34 Province Project: Vegetarian Chinese food in Singapore

In Singapore, “vegetarian Chinese” tends to be pretty much synonymous with Buddhist cuisine (斋菜 zhāi cài), which focuses heavily on replicating mainstream Chinese dishes using all sorts of inventive gluten or soy-based substitutes for meat. Many hawker centres have a stall or two specialising in this, and it’s often also the cheapest option around, but I’ve rarely found the meals particularly satisfying: like eating a tofu-lentil burger, it’s hard not to compare it to the “real” (meaty) thing and not be at least slightly disappointed. There are a couple of chains like Elemen that offer quite tasty upmarket versions of this, but they’re also priced to match.

On my culinary journey through the 34 provinces, I was thus pleasantly surprised to run into quite a few regional Chinese dishes that have been vegetarian since day one and really deserve more recognition. Here’s a quick summary of dishes and places in no particular order.

Obligatory but important disclaimer: very few if any of these places are purely vegetarian or even advertise these dishes as vegetarian, so broths and sauces may contain trace amounts of meat or seafood from cross-contamination or even ingredients like chicken powder (鸡精). Diner beware.

Hubei

“Pot helmets” aka guōkuī (锅盔) at A Gan Guo Kui, Funan. China’s answer to Indian naan flatbread, half the flavours on the menu (snow vegetable, hazelnut chocolate, red bean, coconut) are vegetarian.

Tianjin

“Chinese crepes” aka jiānbing guǒzi (煎饼馃子) at Wenjiabao (温家饱), People’s Park, Chinatown. If you pick shredded potato as your filling, it’s egg-etarian and quite tasty.

“Tofu brain” (豆腐脑 doufunao) at Guang Ju Ren Kitchen, Yong Kang Food Court, Defu. Warm tofu in savoury broth with preserved veg, chilli etc is vegetarian and tasty, and so are quite a few of the other dishes here: leek & egg pancakes, shredded potato, wood ear fungus, etc. (Plenty of meaty choices too, though, so pick carefully.)

Shaanxi

Shaanxi’s most famous dishes may be meaty paomo soup and greasy rougamo burgers, but Shaanxi classic liángpí (涼皮) is always vegetarian, and so are biang biang noodles if you choose the basic yóupōmiàn (油泼面) “oil-splashed” style. You can even complete the Xian Triangle with a vegetarian rougamo at Qin Ji Rougamo, ARC.

Shanghai

Cold Shanghai noodles (上海冷面) and Scallion Oil Noodles (葱油面) at Dingtele, Kovan. You can find these at many other Shanghainese places too, including Din Tai Fung.

Heilongjiang (Dongbei)

I always thought the cuisine this far north would be super meaty, but there’s actually lots of veggie dishes to be found! “Three Earths” (地三鲜 dìsānxiān) of capsicum, eggplant and potato, “dry pot” cauliflower (干锅有机菜花), fried tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋), and even Chinese barbeque has surprisingly many vegetarian options like beancurd rolls (烧干豆腐巻), mantou buns, shiitake mushrooms, etc. Many options in Chinatown, but I like Dong Bei Cai Guan in Bukit Batok.

Yunnan

The Yun Nans chain has lots of interesting mushroom, tofu and vegetable dishes. Porcini is always a tasty umami bomb, but try the Sauteed Asparagus with Golden Fungus and Mushrooms (金耳花菇炒芦笋) for something a bit more unusual. Olive fried rice is also tasty.

Hunan

Hunanese cuisine has many unusual flavors, some of them vegetarian: century eggs with pickled chilli, green beans with Chinese olive, stir-fried cucumber with perilla, Changsha cold noodles, and more. Check out Hunan Traditional at Chinatown or Xiang’s Signature in Bugis.

And that’s a wrap. Stay tuned for the wrap-up!

<<< Hunan | Index | Wrap-up >>>

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34 Province Project: Hunan 湖南

Hunan, “South of [Dongting] Lake”, is a large province in central China, the mirror twin of north-of-lake Hubei. It is perhaps best known in the West as the birthplace and initial power base of Chairman Mao, and not surprisingly a disproportionate number of the Communist old guard hail from the area.

Hunanese cuisine, known in Chinese as Qiang cuisine (湘菜 Xiāng cài) after the Xiang river that runs through Hunan and drains in the Yangtze, is one of the Eight Great Traditions and is well known for being “dry and spicy” (干辣 gān là). Unlike nearby Sichuan, the numbing Sichuan pepper is rarely used; instead, the Hunanese like their chillis straight up, and employ smoking and pickling to add flavour.

I must admit that before this episode, I had never eaten Hunanese food, a particularly shameful admission since one of our good friends in Sydney hailed from the province. Alas, our meals together always stuck to the laowai-friendly staples like chilli-free hotpot, perhaps understandably so since kids on both sides were only toddlers at the time. In any case, it was long past time to fill in this gap in my education.

My first lesson was a takeaway meal from Xiang Signature (湘香厨房 Xiāngxiāng chúfáng, “Xiang Fragrance Kitchen”), which sprawls across several shophouses on Liang Seah St, another small Mainland-Chinatown in Bugis, and came well recommended by several Redditors. The interior is simply but stylishly decorated, an effect only slightly spoiled by their choice of soundtrack, a rousing kindergarten-friendly rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”.

Following the guidance of /u/PickleShaman, I started off with Hunan Style Fried Pork (农家小炒肉), top left. You’d be excused for thinking there’s a mix of veggies there, but nope, it’s all sliced green chillies, with crispy bits of pork reminiscent of huiguorou, all tied together with a touch of black bean sauce. Spicy, but not overpoweringly so.

Up next was Olive Vegetable with Green Bean (橄榄四季豆). A vegetarian riff on Sichuan classic green beans with minced pork, this has nothing to do with the Mediterranean diet: the “olive” here is Canarium album (橄榄 gǎnlǎn) aka “Chinese olive”, thus named because the fruit grow in trees, are the size and shape of large olives, and can be mixed with mustard greens and fermented into a tapenade-like dark, salty, black paste simply called “olive vegetable” (橄榄菜 gǎnlǎn cài). This paste is most commonly used for porridge and fried rice, the latter a common dish particularly in Thailand, and while it doesn’t really taste like olives, it adds a nice earthy, umami kick to any dish. This was probably my favorite.

I ordered the Purple Perilla Cucumber (紫苏黄瓜) expecting a cold, raw cucumber dish, but was rather surprised to get a box of what looked an awful lot like sautéed zucchini instead. Yes, this was stir-fried cucumber in a starchy soy-based sauce, with some sliced chilli and the perilla, perhaps better known these days by its Japanese name shiso. A sushi condiment with a strong, distinct, vaguely minty taste that resists description, it’s commonly used Korean and Vietnamese cooking but I had never seen it used for Chinese food before. All in all, a rather unusual combo of tastes and textures.

Finally, a bowl of Tea Tree Mushroom with Chicken (茶树菇鸡汤). Tea tree mushroom (茶树菇 cháshùgū), apparently very common in Hunanese cuisine, is a rather large mushroom typically dried and reconstituted for use in soups, where the long stems in particular retains a chewy texture, but not much in the way of taste. Mushrooms aside, though, this was a pretty standard bowl of herbal chicken soup complete with a couple of very bony chunks of chicken.

For round two we headed to Hunan Traditional Cuisine in Chinatown. The apparently-nonsensical Chinese name, “Dense Whereas Hunan Food” (密斯湘菜 Mìsī Xiāngcài), comes from the phonetic Chinese reading of its original location on Smith St (史密斯街 Shǐmìsī jiē), only with the first syllable dropped for unclear reasons — and for bonus points, the restaurant is now a few blocks away on Mosque St, making the connection even more obscure.

On entry, you’re greeted by a chipper bronze bust of Hunan’s iconic mass murderer, which leaves you a bit of a bad taste in your mouth even before you sit down on the otherwise rather nice leather seats. On a random Wednesday evening the place was packed and the boisterous table of Koreans in front of us was already several beer bottles deep into their evening.

We started with an unusual appetizer of roasted and pickled chillis with century eggs (烧辣椒皮蛋), sounding similar to the Sichuan version I sampled in JB, but here they were mashed together in a mortar and pestle at your table. You’d be excused for not finding the end result very appetizing, but it was actually delicious: chilli heat, vinegar sourness, cool egg white jelly, all tied together with creamy egg yolk and fragrant sesame oil. Yum!

Appetizer out of the way, it was time for Steamed Fish Head with Preserved Chilli (剁椒蒸鱼头), the speciality here and one of Hunan’s best known dishes. Here they kick it up another notch by using not one, but two kinds of chillis to make it a Twin-Color Fish Head (双色鱼头): the actual head is coated in fresh red chilli intended mostly as decoration, while the meaty collar is covered with a mash of pickled green chilli, all floating in an oily broth laden with more chilli. The restaurant uses bighead carp (松鱼 sōngyú), a large, slightly muddy freshwater fish that’s quite popular in Singapore, and given the appearance the taste is, if not exactly mild, at least less brutal than you might think. Don’t forget to dig out the cheeks, which are the best bit!

On the side we had some cauliflower with cured pork (腊肉 làròu). This is often translated “bacon”, but it’s leaner, drier, sliced thin and intensely smoky, more resembling air-cured meat. It was served up in a heated mini wok that cooked the cauliflower as we are, and was tasty if salty. And the last fish was Changsha cold noodles (长沙凉面), which reminded me of what they call “cold Chinese” (hiyashi-chuka 冷やし中華) in Japanese: cold wheat noodles similar to those in ramen, doused in a vinegar-sesame oil broth, shredded cucumber and chopped peanuts. Tasty but oily. With a bottle of beer and some rice on the side, the total for 2 came to just about exactly $100.

All in all, Hunanese food was quite a positive surprise, much more varied than I had expected with all sorts of flavours I would not normally associate with China like smoky dried meat, shiso leaves and olive vegetable. It was also much less spicy than I had expected, although I suspect this may be partly a local adaptation. I’m definitely looking forward to sampling more of this.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it: after 33 varying awkward segues, we’ve run out of provinces to cover. (I toyed briefly with the idea of making Singapore the 35th, but that would probably get my work permit cancelled for treason, and in any case I’ve already covered quite a few invented-in-Singapore dishes under Hainan and Fujian.) But stay tuned: there’s a wrap-up coming, as well as a special highlights edition of our vegetarian readers.

<<< Shandong | Index

34 Province Project: Shandong 山東

Shandong (山东, “East of the Mountains”) is a coastal province in northern China known primarily – to uncultured foreign devils like me, at any rate – for its peanuts. And if I really wracked my brains, I might also have recalled that it’s home to Qingdao (Tsingtao), a former German concession famous for its eponymous Tsingtao beer, that staple of overseas Chinese restaurants everywhere.

Delectable as the combination may be, there’s more to Shandong than peanuts and beer. The local cuisine (鲁菜 Lǔ cài) is considered the forebear of all northern Chinese cooking, so much so that Beijing and Tianjin cuisine are considered mere offshoots of it and trying to differentiate the three is an exercise in drawing lines in sand. The positive spin on that is that now I have the opportunity to sample three times as many things, so let’s get to work!

Somewhat to my surprise, there are a number of dedicated Shandong restaurants in Singapore, albeit of varying degrees of authenticity. The most visible brand is Thousand Tastes Shan Dong Da Bao (千味山東大包 Qiānwèi Shāndōng dàbāo), a chain of little hole-in-the-wall shops in MRT stations dishing out Chinese pastries for under $2 a pop. Stuffed, steamed bao (包) buns are eaten across the entire country, but Qingdao has a respectable claim to inventing the “big” (大包 dàbāo) variant stuffed with multiple ingredients. At the giant tent just outside Chinatown MRT Exit C (People’s Park), which offers four different varieties of dabao, I tried out the Chinese Cabbage and Pork Bun (白菜粉条肉大包 báicài fěntiáo ròu dàbāo), which is quite possibly the most filling meal you can get in Singapore for $1.50: a huge, chewy, savoury bun generously stuffed with juicy pork, cabbage and vermicelli. I much prefer this northern style over the sickly sweet, often mushy Cantonese versions, so this was perfect.

At the Woodlands outlet, I tried out the Pancake with Leek & Egg (韭菜鸡蛋盒子 jiǔcài jīdàn hézi, $1.50), which was also grrreat: lots of leek and bits of egg in a thin half-moon wrapper just able to contain the juices inside. My accomplice splurged $2 on the somewhat misnamed Biscuit with Meat & Veg (菜肉火烧 càiròu huǒshāo) and was equally impressed by a chewy, pillowy bun not entirely unlike an English muffin, stuffed generously with pork stewed with five spice and just a hint of chilli. This being an unscheduled stop, I only found out later that huoshao are considered a specifically Shandong delicacy, and the donkey burgers in Hebei are supposed to be made with these. Score! Northern Chinese snacking doesn’t get much better than this.

Shandong is also the home of the Chinese grape wine (葡萄酒 pútáojiǔ) industry. While grape-based liquors have been known in China for millennia, Western-style methods were only introduced in 1892 when Zhang Bishi founded the Changyu (张裕) Pioneer vineyard in Yantai, Shandong. Aimed squarely at the local market, for a long time Chinese wines were sickly sweet and a Taiwanese red I tested around 2007 retains a special place in my memories as the second worst wine I’ve ever tried. (The worst was a 14 pence bottle with a hand-stenciled label picked up from a Maltese farmer.) Have Chinese tastes shifted since? It was time to find out.

Chinese wines aren’t all that easy to find in Singapore, so I placed an order with specialist retailers Ang Leong Huat, kicking off with a $26 bottle of Changyu Zenithwirl Cabernet Sauvignon. The rather awesome English name has no obvious connection to the Chinese name Zuìshīxiān (醉诗仙) or “Drunk Poetry Fairy”, which I’m sure you’ll agree is even better, and the camel on the label hints that this actually hails from Xinjiang, long famous for grapes and thus an obvious place for wineries too. So how was it? Surprisingly decent. It’s definitely a little on the sweet side, but by no means overpoweringly so, and went quite nicely with some not-so-Chinese Brie and Manchego cheeses.

The next stop on the Shandong bus was a visit to the original Kitchener Rd coffee shop of Putien, the Michelin-starred brand famed for its Xinghua cooking and previously covered in the Fujian episode. The location is, frankly, bizarre: Kitchener Rd is in Little India, near Singapore’s dingiest red-light district Desker Rd, and the neighboring shops are mostly dodgy karaoke bars (exhibit A at left). But the shop inside looks just like you’d expect an upscale Chinese restaurant to be, although the artificially colored live fish — I didn’t even know this was a thing now — tip the hat at its colourful surroundings.

So why am I in a Fujianese restaurant again? Because it’s the only place in Singapore I could find that has Nine-Layer Intestine (九转粉肠), one of Shandong’s best-known dishes. The Shandong version is served in brown sauce, while the Fujianese version is braised in clear sauce and bears a disturbing resemblance to belly buttons. It tastes quite alright, though, a bit chewy but much less than you’d think, and there’s only a hint of intestine funk. Up next was another Shandong ingredient, prickly Japanese sea cucumber (刺参), served here in Chinese soup. Sea cucumbers are much esteemed in China, where they’re known as “sea ginseng” (海参 hǎishēn), but as the Qing-era poet Yuan Mei concluded, they have “little to no taste, are full of sand, and are fishy in smell”. To give credit where credit is due, there was neither sand not fishy smell in Putien’s version, but the end result was crumbly, gelatinous rubber, edible enough but thoroughly tasteless. (The chicken stock was good though!)

Our third starter was the pièce de résistance, which the menu called Chilled Jello Worms (土笋凍 tǔsǔndòng), made from braising and chilling Sipunculus nudus, a species of marine worm, delicately called “earth bamboo” (土笋 tǔsǔn). These are a speciality of Xiamen, Fujian and aren’t really eaten in Shandong, but hey, who’s counting? No cap, these looked pretty gnarly, especially since the worms are kind of curled up in the jellies and stretch out to a solid 5-8 cm if you make the mistake of trying to take a small bite first, but once again the worms have little taste and they’re slathered in enough garlic, chilli and soy to hide any that remains.

With the Fear Factor qualification round complete it was time to move onto the mains. Putian heavily promotes their 100-Second Stewed Yellow Croaker (百秒黄花鱼), but it was disappointing, quite bony and very bland. The Ca Fen “rubbed noodles” (擦粉) was very close to the one at Xinghua, earthy and porridge-y, while the Fermented Red Rice Wine Prawns (红糟虾) tasted like red rice wine chicken, only harder to eat because the prawns were in their shells. We had some reasonable tea to go with it, complete with an hourglass for timing your steeping, and on the side some deep-fried seaweed and zha cai pickles. Overall, though, the food was a bit of a disappointment.

For my final Shandong experience, I took the family to lunch at Hand in Hand Shandong (手拉手山东菜馆), the sister restaurant of the most delectable Hand in Hand Beijing. Continuing the theme of oddly located Chinese restaurants, it’s located in banker/tourist central Boat Quay, where locals rarely venture, and I’m actually pretty surprised they made it through COVID. They have air-conditioned seating upstairs, but we made the most of the location by sitting al fresco by the riverside and cracked open an obligatory bottle of Tsingtao.

This time I had done my homework by consulting my Qingdao-born ex-colleague Jiang, who wasn’t able to join, but was kind enough to go through the menu in advance and recommend his favourites. We kicked off with Shredded Chinese Cabbage with Jellyfish (白菜丝拌海蜇), which is just what the name says: raw Chinese cabbage (a vegetable I’ve never seen eaten raw in China before!) with chewy, crunchy strips of jellyfish in a garlic-vinegar sauce, and this was my wife’s favourite today. You can never go wrong with red-braised pork (红烧肉), Chairman Mao’s favorite dish and described as such in previous editions of the menu, but now listed as the blander “Shandong Home Braise”. Wrap it up in a mantou bun and feel the glorious fat trickle everywhere!

I also rather enjoyed the Stir Fry Pig Kidney (爆炒腰花) with mild chillies, wood ear fungus and bamboo shoots, cooked with the Shandong technique of “explosive stir-frying” (爆炒 bàochǎo), meaning very quickly with constant motion in a red hot wok, with the kidneys thinly sliced into “flowers” (花) that curl up prettily. This technique, incidentally, is also the source of that infamous menu translating 干爆鸭子 as “Fuck the duck until exploded”: it’s supposed to be duck explosive-cooked until dry (干 gàn), but simplified Chinese unwisely collapsed “dry” (乾) and “stem/do/fuck” (幹) into the single character 干, leading to aisles labeled “干品 / Fuck Goods” in Chinese supermarkets ever since. Oops!

It wouldn’t be Shandong without some dumplings, so on Jiang’s recommendation we tried out the fresh fish dumplings (鲜墨鱼水饺), quite an uncommon filling. The dumplings were, indeed, very fishy, rather resembling the canned fiskebullar that sustained me on a teenage backpacking romp through Norway. Not bad as such, just, well, fishy. The leek and pork “potsticker” dumplings (鲜虾韭菜猪肉锅贴) were competent, if not hugely exciting, and that was pretty much that. I’d been warned in advance that much of the menu was now permanently “Sold Out” and alas, two of Jiang’s favorites, Qingdao Cold Noodles (青岛海菜凉粉) and Cucumber with Snail Meat (黄瓜拌螺肉) were indeed not available.

The good news is, they did still have dessert. Sweet Potatoes in Hot Toffee (拔絲地瓜) is made by deep-frying sweet potatoes and dunking them in a molten sugar solution, not unlike Beijing bingtanghulu (and quite unlike Western toffee, there’s no butter involved). The show happens at your table: the waitress teased the pieces apart, creating the “threads” (絲) of the Chinese name, and then dipped the pieces in ice water to harden the candy shell. Looks simple, but the contrast of textures and flavours worked really nicely, and despite being pretty stuffed we worked out way through almost the entire pile. Definitely a high point to end the meal. Interestingly, the dish is known in Japan as well, where it goes by the odd moniker “university potatoes” (大学芋 daigakuimo) after the dish cropped up in the bookish Tokyo district of Kanda, likely thanks to an enterprising hawker from Shandong.

Total damage was $146 for 4, not as high a markup as you might expect for the area. But there’s no rest for this potato: it’s time to explode the duck and move onto our very last province.

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