34 Province Project: Heilongjiang 黑龙江

Heilongjiang, “Black Dragon River”, is the coolest Chinese province, both because of the badass name and because, nestled up against eastern Siberia at the northernmost tip of Russia, it’s China’s coldest province too. Capital Harbin was founded as a railway junction on the Russian-designed Chinese Eastern Railway and built as a sort of Eastern St Petersburg showcasing the wonders of Russian imperialism, although virtually all Russians fled after the Japanese invaded in 1931. Today the city is best known for averaging -19 C in January and hosting the Ice Festival.

Heilongjiang’s cuisine is usually lumped together with nearby Jilin and Liaoning as Northeast cuisine (东北菜 Dōngběi cài), so my plan of action is to cover Korean-Chinese dishes in Jilin, Manchu flavors in Liaoning, and devote this episode to Russian-influenced straight up Dongbei food. As you’d expect from the climate, this features of a lot of wheat, potatoes, meat and pickles, but all served very differently from (say) Germany. Time to dig in!

First station on the Dongbei train was the awkwardly translated Oriental Chinese (东方美食 Dōngfāng měishí, “Eastern Delicacy”), actually a cluster of no less than four restaurants clustered around the corner of New Bridge Rd and Pagoda St in Chinatown. The ridiculously long menu runs to 30-something pages, spanning northeast to southwest, but as the giant 东北大串 (“Northeast Big Skewer”) sign hints, the name of the game here is Chinese kebabs (串儿 chuàn’r) aka Chinese barbecue (烧烤 shāokǎo), a street food eaten across the entire country but at least in Singapore strongly associated with Dongbei. Dusted with a cumin-chilli mix and cooked and served on flat metal skewers, the lamb kebabs here weren’t up to Xinjiang/Inner Mongolia standards, but the beef and pork belly were quite OK and the grilled mantou buns and string beans were nice. The real standout for me was the Dried Beancurd Roll (烧干豆腐巻 shāo gāndòufu juàn), with garlic chives wrapped in firm tofu skin and basted with an almost Middle Eastern cumin-chilli sauce — delish! On the side we had some stir-fried shredded potatoes (土豆丝 tǔdòusī), a dish improbably claimed by both Sichuan and Dongbei: still translucent and half-raw by European standards, they’re doused with vinegar and a touch of chilli. Throw in some mediocre dumplings, a forgettable eggplant dish, some giant steamed flower rolls (花卷 huājuǎn), this in turn a relative of the Tibetan tingmo, and washed down with Harbin Beer, from China’s oldest brewery at that, the total damage for 4 came to $60. Not bad, but a little uneven: the ride continues.

Two readers from Dongbei had separately reached out to recommend BBQ City (东北菜馆 Dōngběi càiguǎn, “Northeastern Dishes Restaurant”), and one of them, Mr Wang from Liaoning, was kind enough to be our guide for the first-ever 34 Province Project readers’ dinner. Getting here is an adventure in itself: to find the restaurant, you need to take a lift up to the third floor of an industrial building in Bukit Batok filled with car parts shops, follow signs marked “CANTEEN” through a corridor filled with cardboard boxes and forklifts and enter a gateway that looks like the opium den exhibit at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Our reward was a large restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating, quite packed on a Friday night, and once our quorum of 5 was assembled (/me waves at Jessica and PJ) we outsourced the ordering to Mr Wang. Here, too, the menu is extensive, since apparently it’s common for Dongbei chefs to think they can cook Sichuanese and vice versa, but fortunately (?) we stuck to Dongbei dishes.

We started with three serves of classic northern Chinese dumplings, one plate of fried guōtiē (锅贴) with what the Japanese call “wings” (hanetsuki-gyōza) still attached, and two varieties steamed (水饺 shuǐjiǎo), with pork and cabbage or scallion respectively. A plate of fried tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋 fānqié chǎo dàn) followed, a simple but classic dish and very well executed here, the sauce was spot on, plus Dongbei cold noodles, a Korean-inspired dish we’ll talk more about in the Jilin episode.

Starters out of the way, it was time to get down to some serious eating. Guōbāoròu (鍋包肉) is the Dongbei take on sweet and sour pork, thinly sliced pork fried to a crisp with caramelized sugar, quite different from the usual Cantonese variety and a little too chewy for my taste. Red-braised yellow croaker (红烧黄鱼) doesn’t photograph very well, but this was a real highlight, cooked to perfection. Pork knuckle (原汁肘子) boiled until soft and tender, with fresh cucumber, scallion and dips of garlic soy and chunky soybean paste. “Dry pot” organic cauliflower (干锅有机菜花), crispy with chilli and bean sprouts and kept hot by the mini wok, this was also really nice. Dìsānxiān (地三鲜), the “Three Earth Treasures” of potato, eggplant and green capsicum stir-fried together. Last but not least, a simple potato gratin liberally spiked with garlic and chilli.

We were all pretty stuffed at this point, but the restaurant wasn’t done with us yet. A plate of garlicky fried chicken wings showed up, this likely a more modern import from Korea where chimaek, fried chicken and beer, is threatening to displace kimchi as the national dish. Following shortly thereafter was a pile of BBQ skewers, with more of those delish tofu skin and chive wraps, grilled mantou, and some rather nice deeply marinated shiitake mushrooms with some zippy chilli action going on. This being a proper Chinese banquet, no rice was involved, and despite washing all this down with Snow Beer, Liaoning’s answer to Budweiser, the bill for 5 came to just $200. Excellent value, excellent company and excellent food, so looking forward to more of these dinners!

There was one more specifically Heilongjiang dish I wanted to check out: smoked Harbin sausage (哈尔滨红肠 Hā’ěrbīn hóngcháng), literally “red sausage”, originally crafted by Lithuanian workers and thus much closer to a Polish kielbasa than the hard and sickly sweet Cantonese-style sausages you usually get in Singapore. Much to my surprise, there are now not one but two stalls selling made-in-Singapore Harbin sausage at People’s Park Complex, so I bought one for $6 from Gulixiang Reshi (骨里香热食, “Bone-In Fragrance Cooked Food”), a Chinese chain that we will see again in the Anhui episode. The classic Russian accompaniment to sausage is a loaf of solid brown rye bread, also widely sold in Harbin under the name liěba (列巴) from the Russian khleb (хлеб), so I acquired a nice Lithuanian (again!) Borodinsky from Russian grocery Bublik.sg in Jalan Besar.

So how? Очень хорошо. The sausage was, indeed, pretty close to home and worked nicely sliced on bread, although there was a distinctly Chinese twang to the spices used (nutmeg, cumin, and cardamom, suggests one recipe). The Borodinsky, dense, sweet and malty with whole coriander seeds baked into the crust, was Russian alright but pretty far from the fluffy white wheat loaf that seems to pass for “Russian” bread in Harbin — but being a rye kinda guy myself, I’m not complaining.

And that wraps it up for our Sino-Russian adventures in the Black Dragon River. Onward!

<<< Guangdong | Index

34 Province Project: Guangdong 广东

Guangdong (“Eastern Expanse”) sits on the shores of the South China Sea, enveloping Hong Kong and Macau. Still better known to many as Canton, a label confusingly also applied to its capital Guangzhou, Guangdong is China’s most populous province and its most prolific source of emigrants. If your city has a Chinatown, or even an “old-school” Chinese restaurant targeted at non-Chinese, odds are they were founded by Cantonese, and Chinese cuisine as found in the West is largely built on Cantonese roots.

Interestingly, while Cantonese culture and language predominate among the Chinese in many overseas Chinese communities including much of neighbouring Malaysia, in Singapore they’re third place at best. So for this episode, I’m also going to try to cover the cuisine of two subgroups also originating from Guangdong: the Teochew and the Hakka.

Cantonese (Guangdong) 广东

Cantonese cuisine (粤菜 yuècài) is well regarded in China, and according to a well-known saying, you should be born in wealthy Hangzhou, marry a beautiful denizen of Suzhou, eat in tasty Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou because, uhh, apparently their wood makes the best coffins. Cantonese food is typically characterized as being light on spices and oil, instead emphasizing quality ingredients, and there are so many Cantonese restaurants in Singapore that the hardest part was really choosing what to eat and where to go.

I started by exploring siu mei (燒味), literally “roasted tastes”, the umbrella term for Cantonese roasted meats. Every self-respecting hawker centre in Singapore has a roast meat (烧腊 siu laap) stall or two dishing out the standard trio of sweet red char siu (叉燒) barbecued pork, salty crispy siu yuk (燒肉) pork belly, and siu aap (燒鴨) roasted duck, but one Cantonese meat that’s not so easy to find in Singapore is siu ngo (燒鵝) roast goose. Likely the world’s most famous purveyor of this is Kam’s Roast Goose (甘牌燒鵝) in Hong Kong, where I’d once made a pilgrimage only to be denied (sold out!), so I tried my luck again at their Singapore branch at Jewel. Alas, there’s no roast goose on the menu here, because you can’t legally import it from China! For lack of better options I tried the roast duck noodles, which were lukewarm, greasy and distinctly forgettable despite the steep $10.80 price tag, 3x what you’d pay at a hawker. The one goose dish they did have on the menu, Cured Goose Liver Sausages (鹅肝香肠), was really gamey and kind of overpowering — and I say that as the guy who always orders the liver at roast duck joints. Quite disappointing.

The most famous Cantonese tradition, though, is dim sum (点心), the vast array of “small hearts” eaten at family weekend brunches and washed down with copious quantities of tea — hence the name yum cha (饮茶), “drink tea”, for entire operation. Tim Ho Wan from the Hong Kong episode did not satisfy, so round 2 was a company event at a far more high-SES option, the Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion (夏苑) at the Ritz-Carlton. You can easily blow $500/head here on Japanese kippin abalone if you’d like, but since the generosity of my corporate masters is not entirely unlimited, we stuck mostly to the dim sum lunch menu, where most dishes clock in at $7.50/plate. There are only 12 options here, all of them with a little twist on the usual: for example, the classic char siu bao (叉烧包) buns have a hint of meicai preserved vegetable, the crystal dumplings (水晶饺) hide beancurd and Sichuan vegetable, the delectably light and fluffy deep-fried taro balls (芋角) have scallops and cream, etc. One unique option was the Pan-Fried Shredded Yam Pumpkin (金瓜煎芋丝), where the “yam” (actually taro) had a crispy exterior, a chewy, mochi-like inside and a layer of pumpkin paste in the middle. Venturing a la carte, we dialed up a Barbecued Combination Platter (the roast duck was quite good), a chive & beansprout stir-fry with bits of you tiao fried breadsticks (!), braised beancurd with bamboo and a bowl of “Hong Kong” (伊麵 yi mein) noodles, thin wheat fettucine-ish noodles that are cooked until they soak up the broth and served almost dry, the classic end to a Cantonese banquet. Total damage for 4 was $240, not exactly cheap given that I was complaining about $10 noodles earlier, but not entirely unreasonable for food of this caliber and definitely worth checking out if you’re tired of the usual har gaos and shu mais. (Random reco: Jade at the Fullerton also does excellent fancy dim sum, but they’re straight-up fusion with things like chilli crab buns and red wine dumplings.)

A common dim sum dish I’d never really gotten into is chee cheong fun (猪肠粉), literally “pig intestine noodle” but usually rendered into English more palatably as “rice noodle roll” or similar. Despite the name, no pigs are involved in the production process. They’re made by steaming a sheet of watery rice flour batter, carefully peeling them off the cloth, adding any toppings and rolling them up so they resemble intestines. As the rice has very little taste, they’re served with a slightly sweet soy dressing and, this being Singapore, some chilli on the side. Chef Wei HK Cheong Fun in Bishan is a newly-founded but hugely popular chain specializing in nothing but the stuff, and despite the $4-5 price tag there was a line before 8 AM on a Thursday morning. With plain, mushroom, char siu, and shrimp on the menu, I picked the shrimp and hot damn, this was really good. Silky smooth texture, considerably larger than your average portion, and being still warm made it so much better. Two thumbs up.

I’d like to jabber on for another few pages, and I’m feeling really guilty about missing out on the vast array of Cantonese soups, fresh seafood, rice porridge, claypot rice, tong sui (糖水) desserts and more… but I’ve got two more entire cultures to plow through in this entry, so the duck stops here. Quack.

Teochew (Chaozhou) 潮州

The Teochews of eastern Guangdong make up the Singapore’s second largest dialect group, second only to the Hokkiens, and despite the province boundary are in many ways closer to their Fujianese cousins than to the Cantonese. Even the Teochew dialect is a branch of Southern Min, not Yue (Cantonese), and you should totally go listen to some because it’s about as far from Mandarin as you can get.

Teochew cuisine (潮州菜 Cháozhōu cài), unsurprisingly, is similar to southern Fujianese cuisine, with plenty of seafood on the menu, but a lighter touch on the seasonings thanks to the Cantonese influence and more poaching, steaming and braising than oily stir-fries.

We started our journey by sampling Teochew rice porridge (糜 mí, or mue in Teochew) at Ah Seah Teochew Porridge in Serangoon, perennially packed even in the COVID era. Unlike Cantonese congee (粥 zhōu, juk), slowly cooked and stirred until the rice dissolves completely and a meal in itself, Teochew mue is a light, milky rice broth with distinct grains, largely flavourless by itself but designed to wash down the accompanying array of delectables. At Ah Seah, you pick what you want from the economy rice -style glass case, and it’s brought to your table on a series of small plates. Lo bak braised meats, kiam chye pickles, omelette with chai poh (preserved radish), salted duck egg, stewed peanuts, steamed pomfret, springy fishballs, juicy meatballs, lala clams with chilli, ngoh hiang (five spice) pork rolls… we devoured most of it before I remembered to bring out the camera. And the cost for stuffing the four of us to the bursting point? $40.20. No frills, no air-con and no reservations, so get here before 6 PM if you want to find a table!

When I’m at a hawker and not quite sure what to eat, I default to a quintessentially Singaporean Teochew dish called bak chor mee (肉脞面), literally “meat mince noodles”, but the bland name hardly does the dish justice. I’ve eaten this dozens of time all over the island and am rarely disappointed, but the version served at Chai Chee Noodle Village (菜市潮州鱼丸面 Càishì cháozhōu yúwánmiàn, “Chai Chee Teochew Fishball Noodles”) in Ang Mo Kio is particularly magnificent. At a regular “BCM” place, for around $3 you’ll get fettucine-like flat egg noodles (mee pok) with minced pork, thinly sliced pork liver, fish balls, slices of fish cake, stewed mushrooms and sinfully delicious crispy bits of fried lard, tossed in a chilli and vinegar sauce and served with the cooking broth on the side. Here, you pay $2 extra but get no less than 18 ingredients in your bowl, all of them primo quality.

More a snack than a meal is the popiah (薄饼 bóbǐng), often described as the Teochew take on spring rolls, and I had one to celebrate my 2nd shot of Pfizer at the thoroughly un-famous yet popular Ding Wang (鼎旺) stall in the equally nondescript 151 Coffeeshop at Serangoon North Ave 2, near the vaccination centre at Serangoon CC. A popiah is a paper-thin wheat crepe — hence the name, “thin cake” — coated with sweet bean sauce and chilli paste, stuffed with soft steamed jicama (a turnip-like root), and wrapped up into a burrito of sorts. Each stall has their own mix of extra ingredients, here consisting of ground peanuts, chopped boiled egg, julienned cucumber (I think?), but only a bit of each so the flavour was dominated by the jicama and the pretty zippy chilli underneath. At $1.80 a pop(iah), it was OK but hardly worth a detour.

The Teochew are also known for their kueh (粿), a concept that doesn’t fit easily into any one English word. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, it has been adopted to refer to a vast range of Malay/Indonesian snacks and cakes, mostly based on rice flour, tapioca and coconut milk, often colourful and usually sickly sweet but delicious. Original Teochew kueh, however are mostly steamed, savoury concoctions particularly popular for breakfast, and I queued up at Fatt Soon Kueh (发笋粿) in Kovan to test out if the implied threat in the name should be taken seriously. (Spoiler: Yes. Although the fatt here is Cantonese for “prosperity”, not increased belt size.)

Despite the dine-in ban at the time, at 7:30 AM there was already a long queue outside, waiting for the two ladies manning the stall to roll out, stuff and steam their kueh from scratch while you wait. The star of the show was the eponymous soon kueh (笋粿), “bamboo shoot kueh“, a steamed rice and tapioca flour dumpling stuffed with a crunchy, spiced mix of jicama, bamboo shoot, dried shimp. Piping hot, these were absolutely delicious and enough for me to completely revise my view of what I’d always thought were gluggy, mediocre facsimiles of “real” dumplings. They also sell ku chai kueh (韭菜粿) stuffed with chives, which were OK but pretty oniony even for a chive fan like me, and png kueh (飯粿, “rice cake”), dyed a pretty pink and stuffed with heavy glutinous rice, making a bit of an odd combo with the soft exterior. Verdict: the soon kueh are absolutely worth the wait and a steal at 3 for $3, the other two are skippable.

Hakka (Kejia) 客家

Of all the Chinese dialect groups, the Hakka have the most interesting origin: it’s effectively unknown. The best we can tell, sometime around 200 BC (!) the ancestral Hakka started moving south from northern China near Gansu, ending up thinly spread across much of the country but with some 60% of Hakka speakers eventually landing in Guangdong. The locals weren’t always happy about these “guest families” (the literal meaning of the name) showing up, with around 500,000 massacred in the 1850s, and unsurprisingly many of the survivors chose to migrate overseas. One of them was Lee Bok Boon in 1862, the great-grandfather of Singapore’s most famous Hakka, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Given this geographical dispersion, Hakka cuisine (客家菜 Kèjiā cài) is a little hard to pin down. but usually it’s described as simple and rustic: lots of tofu, pork and pickles, not much in the way of seafood. The quintessential Hakka dish is lei cha fan (擂茶饭 léichá fàn), literally “pounded rice tea”, but often rendered in English as “thunder rice tea” since 擂 léi “pounded”, written with the “hand” and “thunder” radicals, sounds exactly the same as 雷 léi “thunder”. The key ingredient is (surprise!) finely ground tea, not entirely unlikely Japanese matcha, but made with various other herbs mixed in and served as a hot soup. Born out of poverty and long rather obscure, it has recently undergone a bit of renaissance as a trendy health food and there’s even a dedicated chain called Thunder Tea Rice now. (The pictures above were taken a few years ago at their now closed Lau Pa Sat outlet, in the heart of the financial district.) In the modern interpretation as shown here, the bulk of the dish is a bowl of rice topped with peanuts, shredded cooked cabbage and beans, dried radish and crispy dried tiny anchovies (ikan bilis in Malay). The lei cha, deep green, herbal, funky, often a bit bitter, is served in a separate bowl on the side, to be spooned into the rice or drunk straight as you prefer. Always a nice change of pace, and vegan too if you skip the anchovies.

But I was keen to explore more, so it was time to pay a visit to what, astonishingly, appears to be the only remaining Hakka restaurant in Singapore, Plum Village (梅村酒家 Méicūn jiǔjiā) off Upper Thomson Rd. Opened in 1967 and now run by the 3rd generation of the Lai family, precisely nothing appears to have changed in the 50+ years since, with daggy-but-homely red lanterns, Hakka poetry and landscape paintings on the fake brick veneer walls. It’s also the only restaurant I’ve been to in Singapore that has both only an Asian-style squat toilet and a menu exclusively in Chinese, but fear not, ordering is easy: just get the set for 4 people (4人配套), and you’ll get the full Hakka hit parade. Abacus seeds (算盘子 suànpánzǐ). named after their resemblance to the beads of an abacus, are the Hakka equivalent of gnocchi, soft doughy balls of tapioca and yam fried with dried shrimp, bits of mushrooms and a sprinkling of chives. Yum! Pork belly with preserved mustard greens (梅菜扣肉 méicài kòuròu) was great, the fatty meat smoothly melting into a generous salty, tangy pile of what Singaporeans usually call mui choy. The salt-baked chicken (盐焗鸡 yánjú jī) was OK but not terribly exciting; despite the name, it’s steamed, not baked, and was basically a saltier version of the ubiquitous Singaporean/Hainanese chicken rice. The tau pok (豆卜) fried tofu puffs stuffed with minced pork were piping hot and delicious, and last but not least, we had a heaping plate of Hakka egg noodles with pork (肉碎面 ròu suìmiàn), which to me looked and tasted an awful lot like the Cantonese yi mian often served as the last course of a banquet. At $48 for the whole shebang, including endless tea refills, this was almost absurdly good value. Two thumbs up, and easily one of my top picks for the journey so far.

Yet I was still missing probably the most popular Hakka dish in Singapore, namely yong tau foo (酿豆腐 niàngdòufu), inevitably abbreviated as “YTF”. In Singapore, this is usually served at stalls that operate with a “salad bar” concept: pick what you’d like, specify how you’d like it prepared, and then pay per piece. The selection is often huge (see above), with veggies, sausages, fake crab, seafood etc, with my personal default order being “dry” (soup on the side) with yellow mee noodles, plenty of mysterious sweet brown bean sauce and a little dish of sambal chilli on the side to dip into. The keen reader will note that this setup is quite similar to how mala xiangguo shops operate, and the double whammy of mala and COVID has definitely trimmed the numbers of the once ubiquitous YTF stalls, since this is also not very delivery-friendly.

However, the original Hakka style is much simpler, and I ventured out to Koo Kee Yong Tow Foo Mee (高記釀豆腐面) at Bishan’s recently reopened Kim San Leng (金山嶺) coffee shop to try it. This is a chain with firm opinions about their recipe, which remains unchanged since 1954: your yong tau foo will consist of a bowl of soup with exactly five things, which are tau hu (豆腐, tofu with fish paste), tau pok (豆卜, tofu puff with fish paste), tau kwa (豆干, fried hard tofu with fish paste), tau kee (豆皮, bean curd skin with fish paste) and a single fish ball made with, you guessed it, fish paste. With grandmotherly kindness, they do permit you to choose your noodles, so I went with egg noodles on the side with a bit of minced chicken on top.

At this point, I’d like to wax poetic about upholding traditions etc, but truth be told, five pieces of bland fish paste and tofu just doesn’t taste all that exciting. One reason I like dry YTF is that deep-fried things stay crispy and everything retains its texture, but at Koo Kee you just get blobs in soup. Not super impressed, although I am curious about the “hot plate spicy” YTF on the menu. Next time…

And that brings me to the end of this monstrously long yet still sadly incomplete episode, with 10 hawkers and restaurants that still only scratched the surface of the province’s culinary offerings. But while comrades may fall by the roadside, hopefully buried in coffins of Liuzhou wood, the Long March continues.

<<< Hainan | Index | Heilongjiang >>>

34 Province Project: Hainan 海南

Hainan, “South of the Sea”, is China’s answer to Hawaii, a semitropical island in the South China Sea some 20 km off the coast of the mainland and not far from Vietnam. Historically a remote backwater, Hainan didn’t even become a full province until 1988, and today it’s best known for the sandy beach resorts of Sanya and China’s answer to Kennedy Space Center, the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site.

Being both historically poor and geographically close to Southeast Asia, despite its small size Hainan was a major source of Chinese settlers to Singapore, accounting for some 7% of the local Chinese population. Many ended up working in the hospitality sector as cooks and waiters, and hence many of Singapore’s most famous dishes bear the label “Hainanese”, including Hainanese chicken rice, Hainanese kaya (coconut jam), etc.

There’s only one little problem: most of what Singaporeans think of “Hainanese” food was in fact developed locally, and bears little if any resemblance to the original. Even local Hainanese comes in two distinct strains: one type that I’ll dub “Singaporean-Hainanese” took Chinese dishes and mutated them until they became distinctively Singaporean, while “Hainanese Western” descends from Hainanese cooks hire to make Western food for their British employers.

What to do? The answer was clear: eat all of them.

Hainan-Hainanese food

As far as I can tell, there is exactly one restaurant in Singapore offering Hainanese food that a person from Hainan might recognize: Yeh Ting (椰庭), the “Coconut Courtyard”, tucked away above the Woodlands Regional Library deep in the heartlands of Singapore, with tacky yet somehow endearing decor of fake thatched huts and painted palm trees. Oddly, it’s a corporate offshoot of the Jack’s Place cheap steak chain, but turns out the founder was Hainanese, so at least there’s some connection.

Their speciality is Coconut Chicken Soup Pot (椰子鸡汤煲 yēzǐjī tāngbāo), an actual Hainanese dish, which true to the name consists of bony, yellow-skinned chicken boiled in coconut water with wriggly translucent worms of coconut flesh, both ingredients rarely seen elsewhere in China. Water chestnuts add some crunch, but at the end of the day it’s just not a terribly exciting dish. Much more to our liking was the Hainan Fen (here 海口腌粉 Hǎikǒu yānfěn on the menu, after the provincial capital, but usually just called 海南粉 Hǎinán fěn), a dish of rice noodles served at room temperature (by design) that have absorbed an dark, unseen and tasty sauce, with toppings of marinated beef, roasted peanuts, pickles, crispy dough fritters and coriander. This was quite tasty as is, but it’s kicked up another notch by a flavourful Thai-style sauce of chilli, garlic, ginger, and more coriander, served on the side to ladle according your own liking. Definitely the best dish of the day! Total damage for three dishes $42, and we’ll be back for more.

Hainanese restaurants may be thin on the ground, but there are a few hawker stalls carrying on the tradition, two of which can be found at Kim Keat Palm Market in Toa Payoh. First off the block was Hai Nan Xing Zhou Beef Noodle Soup (海南星洲牛肉粉 Hǎinán Xīngzhōu niúròu fěn). Xīngzhōu (星洲), literally “Star Province”, is an old Chinese name for Singapore, and the stall is run by two elderly gentlemen who should probably be enjoying a well-earned retirement now. But there they were, slicing up a huge slab of beef at 8 AM in the morning, so I ordered a $5 “dry” bowl of Sliced Beef + Beef Ball with flat kway teow (粿條 guǒtiáo) rice noodles and dug in. The initial impression is reminiscent of Vietnamese pho, with Chinese herbal notes, a spray of green onion and bean sprouts, and that umami-rich just-cooked beef flavor, but the texture is utterly different, with a viscous, thick gravy not unlike Singaporean favorite lor mee ladled on top. Since I’d ordered mine dry, a small bowl of broth was served on the side, with more of that beefy goodness but a distinctly different set of spices, this time dominated rather incongruously by cinnamon.

Only a few stalls away is Hainan Cuisine & Snacks (海南小吃 Hǎinán xiǎochī), which has garnered mild fame for being one of Singapore’s few purveyors of yi bua (薏粑 yìbā), a distinctly Hainanese type of kuih, the sweet snacks beloved across Southeast Asia. It’s made by steaming glutinous rice flour with a filling of palm sugar (gula melaka), grated coconut and peanuts, then wrapping it with banana leaf. The rice here is very sticky, effectively gluing itself to the plate, and while the filling is sweet and tasty, it’s rather overpowered by copious lashings of ginger, although if this video is to be believed plenty of ginger is traditional. An interesting experience, and priced right at $1.20 a pop, but one was enough.

Honorary mention: this stall is also possibly the only place in Singapore that sells the euphonious Chicken Poop Soup (鸡屎藤粿仔 jīshǐténg guǒzǐ), after the Chinese name of Paederia foetida aka skunkvine. Unfortunately they didn’t have any when I visited.

Singaporean-Hainanese food

I took my first steps on the Singaporean-Hainanese trail with a visit to the ruins of the Hainan Village in what is now the Thomson Nature Park. Abandoned only in the 1980s, the extent to which the jungle has devoured the ruins in a few short decades is astonishing and some of the buildings look like they could be from Angkor Wat. (Food trivia: ubiquitous “mediocre but cheap” Asian-Western fusion chain Han’s Cafe originally hails from here.) A Hainanese Village Centre at Hougang feebly commemorates another former community at nearby Lorong Ah Soo, but sadly, this looks like any other heartland HDB market and the hawker centre doesn’t appear to have even a single Hainanese stall left.

Nevertheless, the definitive Singaporean-Hainanese dish, and a firm contender for the national dish of all Singapore, is Hainanese chicken rice. Chicken and rice are eaten all around the world, and indeed an ancestor to this called Wenchang chicken exists in Hainan, where the chicken is slowly poached in sub-boiling temperatures (today we’d call this sous vide) to make it soft, tender, and let’s face it, rather bland. The key to making it tasty is the two Singaporean innovations you won’t find in Hainan. First, the rice isn’t just plain old rice, but rice cooked in a rich chicken broth flavored with garlic, ginger and fragrant pandan leaves. Second, it’s always served with a freshly made chilli sauce with a citrusy tang.

As you can imagine, the title of Singapore’s best chicken rice is hotly contested. Boon Tong Kee remains justly a legend, but actually started out as a Cantonese stall. Hainanese stalwart Yet Con closed in 2020, done in by the double whammy of COVID-19 and their head chef passing away, so in the end I went with the modestly named Loy Kee Best Chicken Rice (黎记海南鸡饭 Lí jì Hǎinán jīfàn) in Balestier, founded in 1953 by Hainanese immigrant Loy Nie. Thanks to the Phase 2 Heightened Alert banning all indoor dining, I was unable to behold their glorious if mildly disturbing slogan of “Chicken Lickin’ Good” (uhh…) in person and had to resort to delivery, which was speedily delivered 15 min ahead of schedule in branded bento packs. $9 gets you your choice of chicken, meaning breast/thigh/wing served boiled/roasted/HK soya sauce, the three mandatory condiments of chilli, ginger and dark soy sauce, plus a serve of oily, wilted bok choy, the only part of the meal that didn’t take to delivery well. The chicken was soft, tender and bland, the way it’s supposed to be. The rice was just nice, rich in taste but not too oily and none of the ingredients overpowering. And the chilli sauce nailed it: chilli kick with a lemony zing, spicy but not overpoweringly so. But there was one notable omission, since the light chicken broth always served at hawkers was missing; apparently this is considered an optional $1 extra, which seems a little cheap given we’re already at 2-3x the regular hawker price here. So one and half thumbs up, and definitely heading back to check them out in person once restaurants open up again.

Another only-in-Singapore “Hainanese” dish is Hainanese curry rice, which manages to cram together influences from all of the island’s four major ethnic groups. Inspired by an episode of CNA’s Who We Are, What We Eat, I headed down to Hong Seng Curry Rice in Redhill Market and ordered the “Four Heavenly Kings” combo ($6.90). King #1 comes from Britain, namely a tasty pork cutlet, breaded and fried like Japanese tonkotsu; mine was piping hot and easily the best part of dish. King #2 was braised pork belly, a classic Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) dish, quite fatty and served some bones still in; alright, but nothing spectacular. King #3 was supposed to be chicken curry, but instead I got a chicken cutlet, lukewarm but spiked with a lot of garlic. Last and least, King #4 was a less than inspirational pile of cold, boiled cabbage straight out of a Soviet canteen. All this was served with an egg, a pile of rice and the Indian innovation that turned the instruments into an orchestra, namely a ladleful of thick, rather mild curry. Competent, yes; filling, extremely; spectacular, no.

Honorary mention: Ivy’s Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup in Pasir Panjang, which has a Michelin Plate but, as far as I can tell, no connection to any actual Hainanese dish.

Hainanese Western

And for the last of the three Hainanese food groups, we’re going to untether almost entirely from the Sinosphere, since Hainanese Western food came about when Hainanese cooks were hired by Western families and companies and tasked with recreating the tastes of Britain. Inevitably, the availability of ingredients in Singapore, the chefs’ own tastebuds and the need to cater to local tastes resulted in the dishes slowly mutating over time, and the best example of this is the classic Singaporean breakfast of coffee, toast, and egg. Sounds rather British, wot? Less than you might think, old fruit.

The Hainanese are synonymous with Singapore’s coffeeshops (咖啡店 kopitiam/kāfēidiàn), and one of the local legends is Heap Seng Leong (協勝隆), an exceedingly old-school establishment tucked away at the Kallang end of North Bridge Rd. Run by a father-and-son duo since 1974, the shop opens 5 AM to 5 PM every day except Chinese New Year. Their thick, strong kopi is made from robusta beans roasted in butter, ground and brewed with a sock, and served with condensed milk, teeth-shattering amounts of sugar, and the optional bonus that made them famous, a pat of salty butter to make it kopi guyou (咖啡牛油, “cow oil coffee”). Invented long before bulletproof coffee became hip, if you can get over the appearance it’s actually rather tasty, adding a surprisingly mild salty caramel note to the concoction. Their soft toast is grilled over charcoal and slathered with orangey-brown Hainanese kaya (coconut-egg jam) and more butter. The eggs are served Singapore style, meaning extremely runny — even the egg white has not set — and with a dash of white pepper and Maggi seasoning (like soy sauce, only even more MSG-laden). As a bonus, you can admire the interior, which is a direct time warp to the 1970s complete with abacus and coin-op public phone. All this will set you back the princely sum of $3.60, so go for a visit now, since Pops is over 80 years old and his work routine would be grueling even for a much younger man.

For a more filling Hainanese Western experience, we headed for lunch at the flagship Joo Chiat outlet of British Hainan, whose website somewhat disturbingly promises “Deliciousness Jumping Into The Mouth” (somebody must have been lickin’ the chicken again). Located in a quiet residential neighbourhood a block off the main drag, the restaurant is famous for its retro decor, with the English Room packed full of British-American kitsch like jukeboxes, sewing machines, and framed portraits of muttonchop-festooned Victorian gentlemen, and the Hainan Room packed equally full of Mao-era Chinese propaganda, including a portrait of the Mao of our generation, Xi Jinping. On a random Sunday the joint was packed, for which the affable owner Frederick Puah, who was doing the rounds of the customers and dropped by to wish us “Welcome home!”, thanked a recent video by Japanese-Singaporean vlogger Ghib Ojisan.

Of course, the main reason we were here was the food, which leans much more British than Hainanese. I had their signature Braised Oxtail Stew ($29.90), stewed for fifteen hours, and I can believe it: the meat fell apart if you so much looked at it sideways, and the thick, umami-laden gravy was so good we ordered an extra portion of bread to sop it all up. The Hainanese Curry Rice ($15.90) here was a fancier affair than Hong Seng, with spicier curry, more pork belly and a side of chap chye (雜菜) mixed vegetables, while the 3 Porky Combi ($18.90) came with two pork cutlets (one fried, one grilled), a pork sausage and an authentically abominable “fruit salad” of lettuce, tomato and tinned mango (squick). I washed down my flashbacks of the BBC canteen at Shepherds Bush with a Saltaire Proper Stout, which lived up to its name, and Frederick sweetened the deal with complimentary cups of mango pudding for dessert. Tasty? Oh yes. Hainanese? That’s a bit of a stretch, although to their credit, British Hainan does have a limited selection of Hainanese-Chinese dishes like beef soup, herbal mutton soup and even yi bua on the menu.

I started writing this blog to learn more about Chinese food, but with this episode more than any other, I think I’ve learned about Singapore instead. I don’t think it’s too much an exaggeration to say that the Hainanese story of how a bunch of immigrants can come in, adapt themselves to local conditions and produce something greater than the sum of its parts is the story of Singapore itself, and the next chapter of that story is being written today.

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