall on Orchard Road. The English name is a bit unfortunate in that most Westerners’ Nanjing Impressions consist primarily of rape and murder during the Japanese occupation, but the Chinese name references the “big-plate stalls” that serve as the Chinese equivalent of Singapore’s hawkers. Indeed, the interior is done up to look like a Chinese tea house lit up by paper lanterns, complete with heavy wood paneling, stone eaves and staff in polyester versions of traditional outfits. The overall effect is rather cheesy, but hey, at least it makes a nice change from the average shopping mall food court blare and glare, and despite the cavernous size it was almost full during both our visits. There are no separate stalls as such, instead ordering is dim sum style: tick off what you want from a large paper menu, with most single portions in the $6-10 range, and within minutes tasty things will materialise at your table.

So how’s the food? In a nutshell, both unusual and good. Nanjing is best known for its duck, so we kicked off with their Signature Salted Duck (盐水鸭 yánshuǐ yā, “saltwater duck”), which was salty but melted in your mouth, fat, skin and all, with just a hint of Sichuan pepper and spices. (Apologies for the sad photo of leftovers, taken only after the kids ravaged it.) The Celestial Roast Duck Dumplings (天王烤鸭包 Tiānwáng kǎoyā bāo) are essentially xiao long bao with a duck meatball in sweet, dark broth inside, and by popular acclaim we had to order seconds. Jiangsu’s famous giant lion’s head meatballs (狮子头 shīzitóu) are traditionally served in brown sauce, but here it came alone steamed in broth, wonderfully fluffy and soft on the inside with crunchy bits of water chestnut. The winner for the best named dish goes to Madam Chiang’s Nutritious Beauty Porridge (民国美龄粥 Mínguó měilíng zhōu), a slightly sweet confection of soy milk and glutinous rice with edible lilies and chunks of wild yam, reputedly created for Chiang Kai-shek’s glamorous wife Soong Mei-ling and, to quote this travel guide, “recommended for weak and elder people”. The one dish we were collectively not super keen on was the extremely salty Nanjing Noodles in Light Soy Sauce Broth (老牌阳春面 lǎopái yángchūn miàn), where the broth tasted like it was at least 50% straight-up soy sauce.

Overall, we liked it enough to go back for a second visit later. ​​The Heritage Roast Duck Claypot with Beancurd Julienne (家传云斗煮干丝) showcases the Nanjing speciality of bean curd threads (煮干丝 zhǔgànsī), basically thin sheets of hard tofu shredded so they look very much like egg noodles, served here in a rich bone broth not unlike Japanese tonkotsu, with a few shreds of duck meat and skin. Tasty! Potstickers are usually a porky and garlicky northern dish eaten in bulk, but the Nanjing variety — here called “golden fried dumplings” (金牌煎饺 jīnpái jiānjiǎo), although the usual name is just “beef potstickers” (牛肉锅贴 niúròu guōtiē) — are much bigger than usual and come with a moist and aromatic beef filling leavened by more crunchy water chestnuts. Finally, the Huaiyang Sweet Strata Cake (淮扬千层油糕) is pretty much what it says on the tin, a simple sweet, steamed bun made by repeatedly folding thin dough on itself (the Chinese 千层 means “thousand layer”) and sprinkled with bits of oily, cinnamony Chinese sausage for flavor. Dessert or side dish? The Western palate may have a hard time deciding.

There’s one more Nanjing dish I was keen to try, namely duck blood vermicelli soup (鸭血粉丝汤), but Singapore’s absolute prohibition on blood products means they can only offer a bloodless, offal-less version, so I passed. Sigh.

On both occasions, total damage for 3, including a pot of rather light, delicate and (dare I say it?) almost Japanese-tasting Nanjing Yuhua (雨花 Yǔhuā, “Rain Flower”) green tea came to around $70. Recommended!

<<< Hubei

34 Province Project: Hubei 湖北

Hubei, “North of the Lake” — that’s Dongting Lake, on the Yangtze River — is the less well known twin of its southern cousin Hunan. You may, however, recently have heard a thing or two about its provincial capital Wuhan, and a hankering to try out the signature “hot dry noodles” (热干面 règānmiàn) that kept being mentioned in news reports was one source of inspiration for this project.

The Chu cuisine (楚菜 Chǔ cài) eaten in Hubei has a fairly low profile even in China though, without an obvious spice or cooking style to differentiate it. Chu food revolves around freshwater produce like fish and lotus roots from the many lakes, rivers and marshes, with soups and steamed dishes predominant. The one originally-Hubei dish you can easily find in Singapore is pork rib and lotus root soup (排骨莲藕汤 páigǔ lián’ǒu tāng), but here it’s always done in the slowly simmered, herbal Cantonese style, which is quite tasty but doesn’t cut the mustard for this blog.

Singapore used to have one dedicated Chu restaurant, named after Wuhan’s top attraction the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼), but alas, this kicked the bucket even before COVID-19 put a crimp in business. The closest thing now is Xie Lao Song (蟹老宋 “Old Song’s Crabs”), a chain hailing from Wuhan but coming to Singapore via Beijing. The extensive menu has a lot of reputedly mediocre local food like satay and chilli crab as well as Peking duck, but the dish everybody including us came for is their own invention xiānglà xiè (香辣蟹), drably called “spicy sauce crab” on the menu but perhaps better rendered as “fragrant spicy crab”. Ordering the $38 medium set gets you two smallish mud crabs, cracked and tossed in a wok with celery, sweet potato, peanuts and soft cylindrical rice cakes similar to Korean tteokbokki, all doused in a fragrant chilli & Sichuan peppercorn mala sauce. This is sufficiently hard to eat that you’re given disposable plastic gloves for the job, but it’s worth the effort: the sauce is zippy, but not excessively so, and we ended up eating every last bit of the generously sized pot.

The restaurant recently relocated from Smith St to Pagoda St, right next to Chinatown MRT Exit A, and the new digs manage to be both clinical and tacky at the same time, with aquaria, backlit signage and bright orange plush leather seating (perhaps a nod to the crabs?). Like many other shops in this district, virtually no English is spoken, but the menu is in English. Xie Lao Song is also the only restaurant in Singapore that claims to have Wuhan “hot dry noodles” on the menu, but the first time around our order disappeared into the ether, and the second time we waited around for 45 minutes only to be told meiyou (don’t have). Curses! But at $68 for two all in including Tsingtao beer, soup and sides, it was still pretty good value.

One minor Singaporean food trend that kind of fizzled out before it went mainstream was/is guokui (锅盔 guōkuī), reputedly hailing back over 1000 years to the Tang Dynasty when a hungry laborer fried up some simple flatbread inside his iron helmet — hence the name, “pot helmet”. A common street food eaten all over China, Chinese chains Xiao Yang and A Gan, both from Jingzhou, Hubei, landed in Singapore pretty much simultaneously in 2019, boasting some 8 outlets combined at their peak. At time of writing, though, all that’s left is a solitary outpost of A Gan Guo Kui (阿甘锅盔) in the basement of the flashy but struggling Funan mall, so that’s where I went to get my fix. They’re made to order, a little ball of dough with the stuffing already inside flattened into an oval shape and slapped onto a wall of a cylindrical oven very much like the Indian tandoor to cook: turns out this is basically Chinese naan! The Spicy Pork (香辣鲜肉, $3.60), eaten on the spot, was delicious, crispy, fragrant and meaty but not insanely spicy or oily. Alas, I saved the Brown Sugar Red Bean Paste (黑糖红豆, $3.20) for later and regretted it: what’s warm and crispy fresh turns chewy and bland in minutes when cold. Clearly delivery isn’t an option with these guys, so go out to eat one while you still can.

Hubei also makes a couple of interesting drinks. We already encountered retro hipster soda from Wuhan’s Hankow Factory Nr 2 (汉口二厂 Hànkǒu èrchǎng) back in the Xinjiang episode, and poking around baijiu options in Singapore, I stumbled on a tipple called Maopu Xiaoqiaojiu (毛铺小荞酒), made from Tartary buckwheat in Daye, Hubei. At $12.50 for a 42%, 125 mL flask, I was fully expecting this to be somewhere between rocket fuel and nail polish remover, so imagine my surprise when this was actually… rather nice!? It packs a complex punch, clearly in the same “strong aroma” class as Sichuan’s Wuliangye and Luzhou Laojiao, but to quote their own marketing, “compared to traditional Chinese baijiu, which has a stinging and fiery taste, the buckwheat spirits have a harmonious one”, with several changing layers of unexpectedly fruity notes. My favorite baijiu so far!

<<< Inner Mongolia | Jiangsu >>>

34 Province Project: Inner Mongolia 内蒙古

Inner Mongolia, as you might guess from the name, lies in northern China nestled up against the belly of Outer Mongolia. Back in the days of the Qing dynasty, the Inner region was ruled directly from Beijing while the Outer part was more autonomous, a state of affairs that persists even now, since Outer Mongolia became the independent Republic of Mongolia.

I spent some time in outer Mongolia in 2018, sampling meat buckets and fermented mare’s milk and realizing why even the most cosmopolitan cities in the world tend not to have Mongolian restaurants. On my onward train journey, I dipped briefly into Inner Mongolia, including 4 hours at Erenhot (二连 Èrlián), a dusty border town that pulls off the rare trick of being misnamed in two languages at once, resembling neither the Mongol “Colorful City” nor the Chinese “Lotus Two”. Alas, my culinary intake was limited to Beijing staple Yanjing Beer and some rather un-Mongolian bananas, so it was time to go on a belated hunt for Inner Mongolian food in Singapore.

The only self-proclaimed Mongolian restaurant in Singapore is the Kublai Khan International Seafood Buffet & Mongolian BBQ, whose menu boasts dubiously Mongolian delights like sushi, oysters and chocolate fondue, not exactly the level of authenticity this blog vainly strives for. (For one, “Mongolian barbecue” is neither Mongolian nor barbecue.) Fortunately, there is one actual Inner Mongolian restaurant that has made a dent on the world’s culinary scene: Little Sheep (小尾羊 Xiǎowěiyáng, “Small Tail Sheep”), hailing from Inner Mongolia’s steel city Baotou, memorably described by the BBC as “the worst place on Earth“. A hotpot chain with some 300 restaurants, including 3 in Singapore, it was once probably the world’s largest hotpot brand, but it was acquired by Yum! Brands of KFC, Pizza Hut & Taco Bell fame in 2011 and promptly lost the hot pot wars to Sichuanese upstart Haidilao. Oops.

I had previously eaten at a dingy, low-rent Little Sheep up a narrow staircase in Montreal’s dingy, low-rent Chinatown, but the operation at Sky Garden in Singapore’s Suntec City, all wood paneling and brass plaques, was considerably classier. Little Sheep’s hotpot is derived from instant-boiled mutton (涮羊肉 shuàn yángròu), where thinly-sliced meat is only briefly dipped in boiling water, then eaten right away, similarly to Japanese shabu-shabu. In the classic version the stock may be simply water, and Little Sheep offers this as an option too, but their claim to fame is that their special clear herbal soup (清汤 qīngtāng) minimizes the most distinctive characteristic of urban Mongolia, the penetrating funk of boiled mutton. To further cater to local tastes, you can get the usual assortment of hot pot ingredients up to and including live Australian lobsters at $218 a pop, but the name of the game here is obviously lamb, so stick to the clear soup and let the fat melting off mutton do the flavoring. And trust me, magic soup or not, there’s still plenty of Mongolian boiled mutton scent to enjoy. The sliced lamb was delicious, the lamb dumplings we cooked in the soup were also excellent, and to round it off we had a couple of lamb skewers, perfectly cooked and seasoned with a touch of cumin, chilli and more. Lambtastic!

Another side dish worth trying is what the menu calls Mongolian fried bread (Ménggǔ huǒshāo 蒙古火烧), a type of deep-fried elongated dumpling-pastry stuffed with fatty lamb mince. In rhotic northern Mandarin, that’s huǒshāoer (火烧儿), and this is the origin of Mongolia’s national snack khuushuur (хуушууp). The ones we had here, floppy, juicy and freshly deep fried, were straight outta Ulan Bator.

One more dish I’d been hoping to try was oat noodles (莜面 yóumiàn), but like quite a few other dishes on the electronic menu, it was unavailable on this quiet weekday night. Hot pot places like Little Sheep have been hit hard by the pandemic, since they’re singularly unsuited to delivery, but here’s hoping the spirit of Genghis Khan lives on for a bit longer. Total damage for 4 was $150, and even the kids approved. Like the happy Mongol dude in the ad on the right, thumbs up, I’ll have some more.

<<< Tibet | Hubei >>>

34 Province Project: Tibet 西藏

Tibet, the “Roof of the World”, once straddled both sides of the Himalayas and stretched far north into what is now Xinjiang. Now split across many states, the largest chunk has become the Tibet Autonomous Region (西藏 Xīzàng, “Western Storehouse”) of China, and much like the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Tibetans have become a minority in their own land.

Tibet is not easy for a foreigner to get to, but I had the chance to visit in 2018 and explore the food as well: yak steaks, tsampa barley porridge, salty churned butter tea and momo dumplings. Alas, it was all rather functional — this is food for people who eat to live, not those who live to eat, which is why descriptions of butter tea tend to focus on its high calorific value — and not even the Chinese seem particularly keen on stuff, since Lhasa was packed to the brim with Sichuanese restaurants. With the sole upscale Tibetan place in Singapore closing its doors even before COVID hit, is there really a market for this stuff in Singapore?

Turns out the answer is yes, kind of, and there’s even an actual Tibetan Buddhist temple in Singapore, named after the splittist traitor exiled 14th Dalai Lama and following his Gelug “Yellow Hat” lineage to boot. While the temple doesn’t serve any food, the Tibetan food there is in Singapore comes to us via a similar indirect path of exile and migration. In the 1800s, India’s small Chinese community created what we now call Indian Chinese cuisine by fusing together Chinese techniques and Indian ingredients. When Tibetan refugees flooded across the border in the 1950s, eventually setting up their capital in exile at Dharamsala, some of their dishes were merrily incorporated into the pantheon, with momos in particular now ubiquitous throughout northern India — and there are now two restaurants in Singapore that claim to have specifically Tibetan momos as well.

Fifth Season Tangra Chinese Cuisine on Race Course Rd in Little India has a complicated name that reflects this complicated heritage, self-proclaimed as “True fusion of India, China and Tibet”. Tangra is the neighborhood in Kolkata (Calcutta) where Hakka migrants first settled, so Bengali and Chinese influences jostle happily on the menu. Tibetan choices, however, are limited to thukpa noodle soup and several styles of momo dumplings. In Tibet, thukpa usually means a hearty main course of thick noodles and vegetables, but Tangra’s version was a rather sad bowl of skinny wheat noodles in watery broth with half-cooked cabbage and some chilli oil. The steamed chicken momos, on the other hand, were a hit particularly with the kids, large in size and generously stuffed with chicken mince. But unlike the thick, round, top-pinched dumplings we’d eaten everywhere between Buryatia, Mongolia and Tibet, the ones here were skinny half-moon crescents much closer to Chinese jiǎozi or Japanese gyōza (餃子), and chicken stuffing seems out of place too (lamb and yak being the fillings of choice in Tibet). Then again, perhaps this only completes the full circle of dumpling migration, since even the name appears to originate from Shanxi in eastern China, where they’re called momo (馍馍) in the local Jin dialect.

To round out the meal, we introduced the kids to a couple of Indian Chinese classics: chicken lollipops, gobi Manchurian and good old fried rice. The lollipops (drumsticks) were thickly battered and spicy, while the gobi Manchurian, a purely Indian invention with no known connection to Northeast China, was the gravy version with oodles of what is basically curry if you swap out the garam masala and replace it with soy sauce. The star of the show for me though was the fried rice, made in the Indian style with long-grained biryani rice, egg and what the Cantonese call wok hei, with each ingredient cooked fast at extreme heat.

With two glasses of Kingfisher and a mango lassi, the total damage for four came to $120. Only one other table had joined us for a Saturday lunch, but there was a constant stream of family-size Grab orders, so Tangra has definitely found its niche.

My intention was to follow up with a visit to TT Kitchen in Katong, where the TT stands variously for “Tenzin Tibetan” or “Tibetan and Teochew”, reflecting their rather unique combo of Tibetan fusion momos stuffed with things like gobi Manchurian with classic Teochew kueh like soon kueh (radish dumpling), png kueh (glutinous rice dumpling) and ang ku kueh (turtle-shaped sweet bean paste dumpling). However, despite a shiny website and an active social media presence, when I arrived the store was firmly shuttered and a power company note dated March 11th stuck in the shutter indicated that nobody had been here for weeks. The phone number has been disconnected and my emails went unanswered. Alas, it seems clear that this is now an ex-store; as a consolation prize, you can watch some adorable Tibetan child labor on their YouTube channel.

<<< Macau | Inner Mongolia >>>

34 Province Project: Macau 澳门

Macau, or Àomén (澳门) in Mandarin, is a peninsula and a smattering of small islands on the west side of the Pearl River delta, across the bay from Hong Kong. Covering just 32 sq.km., two-thirds of that reclaimed land to boot, it was a sleepy Portuguese colony for over four centuries from 1557 until 1999, before returning to the People’s Republic of China as a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong. Shortly thereafter, Stanley Ho’s monopoly on gambling ended and it metamorphosed into the Las Vegas of Asia, with a strip of glitzy casino-hotels catering to punters eager to gamble and/or launder away their fortunes.

I’ve been to Macau three times, most recently in 2018, but while there’s plenty of tasty Cantonese treats to go around (whisper it quietly, but some say the dim sum in Macau is better than Hong Kong), finding actual Macanese cuisine takes some work. Under 1% of the territory’s present population identify as Macanese, meaning of mixed Portuguese-Cantonese descent, and aside from the ubiquitous egg tarts (pastéis de nata, 蛋挞 dàntǎ), their cuisine is thus largely confined to a few high-end restaurants specializing in the stuff. Pato de cabidela (duck stewed in vinegar and blood), galinha à Africana (chicken with mildly spicy sauce), lots of dried cod (bacalhau)… it’s tasty, but hardly the stuff of culinary fantasy.

So if it’s hard to find in Macau, is it an even bigger culinary fantasy to find any Macanese in Singapore? In short, yes. There used to be a small chain called Macau Express (澳门顺记茶餐厅), but as the Chinese name hints they were more Hong Kong cha chaan teng style casual fusion eateries and they’re now long gone.

Now egg tarts have long since gone mainstream in Singapore, but they tend to be in the Hong Kong style with a smooth pie crust and flawless yellow skin on top, while a true Portuguese/Macanese egg tart is caramelized on top and has a crumbly, flaky crust like a croissant. One of the few places that claim a Portuguese heritage is Madelaine’s Original Portuguese Egg Tart (玛德琳葡式蛋挞), a little shopfront in residential Tanjong Katong that sells exactly what it says on the tin. At $1.80 a pop, or from $2.80 per 3 minis (pictured), the price is right and both taste and texture deliver. Saboroso!

But I wanted something a bit more substantial, so if I couldn’t find Macanese food, how about Portuguese? Never having visited the country, my previous experience with Portuguese food was largely limited to Sydney’s Little Portugal of Petersham, with Frangos drawing crowds including my kids for takeaway charcoal chicken burgers slathered with piri-piri sauce. We occasionally substituted the chips with bacalhau, onion and potato casserole, or added on a few crispy bacalhau croquettes, but that was about it.

Turns out there is precisely one Portuguese restaurant in Singapore, Tuga, run by an owner who spent 30 years in Macau to boot. Unlike its proletarian cousins Down Under, Tuga is in the posh expat enclave of Dempsey Hill and caters squarely to the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, so we ditched the kids and invited another couple to join us. Tables at the restaurant are tucked away in corners of a maze-like 7000-bottle wine cellar, done up in a stark modern style of pale wood and black placemats, with an army of waiter ninjas clad head to toe in black scurrying about. The starters set the tone with bread and garlic butter, olives in garlic, garlic prawns, clams in garlic: no prizes for guessing what the condiment of the day would be. I ordered the arroz de marisco, a soupy half-paella-half-soup laden with rice and seafood and a subtle chilli kick, while my better half tried the classic porco à alentejana, an unlikely but tasty combo of pork, clams and cubed fried potatoes not entirely unlike Finnish pyttipannu.

The wine list at Tuga is a multi-page Excel printout of what’s in stock today, every last bottle of it Portuguese of course, so the sommelier’s recommendations came in handy. We kicked off with Arinto dos Açores, an obscure white varietal from the Azores, but I’ll cheerily confess I have no idea what the 2nd bottle was. For 2 starters and 4 mains, total damage for 4 was well north of $300, making this by far the most expensive meal of the Project so far, and that’s before the wine, which starts from around $80/bottle and climbs up in the stratosphere. Worth visiting once? Absolutely, at least if you’re OK with garlic. Will we become regulars here? Unlikely.

<<< Gansu | Tibet >>>

34 Province Project: Gansu 甘肃

Of all the provinces in China, the one I’d like to visit the most is Gansu. I suspect this is a rather rare sentiment, as in China the name was until recently is a byword for poverty, with peasants eking out a marginal existence at the drought-prone edge of the desert and dying in droves when the frequent earthquakes collapsed their yaodong cave homes, dug into the brittle loess of the plateau. In the fading days of the Qing dynasty, the area was wracked by rapacious warlords, while after the Revolution, Gansu became a base for heavy industry.

So why go? Gansu’s odd bone-like shape hints at its deep history. Sandwiched between the Qilian Mountains to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, the Gansu (Hexi) Corridor is the first stretch of the northern Silk Road, running from Xi’an in Shaanxi to the east via the oasis town of Dunhuang, home to the fabulous Mogao Caves, to Xinjiang and Central Asia to the west. The Great Wall of China runs along its length, protecting the northern flank from Mongol invasion and ending at Jiayuguan, where those exiled from the country were cast out into the wilderness and where, oddly, China’s space program is now based. At the eastern end, the Yellow River (Huang He) passes through capital Lanzhou, and if you’re looking for a rollicking account of life in these parts in the late 1930s I warmly recommend In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan by John DeFrancis. Back in kindergarten in Finland, we used to sing a catchy ditty about wanting to row on the Huang He river, and after crossing the Gobi by camel John did just that, sailing 1200 miles on a sheepskin raft from Lanzhou to Baotou in Inner Mongolia. You can still go rafting in on the Huang He today, but try not to sing the song, since it has recently been cancelled.

These days Gansu is famous for exactly one dish, hand-pulled Lanzhou beef noodles (蘭州牛肉拉面 Lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn), the self-proclaimed “First Noodles in China” now ubiquitous not just throughout the country, but arguably the entire world, since the Japanese ramen descends from this. A canonical bowl is described by the mantra “One Clear, Two White, Three Red, Four Green, Five Yellow” (一清二白三红四绿五黄; Yī qīng, èr bái, sān hóng, sì lǜ, wǔ huáng), meaning that it must have clear soup, white radish, red chilli oil, green leeks and yellow wheat noodles.

Lanzhou beef noodles are widely available in Singapore, and there are even a number of dedicated restaurants. My first stop was Western Mahua (西部马华 Xībù Mǎhuá), the sister restaurant of Alijiang from the Xinjiang post and in fact sharing the same premises in Vivocity, only more fast food than fine dining with a funky modern vibe, including a distinctly Chinese cover version of Despacito playing in the background. Musical atrocities aside, the noodles here are as good as it gets, and you don’t need to take my word for it, since the Deputy Secretary of the Gansu Party Committee has certified them as authentic. You can watch them made to order by hand, using that near-magical Chinese technique to tease apart a ball of dough into noodles using nothing but your fingers. The whole generously sized bowl is composed of one giant uncut noodle, made to any of 8 sizes, which even encode some social signalling: ladies and intellectuals are supposed to order thinner noodles down to sub-millimeter “hair width” (毛细 máoxì), while workers and peasants should go for wider ones, which range all the way up to the 50mm “big belt” (大宽 dà kuān). I tried the default size (普通细) of 2mm, while my wife sampled the waitress’s recommended 5mm, and they were both great, although the bigger sizes are definitely harder to eat. All five canonical ingredients were present, with a mild chilli-mala kick but nothing over the top, and the 6th (beef) was well-stewed and tasty as well. The kids chickened out with a chicken broth, but ended up preferring ours, although they lavished the most praise on what the English menu calls Braised Beef in Pita (精品煨牛肉夹馍 jīngpǐn wēiniú ròujiāmó), a Chinese “burger” I’ll talk more about when we get to Shaanxi. A regular bowl of noodles goes for $9.80, and total damage for 4 was just $44. Two thumbs up.

For balance, I went to test out the competition, Tongue Tip Lanzhou Beef Noodles (舌尖尖兰州牛肉面 Shéjiānjiān Lánzhōu niúròumiàn). A franchise of the Chinese chain of the same name, they have 4 outlets in Singapore, so I tried the one at Chinatown Point, which is also bedecked with the same certificates of authenticity as Western Mahua and has two behatted noodle masters doing their thing in a glass box.

This time, I tried the Sauerkraut Beef Noodles (酸菜牛肉面), but it was a sad disappointment in all respects. I have only myself to blame for ordering the suan cai variation with vinegary pickled cabbage, but there was also way too much chilli sauce, and the combo completely overpowered the broth. The “normal” sized noodles were thin and mushy, with none of the chewy bite I expected (were these really made to order?), and the beef slices were small, thin and mostly buried at the bottom of the bowl. I had paid an extra $4 for a set, which consisted of a cold braised egg whose yolk had long since turned green, a dish of rubbery “vegetarian chicken” (素鸡 sùjī, made from beancurd) straight from the fridge, and a can of soft drink. Neither the side dishes nor the noodles were worth it; not recommended.

<<< Xinjiang | Macau >>>

34 Province Project: Xinjiang 新疆

Xinjiang, literally “New Territory”, is the largest and westernmost of China’s provinces. A significant fraction of its inhabitants, primarily the Uyghurs who until recently made up the majority of its population, is rather unhappy with this state of affairs and would much prefer that it be called East Turkestan in recognition of its cultural and linguistic roots with fellow Turkic peoples further to the west. The Chinese Communist Party, in turn, is rather unhappy with this state of affairs and has spent the past half century trying to assimilate them by hook or crook.

I’ve dreamed of the markets of Kashgar, the oases of Turfan and the deserts of Taklamakan ever since I watched The Silk Road in the 1980s, but I’ve never actually been to Xinjiang. I first encountered their food in Australia, where some 5,000 Uyghur refugees have settled and not a few have opened restaurants, like the daggy but iconic, uncompromising and rather tasty Kiroran in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. Uyghur cuisine features many Central Asian staples like rice pilaf (polu, in Chinese 抓飯 zhuāfàn); mutton kebabs (羊肉串 yángròu chuàn); flat, wide handmade laghman noodles (手拉麵 shǒu lāmiàn); and nan (饢 náng) bread, the last of these not referring to the soft, pillowy nan of India, but crisp, perfectly round discs often studden with sesame seeds or spices.

Here in aggressively apolitical Singapore, no restaurant dares utter the U-word, but there are two restaurants that claim to feature Xinjiang cuisine — so of course I had to go visit both.

Aisyah (西北香 Xibeixiang “Northwest Fragrance”) is a surprisingly hip & happening pint-size joint on Telok Ayer St, right next to Thian Hock Keng temple. Figuring the CBD would be deserted on Sunday, we rocked up at lunchtime with no reservation and were lucky to snag the last table.

The menu is short, and the name of the game here is kebabs and hand-pulled noodles (laghman) served with a variety of toppings, ranging from braised mutton (黄焖羊 huángmènyáng) to the more-Sichuanese-than-Uyghur “saliva” chicken (口水鸡 kǒushuǐjī), so called because it makes your mouth water. Both kebabs and the stewed mutton were excellent, with the meat soft and falling off the bone/skewer, and you can choose to have your noodles with spicy soup, mild soup or “dry” with soup on the side.

An unexpected new acquaintance was Hankow Factory #2 (汉口二厂 Hànkǒu èrchǎng) soda, hailing from a city better known these days as Wuhan. Selling their fruity Mystery Factor X soda overseas may be a bit of branding challenge these days, so I tip my hat to their marketing team, but at least the product was good: it was probably the closest thing I’ve had to Pommac outside Finland!

Total damage for 4 people: $80. Recommended.

I had my doubts about Alijiang (阿里疆), the lavishly decorated local outpost of a Chinese chain that claims to offer “Silk Road cuisine”, perched atop Singapore’s largest shopping mall Vivocity to boot. Not only are technicolor camels outside a restaurant usually a bad sign, but the menu veers way the hell off the Silk Road and onto completely the wrong continent: lobster noodles or avocado salad with cherry tomatoes, anyone?

However, we struck to their self-proclaimed Xinjiang specialties and were pleasantly surprised. The mutton-laden polu cooked to order in a clay pot was oily and yummy, the nan was made fresh, the pickles were zingy and crunchy, and the kids devoured the kebabs and asked for more. All agreed the star of the show was the one Xinjiang dish the Uyghurs don’t usually get credit for, namely “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), a hearty stew of chicken, potatoes, and laghman noodles all slathered in oil and spicy-numbing mala sauce, reputedly invented by Sichuanese truckers to keep them going during that admittedly tedious 4,000-km drive from Beijing to Kashgar.

One dish we didn’t try was the roasted whole lamb, available for auspicious price of $888, but probably not selling that well in these COVID-constrained times of groups up to 8. I wonder if they actually dress it up with gold jewelry as shown in the brochure?

Two bonuses came at the end: the kids got free soft-serve ice cream, and I realized a bit too late that I got somebody else’s bill and consequently saved a fair chunk on what would otherwise have been a $120-ish tab. Oops: guess we’ll have to go back to atone, or check out the Gansu-style Lanzhou beef noodles at their sister outlet next door.

<<< Index | Gansu >>>

34 Province Project: Eating my way through regional China in Singapore

Coming back to Singapore after almost 10 years away, one thing that struck me is the proliferation of regional Chinese food. Mala is the most visible manifestation, but the southern Chinese dishes we all know and love have been supplemented by restaurants serving up more or less unadulterated dishes from northern, northeastern, western and central parts of China. Yet since they cater mostly to recent immigrants, many of them are nearly invisible on the English-speaking Internet: they’re rarely covered by local bloggers, mostly missing from the usual delivery services and often not even listed on Google Maps.

With my business travel plans to China scotched by COVID-19 for the foreseeable feature, I figured I’d set a goal for myself: trot out my 非常不好 Mandarin and try to explore the food of every one of China’s 34 provinces right here in Singapore. Easy enough for Shanghai or Hong Kong; a bit more challenging for Guizhou or Anhui.

The 34 provinces as we know them today were only set up in the 1950s, with tweaks continuing up to the 1990s, so Chinese culinary traditions don’t map them to them all that neatly either. So here’s a listing of China’s regions, their culinary traditions (the Eight Great highlighted in bold) and, roughly, how the provinces slot under them.

Region 地区CuisineProvince
Northwest 西北 XīběiXibei 西北菜Qinghai
Gansu
Ningxia
Xinjiang
Qin 秦菜Shaanxi
Northeast 东北 DōngběiDongbei 东北菜Heilongjiang
Jilin
Liaoning
North 华北 HuáběiInner Mongolia
Jing 京菜
Imperial/Yushan 御膳
Beijing
Jin 津菜Tianjin
Ji 冀菜Hebei
Jin 晋菜Shanxi
East 华东 HuádōngLu 鲁菜Shandong
Hu 沪菜Shanghai
Su 蘇菜
Huaiyang 淮扬菜
Jiangsu
Zhe 浙菜Zhejiang
Hui 徽菜Anhui
Gan 赣菜Jiangxi
Min/Hokkien 闽菜
Fuzhou/Foochow 福州菜
Putian/Henghwa 莆田/兴化菜
Fujian
Taiwan
Southwest 西南 XīnánChuan 川菜Sichuan
Chongqing
Dian 滇菜Yunnan
Gui 黔菜Guizhou
Tibet
Central 中南 ZhōngnánYue 粤菜
Chaozhou/Teochew 潮州菜
Kejia/Hakka 客家菜
Guangzhou
Hong Kong
Macau
Hainan
Chu 楚菜Hubei
Xiang 湘菜Hunan
Yu 豫菜Henan
Guangxi

Here’s my current plan of action, noting dishes & drinks to try and places to try them, and the map version of the same.  All things considered, I’d prefer to eat everyday/street/”real” food instead of fancy 5-star hotel restaurant stuff, but I’m open to everything.  If you have suggestions or would like to you’d like to offer your services as tour guide/translator/culinary consultant, please comment directly on the doc or drop me a line!

Pick an link from the table above, or start your journey here: Xinjiang >>>

Lady Jennifer Windsor: the hoax that fooled Singapore for over 11 years

Many Singaporeans will have heard of the tragic story of Lady Jennifer Windsor, wife of Lord Windsor. One of many British residents in the colony, she and her wealthy family lived on a huge estate in Upper Thomson in the 1920s.

Yet this idyllic existence was shattered on one cruel day in 1923.  Lady Jennifer’s three young children, Harry, Paul and little Angela, were playing at a nearby bridge when out of nowhere, a flash flood suddenly swept them all away to her deaths. The bodies of the two little boys were found downriver, but Angela’s body was never found.

Soon people started to hear what sounded like the cries of a little girl near the bridge, and the desperate Lady Jennifer went there to comfort her lost child’s soul.  She ended up spending the rest of her life in mourning near the bridge, and that is how the Singaporean neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio, or Caucasian Bridge, got its name.


It’s a tragic tale, retold in many places like New York Times journalist Cheryl Tan’s book A Tiger in the Kitchen, a Singaporean TV documentary, the Wikipedia page for Ang Mo Kio and too many blogs and tourist guides to count. There’s only one tiny flaw in the story: it’s unadulterated horseshit.

The story seems off even on casual inspection. “Jenny from the block“, the Cornish version of Guinevere, seems an unlikely choice of name for an aristocrat born in the late 1800s. The Windsors are nothing less than the British royal family, so what happened to that estate, and why are there no other traces of them in Singapore? If they had lived here, would they really let their young children play on a road completely unsupervised? And even if they did, are flash floods large enough to wipe out bridges but not accompanied by massive storms really a thing in Singapore?

Once this thread of suspicion had been pulled, the entire fabric of the hoax unraveled within days. A Google Books search revealed both precisely zero hits for the fair Lady before 2009, and that there were historical references to the name Ang Mo Kio as early as 1855, decades before her supposed birth.  Soon a Wikipedia sleuth tracked down the apparent original source, namely this shitpost by a “Michaelzhang68” in the Chit Chat room of the late sgforums.com on November 21, 2008. Nobody bought it there either, as the improbable tale was promptly torn to shreds and one reply even lampooned it by suggesting that Ah Hood Road was named when Robin Hood decided to swap Nottinghamshire for Singapore.

Nevertheless, the original creator seems to have persisted, since mere hours later, a verbatim copy of the post was added to Wikipedia’s “Ang Mo Kio” page by a “Paulchen68”, and that’s all it took for the legend to sprout seed. For 11 long years and 8 months until July 2020, the story sat there, occasionally embellished or reformatted, but essentially unquestioned until this ang moh happened to move next to Ang Mo Kio and started wondering where that name came from.

So where did the name come from? I subscribe to the least sexy possible theory: a bridge (桥 kio in Hokkien) was built from concrete (红毛灰 ang mo he “Western ash”), which then became Ang Mo Kio. But maybe you shouldn’t trust the claims of a random stranger on the Internet on this point either…

Picture of a suitably skeptical-looking “Lady Jennifer” from the Mardi Gras Museum at Arnaud’s, an execrable tourist trap in New Orleans.

 

Staycation in the time of plague: a night at Capella Singapore

After months of lockdown, Singapore opened up some hotels to staycations by local visitors in early July. It had been 6 months since we’d gotten out of the house, the kids were on school holiday, and Capella Singapore of Trump-Kim summit fame had a pretty decent deal (20% off, free breakfast, late checkout and a $100 dining credit), so we decided to try it out. Make no mistake, this was still not a cheap stay, but we did also “save” on the cost of return flights for four people, or at least that’s how we justified it to ourselves!

This is not going to be a review of Capella: the place has been around for over ten years, so that’s been done to death. Instead, I’m going to focus on what staycations in Phase 2 Singapore are like when COVID-19 still stalks the streets.

Arrival

Luxury hotels put a lot of effort into making check-in as smooth as possible. COVID bureaucracy, unfortunately, does not. On arrival, every adult needs to do the SafeEntry QR scan before entering, get their temperature measured, fill out a lengthy health declaration form that requests everything from your reason of stay to your employer’s contact details, and only then to you get the to the normal hotel registration with NRICs, credit cards etc. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it did take a good 20 minutes and it’s always tedious to repeat the same info over and over — would it be hard to, say, extend SafeEntry to hotel stays?

In normal times, Capella serves its guests iced tea on arrival. These are not normal times, so we got sealed tetrapaks of “ecofriendly” water instead. The kids were less than impressed, and entertained themselves by watching a cockroach crawl up the wall.

Room

Our room was otherwise refreshingly normal, and the kids were relieved to hear you don’t even need to wear masks inside. However, all in-room snacks and alcohol had disappeared. The minibar was still stocked, but only with 4 cans of Coke and some fruit juice. I’m not sure if this is because of COVID, regular Capella policy, or just some reopening glitch. A welcome gift in the form of shrink-wrapped cookies was delivered, but there was no sign of the usual fruit basket.

Facilities

All pools were open, but with capacity controls: for example, 16 guests max in the family pool, with 2-hour stays. Enforcement appeared to be mostly on an honour basis, and in any case we only saw one other family using it during our stay. The gym was open, but access was gated via the (also open) spa. The business centre was unsurprisingly closed. Elevators, the front desk, and other places with even a remote possibility of crowding were annotated with big social distancing stickers on the floor.

Capella’s complimentary lounge, the Living Room, was open but again with capacity controls, so we had to call ahead to book. On arrival, heads were counted to make sure they were within limits (yes, barely), then we were guided to a table and presented with a fixed set of snacks, plus coffee/tea/soft drinks made to order.

Interestingly enough, while most guests were couples or families like us, there were a few Mandarin-speaking solo travellers in business wear. The Singapore-China Green Lane in action, perhaps?

Dining

Capella has two restaurants and a bar, all of which were open. However, since in-house dining charges like a wounded bull ($38++ for nasi goreng, anyone?), we opted to eat our meals on the Sentosa beachfront, which isn’t cheap either, but there are many 1-for-1 deals to dull the pain. (Pro tip: with the 1:1 pizzas at Trapizza Mon-Fri, you can feed a family of four for $22++.)

For the breakfast, we had to make an advance reservation for one of two time slots (7-8:30, 9-10:30 AM), which prevented table use and allowed a half-hour deep clean between guests. Instead of a regular buffet, which isn’t allowed under COVID rules, we had a choice of one of three set meals and/or a selection of “free flow” made to order items on the side, all brought to your table. The net effect was a bit like eating dim sum/yum cha, with trays of pastries and trolleys of juice floating past. At a fairly small and intimate place like Capella this worked very nicely, but I do wonder how large hotels with their massive champagne brunch spreads will convert to this new format. One more plus for Capella’s The Knolls: there’s plenty of spaced-out, airy and shady outdoor seating. Your average city hotel will struggle with this too.

Activities

Capella offers a wide-range of free “cultural” activities like Peranakan painting and brown sugar bubble tea making. These operated normally, except that everybody involved — including us — was masked up. Mmm, just look at that frothy mug of diabetes in a cup!

Crowding & staffing

We visited on a regular non-school-holiday weekday, and both the hotel and Sentosa were pretty quiet. Apparently this is set to change once the holidays start, and Capella is already booked full (!) on July 23rd, although I imagine they’re also operating at reduced capacity.

One thing which soon became clear is that the hotel appeared to be somewhat understaffed. The front desk promised to call regarding an activity booking but didn’t, it was 9 PM by the time turndown service was offered, a late night snack attack room service order never showed up, we were asked for our newspaper selection but it wasn’t delivered, etc — none of these big deals, but not what you’d expect at this price point. Did they underestimate the demand, or do they have staff stuck overseas? If it’s like this during a quiet weekday, next week is going to be a mess.

Overall verdict

Definitely worth it. Capella’s terraced pools are the closest you’re going to get to Bali in Singapore (just try to ignore the oil refinery flares in the background), and it’s closer to our home than Changi Airport. The COVID limits were reasonable and the adaptations well thought out. We also try to avoid busy indoor spaces (19x risk compared to the outdoors!), so Sentosa is definitely the place to be: it’s much nicer now without the usual crowds, and we really appreciated the chance to see some greenery, wide open beaches and lots of airy outdoor eating options.

It was not so nice to see some groups on the beach with way more than 5 people and not a mask in sight. There was enough space that we could steer clear, but here’s hoping these troglodytes don’t ruin it for everybody else again.