34 Province Project: Yunnan 云南

Yunnan, “South of the Clouds”, is the closest China gets to Southeast Asia in both culture and cuisine. 25 of China’s official 58 minority groups can be found here, many of them merrily straddling the border, with groups like the Miao (Hmong), Hani (Akha), Lisu and Tai also found in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

I’ve never had to chance to visit Yunnan proper, but I have been just on the other side of the border a couple of times, sampling Tai Dam cuisine in Luang Namtha, Laos and trekking with Lisu hill tribes in Chiang Dao National Park, Thailand. The most interesting almost-Yunnan trip, though, was a visit to Mae Salong, founded in northern Thailand by Yunnanese remnants of the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) Army fleeing across the border to escape the Communists in the 1950s. Being in the notorious Golden Triangle, for decades they made a living in the opium trade working with equally notorious Burmese warlord Khun Sa, but in the eighties they laid down their poppies and AK-47s and switched to cultivating oolong tea and backpackers, with a sideline in Yunnanese noodles.

Given the variety of people living there, Yunnanese cuisine (滇菜 Diān cài) defies easy categorization, but the province is best known for slippery mĭxiàn (米线) rice noodles, the liberal use of chillies, a vast array of mushrooms, and pǔ’ěr (普洱) tea, a type of fermented, aged tea with a funky, earthy scent and taste.

I kicked off my exploration of Yunnan at the eponymous Yun Nans (云海肴 Yúnhǎiyáo, “Sea of Clouds Dishes”), a large Chinese chain with three Singapore outlets. The chain was actually founded by a bunch of Beijing hipsters in 2009, who in 2017 moved their HQ to Yunnan’s capital Kunming and opened a couple of outlets there to maximise their street cred. Only when writing this entry did I connect the dots, since it turns out the Yunnanese meal I’d eaten at a hip eatery in Beijing’s tarted up hutong district of Shichahai back in 2018 was an outlet of the same chain!

I actually visited twice: once during COVID, when we ordered a Signature Set (云南精选) for delivery, and once in person at the Westgate outlet for a large conference dinner. The conference food was preordered, but the starter Lychee Prawn Balls (荔枝虾球) were perhaps the most striking-looking Chinese dish I’ve seen, looking exactly like giant raspberries complete with a sprig of mint for camouflage — although on the inside it was just a large, slightly sweet deep-fried prawn. The Braised Wild Porcini Mushrooms (包烧牛肝菌) were also delicious, this could have been straight out of a Finnish forest!

For the delivery set, First up was Poached Pork Collar with Pickled Chillies (腌菜松板肉), easily the most unusual dish of the lot: somewhere between a soup, a curry and a bowl of noodles, the flavour of the striking orange broth was complex but primarily sour thanks to the pickles, with a sharp chilli note and a few Sichuan peppers for that extra zing. Under the soft sliced pork lurked a few crinkle-cut potatoes, slices of an unidentifiable gourd and some slippery glass noodles. Everybody’s favorite, though, was the Crispy Duck with Dried Chillies (香酥鸭), Yunnan’s take on the Sichuan classic dried chilli chicken laziji, which looks murderously spicy but actually isn’t, with battered and deep-fried slivers of duck jostling with shredded dry chillies, some onions and a whole lotta garlic.

The most unusual ingredient of the day was in the Sauteed Asparagus with Golden Fungus and Mushrooms (金耳花菇炒芦笋), where the “Golden Fungus” is Tremella aurantialba, a jelly fungus so obscure it doesn’t even have a picture on Wikipedia. Called golden ear (金耳 jīn’ěr) in Chinese, it’s a relative of the much more common snow fungus aka silver ear (银耳 yín’ěr). But whereas the snow fungus is thin, crunchy and ethereal, this looks disturbingly brain-like, has a spongy texture and tastes like nothing much. The still crispy asparagus was nice though. To wash it all down we had a bowl of Steampot Chicken Soup (汽锅鸡), apparently the chain’s signature dish and a Yunnanese classic but, I’m sorry to say, quite indistinguishable from the herbal chicken soup sold at your neighbourhood hawker centre, a few bony chunks of chicken in nondescript sweetish soup with a token wolfberry for colour. For dessert we had some Corn Cakes (玉米粑粑 yùmǐ bābā), supposedly a type of Naxi baba bread, which looked and tasted like sweet pancakes with corn chowder added to the batter. All in all, even making allowances for delivery, it was a pretty mixed bag at best.

The most famous Yunnanese dish, though, is crossing the bridge noodles (过桥米线 guòqiáo mĭxiàn), which come with a lovely if implausible story of a wife making soup for her husband studying on a little island. She brought the ingredients across separately to keep them warm, mixed the ingredients on arrival, and ta-dah, the soup was born, despite the anguished cries of physics students noting that maximising surface area will increase heat loss, not decrease it. Honguo (红锅 Hóngguō, “Red Pot”) is one of several small chains specialising in this in Singapore, and I tried out the Signature 12-Item Soup ($10.20) at their Bugis Junction outlet. The presentation is striking, and the Pot is indeed Red, but the taste was a little anticlimactic, the ingredients a frankly odd mishmash of pork, fish, shrimp etc and the chicken soup rather nondescript, salty and, fatally, only lukewarm. Not very impressed.

Undeterred, I crossed the bridge again at the wonderfully named Mademoiselle Tang Noodle (唐大小姐 Táng dàxiǎojiě), a hip little joint in Novena, packed at lunchtime on a random Friday. Here the menu also promises a DIY bento-box experience for the soup, but it actually came premixed. What you lose in the presentation is more than made up for in taste though, this was much tastier and $12.90 gets you a couple of generously sized prawns as well. Two thumbs up from my wife.

There are a couple of other interesting Yunnanese dishes on the menu, and after some deliberation I landed on the Rattan Pepper Chicken Rice Noodle (藤椒鸡米线 téngjiāo jī mǐxiàn), despite being warned no less than three times that “It’s spicy! Very spicy!” Rattan pepper here refers to Zanthoxylum armatum, known as green Sichuan pepper (麻椒 májiāo) in its typical dried spice form, but in Yunnan the fresh pods, téngjiāo (藤椒), are eaten as is. The pods look like tiny capers and have very little taste, but they crack open with a crunch and release a pop of the numbing má (麻) sensation Sichuan cuisine is famous for. And you’ll need all the numbing you can get, since those innocuous reddish-orange bits in the soup are fresh bird’s eye chillis aka chilli padi, the tiny little torpedoes of pain that spice up authentic Thai food. The spice was not completely overwhelming though, and the chicken, garlic chives, bean sprouts and other bits in the soup stood up to the pounding. Afterwards, I could still feel the slow burn in my stomach and a nice endorphin high kicked in, the way it used to when eating Thai food in Bangkok with my Thai colleagues. Ah, nostalgia. A final Middle Eastern exclamation mark was added by the Flower Cake (鲜花饼 xiānhuā bǐng), crumbly biscuits flavoured with a sweet, fragrant paste of glutinous rice and dark purple rose syrup, reminiscent of Turkish delight (lokum).

All in all, Mademoiselle Tang was easily my favourite of the three places we sampled, and I’m looking forward to visiting again. The Specialty Chicken Rice (瓦香鸡饭 Wǎxiāng jīfàn), apparently a classic Naxi dish, looks particularly intriguing — but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

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34 Province Project: Shanxi 山西

Shanxi, “West of the Mountains”, has the misfortune of being a backwater stuck between two provinces of similar name and far more prominence, namely Shaanxi to the west and Shandong to the east. The high point in its history was around 500 BC during the Spring and Autumn Period, when the state of Jin (晋) briefly ruled the area only to be crushed by the megalomanical Qin rulers of Shaanxi by 221 BC, and it was all downhill from there. A dry highland plateau largely cut off from trade, the largest industry today is coal mining.

Shanxi cuisine (晋菜 Jìn cài) is thus not particularly famous even in China, but the area has made two notable contributions to the country’s culinary history. Shanxi aged vinegar (老陈醋 lǎo chén cù) is China’s spiritual equivalent to Italy’s balsamic vinegar and looks the part, being deep black and funky.

The other dish comes to us from Datong, technically the only place in Shanxi I’ve been to, since my train from Mongolia to Beijing made a brief unexpected detour through there. Rail buffs may know the city as the site of the Datong Locomotive Factory, once the world’s largest manufacturer of steam locomotives, where the production lines kept puffing until 1988. To keep the hungry steam engineers fed, Datong’s other key product is dāoxiāomiàn (刀削面), usually glossed in English as “knife-cut noodles”, but perhaps more exactly described as “knife-shaved noodles”. Unlike the pulled lamian of Lanzhou, they’re prepared by making a big brick of dough and then using a knife to slice strips off at an angle, creating wavy noodles of uneven cross-section, thicker in the middle and thin on the edges — check out this video to see how they’re made.

Daoxiaomian are reasonably common in Singapore, but as far as I can tell there are no specialist restaurants for these, or Shanxi food for that matter. Instead, they’re typically a sideline at northern Chinese restaurants serving up dumplings, lamian, and other wheaty fare. So one rainy day, I dialed up a bowl of the Signature Beef Shaved Noodles (招牌牛肉刀削面) from the wonderfully named Wonderful Cafe, a remarkably Google-resistant stall unpromisingly located at the S-11 coffeeshop next to Bishan station. (For my non-Singaporean readers, S-11 is a conglomerate that proudly markets “cheapest dormitories in Singapore for worker” (sic), recently in the news for hosting Singapore’s largest COVID-19 cluster; not where you’d expect to find gourmet fare.)

So how? Pretty good! The last time I tried these at Food Republic in Vivocity, the noodles tasted more undercooked than chewy, but the Wonderful version was more thinly cut and the contrast between the soft outside and chewy center was nice. The Taiwanese-style dark beef soup was rich with star anise, the beef slices were soft and a few token pieces of bok choy rounded out the bowl.

While not a Shanxi dish, I couldn’t resist also trying out the Shandong Shredded Pancake (山东手抓饼 Shāndōng shǒuzhuā bǐng) from the other side of the mountains. This turned out to resemble the love child of north Chinese spring onion pancakes with Singaporean roti prata, being flaky, onion-laced dough fried until crispy and then torn by hand to shreds. Oily, unhealthy and eminently snackable.

At the Ang Mo Kio outlet of chain 57° Mala Xiang Guo (57度麻辣香锅), which promises temptation from the tip of your tongue to your stomach, I found another Shanxi classic called guò yóu ròu (过油肉). Literally “passed through oil meat”, and variously translated as “oily pork”, “lightly fried pork” etc, the idea is that the meat is quickly stir-fried in oil, hence the “passing through”. At 57° (no, I have no idea what this refers to), the dish comes with crunchy wood ear mushrooms, lots of onions and a few tomatoes, tossed in an only mildly spicy sauce flavoured with soy, rice wine and a token Sichuan pepper. The pork shoulder here was quite dark and chewy, so much so that I initially suspected they had used lamb instead, but the combo worked a treat. As is apparently standard in Shanxi, the sauce came separately from the accompanying bàn miàn (拌面) noodles, handmade wheat noodles that are essentially the same as Xinjiang laghman and not to be confused with eggy, chewy Singapore ban mian (板面). Just pour on top and enjoy!

And that’s that: I was hoping to find a few more Shanxi dishes like sweet & sour meatballs (糖醋丸子), but they don’t seem to exist in Singapore. It’s time to knife-shave this episode and move onto the next province.

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34 Province Project: Tianjin 天津

Tianjin is best known as Beijing’s port city, and it tends to get overshadowed by its big neighbour only about 100 km away. While mandarins schemed in Beijing, Tianjin is where the merchants made money, and in the dying days of the Qing Empire it hosted no less than 9 foreign concessions ranging from Austria-Hungary to Belgium. Today’s Tianjin is China’s fourth or fifth-largest city depending on how you count, with some 15 million people.

I first ran into “Tianjin” food in the form of the mysterious Sino-Japanese dish tenshindon (天津丼, “Tianjin bowl”), a crab omelette plunked on a mound of rice, rather resembling the love child of Cantonese egg foo young with Japanese omurice. Alas, while a Chinese restaurant staple in Japan, nobody has been able to figure out any connection to an actual dish in Tianjin.

Much later, when living in Singapore’s Chinatown, a friend introduced me to Tian Jin Fong Kee Dumplings (天津冯记) in People’s Park, founded in 1948 by the Fong family from Tianjin. Back in the early 2000s, this was a mild-mannered dumpling shop by day frequented by heavy-drinking sailors and the ladies who love them by night. The regular dumpling menu was supplemented by a second Filipino menu full of dishes like sizzling sisig (chopped lungs), and you could wash them down with ice-cold San Miguels from a row of dedicated beer fridges. Alas, the former Fong Kee location has now been taken over by a nondescript Sichuanese joint, and while you can still sing “won’t you take me to Fong Kee town” about 50 meters away, you’ll now have to content yourself with an ordinary little hawker stall without even an alcohol license. Sic transit gloria fongkee. For old times’ sake, I bought a couple of bags of frozen dumplings (20 for $10, not a bad deal) to eat at home. They tasted just like I remembered: stuffed with the classic combo of pork and chives, but quite honestly, not particularly memorable.

So what’s real Tianjin food then? I asked my Tianjin-born buddy XL for his recommendations, and he gave me a long list of what he used to eat for breakfast, virtually all of which are basically unknown in Singapore: millet porridge (茶汤 chátāng), savoury tofu (老豆腐 lǎodòufu), mung bean noodles (嘎巴菜 gābācài)…

The one item on the list I could find was jiānbing guǒzi (煎饼馃子), often described as “Chinese crepes”, and available at Wenjiabao (温家饱, “warm home full”), not to be confused with former premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝, “warm home treasure”). They have several outlets, but one is in People’s Park next to the MRT station, a stone’s throw from Fong Kee.

Jianbing are always made to order, and they start out very much like a French crepe, with a thin wheat batter fried on a hot plate and an egg cracked on top. But then things get interesting: the crepe is flipped upside down, slathered with your choice of sweet or spicy sauce, sprinkled with lettuce, baocui (薄脆) crackers and your choice of filling, with options including shredded potato, ham or meat. This is folded over twice and stuffed in a paper bag, and the end result is a piping hot delicious mess. Like an overstuffed doner kebab, eating them is definitely an art in itself, so have a seat and some tissues ready. $3.50 (plus dry cleaning bills) and very much worth it, and if you opt for the potato version, it’s also one of the few purely vegetarian Chinese savoury snacks out there.

Now I’m reliably informed that there are several styles of jianbing, and a true Tianjin-style one should use fresh youtiao dough fritters, not dry crackers. As far as I can tell, though, no jianbing shop in Singapore actually does this. Entrepreneurs of Singapore, here’s your chance!

My next Tianjin snack encounter was fortuitous: hunting for traditional Hokkien pastries at Tan Hock Seng (about which more in the Fujian episode), I stumbled onto them selling DIY bags of miànchá (面茶), a Hokkien variant of chatang, for $6 a pop. Unlike the northern Chinese version made from millet, this is made using roasted wheat flour, but the basic idea is the same: just add hot water and stir with a spoon. With cane sugar and sesame seeds premixed in, the end result is an unappealing looking miso-like paste, but while sweet, the taste is actually surprisingly complex and moreish given the really basic ingredients.

More serendipity awaited at Guangjuren Xiaochu (广聚仁小厨, “Gathering Kitchen”), a busy stall in the thoroughly unsexy Block 4 Defu Lane 10 food centre, packed with workers from the surrounding industrial area and, early on a Monday morning, one chao ang moh in sweaty fluoro yellow cycling gear. The rows of northern Chinese pastries looked tempting enough, but what really caught my eye was the Uncoagulated Tofu, or “tofu brain” (豆腐脑 dòufunǎo) in the original. It may have been partly the exhaustion and sleep deprivation of pedaling since 5 AM that morning, but when I dipped in my spoon and ate my first bite, the heavens parted and an angelic choir sang. This is what my crazy quest is all about! The tofu was still warm, bathed in a mildly salty, mildly sweet broth, with coriander, pickled radish, a mysterious but zingy green sauce (likely roasted chillies, 烧椒 shāojiāo) and a central dab of dark black mala sauce, with that Sichuan pepper crunch and just the right amount of chilli kick. Two wheels up, and conveniently located near the south end of the Serangoon PCN for other bikers out there.

I must append a footnote: this particular tofu brain is more Sichuan style, since the Tianjin version goes by the name of lǎodòufu (老豆腐, “old tofu”) and is usually a plainer affair dressed only with sauces like sesame paste. But beggars can’t be choosers, and trust me, I’m not complaining.

Last but not least, at Dough Magic (扑面而来 Pūmiàn ér lái, “straight at you”), a retailer of all manner of northern Chinese doughy comestibles parked in a tent outside People’s Park — South-East Asia’s very first shopping mall, opened 1970 — I found some máhuā (麻花). It’s now eaten all around China and even became Panama’s national snack, with all sorts of sweet and savoury variations, but Tianjin is generally credited with inventing it and the $2 version here is about as simple as it gets: roll out some donut dough, twist it into three strands, and deep-fry. You can’t really go wrong with this, and both kids heartily approved.

All in all, while many of these weren’t quite the real thing, this was still a thoroughly satisfying snack adventure. Onward!

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34 Province Project: Henan 河南

Henan, “South of the [Yellow] River”, is probably the biggest place you’ve never heard of. (If you’re thinking Chairman Mao and spicy food, sorry, that’s further south in Hunan with a “u”.) This is frankly surprising, since the area has been inhabited since around 2000 BC, gave birth to China’s first two dynasties the largely mythical Xia and the better attested Shang, and has housed no less than four imperial capitals. Its inhabitants invented Chinese writing, brought Buddhism to the country, and gave us the Shaolin Temple and its martial arts masters. Today’s Henan has a population of 96 million, larger than Turkey or Germany, and its capital Zhengzhou, which you’ve probably also never heard of, has over 10 million people.

Being located at the crossroads of China with people traipsing across for four millennia means that Henan cuisine (豫菜 Yù cài) is rather hard to pin down and the Wikipedia article on the topic is a real mess, even by the low standards of its coverage of regional Chinese food. Just chew on this:

” Henan cuisines focused on the mean and harmony principle, rather than on a single flavor. The spirit of Henan cuisine equals to the spirit of Henan people. It needs to be stated that Henan cuisine one a whole takes the entire approach of mixed cooking and adds significant cultural elements in it. For instance, looking at the geography of the place, Henan cuisine adds the concept of cultural mixing through harmony between the flavours used. […] the culinary style has embraced the nuances and given rise to what the modern Henan cuisine is. Thus, at the core, of its essence, Henan cuisine is as much a culinary form as it is a reflection of the culture and history of the place.

Helpful innit? Fortunately, my exploration of Henanese cuisine was conviniently curtailed by the fact that, as far as I can tell, there is exactly one (1) restaurant in all of Singapore that offers the stuff.

This shining beacon of Henanity is Zhong Hua Noodle House (中华面荘 Zhōnghuá miàn zhuāng), which as the name hints offers noodles not just from Henan, but all across China. It’s tucked away in the outside row of the People’s Park hawker centre, which over the past 10 years has quietly transformed itself into Mala Central, with what must surely be the heaviest concentration of Sichuanese shops in the country. Located in a sweltering, airless concrete alley without so much as a ceiling fan for a breeze, it’s certainly an effective way to simulate midsummer in Chongqing, and I made the trek here on three separate occasions to find out what Henanese food is all about.

I started off with the Braised Noodle (河南卤面 Hénán lǔmiàn), which is confusingly enough written with exactly the same characters as the completely unrelated Hokkien (Fujianese) dish called lor mee in Singapore, a gloopy dish of thick egg noodles in starchy gravy. By contrast, the traditional preparation of the Henan version involves steaming thin ramen-style noodles, stir-frying them with toppings, then steaming it again. I suspect these guys cut a few corners, since the end result was closer to stir-fried instant noodles with bits of egg, soybeans, and some pork, with zero vegetables but a little star anise to spice it up. Edible, yes; filling, absolutely; exciting, not really.

Second rickshaw off the rank was Mutton Stewed Noodle (羊肉烩面 yángròu huìmiàn), showcasing Henan’s very own noodle style huìmiàn. These hand-pulled noodles, while tasty, are not much different from Gansu lamian, albeit wider and maybe a bit chewier. The real key is the stock: lamb bones are stewed for hours on end until you get a rich, white soup, which is then combined with the noodles, some slivers of fatty, boney stewed mutton, crunchy thin slices of kelp, bonus glass noodles and a sprinkling of Chinese chives. Simple, hearty, and unexpectedly delicious, I can see why this is one of their top sellers.

The ultimate boss challenge, though, was Henan’s most famous dish húlàtāng (胡辣汤), a common breakfast in the region and, if the promotional sign is to be believed, good for all things that ail you, including balancing your qi, removing phlegm and deworming. The Chinese characters mean “pepper spicy soup” and that pretty much sums it up, since it’s a beef broth liberally seasoned with black pepper and chilli powder, with some starch to thicken it up and a splash of vinegar and sesame oil. In the soup lurk a number of half-crunchy, half-gelatinous things: tofu skin, kelp, slivered lily bulbs, enoki mushrooms, sweet potato noodles.

Now I’ll be honest: of all the things I’ve eaten on my quest so far, this was my least favourite. It’s not all that spicy, with the pepper being the predominant taste, yet the chilli powder aftertaste is lingering and a tad bitter. The soup ingredients are all varying degrees of slimy and none have a taste or texture that can stand up to the broth. I can see this hitting the spot on a freezing Zhengzhou morning when you’re on the tail end of a head cold and need a pick-me-up or perhaps a dose of ivermectin, but in Singapore’s eternal summer, not so much.

That brings us to the end — oh, the Henanity! It’s time to hula onwards.

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