34 Province Project: Liaoning 辽宁

Liaoning, “Liao Pacified” after the Liao River, is the smallest in size but the largest in population of the three provinces that make up northeast China (东北 Dōngběi). Nestled against the Yellow Sea to the south and bordering (North) Korea to the east, history buffs may know it as Mukden, the Manchu name for capital Shenyang during the Manchukuo puppet regime in the years leading up to World War 2.

In China, the cuisines of the three northeastern provinces are usually being lumped together as Northeastern cuisine (东北菜 Dōngběi cài), but you can find a few unique things in Liaoning if you squint hard enough. First, there are Korean flavours filtering in across the Yalu River, since Liaoning was once a part of the proto-Korean Goguryeo empire and retains a sizable Korean minority to this day. Second, there’s an abundance of seafood thanks to the coastline, exemplified by the port city of Dalian (Port Arthur). But while Manchuria covers all three provinces, I’m going somewhat arbitrarily dedicate this episode to Manchu food, covering Korean influences in Jilin and plain-old-Dongbei in Heilongjiang instead.

Even by Chinese standards, the Manchu (滿族 Mǎnzú, “Man people”) have a really complex history. Originally known as the Jurchen, they started off as a bunch of quiet pig farmers settled in what is today Dongbei, quite unlike the nomadic Mongols who ruled Ming Dynasty China. Through a series of events far too complicated to sum up in a single sentence, they were in the right place at the right time when the Ming empire fell apart, so they declared a new Qing dynasty and marched to Beijing in 1644, taking over all China. For a while the Manchu tried to avoid intermingling with the Han Chinese, even building the Great Wall’s lesser-known cousin the Willow Palisade to try to keep Han migrants out of Mongol and Manchu territories. Turns out a shallow ditch topped with wispy trees worked about as well as you’d expect at keeping people out, so in the mid-1700s Emperor Qianlong gave up and embraced the melting pot, allowing Han migration and even inventing the Manchu–Han Imperial Feast (满汉全席 Mǎnhàn quánxí) to showcase the unity and wealth of the empire. Alas, in 1912 the Qing in turn fell apart and yet more complicated geopolitical shenanigans ensued, with Japan invading China and declaring the notionally independent puppet state of Manchukuo (滿洲國 Mǎnzhōuguó), even though by this time most people in the territory were Han Chinese. Today there are some 10 million self-identified Manchu left in China, half of them in Liaoning, although the vast majority no longer speak the language.

Phew! Where were we again? Ah yes, the food. In Singapore there are two Manchurian candidates to choose from, but the “Manchurian” of the Manchurian Club is an Indian concoction of deep-fried bits in soy sauce — see the Tibet episode for more on that. Fortunately there’s also Manchurian Lamb Hotpot (满族全羊铺 Mǎnzú quán yáng pù) in Smith St, Chinatown, which we visited with 34 Province Project readers Mr Lieu and Ms Y in tow. The Chinese name literally means “Manchu Complete Sheep Shop”, as is obvious the moment you open the door and are simultaneously dazzled by Manchu bling and enveloped in a cloud of boiled mutton. Ulaanbaatar flashback time! And they’re not kidding about the Complete Sheep part either, since the menu includes BBQ Lamb Penis at $3.5 a pop.

The star of the show here is the Old Beijing Lamb Spine Hotpot (京城羊蝎子), served in a massive brass cauldron. This was excellent, with meaty spine chunks precooked to falling-off-the-bone perfection, and the salty, only slightly herbal stock had a tasty deep lamb flavour that you could (and we did!) drink as is. We added in a Vegetable Platter, some tofu skin rolls plus homemade noodles, which looked the part, being big, flat and chewy.

The staff also recommended the BBQ Lamb Ribs (宫廷锡纸烤羊排, “Palace Tinfoil Baked Ribs”), which were also great, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with an addictive cumin-chilli dry dip and condom packages of disposable gloves for everyone. To wash it down we chose Snow Beer, China’s Budweiser, because it’s the #1 selling beer in the country, tastes like making love in a canoe (read: close to water), and hails from Liaoning’s capital Shenyang. Mr Lieu, brave soul that he is, also tried out the Sheep Milk Tea (白炒羊奶茶), but this tasted disappointingly like tea with White Rabbit candies dissolved into it; the sheep milk used was almost certainly powdered. Total damage for 4 came to $170, which is not unreasonable given that this was a very meaty meal.

So all in all the food was quite good, but was it really Manchurian? Well, both main courses could plausibly have been served up at the Qing-era Imperial Palace in Beijing, so you could argue so, but both were also a pretty long way from the pork-and-millet diet of the original Manchu. Interestingly enough, across the border in Korea the very similar spicy pork spine soup gamjatang remains very popular, so perhaps there’s even more cross-pollination going on.

Spreading of cross-pollination, it’s time for dessert, namely an originally Manchu snack called sachima (沙琪玛, 杀骑马), made from strands of deep-fried dough bound together sugar syrup. It’s now widely eaten across China, with minor variations, and here in Singapore there’s exactly one hawker still making the stuff fresh. Alas, on both my visits to Pan Ji Cooked Food in Chinatown Complex the stall was closed, so here’s hoping Mr Poon is OK. I ended up scoring some at Tan Hock Seng (about which more in the Fujian episode), and the taste test confirmed that it really is in the same ball park as Rice Krispies treats in both taste and appearance, although more chewy than crunchy and with a subtler, malty, not overly sweet taste. Worth the $3 but I’m unlikely to become a regular.

And with that, it’s time to theatrically twirl my Fu Manchu moustache (unsurprisingly completely unrelated to Manchuria) and move onto the next province.

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34 Province Project: Qinghai 青海

Qinghai, “Blue Sea”, seems a singularly inappropriate name for this vast, landlocked, largely arid and barren province in the middle of western China. The name comes from its most famous feature, the strikingly blue Lake Kokonor (“Blue Lake” in Mongolian), calqued into Qinghai in Chinese.

Much of Qinghai is off limits to tourists without a permit, but in 2018 we stopped in provincial capital Xining for couple of days to acclimatise and paid a visit to nearby Kumbum Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s alma mater, before continuing onwards to Tibet. Historically, near all of Qinghai was in fact a part of the Tibetan province of Amdo, but the city is now overwhelmingly Han Chinese and it’s the Hui (Han Chinese) Muslims with their white skullcaps and green halal restaurants that are a much more visible minority now.

Consequently there isn’t really a unique “Qinghai cuisine” to speak of, and Wikipedia happily lumps it under the broader umbrella of Chinese Islamic cuisine, meaning the same kebabs, lamb, naan, yogurt and hand-pulled noodles we saw earlier in neighbouring Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia. Probably the most interesting dish I personally ran into was niàngpí (酿皮), wobbly giant noodles a solid square centimeter in diameter, served with a chilli-vinegar sauce and some breadlike pieces of fu (wheat gluten). Alas, the only restaurant in Singapore that used to serve the stuff, Alijiang once again, has dropped it from the menu, probably because nobody here knew what the hell it is.

Nevertheless, to my general astonishment, there is one Qinghai restaurant in Singapore! Yi Zun (伊尊) is a Chinese-Muslim halal restaurant specialising in beef noodles, and while they style themselves as Xinjiang cuisine, it’s run by Madam Aisha, who hails from Qinghai. Located in trendy Joo Chiat, the location seems a bit odd until you realise it’s right next to the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community in Geylang Serai. They briefly dropped off the Internet last year and I was afraid they had joined a long list of COVID casualties, but they’re doing fine and if anything the shop looks like it’s very recently completed a spiffy renovation, with a rather fascinating wall mural covering everything from the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow to camels in the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall, a completely pointless server bot wandering around, and a large framed poster of Madam Aisha beaming down on none other than Madam Aisha in the flesh.

The star of the show here is the Lanzhou-style Signature Beef Noodles we already taste tested in the Gansu episode, and they’re a worthy competitor to previous champion Western Mahua. The noodles are made to order, come in a selection of widths according to your liking, are served in a single long strand the way Allah intended them to be, and have just the right amount of chewiness (or “QQ”, as they like to say in Singapore). Excellent, although Western Mahua still has the edge because I found their mala chilli sauce tastier than the chilli-only variety here.

On the side, we had Xinjiang Skewers, and much to my amazement the mutton skewers came served on sticks of red willow (红柳 hóngliǔ), the first time I’d seen this since Xi’an. Unfortunately, the meat itself was kind of chewy with chunks of cartilage, and while we’d ordered the “mild spicy”, what we actually got was closer to nuclear spicy. The non-spicy beef skewers were better overall but not particularly exciting, so Western Mahua’s sister restaurant Alijiang maintains the edge here as well.

And that, somewhat regrettably, is pretty much it as far as Qinghai dishes are concerned, the rest of the menu is a halal-ified collection of Sichuanese and Cantonese staples like chicken siu mai, mala xiang guo and — my personal favorite — what the menu proclaims to be the “Xinjiang classic” of Chongqing-style grilled barramundi fish, this for a province that literally holds the Guinness World Record for being the land farthest from the sea. But hey, Qinghai is the “Blue Sea” after all, so maybe I’ll let them have their barramundi and flop onto the next province like a fish out of water.

<<< Ningxia | Index | Liaoning >>>

34 Province Project: Ningxia 宁夏

Ningxia (“Peaceful Xia”), formally the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, just might be the most obscure out of all 34 Chinese provinces. Carved out of Gansu only in 1958 to give China’s Hui Muslims a notional homeland, it’s small in size, small in population, and wedged up against the Gobi Desert and Inner Mongolia, firmly out of the way as far as the course of Chinese history is concerned. The Xia (夏) of the name means “summer”, and shares the character with the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty of 2500 BC, but it actually refers to the Western Xia (Tangut), a Tibeto-Burman people who ruled these parts from the late 800s to 1227. In that fateful year, Genghis Khan attacked for the sixth time and completed what may be the first recorded case of successful genocide, giving the Tanguts a choice between “peacefully” joining his horde (hence the name) or death, and consigning the Western Xia to historical oblivion.

Given this cheerful history, Ningxia is not exactly a culinary hotspot, its primary historical export being the recently trendy “superfood” of goji berries (枸杞 gǒuqǐ) and its best-known dish being hand-picked lamb (手抓羊肉 shǒuzhuā yángròu), although even this simple dish of boiled mutton eaten by hand is widely eaten in the entire Mongol-sphere. Even the Hui Muslims who the region is supposed to be for form only a small minority (30% or so), and the heart of their culture lies in cities like Shaanxi‘s Xi’an to the south.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that Ningxia is now best known in China for grape wine. Famously, in a blind taste test of 5 Ningxia wines against 5 top-flight Bordeauxs, the top four slots all went to Ningxia wines.

Once again ordering online from Ang Leong Huat, I picked up a $35 2019 Riesling from Kanaan Winery, with some trepidation: Chinese wines tend to be sweet, and Riesling can swing either way. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a crisp, lemony tipple, quite light in an almost NZ Sauvignon Blanc way. Definitely my favorite Chinese wine to date!

Drinks sorted, it was time to get my hands on some of that hand-picked lamb, and one of the few places in Singapore that offers this is Alijiang in Vivocity. Attentive readers will doubtless recall that this was one of the very first restaurants visited back in episode #1, Xinjiang, which also makes this the first restaurant to cover two provinces. With COVID measures mostly rolled back, it was busier than ever (reserve a table!) and we ordered up a feast. What the English menu calls Hand-Shred Mutton is Dōngxiāng shǒuzhuāròu (东乡手抓肉) in Chinese, a tip of the hat to the Muslim Dongxiang people who live in a corner of Gansu near Qinghai. $38 gets you a plate of 8 fatty lamb ribs, steamed until so soft that they do, indeed, fall off the bone if you so much as poke at them — delicious! The bean paste dip on the right was kinda meh, and raw onion was raw onion, but the chilli dip in the middle was great, far less spicy than it looks and a nice accompaniment to everything including the naan bread. Ningxia wine not featuring on the menu, we washed it down with Wusu Beer (乌苏啤酒) from Xinjiang, whose primary selling points are apparently that the bottle is large and the alcohol content is high; the taste, alas, was distinctly watery. Interestingly enough, Wusu is also fully owned by Carlsberg, meaning that the profits from both hipster Beijing brew Jing-A and this stuff flow back to Denmark.

Doubling down on lambtastic action, we also ordered Alijiang’s most heavily advertised specialty, “Grilled Lamb in Cage” (架子肉 jiàziròu, “shelf meat”), an actual Uyghur speciality from southern Xinjiang but popular mostly for the theatrics: true to the name, the lamb comes attached to a brass cage with a flame for show in the middle. It’s carved up at your table and served, incongruously enough, with a slice of not-so-Xinjiang roasted pineapple on the side. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, fatty but not excessively so, this was the top dish of the day and disappeared in a flash.

For dessert, we had a complimentary if equally inauthentic display of Uyghur dancing. The soft serve machine was broken, but at least the bill was accurate this time: $150 for 4. So can I now say been there, done that for Ningxia? Not quite, but hey, even this was a lot further than I thought I’d get in Singapore. Onward!

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