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 refers to 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.

Henghua (Xinghua) 兴化 / Putian 莆田

One of the more obscure dialect groups in Singapore is the Henghua, 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 Doutou 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. We’ll be back!

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.

<<< Shaanxi | Henan >>>

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