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 >>>