34 Province Project: Fujian 福建

Fujian, named after the cities of Fuzhou and Jianzhou and located on the coast around halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong, is the single most intimidating Chinese province to try to cover from Singapore. Uniquely among the Chinese diasporas of the world, in Singapore Fujianese speakers — or Hokkien, as both the people and the language are known here — form the single largest dialect group, and that’s not even counting other groups like the Hakka (Kejia), Henghua (Putian), Hockchew (Fuzhou) and Hockchia (Fuqing) that hail from Fujian as well.

Yet you can hardly describe Singapore as a Fujianese city, and while plenty of Hokkien terms live on in Singlish, the dialect has long since been overtaken by Mandarin among the local Chinese. Similarly, few restaurants in Singapore explicitly advertise themselves as Hokkien: by and large, Fujianese influences have been blended into Singapore-style “Chinese” food, and only an ever-dwindling group of elderly proprietors, many third generation by now, carry on the torch.

Given the sheer variety on offer, for this episode I’m going to focus on Hokkien, Hokchiu and Henghua flavours, choosing both dishes and restaurants mostly for convenience and personal taste rather than popularity. For Hakka, stay tuned for the Guangdong episode, and you can find a few more Fujian-inspired eats in Taiwan as well.

Hokkien (Fujian) 福建

Fujian cuisine (閩菜 Mǐn cài) is one of China’s Eight Great Traditions, best known for its many soups: “no soup, no go” (不汤不行 bù tāng bùxíng), they say, meaning a meal isn’t complete without one. Soups are, of course, eaten across China, but Fujianese ones are often thickened by starch and called gēng (羹) instead of the usual tang. Many dishes also get a Southeast Asian touch from fish sauce (虾油 xiāyóu, literally “shrimp oil”) and shrimp paste (咸虾 xiánxiā), both ingredients rarely seen in the rest of China.

Interestingly — and we’ll see this again in the Hainan episode — the two most famous “Hokkien” dishes in Singapore are local creations largely unknown in Fujian itself. Hokkien mee (noodles) refers to at least three different dishes, which all appear to descend from lor mee (卤面), but in Singapore, it means noodles stir-fried in copious quantities of an aromatic broth made from prawns and pork bones and topped off with fresh prawns, squid, a calamansi lime and a dab of fiery sambal chilli spiked with hae bee hiam (虾米香) prawn paste. I’m not even that much of a prawn fan, but I do love this stuff, and when we moved back to Singapore, one of the first hawker meals we had was at Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee (鸿兴炒苏东虾面) in Tiong Bahru, where a long wait and $4 gets you an irresistible Michelin Bib Gourmand worthy umami explosion.

The other classic not-so-Hokkien dish is bak kut teh (肉骨茶 ròugǔchá), or “pork bone tea”, made by stewing pork ribs in a herbal soup. (The tea is an accompaniment, not an ingredient.) By legend, this was invented by Fujianese dock workers in Kuala Lumpur’s port town on Klang, and the original is strongly flavored with Chinese herbs and dark soy sauce. In Singapore, most shops default to the Teochew style, much lighter but peppery, but the Hokkien style is not hard to find either. At the tail end of one of my early morning bike rides, I ended up at the aptly named Morning Bak Kut Tea (朝市肉骨茶 Cháoshì ròugǔchá) at Hong Lim Complex in the shadow of the city centre. The soup here is pitch black but quite sweet, lacking the bitter herbal notes you run into at some shops, and the well-stewed pork was simply superb, meltingly soft and full of flavor. The sides, alas, failed to impress: the you char kway (油炸粿) dough fritters were chewy and stale, not improving much even when dunked in the soup, and my attempt to order stewed pickles (菜尾 choy buai/cài wěi) somehow turned into “fresh vegetable” (生菜 shēngcài), basically iceberg lettuce quickly doused in soup, which tasted about as exciting as that sounds. To add insult to injury, I unaccountably neglected to order the obligatory pot of Iron Goddess of Mercy tea to go with it all. Total damage $8.

One Hokkien dish that has, unusually, made the leap into trendy Asian restaurants worldwide is the pork belly bun, popularized by the Momofuku chain. In Singapore, they’re called kong bak pau (炕肉包) and the undisputed King of Kong Bak Pau is Westlake (西湖小吃 Xīhú Xiǎochī) on Farrer Rd. While named after the famous tourist spot in Hangzhou, the menu consists basically of whatever the chef likes and thus runs the gamut from Hokkien to Cantonese and even some Sichuan fare from his student days in Chengdu. Open since 1974, the yellow and lime green decor is, uhh, eye-catching and the faded newspaper clippings and Japanese signage hint at past days of guidebook glory, but on a Friday night they were still packed.

The justly famed “Braised Pork with Pau” is served DIY style, with pillowy buns, meltingly soft pork belly in a very moreish bean sauce, and a few token sprigs of lettuce and coriander. The regular buns are plenty good in my view, but you can choose to pay double for Iberico pork if you choose. Another classic Hokkien dish on the repertoire here is the ngoh hiang (五香 wǔxiāng), consisting of minced pork and prawn flavored with the five spice powder of the name, wrapped in tofu skin and deep fried until crispy. At Westlake, these are skinnier than usual, served piping hot, and the best I’ve had anywhere. We rounded out the meal with a yam ring, a Cantonese-ish invented-in-Singapore dish with stir-fried goodies in gravy filling out a crispy bird’s nest of mashed taro. At $78 for 4, the price was right, with only one catch: more or less everything was very salty, with the stir-fried veg on the side particularly ludicrous. Drink water, you’ll need it!

Finally, it was time to tickle my sweet tooth and pay a visit to an old-school Hokkien bakery. Tan Hock Seng (陳福成), incongruously located smack dab in the middle of Singapore’s business district, is located in a small row of shophouses surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers, and even its shophouse neighbours are thoroughly gentrified. In perennial danger of their lease running out, they’ve already announced they intend to close their doors by November 2021, leading to queues as patrons rush to stock up. Their signature is the rather obscure beh teh sor (马蹄酥 mǎtísū, “horse hoof biscuit”), a crunchy, flaky, very dry shell hiding a sweet, sticky, mostly-maltose filling. Cautiously flavorful and definitely best eaten as fast as possible, you’ll want to have some tea to wash them down. $5 for 5 while they’re still around.

Hokchiu (Fuzhou) 福州

Fuzhou is Fujian’s largest city and capital, so you might be excused for thinking they speak Hokkien, but no! Singapore’s Fujianese diaspora came mostly from the southern parts of the province around Amoy (Xiamen), and linguists differentiate their Southern Min (闽南 Mǐn Nán) from Fuzhou’s Eastern Min (闽东 Mǐn Dōng). And if that’s not confusing enough, in Singapore this 50,000-odd community is often known as Hokchiu, from the Hokkien reading of the city’s name. Despite their small numbers, Hokchius pack quite a punch in the South-East Asian Chinese diaspora: the richest men in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, Robert Kuok and Sudono Salim, are both of Hokchiu descent.

I unexpectedly kicked off my Fuzhou foodie adventure by stumbling upon Huey Peng Hiang (汇品香 Huìpǐnxiāng) in Sembawang Hills Food Centre on my way back from another early morning bike ride. The stall mostly sells chill banmian and dumplings, but tucked away on the menu was red wine chicken mee sua (红糟鸡面线). Flavored with hóngzāo (红糟), the lees (leftovers) of making rice wine intentionally fermented with a specific red mold, the soup looked pretty intimidating but turned out to be delicious, with a rich broth of chicken stock, bits of ginger and slightly sweet miso-like notes. The mee sua are thin wheat noodles that do a good job of sucking up the broth, and there’s a half-boiled egg on top for that extra protein punch. Two cheery anime girl thumbs up for $5, although probably better for lunch or dinner than breakfast.

For Fuzhou round 2, I paid a visit to Seow Choon Hua (箫钟华) in Kampong Glam. Notionally a restaurant, this tiled, utilitarian, fan-only space decorated with fading posters is a bit of a time warp from the 1980s, and with no online presence of any kind they must be struggling in the COVID era. The Chinese signboard here proudly proclaims “Fuzhou Flavours” (福州风味), and indeed everything on the menu is a Fuzhou speciality: red wine chicken, stir-fried niangao rice cakes, but what they’re famous for is Fuzhou fishballs (福州鱼丸). Fishballs in the normal Teochew style ubiquitous in Singapore are made from finely ground fish, springy, and have very little taste. In Fuzhou, though, they’re stuffed with tasty minced pork, and unlike the bland mass-produced versions you sometimes see at food courts, Seow Choon Hua makes their own. The end result is a bit lumpy, soft to bite into, and bursting with porky goodness inside. I ordered the $6 Foochow Mixed Soup, which came with tasty stuffed fishballs, a token regular fishball, a few chewy biǎnròuyàn (扁肉燕, “flat meat”) dumplings where the dumpling skin itself is made from 90% pork meat mixed with glutinous rice flour, and a standard-issue wonton dumpling or two. Nothing mindblowing, but made with care and generously portioned, and worth a visit before the clock runs out on this relic from the past.

And for round 3, I dropped by Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake at the legendary Maxwell Hawker Centre. I have to say I appreciate the singularity of purpose of this stall: it’s been here for over 40 years, dishing out a menu composed of exactly one dish, oyster cake (蚝饼 háobǐng) at $2.50 a pop. Far rarer than the ubiquitous oyster omelette (蚝煎), a pan-Fujian dish also popular in Taiwan, oyster cake are specifically a Fuzhou dish: deep-fried, UFO shaped patties of small oysters, prawns, minced meat and cilantro. I’m not a huge oyster fan and I don’t particularly like oyster omelette either, but these were really nice! I thought they would be all doughy like Indian vadai donuts, but no, the rice-based dough makes the shell crisp and the inside stays surprisingly juicy and meaty, the overall effect not entirely unlike deep-fried dumplings. Yum! I’m a convert.

Henghua (Xinghua) 兴化 / Putian 莆田

One of the more obscure dialect groups in Singapore is the Henghua (Xinghua in Mandarin), also known as Putian after their erstwhile hometown in northern Fujian (no connection to Vladimir Vladimirovich). Legend says that they, in turn, migrated to Fujian from Henan province, meaning that like the Hakka they’re now migrants twice over. Putian being a coastal town, they’re best known for their seafood dishes, with Chinese razor clams from nearby Duotou known across the country.

Still, Henghua food would likely languish in obscurity if not for a little coffeeshop called Putien (莆田) in Kitchener Rd that cooked its way to a Michelin star and became a pan-Asian franchise extending all the way back to Fujian itself. Their promise is “Fresh ingredients, original taste”, so with another Sunday lunch in lockdown beckoning it was time to put them to the delivery test. First off the block was bianrou soup, containing Putien’s take on Fuzhou’s meat-skin dumplings, served here in a light seaweed soup not unlike the Korean miyeok-guk. Unlike the usual gloopy, herbal, dark brown Singapore version, the Henghua spin on lor mee was light, packed with clams and mushrooms, and flavored with the red yeast rice we also saw earlier in Fuzhou. The murky pink soup looked pretty unappetizing, bearing a disturbing resemblance to the meat juices sloshing around the bottom of a styrofoam supermarket pack, but once you got over that the taste was shiok, packed with seafood and mushroom umami. Last but definitely not least, Henghua fried bee hoon (兴化炒米粉) was for me the standout: in Singapore, fried bee hoon (thin rice noodles) is the canonical cheap starchy $1 breakfast flavored with soy and a few scraps of cabbage, but this had been cooked in a rich seafood stock and was bursting with more yummy clams, scallops, tofu puffs, eggs, veggies.

All in all, Putien delivered on their promise, the ingredients and preparation was clearly a step above the norm and while there weren’t any tastebud-exploding culinary revelations, it was all very competently done. Check out the Shandong episode for our second visit!

I went back for round two with a quick lunch at Xing Hua (兴化) at Suntec, not to be confused with any of a number of other restaurants called Xinghua Something around Singapore. This seems rather transparently aimed at the same market as Putien, with a similar slick, modern ambiance, menu and pricing. The bian rou soup here was the tastiest of the three I’ve had so far, with larger dumplings with a thin wrapper and meaty pork inside, although I gather Putian’s gluggier version may be more authentic. The Putian Deep-fried Duck with Yam (莆田芋香鸭) was great, flaky and crispy on top with bits of duck in the Teochew-style smooth yam paste. The most interesting dish of the day was the Putian Ca Fen (农家擦粉 nóngjiā cāfěn), literally “farmer-style rubbed noodles”, made with a mix of rice bee hoon noodles and wheat mee sua served in a funky, thickened, mostly pork broth with an aniseed note, studded with bits of prawn, pork meat, intestine and Chinese cabbage. Distinctly un-Instagrammable, and probably better suited to a cold winter day than tropical Singapore, but unusual and tasty just the same. Total damage for three came to $52, but the place looks pretty empty every time I walk past, so get there while you still can. Extra bonus points for the rather striking logo that hides the characters for 兴化 in there if you look carefully.

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34 Province Project: Shaanxi 陝西

Any post about Shaanxi, “West of the Shan Pass”, has to start with a disclaimer not to confuse it with its near-namesake Shanxi (山西), “West of the Mountains”. Even more confusingly, the two border each other, with single-a/high-tone “wrong” Shānxī just east of double-a/falling-rising-tone “right” Shǎnxī. But here’s an easy mnemonic: nobody ever talks about the other one, because double-a Shaanxi is where it’s at.

Indeed, Shaanxi is the province whose cuisine I fell in love with first. As a foodie, I’m always looking for tastes that are both new and delicious, and the Qin cuisine (秦菜) eaten there delivers in spades. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight though: my first encounter with lamb & bread soup yángròu pàomó in Box Hill, Melbourne left me distinctly nonplussed, and I didn’t quite grok my first biángbiáng noodles in Sydney’s Chinatown either. But at some point I stumbled through the dimensional portal at Murray Place Arcade in Burwood, and before I knew it my tastebuds were hooked.

In 2018, I had the chance to visit Shaanxi’s capital Xi’an for a single day, and I tried to make the most of it by eating everything in sight. With a history spanning some 3000 years, the city’s history defies zippy summaries, but under its old name Chang’an it was the capital of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and its megalomaniacal founder Qin Shi Huang, who was China’s very first emperor and whose famous Terracotta Soldiers guard his mausoleum to this day. (Fun fact: Japan’s old capital Kyoto, founded in 794, copied Chang’an’s layout.) Located at the eastern end of the Silk Road, Xi’an also hosts a significant Muslim community, who had a particularly big influence on the culinary scene. The photogenic Muslim Quarter serves up tons of tasty treats to this day, and a read through this droolsome blog merely scratches the surface.

In Singapore, Shaanxi restaurants are not exactly mainstream, but you can find about half a dozen if you look. I started off with fast food outlet Qin Ji Rougamo (秦记肉夹馍), lurking in the excitingly named Alexandra Retail Complex near Labrador Park MRT, where I sampled the classic Xi’an Triangle: a Chinese-style pulled pork burger (肉夹馍 ròujiāmó/ròugāmó), a bowl of cold liángpí (涼皮) noodles, and a can of Ice Peak (冰峰 Bīngfēng). The rougamo here are great, the mo flatbread a delicate spiral crispy at the edges but soft enough to eat, and the rich pulled pork doused in sauce melts in your mouth — and all over your pants if you don’t eat carefully enough. The liangpi noodles themselves were fine and toppings were positively fancy, with a spray of cucumber, beansprouts, little crunchy dough balls and spongy kǎofū gluten, but you can only get the “default” kind with chilli oil (I prefer the sesame variant) and it comes premixed and quite soggy (I prefer them drier, with DIY toppings). And the Ice Peak, well, it’s orange Fanta, no more, no less. At $11.90 nett, it’s a pretty good lunch, but I’ll get soy milk and try another side dish next time.

Next stop was Biang Biang Noodles Xi’an Famous Food (biángbiáng面西安名吃) in Toa Payoh, a lunchtime delivery saviour for me during Singapore’s “circuit breaker” lockdown. The noodles here are named after the sound they make when slapped against a board while made (biáng! biáng!), and in a clever bit of marketing that biáng has a literally unprintable character that claims to be the most complex in the Chinese language. If you want the original style, you need to order what they call “Shanxi signature noodles” (油泼面 yóupōmiàn, “oil-splashed noodles”), which gets you a bowl of wide, chewy, belt-sized wheat noodles, served “dry” with a splash of oil, a dash of chilli powder, a spray of leeks and a token vegetable: simple but delicious. If you order “biang biang”, you get the same noodles, but with tomatoes, eggs and stewed pork on top.

There’s a fair selection of other Shaanxi favorites here too, but the lumpy, dry rougamo here can’t hold a candle to Qin Ji and the liangpi is nothing special either. One dish did catch my eye, namely Qishan noodles (岐山臊子面 Qíshān sàozimiàn), where the middle word is omitted from the English name because it’s virtually untranslatable. If you look it up in a dictionary, 臊 sāo means “urine-scented”, leading to occasional hilarity, but pronounced with a falling tone (sào) it means “embarrass”. A convoluted legend says the name actually comes from near-homonym 嫂 sǎo meaning “sister-in-law”, and the character was swapped over time. At Biang Biang the menu even spells it wrong as 哨子面 shàozimiàn, which would be “whistle noodles”. Confused yet? After all this, the actual meaning of 臊子 is a tad anti-climactic: it’s… minced meat sauce. Canonical saozi has cubes made from red carrots, green garlic shoots, black wood ear fungus, yellow eggs and white beancurd, all topped with a soup that’s supposed to be hot & sour, but not pungent (urine or otherwise) and no mala either. Biang Biang’s version substitutes potato for eggs, but otherwise ticks all the boxes.

Third up, I paid a visit to Shaanxi Noodles (寻秦记 Xúnqínjì, “Seeking Qin Brand”) in hipster enclave Tiong Bahru for another shot at lamb paomo (羊肉泡馍 yángròu pàomó). This rather unusual soup consists of a thick lamb broth with slivers of meat, a few token veggies, and the same mo flatbread as used for rougamo, shredded by hand and sprinkled into the soup by the diner themselves. The lady taking my order quizzically asked me if I knew how to eat paomo, but apparently didn’t believe my claim that I did, since my mo had been neatly presliced into little cubes. Sigh. On the upside, the soup was rather tasty if salty, and came with the canonical sides of chilli paste and pickled garlic, which added a nice kick.

To wash it down, I tried Ice Peak’s attempt at sour plum drink (酸梅汤 suānméitāng). The can somewhat dubiously claims that “this taste is very Xi’an” (这味儿很西安 Zhèwèier hěn Xī’ān), although it’s ubiquitous in China and widely available in Singapore too. It was syrupy sweet and tasty enough, but rather inoffensive/bland and lacked the smokey notes from the better brands.

Total damage $15.50, which is kinda expensive for a bowl of (not-quite-)noodles, but you are paying a premium for the air con and hip surrounds. One thumb up.

Honorable mention: Xi’An Impression (西安印象) in People’s Park Complex, which serves up all your Shaanxi favorites and more, without unnecessary frills like an English menu, air-conditioning, or reliable opening hours. Onward!

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34 Province Project: Taiwan 台湾

Taiwan is an island about 180 kilometers off the coast of mainland China. And that’s really all I can say about the place without somebody snorting peas up their nose, since I’ve already gotten brickbats for including it in this series as a “province” of China. This, too, is a political statement: the People’s Republic of China insists this is the case, and while the Republic of China says so too in its constitution, in practice the island has been quietly backpedaling away from the concept for a while.

This kind of thing bedevils all things Taiwanese, since you can’t even write about Taiwanese things without picking sides. Traditional characters like 台灣 lean “Green” (pro-independence), while simplified ones like 台湾 lean “Blue” (status quo), and even the romanization is different, with the pan-Greens opting for indigenous tongyong pinyin, the pan-Blues preferring China’s hanyu pinyin, and a lot of place names still using the older Wade-Giles system. And that’s just for Mandarin: the local dialect and its speakers are called Hoklo locally, Hokkien to the Singaporeans, Minnan if you’re a linguist, Banlam if you’re saying “Minnan” in the dialect itself, and Fujianese from a mainland point of view. Wah lau! For consistency I’m going to stick with Mandarin, simplified and hanyu pinyin, and use dialect names only when used in Singapore as well.

I had the occasion to visit Taiwan for about a week way back in 2007, checking out both some of the top draws (Alishan, Taipei) as well as a few places off the beaten track (Chiayi, Guanziling). Since both have been quite successful in combating COVID-19, there has been talk of Singapore and Taiwan opening up a travel bubble, but in the meantime there’s plenty of Taiwanese eats right here.

Taiwanese food is hugely popular in Singapore, exemplified first and foremost by bubble tea, such that top outlets sported long queues before last year’s lockdown. You know a dish has hit prime time when this concoction of milky tea with chewy tapioca balls, 珍珠奶茶 zhēnzhū nǎichá “pearl tea” to the Taiwanese and 波霸 bōbà “busty lady” in the US, has acquired its own Singaporean acronym, “BBT”. Taiwanese snacks like fried chicken have also long been ubiquitous, with global Taiwanese chain Shihlin Street Snacks originally hailing from Singapore, and Taiwanese Michelin-star dumpling maestros Din Tai Fung now sport no less than 24 (!) outlets across the island.

I started my Taiwanese tour with lunch at 5 Little Bears (五只小熊), an unassuming little eatery in the basement of busy Paya Lebar Square. The Japanese-style red akachochin lanterns gave a good hint of what was to come, since the oyster mee sua (蚵仔面线 kèzái miànxiàn) was the most Japanese thing I’ve eaten outside Japan: there was a powerful dashi-style seafood funk to the soup, with a few token oysters, some strands of black fungus and uniquely Taiwanese caramelized brown wheat mee sua noodles. The starchy soup, though, was much closer to Fujianese geng than anything you’d find in Japan. It was quite good, but a little monotonous and salty.

Our other main was minced pork rice (卤肉饭 lǔròufàn), a Taiwanese family favorite we make at home sometimes using a recipe from a Taiwanese friend. It’s not a terribly photogenic dish, but the pork was soft and flavorful, the zhacai (榨菜) pickles on the side livened it up nicely, and a tea egg and few sprigs of bok choy rounded it out. The kids had a couple of generously portioned bento sets (便当 biàndang), both word and concept being another Japanese loan that stuck around, plus an obligatory plate of crispy chicken to share. Total damage $28, and two thumbs up.

Second stop on my little island tour was Feng Food (丰台湾味 Fēng Táiwān wèi) in the cavernous basement maze of another shopping mall, this time Northpoint City, where you may be lost forever if you don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs marking your way out. Done up like a country village with bamboo and straw decorations, they’ve expanded to cover the space of two regular restaurants and were doing a roaring trade for Sunday lunch. My son’s Marinated Pork Chop with Egg Fried Rice (豬排蛋炒飯) was exactly what it says on the tin, reminding me quite a bit of Din Tai Fung’s equally excellent version, only much more generously sized. I tested their “famous” Tainan Danzai Noodles (台南担仔面), but I’m sorry to say I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is about: the topping was a small pile of chopped pork belly with a single shrimp and a chewy tea egg, the soup was a mild variant of Singaporean prawn noodles, and the special imported guān miào (关庙) sun-dried chewy noodles I’d paid a buck extra for tasted very much like Shanxi‘s “knife-shaved” daoxiaomian. Taiwanese beef noodles still retain the noodle crown for me.

Next, I wanted to eat some Taiwanese toast, this too likely originally an import from Japan that has taken on a life of its own. I first tried my luck at True Breakfast in Cuppage Plaza, but the odd location in Singapore’s sketchiest Japanese nightlife mall hadn’t dissuaded a huge line of people from rocking up, and when a bit of table math indicated I was in for at least an hour’s wait, I skedaddled off. Plan B: Taiwanese sandwiches-and-more chain Fong Sheng Hao (丰盛号 Fēngshèng hào, or 豐盛號 in the original), which I ended sampling not once but twice.

Fong Sheng Hao aims for a Starbucks-meets-Taipei vibe, light wood paneling, plants, slightly incongruous neon and pedestrian path markings. First order off the block at Westgate, devoured on the spot while not entirely sober after a conference’s happy hour, was nothing short of amazing: Pork Egg and Cheeese (肉蛋起司) doesn’t sound like much, but the charcoal-grilled toast was just right and my god, that fluffy, cheesy omelette, soft but not runny, and it paired perfectly with the hey-why-is-my-spoon-dissolving strength milk tea too. It was so good I tried a takeout breakfast from NEX, same order but adding in an optional leaf of lettuce, and this time it was… OK… but not spectacular? Maybe there was less egg, maybe it had cooled down and condensed on my ride home. Lesson learned, eat your sammies on the spot.

To wash it all down, the only option was bubble tea. Singapore is spoiled for choice, with half a dozen Taiwanese chains staking their claims on the island, but after extensive research consisting of reading this blog article, I ended up at the Paya Lebar PLQ outlet of Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千), hailing from bubble tea epicenter Taichung and now franchised across Asia. The name means “Eat Tea Three Thousand”, which for the record makes no sense in Chinese either. Every high-end BBT retailer has a schtick, and Chicha’s is that each cup of tea is made from actual tea leaves brewed to order, hence the chunky percolators at the register and the clinical lab-coated vibe. I went with a Dong Ding Oolong Fresh Milk Tea (冻顶乌龙鲜奶茶) with added Country King Pearls (国王珍珠), Dong Ding (Frozen Peak) being a Taiwanese variety of oolong tea, plus what the English menu insipidly calls Fruit Tea, which really doesn’t do justice to the majesty of the Chinese name, “Treasure Island Classic Fruit Tea” (宝岛经典水果茶). Were they worth $5 a cup? Somewhat to my surprise, probably. The Dong Ding oolong had a deep, roasted flavor my wife likened to Japanese hōjicha, with soft chewy pearls, while the Fruit Tea was indeed a Treasure Island of apple, lime, passionfruit and tiny pineapple slivers, marinated in surprisingly light Phoenix Eyebrow black tea (凤眉红茶) that as far as I can tell exists solely at Chicha.

Round 2, sponsored by ComfortDelgro Taxis in a bizarre campaign to encourage hailing cabs off the street, was their plain old Bubble Milk Tea (国王珍珠奶茶), basically the same as drink #1 but with regular black tea instead of oolong, and Osmanthus Oolong Tea with Mango (水仙桂花), where the marketing department probably correctly concluded that nobody would order a “Narcissus Osmanthus” in English. The Bubble Milk Tea was, indeed, classic and very tasty indeed, while the Mango-Oolong-Narcissus thing was a bit too much and lacked the excitement of any actual Fruit.

I ordered all four drinks with 0% added sugar, but the fruit and the milk respectively were sweet enough that this tasted just fine. All in all, probably the best BBT I’ve had to date, and fruit teas in particular warrant further exploration.

If Taiwanese food is your thing, there’s plenty more to explore in Singapore, but over twenty more provinces await, so my Long March continues.

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