34 Province Project: Beijing 北京

Beijing, the “Northern Capital” of China, needs no introduction, but its food might. What we think of as “Chinese” food in the West tends to originate from southern Canton (Guangzhou) and Sichuan, not the north, where the cuisine of the capital (京菜 jīngcài) runs the gamut from the exquisite banquets of the Imperial Palace to humble street stalls. With influences from not just the surrounding regions but the entire country, it’s hard to generalize, but as elsewhere in northern China wheat predominates: not just noodles and dumplings, but a whole slew of pastries (餅 bǐng) and cakes (炸糕 zhàgāo).

I first encountered the one Beijing dish everybody’s heard of, Peking duck, when living in suburban New York as a child. One day, my father brought back a ready-to-eat platter from Chinatown, and I still remembered being surprised at how odd yet tasty and somehow decadent that the combination of savoury pancakes so thin you could see through them, slivers of fatty skin, slices of scallion and that mysterious brown sauce was. Much later in Singapore, an enterprising Beijinger set up shop near my apartment in the now long-gone Pearl Centre. He spoke no English, and his piratical r-laden Beijing dialect was vastly unlike Singapore Mandarin, but I became a regular patron of his signature zhajiangmian (炸醬麵), or “Chinese spaghetti bolognese”, a simple but delicious dish made of noodles created on the spot using nothing but his hands to tease the ball of dough apart into thin strands, topped with a minced pork and bean sauce and a spray of cucumber.

So when I spent a few days in Beijing back in 2018, my first order of business was to recalibrate my tastebuds against the gold standard: the obligatory but delicious Peking duck at the positively opulent Xiheyaju (羲和雅居), some zhajiangmian, the greasy goodness of fried ròubǐng (肉餅) meat pastries, a 5-yuan bottle of 59° Red Star brand erguotou sorghum gutrot… but to be honest, I was both short on time and a little maxed out on dumplings, noodles and deep-fried things after a week of Siberia & Mongolia, so I didn’t dig in quite as much as should have.

For this project, I generally prefer street food, but you can’t really say you’ve covered Beijing without Peking duck, so I rounded up some friends to try out Tung Lok Xihe (同樂羲和), Beijing Xiheyaju’s collab with the fancy Cantonese seafood empire. (Since my visit, they’ve rebranded as Tunglok Peking Duck.) I had my doubts about this combo, tucked away atop an Orchard shopping mall to boot, but the duck here is the real deal. Available only by pre-order, made from Irish ducks (apparently the wagyu of the duck world) and roasted on site in a brick oven, it’s sliced at your table and served with a platter of 8 condiments. In addition to the canonical cucumber/scallion/sweet bean sauce combo for your pancake wraps (“It’s like Mexican Chinese!”, commented my taco-loving offspring), you can also dip the super crispy skin into blueberry sauce and popping candy (!), getting a gimmicky but fun snap crackle pop experience. Often a crispy skin comes at the expense of dry and rubbery meat, but here the duck was juicier than a Cardi B music video, and we devoured it as is instead of opting for the $12 upgrade to get it made into a stir-fry. All in all, definitely the best Peking duck I’ve had in Singapore, and worth the indulgence even at $78++.

Just about the only other Beijing dish on the menu was pan-fried dumplings (锅贴 guōtiē), and the kids worked their ways through two plates so fast I didn’t even get a chance to sample them. Honorable mention goes to the Braised Spinach Beancurd with Monkey Head Mushroom (猴头菇扒翡翠豆腐), a Tung Lok invention with a less than appetizing English name, where homemade tofu is paired with crispy minced spinach and meaty pieces of Hericium erinaceus. Dare I suggest a rebrand to “Jade Tofu with Lion’s Mane”? For the eight of us with tea & desserts but no alcohol, total damage came to a surprisingly reasonable $40/head.

For a more proletarian Beijing experience, we dropped in for dinner at Hand in Hand Beijing Restaurant (手拉手京华小馆), which occupies a corner lot shophouse at Jalan Besar. It was packed on a Friday night, so book ahead!

Hand in Hand is famous for their handmade dumplings, made on the spot and never frozen, so of course we had to start off with some classic steamed Cabbage and Pork Dumplings (白菜猪肉水饺), a simple enough dish but done very well. More uniquely Beijing, though, were the Beijing Beef Pies. Called méndīng ròubǐng (门钉肉饼) in Chinese, literally “doornail meat pies”, these smallish, cute-as-a-button pies are stuffed with minced beef, shallow-fried on both sides and served hot, giving the dough wrapper a great texture and making them super juicy on the inside. These were really, really good — far better than any meat pie I had in Beijing, in fact — and we had to get more because a single service of 3 just wasn’t enough!

We followed up with some tofu skin cooked with milk cabbage (奶白菜 nǎibáicài), a simple but tasty stir-fry, and a bowl of Old Beijing Soup Pot Noodles (老北京炝锅面). This seems to be a Beijing take on Shandong’s qiàngguōmiàn (炝锅面), a dish whose exact definition appears to elude even Chinese sources. Hand in Hand’s take was a pot with soup, handmade noodles, more milk cabbage, sliced omelette, bits of pork and some clams, and it was rather good. The second hit of the day was our final dish, Shredded Pork with Soy Bean Paste and Popiah (京酱肉丝配薄饼). The soy bean paste here is the same stuff used for zhajiangmian, and with long shreds of pork it’s a classic dish called jīngjiàng ròusī (京酱肉丝, lit. “Capital sauce pork shreds”). In China, it’s typically served with thin sheets of tofu or thick bing bread, but here it was served Peking duck DIY style with the thin crepes and sticks of cucumber, a winning combination. Order extra crepes, you’ll need them!

The bill for 4 came to $110, including a beer to wash it all down. I must sadly note that Beijing’s own Yanjing Beer was not on the menu, forcing us to commit adultery with some Tsingtao from across the province line in Shandong, but rest assured they also have authentically Beijing Red Star rocket fuel/paint thinner on the menu if you’d prefer not to taste or remember your meal.

One more Beijing staple I was keen to try was cornbread, known as wōtóu (窝头) or tóu (窝窝头) in Chinese, literally “bird’s nest heads”. Originally peasant food, a highly dubious legend say that Cruella de Vil Empress Dowager Cixi was treated to some while fleeing the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and brought them back to the Forbidden City on her return two years later. Alas, a task of equally legendary difficulty is finding any staple grain other than rice or wheat in Singapore, and not a single restaurant in Singapore appears to offer cornbread on the regular menu. But once again Dough Magic came through with bags of frozen mini wotou for $9.80, in 5 different flavours to boot: yellow corn (玉米), brown sorghum (高粱), black rice (黑米), purple yam (紫薯) and green shepherd’s purse (荠菜). These conical little cups are hollow on the inside, so after steaming for around 5 minutes, we served them up with an Australianized san choy bau (生菜包) filling of minced pork and mushrooms. Tasty, pretty and fun! Although, to be honest, all five types tasted bland and near-identical, even the texture was ground smooth and not gritty like American cornbread.

Last but not least, I sampled a classic Beijing dessert at Kāng Jì Bīngtánghúlu (康记冰糖葫芦), a little stall down a narrow lorong (alley) in Singapore’s red-light district of Geylang, an area down at heel even before COVID hit and distinctly worse for the wear after two years of total nightlife shutdown. The shop has zero English signage or presence on the English-language internet, and I was rather astonished to find that it was still there. Tanghulu is the Chinese version of candied apples, traditionally made from Chinese hawthorn, but the day I popped in the hawthorn version wasn’t ready yet and the friendly shopkeeper suggested I try a freshly made strawberry one instead. Hot damn, this was a revelation: $5 gets you a skewer of 5 large strawberries, wrapped in an edible sheet of sugar (don’t peel it off!), coated with a slightly salty crunchy shell of rock sugar, and deliciously ripe, warm and juicy on the inside. This rocketed straight up my personal Chinese dessert chart for sure, and on that high note, we bid a farewall to the Chinese capital and plunge onward.

<<< Chongqing | Index | Ningxia >>>

34 Province Project: Chongqing 重庆

Chongqing (Chungking), named after the Double Celebration (双重喜庆 shuāngchóngqìng) of Prince Zhao Dun becoming King and Emperor of the Song Dynasty back in 1189, is China’s third largest city and would be Sichuan‘s capital if it hadn’t been peeled off to be its own municipality in 1997. Greater Chongqing is larger than Austria and covers a fair whack of the Yangtze both upstream and downstream, with “only” 10 million or so of its 30-odd million people living within the city proper.

Technically speaking, I have been to Chongqing, although only while once changing planes at Jiangbei Airport. Fortunately my layover was just long enough to hit the lounge, inhale a bowl of made-to-order Chongqing noodles (重庆小面 Chóngqìng xiǎomiàn) and wash it down with a local Shancheng (Mountain City) Beer. The Chinese name means “small noodles”, but they pack a punch even when you ask for yours bù tài là (不太辣, “not too spicy”): it’s wheat noodles in a beef stock with plenty of chilli oil and Sichuan pepper and a few token veggies to soak up the grease. I had discovered this dish earlier in Burwood, Sydney, where several Chongqing restaurants (one shown above) serve up more than respectable renditions of the stuff.

I’d dearly love to explore more of Chongqing in person, including the trippy monorail system soaring over the narrow gorges of this famously hilly city, but for now I’ll have to stick to exploring with my tastebuds. First cab off the rank was Unicuz, this little shop in Springleaf being neither a university cousin nor a herbal liquor for a Holy Roman emperor, but a chain of Chinese “Universe Cuisines” restaurants. Or that was the plan, anyway, the once expansive menu appears to have shrunk down to noodles and Sichuanese favorites and that’s fine by me. The dish above is called Chongqing grilled fish (重庆烤鱼 Chóngqìng kǎoyú), but the discerning eye may note that the seabass is in fact swimming in what looks a lot like hotpot. Correct! It’s prepared by separately grilling the fish while preparing the stock, then combining them at the last minute, so you get fish that’s still crispy but slowly soaking into the soup. Being wimps, we ordered the “little spicy” (小辣 xiǎo là) version and barely broke a sweat, since even the pile of chopped peppers on top were all dried and quite mild.

We liked the fish enough to go back for more, so the next stop on the Chungking Express was Chong Qing Grilled Fish (重庆烤鱼), an aptly named local chain often credited for introducing the dish to Singapore. Visiting on Valentine’s Day, their Serangoon Gardens outlet combined raw-concrete Melbourne warehouse hipster chic with the pomelos, pineapples and gong xi gong xi jingles of Chinese New Year in Singapore. Our main entree was Patin Fish (水果鱼, “Fruit Fish”), sold as a premium item but actually a sneaky rebranding of the lowly basa (Pangasius) catfish, in the classic Spicy Numbing (川味麻辣 Chuānwèi málà, “Sichuan Taste Mala”) sauce with a pain level of Medium Spicy (中辣 zhōng là) and some lotus roots, tofu skin, bean sprouts and wood ear mushrooms to soak up the pain. Our fish came served in a metal tray heated from under by a charcoal brazier, an effective and attractive set up as long as you managed to avoid toppling a literal cauldron of boiling oil into your lap, with some complimentary scallops on the shell, a spray of coriander, a few sprigs of fresh tengjiao peppercorns (see Yunnan episode), and a whole lotta mala sauce. The fish was really good: farmed basa is often mushy and muddy, but here the flesh tasted fresh, flaked nicely and was cooked just right, and while it was spicy, most of the pain was concentrated into the layer of oil atop the soup, and the predominant flavor was actually the of the Sichuan pepper, not the of the chillies.

Our solitary side dish was Sour & Spicy Bean Jelly Noodle (酸辣凉粉), the restaurant’s take on liángfěn (凉粉) cold noodles, but made with flat, ribbonlike glass noodles instead of the usual thick, squarish, white noodles. Simply dressed with vinegar and dried chilli, it was OK but not particularly exciting. Total damage with a bottle of Snow Beer came to $89, considerably pricier than Unicuz.

Cheaper Chongqing eats can be found at Da Shao Chongqing Noodle (大少重庆小面) at Upper Boon Keng Market, otherwise better known for its Malay eats like mutton soup. The stall’s eponymous “master” (大少 dàshào, see AsiaOne for the backstory) apprenticed in Chongqing and it shows: noodles are dished out in taels (两), a traditional Chinese unit of about 50g I’ve never seen before in Singapore. The basic Chongqing noodles come in small (一两) going for $3.50, a standard (二两) for $4 and large (三两) for $4.50, and are simplicity itself, with fresh, chewy noodles, some near-raw chopped Chinese vegetable and an optional fried egg ($0.50 extra). The key ingredient is, of course, the mala sauce, so I put on my big boy pants and ordered the medium spicy “dry” (soupless) version. This time the heat was legit with both chilli and Sichuan pepper cranked up to 11, and Singaporeans will know what I mean when I say there was some McSpicy-level lao sai action afterwards. I regret nothing. As an aside, the basic Chongqing noodles are completely vegetarian, I’m keen to come back and try out the peas & minced meat version next time.

Finally, it was time for Singapore’s second-favorite Chongqing dish, làzǐjī (辣子鸡). Not hugely common in its home town, where it’s more of a drinking snack, this dish variously translated as “chilli chicken”, “firecracker chicken” etc consists of marinated and deep-fried chicken bits, roasted peanuts, garlic, ginger, and a whole lotta dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. And when I say “a lot”, that means it’s perfectly normal for over half the volume to consist of chillies! The trick, though, is that you don’t actually eat them, meaning that while you wouldn’t call it “mild”, it’s also nowhere near as spicy as it looks.

My favorite Sichuanese vloggers Chengdu Family (聪生家) have a great episode comparing 5 of Singapore’s top làzǐjī shops, but I picked up mine from Chef China 华厨 Hua Chu, the Bugis outer space experience you may recall from the Jiangxi episode. The chicken here was… not great: deep fried a bit too long, the chicken bits were small, dried up and tough. Other than that, though, the flavors were good and I found myself rummaging at the bottom of the pack, hunting down those elusive last non-chilli bits.

But wait, there’s more: true to the city’s name, this is only the first half of a Double Celebration of Sichuanese food. Stay tuned for the second half, the monster episode covering the rest of the province.

<<< Jiangxi | Index | Beijing >>>

34 Province Project: Jiangxi 江西

Jiangxi, “River West”, requires a bit of unpacking: it’s actually short for Jiāngnánxīdào (江南西道), “Western Circuit of Jiangnan”, where Jiangnan, “River South”, in turn describes the greater Shanghai region south of the Yangtze. So Jiangxi is the inland region to the west of the coastal provinces, bordering Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong to its east and Hunan to the west; it borders neither of its doppelgangers Jiangsu to the north nor Guangxi to the southwest.

China’s main north-south trade artery the Gan River runs through the province, meaning it’s always been a strategic chokepoint and has been occupied variously by both northern and southern dynasties. It was an early Communist stronghold and the short-lived Chinese Soviet Republic was founded here in 1931, before the area was occupied by the Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled on its famous Long March towards distant Yan’an in Shaanxi.

Enough history, how’s the food? It’s safe to say Jiangxi cuisine (贛菜 Gàn cài) is not terribly famous even in China. The province quietly produces 60% of China’s rice noodles, liberal use of chillies leaked in from Hunan and, like many mountainous regions, there’s a heavy emphasis on fermented and pickled products like black bean sauce (豆豉醬 dòuchǐ jiàng). One interesting feature is the heavy use of tea oil (茶油 cháyóu), pressed from the seeds of a close relative of the tea plant, and since raw tea oil is said to cause digestive problems, this is said to account for Jiangxi’s lack of cold or raw dishes. Last but not least, the southern third of the province near Guangdong is historically a Hakka stronghold, a cuisine I cover in more detail in the Guangdong episode.

I was mildly surprised that there is one restaurant chain in Singapore that claims a Jiangxi heritage, namely GO Noodle House (有間麵館, “There’s Room Noodle House”), with locations in Somerset and Tampines. Their website spins a nice tale about Emperor Kangxi stopping for a bowl of rice noodles with some lakeside fishermen, proclaiming them the Best Noodles Under Heaven (天下第一麵), and then tweaking the recipe with a splash of rice wine. Slightly more factually, while Jiangxi’s capital Nanchang is indeed known for its mifen rice noodles, the chain originates from Malaysia — but hey, I’ll take what I can get, so it was time to check it out.

The restaurant lurks three levels below the ground in 313@Somerset, but is done up nicely with grey brick veneer, round faux moon gates, earthenware jars of Chinese wine, etc. I ordered the Double Beef Combo Noodles (特级双牛拼), which came with thinly sliced beef and dense, fine-grained meatballs, outwardly resembling Vietnamese pho. However, the taste of the soup was very different, with a subtle but distinct fish taste and a shot of sweet Shaoxing Huadiao wine (紹興花雕酒), made from glutinous rice and added at the very end the moment the soup is served. The mixian were much like those in Yunnan or Guangxi, thick, white and slippery, and there was a little dish of murderously spicy bird’s-eye chilli blended with lime and maybe a touch of shrimp paste, which tasted like Thailand.

My better half tried her luck with the Hakka Sauce with Century Egg Noodles (客家酱加皮蛋). The thin wheat noodles were served “dry”, with the broth on the side and a spray of toppings including slivered mushrooms, salty ikan bilis dried anchovies, and of course the eponymous century eggs, made by soaking duck eggs in an alkaline solution. Tasty!

Still in the mood for noodles, while shopping for river snail noodles I stumbled into “Sunshine Mountain” (阳际山野 Yángjì Shānyě) brand Nanchang noodles (南昌拌粉 Nánchāng bànfěn), named after the capital of Jiangxi province and promising “a bowl of Jiangxi” (一碗江西 yīwǎn jiāngxī) in a box. How could I say no to that? Preparation is somewhat tedious: place noodles in cold water, bring to boil, cook for 10 minutes, drain, add dried spring onion and hot water, drain again, then add everything else (two kinds of pickles, peanuts, chilli/mala oil, fragrant oil and “special dark sauce”) and mix. Video of the whole process here courtesy of vloggers CangCang & LaoZhang, who are also exploring Chinese snacks, one province at a time.

So how? Good! In fact, this was quite possibly my favorite Chinese-style instant noodle to date. There’s a lot going on here tastewise, but the sesame oil and bean paste (I think?) tie it all together, the chilli is not too strong, and the noodles are pleasantly chewy even after the long cooking time. And since a pack goes for as little as $1.60 on Shopee, the price is right too.

Last but not least, I went on a cosmic adventure at Chef China 华厨 Hua Chu in Bugis, the (I quote) “Singapore 1st Space Theme Chinese Cuisine Restaurant”, bedecked with more taikonauts than the Chinese space station. The vast majority of the menu here is Sichuanese, but I fired my takeaway retro rockets for the Steamed Pork in Lotus Leaf Cake ($18.80).

Steamed pork with rice flour (粉蒸肉 fěnzhēngròu) is a classic Jiangxi dish where fatty pork belly is mixed with spices and ground rice and then steamed until soft. At Chef China it’s served in the traditional style with lotus leaf buns (荷叶饼 héyè bǐng), thus named after their appearance when opened (no actual lotuses involved) and identical to those used for the Hokkien kong bak pau. The belly was atop a bed of mushy green peas, a Sichuanese touch that reminded me of the traditional Thursday pea soup back in Finland; the army canteen sure could have used this chilli sauce instead of the usual mustard. I packed the meat into the bun like a hamburger and chomped away, and the combo was quite tasty! In the slightly sweet bun everything comes together in harmony, since the pork belly’s fat layer is meltingly soft, the meat provides a foundation and the mushy rice kind of smooths it all out.

Spicy but nice: that pretty much sums up Jiangxi. I’ll stock up on those Nanchang noodles for the next apocalypse and set my rocket’s course for the next tastebud explosion.

<<< Anhui | Index | Chongqing >>>

34 Province Project: Anhui 安徽

Anhui is a province in central China, and before I started writing this episode, this was literally the only thing I knew about it. Wikipedia tells me the population is some 60 million, the name comes from the two cities of Anqing and Huizhou, and the capital is Hefei, none of which I can claim even the remotest familiarity with. Huizhou, though, is now a part of the city of Huangshan, “Yellow Mountain”, thus named after the scenic UNESCO World Heritage site and the province’s top tourist draw.

Anhui cuisine (徽菜 huī cài) may be one of the Eight Great, but it hasn’t made much of a dent outside China. Most sources handwave about wild herbs, but I suspect this is due to the fact that the adjective most commonly used to describe Anhui food is “stinky”. This is not just some random insult, mind you, since two of its most famous dishes both proudly start with the character 臭 chòu, “bad smell”.

Stinky dish #1 is stinky mandarin fish (臭鳜鱼 chòu guìyú), prepared by fermenting the freshwater fish in brine for eight days. The only restaurant in Singapore where I could find this on the menu was Xiao Yao Ge (逍遥阁, “Happy Pavilion”) out in Jurong, but sadly they’ve stopped selling it.

I had better luck with stinky dish #2, namely stinky tofu (臭豆腐 chòu dòufu), a dish Singaporeans associate with the night markets of Hong Kong and Taiwan, but it originally hails from Anhui. Now the word “stinky” is ambiguous in that many things like durian, blue cheese and wet socks have disagreeable aromas, but in Japanese, the character 臭 has the reading kusai, unambiguously derived from 糞 kuso, “shit”. And there’s no way to beat around the bush here: having previously sampled the stuff in Taiwan, I can confirm that stinky tofu smells like shit, in the most literal sense possible, a powerful, faecal funk. Science tells us that this is because they’re both redolent of indole, the chemical compound responsible for shit smelling like shit.

Unsurprisingly there are only a few stinky tofu shops in Singapore, but since the most famous, Geylang’s Mini Star, is very much Hong Kong style, I opted for the other one, Old Tu Kee (老涂记) in Singapore’s solitary street market, Bugis Village. Deathly quiet at Friday lunchtime, the shop serves up stinky tofu, some Sichuanese noodles and seems to have recently added another famously stinky dish, Guangxi river snail noodles. I opted for set #2, five pieces with chilli sauce, and girded my nostrils for the olfactory assault.

So how? To my surprise, my nose barely noticed: you can usually smell a stinky tofu joint before you see it, but here l’odeur de toilette was barely perceptible, more a whiff of a fart than a portapotty at a burrito festival. The Instagram-friendly serving complete with flag was cooked to order (I was customer #4 today), very crispy/crumbly on the outside and soft on the inside. The tofu was an off-white greyish color, but still reasonably firm, with a hint of a funky, slightly sour aftertaste that haunted my burps for the next hour or so afterward. The chilli sauce was quite mild, but cut the oil nicely, as did the pickled cabbage served on the side. All in all, inoffensive and quite edible, but I’m unlikely to become a regular.

To cleanse my tastebuds and nostrils, I headed to the only actual Anhui shop I could find in the country, namely Gulixiang Cooked Food (骨里香熟食 Gǔlǐxiāng shúshí) at People’s Park. Hailing from Fuyang, Anhui, the franchise’s name translates to “Bone-In Fragrance”, and they’re above all known for their braised chicken dishes, braising being a classic Anhui technique (also used by half of China, it must be said). Here in Singapore, they also retail the Harbin red sausages I sampled in the Heilongjiang episode and a few odds and ends like chicken feet, but the menu is dominated by pork parts: skin, face, snout, trotters, you got it.

I picked up a smoked pig trotter (熏猪蹄) for $5, brought it home, peeled it open and cracked open a bottle of Jing-A Worker’s Pale Ale to go with it. “Now wait a moment”, I hear you ask, “what does a hip Beijing microbrewery named after the capital’s license plate (京A) have to do with Anhui?” Well, turns out Carlsberg acquired a stake in 2019 and started manufacturing it in bulk at their shiny new 100,000-hectolitre brewery in Tianchang, Anhui, a thousand km south of the capital, and this is where my bottle came from as well.

My Anhui-in-Singapore pig trotter was a bit of a challenge to eat, since the intimidating exterior hides a mess of bones, collagen and cartilege. There wasn’t much in the way of smoke flavour, but the odd morsel of meat lurking in there was quite tasty, and I was reminded of Korean jokbal (족발), a similar soy sauce braised trotter treat, although that’s usually served deboned instead of making you do the work. As for the Beijing-in-Anhui Worker’s Pale, it was rather too hoppy for me, Jing-A’s Mandarin Wheat is much more to my liking.

I’m a little tempted to return to Gulixiang and try an entire roast chicken next time. But “the greedy come to a shitty end” (Ahneella on paskainen loppu), say the Finns, so it’s time to draw this stinker of an episode to a close. Onward!

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