34 Province Project: Zhejiang 浙江

Zhejiang is another one of those Chinese provinces most people may have vaguely heard of, but likely know little about. On the coast just south of Shanghai, its capital Hangzhou lies at the mouth of the Zhe River, or Zhèjiāng in Chinese, hence the name. During its Song dynasty heyday in the 1200s, it was likely the world’s largest city and, if you trust Marco Polo, “the finest and noblest city in the world”, making it, if you trust Wikipedia, “synonymous with luxury and opulence in Chinese culture” ever since. Today it’s best known for its scenic spot the West Lake and the HQ of tech conglomerate Alibaba.

Befitting Hangzhou’s reputation for luxurious living, Zhejiang cuisine (浙菜 Zhè cài) is one of the Eight Great Traditions, but at first glance it’s hard to differentiate from the fare eaten in nearby Shanghai and Jiangsu. (Bonus confusion point: the famed Zhenjiang vinegar, with an extra “n”, comes from the town of that name in Jiangsu, not Zhejiang.)

In Singapore, as far as I can tell, there are no dedicated Zhejiang restaurants, although there’s a place called West Lake that serves mighty fine Fujian food. Instead, the whole broad area tends to get lumped together as Jiangnan, meaning “South of the Yangtze”, and even that is a bit rare on the ground, with flag bearer Jiang-Nan Chun at the swanky Four Seasons hotel upholding the aforementioned reputation by charging a cool $248++ a whack for their apparently less than traditional haute cuisine interpretation.

Possibly the most iconic Hangzhou dish is Dongpo pork (东坡肉 dōngpōròu), which I sampled at local chain Dian Xiao Er (店小二), the modestly self-proclaimed “Best Chinese Restaurant in Singapore”. This is basically a thick slice of pork belly, first pan-fried and then slowly stewed in soy sauce, a technique called hóngshāo (紅燒) or “red braising” in Chinese, and according to legend invented by or at least named after Song-era poet Su Dongpo. Versions of this are eaten across Asia, including the Japanese kakuni (角煮), and Dian Xiao Er’s version delivered in spades, being meltingly soft and even the layer of fat infused with flavor.

Dian Xiao Er makes no pretension to being a Zhejiang or even Jiangnan restaurant, but we ordered a few other things that seemed to point in the right general direction. The Fish Maw Thick Soup with Seafood (海鲜鱼鳔羹) was a nice example of the thickened soups called geng (羹), which are particularly prominent to the south in Fujian, served here with springy if essentially tasteless fish maw (swim bladder), slices of abalone and shreds of crab meat. This, I’m afraid, was one of those Chinese dishes that dispense with taste in favor of texture, which has always been a concept my barbarian palate struggles with.

Last but not least, Dian Xiao Er’s signature dish is the Duck Roasted with Ten Wonder Herbs (十全药材烤鸭), not to be confused with KFC’s Chicken Fried with 11 Secret Herbs and Spices. The roast duck were was competent if unspectacular, but the dark, runny sauce on the side was something else, with a bouquet that the Western nose can only describe as mulled wine: ginger, star anise, cinnamon? Delish, if not particularly Zhejiang; Hangzhou has a mildly famous soy sauce duck as well, but I doubt it has much if anything in common with this one.

Next stop was Crystal Jade Jiang Nan (翡翠江南) in Vivocity, a themed outlet of the ubiquitous Singaporean chain. The restaurant is pretty dapper for a shopping mall, with the latticed wood booths topped by hundreds of fluttering flower cutouts particularly appealing. The menu is “inspired by” (always a dangerous phrase) “the Jiangnan and Sichuan regions”, but we steered clear of the Mala Crispy Chicken and the Mochi Cheese Balls (shudder). The Three Delicacies Platter (巧手三拼) had the Nanjing Salted Duck we already met in Jiangsu, a rather tasty take on Jiangsu Smoked Fish (江苏熏鱼) that we sample later in the Shanghai episode, and Spinach with Sesame Sauce (麻酱波菜鲜百合) that tasted an awful lot like the classic Japanese cold dish of hōrensō no goma-ae. A quick Google was inconclusive, but given that spinach is a reasonably recent import to Japan (1800s?), the two dishes may well be related.

The one indubitably Zhejiang dish on the menu was Sister Song’s Thick Fish Soup (宋嫂鱼羮). Per legend, in 1197 Emperor Gaozong was out for a spin on Hangzhou’s West Lake when he felt a bit peckish and ordered some fish soup from a lady called Song Wusao, and the rest is history. It’s a deceptively simple-looking starchy soup that hides a light but complex flavour: shreds of white fish and egg white, julienned bamboo shoot, ginger and ham, a touch of vinegar, quite a bit of white pepper and a touch of Shaoxing wine (绍兴酒), commonly used as cooking wine in countless Chinese dishes but originating from Shaoxing, Zhejiang. Very moreish. Less Zhejiang but an unexpected hit with the kids was the Scallion Oil Noodles (葱油面), an even simpler Shanghai dish: hand-pull lamian noodles, fry slivered scallion in oil, combine and enjoy. And we rounded things out with Crystal Jade’s signature xiao long bao dumplings, another tasty Shanghai dish, and pan-fried shengjianbao, which unfortunately were soupless and sad. (More about both in the Shanghai episode.)

The one unforgivable crime of the restaurant, though, was that the tea menu did not feature what is probably China’s and certainly Zhejiang’s most famous tea, namely Dragon Well (龙井 lóngjǐng) from Hangzhou. Instead I had to drown my sorrows in a pot of Precious Eyebrows (珍眉 zhēnméi), variously credited to Anhui and Jiangxi but quite possibly grown in Zhejiang, and the kids were bribed with complimentary pig-shaped red bean buns courtesy of the Vivo Kids Club. Total damage for 3 came to $88, which is actually kinda ex given that we were still a little hungry afterwards.

And that brings us to the end of the Zhe River. The final Zhejiang-in-Singapore dish I wanted to tick off my list is West Lake Beef Soup (西湖牛肉羹), but this is conceptually pretty similar to Sister Song’s fish version, usually served as an appetizer or side dish, and mostly served at barbecue places that don’t even pretend to have anything to do with Zhejiang. So with two gengs down, it’s time to hit the closing gong and move onto our next province.

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34 Province Project: Hong Kong 香港

Hong Kong! Former British colony and financial powerhouse, the “Fragrant Harbour” (Heunggong in Cantonese, Xiānggǎng in Mandarin) of the South China Sea is one Chinese province Special Administrative Region that needs little introduction.

Language nerd alert: Hong Kong uses traditional characters and Cantonese, but many of these dishes are common in Singapore too and thus have local names. If you see tone marks, it’s Mandarin/simplified, if you don’t, it’s Cantonese/traditional. This, too, is unfair since Cantonese is actually even more tonal than Mandarin, people just can’t seem to agree on how to write all 9. 對唔住。

I’ve been to Hong Kong more times than I can count, including at the tail end of the Siberia to Lhasa trip, and have had the chance to explore a fair bit of the city, the mountains and the islands. In terms of classical Chinese cuisine, Hong Kong falls squarely in the Cantonese corner (粤菜 Yuè cài), but what makes eating there so interesting is the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Not only can you get excellent food from every corner of the globe, from French to Indian to Japanese, but 150 years of British colonisation left a deep mark on the city, resulting in its own unique Hong Kong cuisine. So for this episode, I’m going to try to find the essence of Hong Kong in Singapore, and leave “standard” Cantonese cuisine for the Guangdong episode.

Finding food that claims to be from Hong Kong in Singapore is easy, but weeding out the pale imitations and choosing the most representative options is harder. But you can’t cover Hong Kong without dim sum (点心), that justly renowned Cantonese tradition of stuffing your face with an endless series of small bites washed down with tea, so the first pick was easy: Tim Ho Wan (添好運), the “world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant”, and now a multinational dim sum franchise owned by the Philippines’ answer to McDonalds, Jollibee. I’ve been to Tim Ho Wan once before in Sydney, and I remember being distinctly disappointed, apparently a widely shared feeling since the Australian operation went bankrupt shortly afterwards. But the Singapore operation had a better rep, so we queued up for lunch one day at Marina Bay Sands to check it out.

First cab off the rank was their famous Baked Bun with BBQ Pork (酥皮焗叉烧包), a Tim Ho Wan only invention which takes dim sum staple char siew bau (BBQ pork buns) and gives it a sweet, crunchy crust not unlike a Japanese melon pan (which contains no actual melon, it’s named for the appearance). The kids liked it, but both adults found it just too sugary.

The other three dishes in Tim Ho Wan’s pantheon of Four Heavenly Kings of Dim Sum (四大天王点心) are Pan Fried Carrot Cake (香煎萝卜糕), Steamed Egg Cake (香滑马来糕) and Vermicelli Roll with Pig’s Liver (黄沙猪润肠). This carrot cake has nothing to do with the Western dish: it’s a Singaporean mistranslation of white radish (daikon) cake, since carrots are called “red radish” (红萝卜) in Hokkien. This can be gloopy and greasy, but the ones here were quite nice, freshly made with bits of bacon and just enough radish taste. The Steamed Egg Cake, literally a “Malay cake” in Chinese, was a new acquaintance akin to a moist sponge cake, very light and airy with a distinct but not overpowering cane sugar kick. Pig’s liver was, regrettably, off the menu so we got the char siew version instead, which was OK, but not really different to the chee cheong fun at any Singaporean hawker center. We rounded things off with a few siew mai dumplings (OK), tofu skin wraps both fried (excellent) and steamed (mediocre), a lor mai kai glutinous chicken rice (good), and finally some osmanthus jelly with goji berries for dessert. Total damage: $90 for 4.

Now my expectations for ambience and service are usually pretty low, but we couldn’t help but compare this to our usual Michelin-starred chain standby Din Tai Fung, whose prices are in the same ballpark but which manages to feel like a restaurant instead of a food court. At DTF, tea is served in a pot instead of plastic cups, portions are more generous, and everything just tastes fresher and better. Alternatively, at our local hawker, Tai Heng Handmade Dim Sum does dim sum of an (IMHO) equal if not superior quality for less than half the price. I don’t think we’ll be back.

After that Michelin star disappointment, it was time to visit a distinctly non-famous Hong Kong joint, namely Wong Chiew (皇潮, “Imperial Teochew”) off Sembawang Rd near Springleaf. Neh’mind the atas name, this casual eating house is so ulu it always has red junglefowl, Singapore’s wild ancestral chickens, running through it, and I suspect army boys from the nearby bases come here more for the $8.50-for-3 Tigers beer promos than the food: as you can see, even the letters on their signboard are drunk. They used to open 24 hours until COVID spiked that, but they’re still open 6 AM to 1 AM, perfect for the tail end of my long Mandai Rd bike runs past the zoo.

The menu is enormous and has Hakka yong tau foo, rice porridge (congee/juk), roast meats, lots of seafood, zi char (family-style eating) favorites and much more. My default breakfast, though, is the dry wonton mee (雲吞麵, “swallowing clouds noodles”), served here with plump house-made wonton dumplings, delicious fatty chunks of char siu (叉烧) barbecued pork cooked in the big oven in the back, and a bowl of chicken stock with a big ol’ chunk of daikon radish. It’s hard to cook the thin, eggy yòumiàn (幼面) noodles just right, al dente but not too chewy, and in Singapore the noodles tend to get overpowered by chilli to boot, but here the sauce is mild and generous and instead of sambal belacan you get sweet, vinegary green pickled chillies served on the side like God intended. The handmade dim sum here is also on point, and I have a particular soft spot for their siu mai (燒賣), made from coarsely chopped pork, a generous whole shrimp in each dumpling, and a sprinkling of fish roe on top. If you want something even more substantial, get the Char Siew Roast Meat Rice, which pairs up the char siu with siu yuk (燒肉) pork belly that reminds me of proper Finnish Christmas salted ham, with a crispy skin and salt soaked into the fatty meat. Add in a drink and you’ll still escape for less than $10, under half the price of Tim Ho Wan, and it even feels like Hong Kong because the service is borderline-rude brusque yet efficient. Authentically HK? Eh, probably not. Delicious? Oh yes. Oi Michelin, give that star to someone who deserves it!

The second uniquely Hong Kong institution I wanted to explore is the cha chaan teng (茶餐厅), serving a uniquely Hong Kong mishmash of Western and Chinese food that would have frou-frou fusion places recoil in horror. Typical dishes include macaroni soup with Spam, Coca-Cola boiled with ginger, and unusual riffs on toast.

Now back in Hong Kong, these are essentially greasy-spoon diners that open late and serve food that’s fast, easy and cheap like your mom, but a few have grown famous enough to branch overseas. One of these, Tsui Wah (翠華, “Emerald Brilliance”), now has four branches across Singapore, so on a random Saturday I dropped into their rather swish riverfront Clarke Quay outlet for a midmorning snack. Eight minutes after opening at 10:30 AM, there was already a queue — how were they going to tiptoe the awkward line of going upmarket without losing what made them famous in the first place?

The canonical drink at a cha chaan teng is milk tea (奶茶), brewed to teeth-shattering strength (3 teaspoons per cup, brewed for 6 minutes is not uncommon), topped off with evaporated milk, and served with sugar on the side. (Add tapioca balls and ice, and you get Taiwanese bubble tea.) The end result is essentially the same as my standard Singaporean coffeeshop order of teh C kosong, meaning tasty enough, but $3.50++ instead of the usual $1 and change. To go with it I tried their famous Crispy Bun With Condensed Milk ($4), which is pretty much just that: a baked bun slathered with butter and sweet condensed milk, perfectly designed to shred and burn the roof of your mouth if you’re a greedy pig like me who attempts to eat it without letting it cool down a bit first.

Appetite whetted, I returned with reinforcements for a more substantial meal at their Orchard branch, somewhat bizarrely hidden inside the multistory Courts household appliance emporium at Heeren, and ordered a random selection off their Signature Dishes menu. Borscht (羅宋湯) Hong Kong style mutates this pan-Slavic beetfest into a cabbage and tomato soup with a touch of chilli, served with a thick slice of buttered toast, both of which got the thumbs up from the jury. Tsui Wah’s Jumbo Hot Dogs come with a big old wiener, ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato in an un-American crusty bun. Somewhat disturbingly, unlike (say) the Japanese hotto doggu, hot dogs are rendered literally into Chinese as 熱狗, which is doubly incongruous since 狗 (gǒu) is commonly used as an insult, as in the “running dogs” (走狗 zǒugǒu) of imperialism etc. 资本主义的热狗万岁! May the hot dogs of capitalism live ten thousand years!

More food arrived. I expected the Signature Pork Chop Bun (豬扒包) to be breaded and fried schnitzel-style, but no, we got a pretty dry slab of lean grilled pork with lettuce and pickles in another crusty-dry bun, sauced with what to me tasted exactly like American-style Thousand Island salad dressing: “weird”, was the judgement of culinary youth panel. Last and least, the Swiss Chicken Wings (瑞士鸡翼), an iconic HK dish slathered in sweet soy and of no known connection to Switzerland — if anything, they were the only identifiably Chinese-tasting in my entire order today — were cold and kinda chewy.

The most interesting new acquaintance, though, was yuenyeung (鸳鸯), an only-in-HK mix of milky coffee and tea which I must shamefully confess to never trying before. I’d also always thought this was the Cantonese reading of yin-yang (阴阳), but no, the name actually means “mandarin ducks”, famed in Chinese legend because the multicolored, flashy males look so different from the drab grey females, but the two go so well together that they mate for life. Now I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but this was downright delish, a complex interplay of notes of both that tasted better than the sum of its parts. I’m a convert. They may have taken heed of the random review complaining about the brew being too weak, though, since the cuppa I had was brewed so strong my hands were still shaking hours later, which also reminded me why I’m not a coffee drinker.

Last but not least, I wanted to sample some Hong Kong street food. Singapore has no real street food, since all hawkers were corralled into centres years ago, but the franchise behind Tim Ho Wan has also decided to concoct a new brand, Joy Luck Teahouse (歡樂冰室), to bring HK street food into the air-conditioned basements of Singaporean shopping malls. “Teahouse” here is bing sutt (冰室), literally “ice room”, which are supposed to be the now largely extinct small cafes that were direct predecessors to cha chaan tengs, but Joy Lucks don’t even have seating, it’s takeaway only. One outlet lurks in the psychedelic food pit four levels under ground at Ion Orchard, so in the mood for a snack, I dialed up some curry fishballs (咖哩魚蛋) franchised from Kowloon brand Tak Hing (德興). $4.80 gets you a coffee cup with 6 fishballs slathered with a mild, Japanese-curry-ish sauce, and while I was kinda skeptical these were actually pretty nice, especially when eaten while piping hot. Singaporeans love fishballs and they love curry, so why isn’t this sold everywhere yet?

Other offerings include milk tea, egg tarts (see Macau for more on that topic), and pineapple buns, the last of these being Hong Kong’s twist on the Japanese melon pan, both named after the appearance of the crust and neither actually containing any fruit. If that’s not enough, you can literally turn around and walk into the flagships of Hong Kong cookie makers Kee Wah or lao po bing masters Hang Heung, offering crusty pastries stuffed with winter melon paste. And then there’s the fabulously cheesy fake HK-by-night neon show of Legendary Hong Kong (Mongkok Street) at Jurong Point, various purveyors of baked cheese rice (pour one out for Malaysian chain Hong Kong Kim Gary), egg waffles that looks like delicious giant bubble wrap and more. Crikey! At this point, all I can do is channel Chris Patten and admit defeat, send this telegram, and sail off into the sunset. God save the Queen.

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34 Province Project: Guangxi 广西

Guangxi (West Guang), formally the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, lies at the west end of the same plain as its much better known sibling Guangdong (East Guang, aka Canton). Rubbing up against Vietnam, the mountainous western parts are considered the wild and woolly end of China and it has the highest percentage of minorities in China, including the eponymous if rather obscure Zhuang people, who in fact are China’s largest minority group, 18 million strong. The Zhuangs have their own religion, delightfully named Mo; their own language, which is much closer to Thai than Chinese; their own writing system, which riffs off Chinese characters but is still quite different; and their own delightfully off-the-wall romanization system that takes a leaf from the late, unlamented Gwoyeu Romatzyh to encode tones with bonus letters, so that the UN Declaration of Human Rights starts off like this: Boux boux ma daengz lajmbwn couh miz cwyouz, cinhyenz caeuq genzli bouxboux bingzdaengj.

On the culinary front, Guangxi cuisine is a bit of an ill-defined mix. Spicy, but less spicy than Sichuan; sour, but less sour than Hunan; light, but less light than Guangdong, says one verdict. Rice noodles feature heavily, as do fish and snails from the Li River, and bordering Yunnan and South-East Asia, it’s not too hard to pick up similarities to both. More infamously, Guangxi is the site of the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, controversial even within China, and formerly the stage of the worst ritual cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.

Here in Singapore, Bukit Batok has a Little Guilin Park, thus named for the craggy limestone cliffs left over from an old quarry, and a Gui Lin Food Stall, serving up not-so-Guangxi dishes like the Malay coconut rice nasi lemak. The one dedicated Guangxi restaurant chain in Singapore, Number 1 Guilin Rice Noodle (壹号桂林米粉), threw in the towel a couple of years ago, and it turns out the (parenthetically named) Wulin Shan Zhuang (Feng Bo Zhuang) 武林山庄 (风波庄) is the wrong zhuang (庄 “village”, not 壮 “strong”), the sole outpost of a chain from Sichuan, and gave up the ghost some time in early 2021.

That leaves, as far as I can tell, exactly one place in Singapore that claims to serve up any Guangxi dishes at all, namely Guilin rice noodles (桂林米粉 Guìlín mǐfěn) at Sichuan Restaurant (四川饭店) in Chinatown. It’s buried way at the back of the menu, and it took a couple of round trips to the kitchen to confirm that they actually had it. “Chilli?” “Can.” A few minutes passed, and the kitchen must have had its doubts because the waitress came back to confirm. “Very spicy!” “OK.” A few more minutes, and another doleful warning arrived: “Not only spicy. Mala.” Surely Sichuan’s signature spicy-numbing sensation is too much for the laowai? I doubled down: “Mala is OK.”

What eventually appeared was a bowl of slippery rice noodles, much closer to what Singaporeans would call “laksa noodles” than the usual thin bee hoon, with some minced meat, a couple of token veggies, swimming in a broth dominated by Sichuan-style mala flavor. The worried waitress came by once more: “Is OK?” “OK!” I mean, sure, it was spicy, but nowhere near Yunnan’s rattan pepper noodles. What disappointed me more was that, as far as I could tell, this was identical to Chongqing xiaomian, only with the wheat noodles swapped out for rice noodles. Oh well, serves me right for ordering this in a place that’s literally called Sichuan Restaurant.

Hands down the most famous Guangxi dish, though, is river snail noodles (螺螄粉 luósīfěn), hailing from the city of Liuzhou and recently massively trendy throughout China despite smelling famously funky. Failing to find any fresh providers of the stuff, I hopped on the internets and ordered a deluxe instant version, specifically the one branded by Chinese video personality Li Ziqi (李子柒), who built a following of millions by filming idyllic depictions of life in rural China without mod cons like electricity, and whom you can see photogenically squelching barefoot through the mud to collect river snails just for you her grandma. The enormous pouch (Singapore dollar coin for scale) comes with no less than 8 baggies of ingredients inside: noodles, soup stock, fermented bamboo shoots, pickled vegetables, vinegar, chilli oil, peanuts and tofu skin, and this video with English subtitles will take you through how to make it. One key point: you need to first boil the noodles starting from cold water, strain, then mix the rest of the wet ingredients and bring to a boil again.

So how was it? In a word, meh. Internet hyperbole often compares those bamboo shoots to durian, but I know durian, durian is a friend of mine, and fermented bamboo shoot, you’re no durian. They’re a bit funky, a bit sour, but not objectionably so and I’ve had curries etc made with them in Thailand and Laos as well; in fact, the menma pickled bamboo shoots commonly used as a Japanese ramen topping are essentially the same thing. Most of the other flavors, snail and otherwise, were obliterated by the combo of chilli oil and vinegar, and the end result bore a considerable resemblance to that old Chinese standby, hot and sour soup. Edible, sure, but hardly worth the hassle of preparation or the $5 it cost.

Overall, the Guangxi experience in Singapore was distinctly unsatisfying, I’m pretty sure neither of these could hold up a candle to the real thing. But until the day comes when Guilin and Yangshuo are back on the tourist map, it’s time to say Boux boux ma daengz (I think I need to make this my new email signoff) and move on to our next province.

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