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 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!