34 Province Project: Guizhou 贵州

Guizhou (“Precious Province”) is in southern China, just north of Yunnan and Guangxi. “The sky is never sunny for three days, and the ground is never flat for three feet” (天无三日晴,地无三尺平), says a local proverb, summing up how rainy and mountainous the area is. As you might guess, it’s historically poor and thinly populated, and like its neighbours has a reputation for being a wild and woolly borderland inhabited by many minority people. Peter Hessler’s Country Driving recounts how Zhejiang factory owners used to summarily reject any applicants with Guizhou IDs, and my own prejudices stem from something nearly as irrational: the guì (贵) in Guizhou sounds awfully close to the guǐ (鬼) of “devil/ghost”, as in yángguǐzi (洋鬼子) and the Cantonese gweilo (鬼佬), both meaning “foreign devils” like me.

Guizhou cuisine (黔菜 qián cài) is famous for being spicy and sour, so much that, to quote another proverb, “if you don’t eat sour for three days, you’ll stagger when you walk” (三天不吃酸,走路打窜窜). However, this sourness is usually not derived from vinegar, but by fermenting and pickling, and like Sichuan and Hunan to the north, chillies are used in abundance. Lao Gan Ma (老干妈), a sauce made from chillies, soybeans and onions now trending worldwide in hipster circles under the bizarre moniker “chili crisp”, originally hails from Guizhou.

Much to my dismay, I could not find a single Guizhou restaurant in Singapore. I was contemplating drowning my sorrows Finnish style with a large bottle of Guizhou’s most famous product (about which more later), but out of the blue, the lovely Sam of @appropriateamount reached out to this random yángguǐzi and offered to host a feast at her place. A Guizhou native who moved to Singapore when young, her quarantine project was recreating the tastes of home. How could I possibly say no?

So on a Saturday night we rocked up at Sam’s place to find Sam, two of her friends, a puppy and a veritable feast awaiting us. By special request, she had made the effort to rustle up some fish mint, commonly known in Chinese as yúxīngcǎo (鱼腥草, “fish-smelling herb”) but in Guizhou usually called zhé’ěrgēn (折耳根, “broken ear root”). The Yunnanese like to chow down on the leaves, but in Guizhou it’s the crunchy roots that are the star of the show, with an unusual flavour that’s partly minty, partly lemony, and, yes, vaguely fishy, but not at all in a “fish sitting out in the hot sun for a week” kinda way, more a gentle whiff of fresh sashimi. The rhizome was served up both cooked in a tasty stir-fry with chilli and bacon (折耳根炒培根), the bacon substituting for cured ham (腊肉 làròu), and raw in a delicious dipping sauce flavoured with coriander, chilli, and a few drops of another uniquely Guizhou ingredient, mùjiāngzǐ (木姜子, “tree ginger”) oil extracted from Litsea cubeba. The oil has a strong lemongrass-like scent, and as a result the dip reminded quite a bit of the ubiquitous nam jim dipping sauces in Thailand, only you don’t need fish sauce because fish mint does the job!

The hit parade continued. Guizhou-style làzǐjī (贵州辣子鸡), very different from the dry Chongqing-style “popcorn chicken” you usually get in Singapore, with cíbā làjiāo (糍粑辣椒) pounded “mochi” chilli paste in oil (thus named for the texture, no actual glutinous rice involved) and springy cubes of konjac (魔芋豆腐 móyù dòufu, “devil’s tofu” in China, konnyaku in Japan). Tofu stew with fresh green chillies, tomatoes and garlic (西红柿青椒豆腐), this trio being a signature of Guizhou cuisine. And a mild pork meatball soup (肉丸子汤), perfect for eating with the fish mint chilli dip.

Last but not least, one dish even a Finnish country boy would recognize, namely mashed potatoes (土豆泥), albeit with crispy chunks of pork crackling (脆哨) mixed in. The way to eat this is by dipping chunks into the unassuming red powder above, which looks like the kind of ground chilli that makes you sneeze just by looking at it, but was actually a blend of chilli and spices, nowhere near as fiery as it looks and straight-up addictive. I’m kind of tempted to start importing this to Finland, but it may still be an uphill fight to convince my countrymen to start adding chilli to their potatoes.

To refresh our palates, the obvious choice was Kweichow Moutai (贵州茅台 Guìzhōu Máotái), the official liquor of the People’s Republic, used for disinfecting soldiers’ wounds during the Long March and served by Mao to Nixon in 1972. A powerful sauce-type baijiu generally considered an acquired taste, one review says that it is “reminiscent of a very rough vodka, followed by soy sauce notes”. But while the taste may be debatable, the prestige is not: a standard 500 ml ceramic bottle of their flagship “Flying Fairy” clocks in around $700, vintage editions sell for hundreds of thousands at auction, and the Moutai Group is now more valuable than Diageo. Fortunately for proles like me, the marketing department has come up with two innovations: a new more-herbal, less-acetone formulation called Moutai Bulao (某台不老, lit. “Ageless”), sold in 125 ml bottles for “only” $80 a pop, and nifty vending machines to dispense these shots. And it was… quite nice! At 53% it’s obviously strong stuff, but at least in the Bulao formulation, much more drinkable than I expected: the taste was complex but smooth, no soy sauce or paint thinner in sight.

Last but not least, we sampled some Guizhou tea as well. Kǔdīng chá (苦丁茶) means “bitter nail tea”, since the leaves dry up into sharp needle shapes, and it’s supposed to be quite bitter — although to my tastes, trained on Japanese green teas, it was quite mild and pleasant. Fun fact: the Ilex kaushue plant it’s made from is closely related to Ilex paraguariensis, the source of South America’s yerba mate.

All in all it was a great evening with great food, great company and great conversation, and absolutely one of the highlights of my culinary journey so far. Sam is considering sharing her Guizhou food with Singapore and the world by setting up a private dining experience, so drop her a line if you’d be keen. The next feast on her agenda is Guizhou street food, and I’m already on the waiting list!

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34 Province Project: Hebei 河北

Hebei, “North of the [Yellow] River” , is a C-shaped province in northern China wrapping around Beijing and Tianjin, not to be confused with its near-namesake Hubei down south. While it has a population of 75 million people, it lacks a clear identity; in most of China, the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away (山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn), but Hebei was always right next to the Dragon Throne and thus firmly under the thumb of whoever in charge of Beijing at the time.

In the narrowest possible sense, I technically have been to Hebei since I trundled through some 250 km of it on my way to Xi’an, but our train didn’t even bother stopping at its 10 million strong capital Shijiazhuang, and it was an overnight train to boot. Perhaps I also saw a few Hebei hilltops from atop the Mutianyu Great Wall, but even that seems unlikely since the border was a good 40 km away and it was so hazy I could barely see 2 km.

It is thus not surprising that “Hebei cuisine” (冀菜 Jì cài) does not really seem to exist as a separate entity, without so much as a Wikipedia article to its name. There’s a Hebei branch of Imperial cuisine known as Chengde Royal Cuisine, after a mountaintop summer palace that the Qing emperors used to frequent, but this is hardly the kind of thing I’m looking for in this blog. Yet there was one street food dish that every search for Hebei cuisine always put front and center: donkey burgers (驴肉火烧 lǘròu huǒshāo), immortalised in the catchy slogan “In Heaven there is dragon meat, on Earth there is donkey meat” (天上龙肉,地上驴肉 tiānshàng lóngròu, dìshàng lǘròu). Having already sampled a horse burger (below) in at famous Slovenian chain Hot Horse in Ljubljana, a donkey burger was clearly the next evolution. (Honorable mention goes to Bikkuri Donkey in Japan, whose disquieting name literally means “Donkey Surprise”, but the surprise, whatever it may be, does not seem to involve actual donkeys.)

In theory, this is a simple enough dish, just boil up some donkey, stick it in a huǒshāo bun, and Eeyore’s your uncle. Unfortunately, try as I might, I couldn’t find anybody actually selling donkey burgers in Singapore. Eventually it became clear that while the Singapore Food Agency has a long list of things you can import, including delicacies like MVF0WH WILD GUINEA FOWL FROZEN and MVC081VN VENISON TONGUE CHILLED, donkey in any form was not on the list, and in minutely regulated Singapore, if bureaucrats can’t conceive of it, you can’t have it.

So donkey was off the menu… or so I thought. Fortunately for me, a local retailer whose name, location and contact details I have sadly forgotten didn’t get the memo, and somehow a retort pouch of Donkey Prince Five Spice Donkey Meat (驴太子五香驴肉) may or may not have landed in my possession. The bag does sacrilegiously proclaim that this is a Shandong speciality, but fortunately we all know better.

To my surprise, the second challenge of finding those huǒshāo buns proved nearly as difficult. Fortunately Dough Magic from the Tianjin episode came through once again, with 10-packs of the Xian-style Thousand Layer Buns (千层饼) that you’d use in Shaanxi ròujiāmó “burger”; not quite the same as a huoshao, which is supposed to be more doughy and less flaky, but close enough for me. They come frozen, looking much like miniature roti pratas to the Singaporean eye, and per the instructions, you first fry them in a frying pan to a golden-brown color (you can just about squeeze 3 per pan) and then pop them in a 200-degree oven for 5 minutes until they puff up nicely. As luck would have it, the gas cut out while I was frying batch 2, so no prizes for guessing which batch is which in the oven.

Then I reheated some meat that may or may not have been donkey, shredded it up with a fork, split open a mo and it was time to start singing the Don Don Donki song. And survey says…. yummo! Our mystery meat was mild with no gamey taste or smell, had a nice soft texture that wasn’t stringy at all, and all things considered reminded me quite a bit of slow-cooked shredded beef like you’d get in a good American BBQ place. The five spice was barely perceptible, but a few drops of Mexican habanero sauce livened it up nicely.

And hey, did you know that in Finnish, an awkward segue between two topics is called a “donkey bridge” (aasinsilta)? So now it’s time to pounce onto our next province like Tigger knocking over Winnie the Pooh.

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34 Province Project: Jilin 吉林

Jilin, derived from the Manchu for “along the [Songhua] river”, is sandwiched between North Korea and Inner Mongolia. It shares both its borders and much of its cuisine with the other two Northeast (Dongbei) provinces. However, since Jilin has China’s longest border with Korea and hosts the country’s only Korean autonomous region (Yanbian), I’m going to somewhat arbitrarily devote this episode to Chinese-Korean/Korean-Chinese food, leaving Manchu cuisine for Liaoning and “true blue” Dongbei for Heilongjiang.

I started my journey at Chinese Noodles (面面俱到 Miànmiànjùdào) at NTP+ in Lorong Chuan, whose bland English name hides a Chinese pun. Miànmiànjùdào is a chengyu (four-character phrase) meaning “to every aspect” or “comprehensively”, but in simplified characters 面 means both “face/side/aspect” as well as “noodles”, so it’s a shop that has all kinds of noodles! Ha-ha!

My kind of noodles today was the $6.80 Dongbei cold noodles (东北冷面 Dōngběi lěng miàn), which to my surprise turned out to be effectively identical to the famous Korean cold noodles (냉면/冷麵 naengmyeon). It’s a pile of very chewy grey-brown potato/buckwheat noodles, topped with a spray of sliced cucumber and tomato, a boiled egg and a few token slices of beef, all in a bowl of cold beef broth. There were also a couple of pieces of crunchy homemade pickled but unfermented cabbage (proto-kimchi or 酸菜 suān cài, take your pick) adding a tiny bit of zing. I haven’t seen tomatoes in Korea, and traditionally it’s served in metal bowls with metal chopsticks, but other than that this could have been in Pyongyang and I’d take it any day over that city’s second most famous dish, stewed dog penis. Two thumbs up.

As far as I can tell, there are no dedicated Chinese-Korean restaurants in Singapore, but there are at least 3 Korean-Chinese ones. O.BBa Jjajang on Tanjong Pagar Rd, Singapore’s Koreatown, is the one of four shops in the orthographically challenging O.BBa empire, and in case you miss the giant pink inflatable cannibal pig outside, the inescapable O.BBa jingle playing outside will lure you in. Rocking up without a reservation early on a random Sunday, we were lucky to snag one of the last tables (in our case a booth) remaining. First up were the Korean-style complimentary banchan starters, consisting of kimchi, danmuji (Jp. takuan) radish pickles, some hardboiled eggs (!?) and a tip of the hat to China with some stir-fried onion with chilli and Sichuanese staple zhàcài (榨菜), usually awkwardly translated into English as “pickled mustard tuber”. Stop snickering! This is serious stuff, and tasty too.

The eponymous star of the show here is jjajangmyeon (짜장면), the Korean take on northern Chinese staple zhájiàngmiàn (炸酱面). While the two look outwardly similar, they’re quite different: zhájiàngmiàn is salty, umami-laden and typically contains little other than minced meat, hence the epithet “Chinese spaghetti bolognese”, while jjajangmyeon dials down the saltiness and packs the sauce with soft, sweet caramelized onions instead. Another famous Korean-Chinese dish is jjamppong (짬뽕), the spicy Korean version of champon, a famous Nagasaki seafood & pork ramen soup, which in turn was imported to Japan from Fujian. O.Bba’s take was generously laden with mussels, shrimp, squid, and despite the blood red color wasn’t all that spicy. As always, the kids devoured a plate of dumplings, this time deep-fried (군만두 gunmandu), served with a very tasty dipping sauce of soy, chilli and sesame. These, too, are of Chinese origin, and even the name comes from the Chinese mántou (馒头), although that means a meatless steamed bun these days and these would be called zhàjiǎo (炸饺).

The most memorable dish of the night, though, was tangsuyuk (탕수육/糖醋肉), the Korean-Chinese take on sweet and sour pork and a cousin of the guōbāoròu we tried in the Heilongjiang episode. Strips of pork and lotus root are cooked, dipped in a very heavy potato starch batter, deep-fried, and then the pièce de résistance: the waiter comes and pours a solid half-litre of warm sweet and sour sauce over it all, with a few token veggies to assuage your guilt. Alas, while the presentation wins full points, the end result was kind of gluggy, with the meat buried in a pile of gooey starch, and I’ve never been a huge fan of sweet and sour pork anyway. (Mostly due to an epic bout of food poisoning from a way-too-cheap buffet in Kobe, but that’s another story.)

We also ordered a kimchi pajeon pancake with cheese, some steamed egg and a big old brown plastic vat of makgeolli rice wine, Korea’s answer to sake, nearly running out of table space in the process (see above), but nevertheless managed to plow our way through it all. Total $140 for 4, and two snouts up.

Last but not least, Bar Bar Q in Suntec has nothing whatsoever to do with Jilin, but is, at least to me, emblematic of Singapore’s next wave of Chinese-Korean fusion. (Just don’t confuse it with Pakistani kebab joint “BarBQ” or Boat Quay hangout “BQ Bar”; I’m sure all three mutually regret their branding decisions.) Originally a live music joint, the stage has been gathering dust since 2020, but at least background music is now back and it was hopping on a Friday night. Sponsored by Tsingtao Beer, with a Chinese slogan promising Wine, Meat, Friends (酒肉朋友 jiǔròu péngyǒu) and the first page of the menu devoted to classic chuan, the same Chinese kebabs we already met in Heilongjiang, you’d be excused for thinking this is yet another generic Northeastern skewer joint… but wait, why is there a lifesize leggy lady cutout advertising Jinro soju, the quintessential Korean rotgut, outside?

Turns out not only does the drinks menu feature soju cocktails and Cass on tap right next to the Tsingtao, but basically everything else on the menu is also Korean! Army stew (budae jjigae); tteokbokki rice cakes with cheese; japchae (잡채/雜菜) stir-fried sweet potato noodles, another Chinese import into Korea; ramyeon (라면) noodle soup, a distant cousin of Gansu lamian and more, with a couple of token “Japanese” dishes if you wanted non-spicy options. The tteokbokki was particularly nice, served on a sizzling iron plate that gave the cheese a nice crust underneath, and the sauce had lots of chicken chunks and much more depth than the usual insipid ketchupy mess. The chuan were also OK, very Chinese in flavor with generous chilli-cumin dusting, but the portion sizes were quite small. A good deal at $1 a skewer for happy hour, less so when we were paying the full $3-5 per whack. Then again, this is clearly more a place for drinking than eating, so if you’re down for a bucket of soju and want some meaty snacks to go with it, you could do far worse. $160 for 4, which is not great, not terrible.

And that brings us to the end of this trip down fusion lane. At least for me, this was a useful reminder of much Japanese, Korean and Chinese food have inspired each other over the years, and this process of fusion continues today: it’s easy to laugh at the mala bak kut tehs and tobiko cheese mochis that infest the menus of trendy eateries in Singapore, but give it another hundred years and Darwinian evolution will pick a few winners that everybody will soon think of as hallowed traditions.

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