34 Province Project: Yunnan 云南

Yunnan, “South of the Clouds”, is the closest China gets to Southeast Asia in both culture and cuisine. 25 of China’s official 58 minority groups can be found here, many of them merrily straddling the border, with groups like the Miao (Hmong), Hani (Akha), Lisu and Tai also found in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

I’ve never had to chance to visit Yunnan proper, but I have been just on the other side of the border a couple of times, sampling Tai Dam cuisine in Luang Namtha, Laos and trekking with Lisu hill tribes in Chiang Dao National Park, Thailand. The most interesting almost-Yunnan trip, though, was a visit to Mae Salong, founded in northern Thailand by Yunnanese remnants of the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) Army fleeing across the border to escape the Communists in the 1950s. Being in the notorious Golden Triangle, for decades they made a living in the opium trade working with equally notorious Burmese warlord Khun Sa, but in the eighties they laid down their poppies and AK-47s and switched to cultivating oolong tea and backpackers, with a sideline in Yunnanese noodles.

Given the variety of people living there, Yunnanese cuisine (滇菜 Diān cài) defies easy categorization, but the province is best known for slippery mĭxiàn (米线) rice noodles, the liberal use of chillies, a vast array of mushrooms, and pǔ’ěr (普洱) tea, a type of fermented, aged tea with a funky, earthy scent and taste.

I kicked off my exploration of Yunnan at the eponymous Yun Nans (云海肴 Yúnhǎiyáo, “Sea of Clouds Dishes”), a large Chinese chain with three Singapore outlets. The chain was actually founded by a bunch of Beijing hipsters in 2009, who in 2017 moved their HQ to Yunnan’s capital Kunming and opened a couple of outlets there to maximise their street cred. Only when writing this entry did I connect the dots, since it turns out the Yunnanese meal I’d eaten at a hip eatery in Beijing’s tarted up hutong district of Shichahai back in 2018 was an outlet of the same chain!

This time around, we ordered a Signature Set (云南精选) for delivery. First up was Poached Pork Collar with Pickled Chillies (腌菜松板肉), easily the most unusual dish of the lot: somewhere between a soup, a curry and a bowl of noodles, the flavour of the striking orange broth was complex but primarily sour thanks to the pickles, with a sharp chilli note and a few Sichuan peppers for that extra zing. Under the soft sliced pork lurked a few crinkle-cut potatoes, slices of an unidentifiable gourd and some slippery glass noodles. Everybody’s favorite, though, was the Crispy Duck with Dried Chillies (香酥鸭), Yunnan’s take on the Sichuan classic dried chilli chicken laziji, which looks murderously spicy but actually isn’t, with battered and deep-fried slivers of duck jostling with shredded dry chillies, some onions and a whole lotta garlic. The most unusual ingredient of the day was in the Sauteed Asparagus with Golden Fungus and Mushrooms (金耳花菇炒芦笋), where the “Golden Fungus” is Tremella aurantialba, a jelly fungus so obscure it doesn’t even have a picture on Wikipedia. Called golden ear (金耳 jīn’ěr) in Chinese, it’s a relative of the much more common snow fungus aka silver ear (银耳 yín’ěr). But whereas the snow fungus is thin, crunchy and ethereal, this looks disturbingly brain-like, has a spongy texture and tastes like nothing much. The still crispy asparagus was nice though. To wash it all down we had a bowl of Steampot Chicken Soup (汽锅鸡), apparently the chain’s signature dish and a Yunnanese classic but, I’m sorry to say, quite indistinguishable from the herbal chicken soup sold at your neighbourhood hawker centre, a few bony chunks of chicken in nondescript sweetish soup with a token wolfberry for colour. For dessert we had some Corn Cakes (玉米粑粑 yùmǐ bābā), supposedly a type of Naxi baba bread, which looked and tasted like sweet pancakes with corn chowder added to the batter. All in all, even making allowances for delivery, it was a pretty mixed bag at best.

The most famous Yunnanese dish, though, is crossing the bridge noodles (过桥米线 guòqiáo mĭxiàn), which come with a lovely if implausible story of a wife making soup for her husband studying on a little island. She brought the ingredients across separately to keep them warm, mixed the ingredients on arrival, and ta-dah, the soup was born, despite the anguished cries of physics students noting that maximising surface area will increase heat loss, not decrease it. Honguo (红锅 Hóngguō, “Red Pot”) is one of several small chains specialising in this in Singapore, and I tried out the Signature 12-Item Soup ($10.20) at their Bugis Junction outlet. The presentation is striking, and the Pot is indeed Red, but the taste was a little anticlimactic, the ingredients a frankly odd mishmash of pork, fish, shrimp etc and the chicken soup rather nondescript, salty and, fatally, only lukewarm. Not very impressed.

Undeterred, I crossed the bridge again at the wonderfully named Mademoiselle Tang Noodle (唐大小姐 Táng dàxiǎojiě), a hip little joint in Novena, packed at lunchtime on a random Friday. Here the menu also promises a DIY bento-box experience for the soup, but it actually came premixed. What you lose in the presentation is more than made up for in taste though, this was much tastier and $12.90 gets you a couple of generously sized prawns as well. Two thumbs up from my wife.

There are a couple of other interesting Yunnanese dishes on the menu, and after some deliberation I landed on the Rattan Pepper Chicken Rice Noodle (藤椒鸡米线 téngjiāo jī mǐxiàn), despite being warned no less than three times that “It’s spicy! Very spicy!” Rattan pepper here refers to Zanthoxylum armatum, known as green Sichuan pepper (麻椒 májiāo) in its typical dried spice form, but in Yunnan the fresh pods, téngjiāo (藤椒), are eaten as is. The pods look like tiny capers and have very little taste, but they crack open with a crunch and release a pop of the numbing má (麻) sensation Sichuan cuisine is famous for. And you’ll need all the numbing you can get, since those innocuous reddish-orange bits in the soup are fresh bird’s eye chillis aka chilli padi, the tiny little torpedoes of pain that spice up authentic Thai food. The spice was not completely overwhelming though, and the chicken, garlic chives, bean sprouts and other bits in the soup stood up to the pounding. Afterwards, I could still feel the slow burn in my stomach and a nice endorphin high kicked in, the way it used to when eating Thai food in Bangkok with my Thai colleagues. Ah, nostalgia. A final Middle Eastern exclamation mark was added by the Flower Cake (鲜花饼 xiānhuā bǐng), crumbly biscuits flavoured with a sweet, fragrant paste of glutinous rice and dark purple rose syrup, reminiscent of Turkish delight (lokum).

All in all, Mademoiselle Tang was easily my favourite of the three places we sampled, and I’m looking forward to visiting again. The Specialty Chicken Rice (瓦香鸡饭 Wǎxiāng jīfàn), apparently a classic Naxi dish, looks particularly intriguing — but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

<< Shanxi

34 Province Project: Shanxi 山西

Shanxi, “West of the Mountains”, has the misfortune of being a backwater stuck between two provinces of similar name and far more prominence, namely Shaanxi to the west and Shandong to the east. The high point in its history was around 500 BC during the Spring and Autumn Period, when the state of Jin (晋) briefly ruled the area only to be crushed by the megalomanical Qin rulers of Shaanxi by 221 BC, and it was all downhill from there. A dry highland plateau largely cut off from trade, the largest industry today is coal mining.

Shanxi cuisine (晋菜 Jìn cài) is thus not particularly famous even in China, but the area has made two notable contributions to the country’s culinary history. Shanxi aged vinegar (老陈醋 lǎo chén cù) is China’s spiritual equivalent to Italy’s balsamic vinegar and looks the part, being deep black and funky.

The other dish comes to us from Datong, technically the only place in Shanxi I’ve been to, since my train from Mongolia to Beijing made a brief unexpected detour through there. Rail buffs may know the city as the site of the Datong Locomotive Factory, once the world’s largest manufacturer of steam locomotives, where the production lines kept puffing until 1988. To keep the hungry steam engineers fed, Datong’s other key product is dāoxiāomiàn (刀削面), usually glossed in English as “knife-cut noodles”, but perhaps more exactly described as “knife-shaved noodles”. Unlike the pulled lamian of Lanzhou, they’re prepared by making a big brick of dough and then using a knife to slice strips off at an angle, creating wavy noodles of uneven cross-section, thicker in the middle and thin on the edges — check out this video to see how they’re made.

Daoxiaomian are reasonably common in Singapore, but as far as I can tell there are no specialist restaurants for these, or Shanxi food for that matter. Instead, they’re typically a sideline at northern Chinese restaurants serving up dumplings, lamian, and other wheaty fare. So one rainy day, I dialed up a bowl of the Signature Beef Shaved Noodles (招牌牛肉刀削面) from the wonderfully named Wonderful Cafe, a remarkably Google-resistant stall unpromisingly located at the S-11 coffeeshop next to Bishan station. (For my non-Singaporean readers, S-11 is a conglomerate that proudly markets “cheapest dormitories in Singapore for worker” (sic), recently in the news for hosting Singapore’s largest COVID-19 cluster; not where you’d expect to find gourmet fare.)

So how? Pretty good! The last time I tried these at Food Republic in Vivocity, the noodles tasted more undercooked than chewy, but the Wonderful version was more thinly cut and the contrast between the soft outside and chewy center was nice. The Taiwanese-style dark beef soup was rich with star anise, the beef slices were soft and a few token pieces of bok choy rounded out the bowl.

While not a Shanxi dish, I couldn’t resist also trying out the Shandong Shredded Pancake (山东手抓饼 Shāndōng shǒuzhuā bǐng) from the other side of the mountains. This turned out to resemble the love child of north Chinese spring onion pancakes with Singaporean roti prata, being flaky, onion-laced dough fried until crispy and then torn by hand to shreds. Oily, unhealthy and eminently snackable.

At the Ang Mo Kio outlet of chain 57° Mala Xiang Guo (57度麻辣香锅), which promises temptation from the tip of your tongue to your stomach, I found another Shanxi classic called guò yóu ròu (过油肉). Literally “passed through oil meat”, and variously translated as “oily pork”, “lightly fried pork” etc, the idea is that the meat is quickly stir-fried in oil, hence the “passing through”. At 57° (no, I have no idea what this refers to), the dish comes with crunchy wood ear mushrooms, lots of onions and a few tomatoes, tossed in an only mildly spicy sauce flavoured with soy, rice wine and a token Sichuan pepper. The pork shoulder here was quite dark and chewy, so much so that I initially suspected they had used lamb instead, but the combo worked a treat. As is apparently standard in Shanxi, the sauce came separately from the accompanying bàn miàn (拌面) noodles, handmade wheat noodles that are essentially the same as Xinjiang laghman and not to be confused with eggy, chewy Singapore ban mian (板面). Just pour on top and enjoy!

And that’s that: I was hoping to find a few more Shanxi dishes like sweet & sour meatballs (糖醋丸子), but they don’t seem to exist in Singapore. It’s time to knife-shave this episode and move onto the next province.

<<< Tianjin | Yunnan >>>

34 Province Project: Tianjin 天津

Tianjin is best known as Beijing’s port city, and it tends to get overshadowed by its big neighbour only about 100 km away. While mandarins schemed in Beijing, Tianjin is where the merchants made money, and in the dying days of the Qing Empire it hosted no less than 9 foreign concessions ranging from Austria-Hungary to Belgium. Today’s Tianjin is China’s fourth or fifth-largest city depending on how you count, with some 15 million people.

I first ran into “Tianjin” food in the form of the mysterious Sino-Japanese dish tenshindon (天津丼, “Tianjin bowl”), a crab omelette plunked on a mound of rice, rather resembling the love child of Cantonese egg foo young with Japanese omurice. Alas, while a Chinese restaurant staple in Japan, nobody has been able to figure out any connection to an actual dish in Tianjin.

Much later, when living in Singapore’s Chinatown, a friend introduced me to Tian Jin Fong Kee Dumplings (天津冯记) in People’s Park, founded in 1948 by the Fong family from Tianjin. Back in the early 2000s, this was a mild-mannered dumpling shop by day frequented by heavy-drinking sailors and the ladies who love them by night. The regular dumpling menu was supplemented by a second Filipino menu full of dishes like sizzling sisig (chopped lungs), and you could wash them down with ice-cold San Miguels from a row of dedicated beer fridges. Alas, the former Fong Kee location has now been taken over by a nondescript Sichuanese joint, and while you can still sing “won’t you take me to Fong Kee town” about 50 meters away, you’ll now have to content yourself with an ordinary little hawker stall without even an alcohol license. Sic transit gloria fongkee. For old times’ sake, I bought a couple of bags of frozen dumplings (20 for $10, not a bad deal) to eat at home. They tasted just like I remembered: stuffed with the classic combo of pork and chives, but quite honestly, not particularly memorable.

So what’s real Tianjin food then? I asked my Tianjin-born buddy XL for his recommendations, and he gave me a long list of what he used to eat for breakfast, virtually all of which are basically unknown in Singapore: millet porridge (茶汤 chátāng), savoury tofu (老豆腐 lǎodòufu), mung bean noodles (嘎巴菜 gābācài)…

The one item on the list I could find was jiānbing guǒzi (煎饼馃子), often described as “Chinese crepes”, and available at Wenjiabao (温家饱, “warm home full”), not to be confused with former premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝, “warm home treasure”). They have several outlets, but one is in People’s Park next to the MRT station, a stone’s throw from Fong Kee.

Jianbing are always made to order, and they start out very much like a French crepe, with a thin wheat batter fried on a hot plate and an egg cracked on top. But then things get interesting: the crepe is flipped upside down, slathered with your choice of sweet or spicy sauce, sprinkled with lettuce, baocui (薄脆) crackers and your choice of filling, with options including shredded potato, ham or meat. This is folded over twice and stuffed in a paper bag, and the end result is a piping hot delicious mess. Like an overstuffed doner kebab, eating them is definitely an art in itself, so have a seat and some tissues ready. $3.50 (plus dry cleaning bills) and very much worth it, and if you opt for the potato version, it’s also one of the few purely vegetarian Chinese savoury snacks out there.

Now I’m reliably informed that there are several styles of jianbing, and a true Tianjin-style one should use fresh youtiao dough fritters, not dry crackers. As far as I can tell, though, no jianbing shop in Singapore actually does this. Entrepreneurs of Singapore, here’s your chance!

My next Tianjin snack encounter was fortuitous: hunting for traditional Hokkien pastries at Tan Hock Seng (about which more in the Fujian episode), I stumbled onto them selling DIY bags of miànchá (面茶), a Hokkien variant of chatang, for $6 a pop. Unlike the northern Chinese version made from millet, this is made using roasted wheat flour, but the basic idea is the same: just add hot water and stir with a spoon. With cane sugar and sesame seeds premixed in, the end result is an unappealing looking miso-like paste, but while sweet, the taste is actually surprisingly complex and moreish given the really basic ingredients.

More serendipity awaited at Guangjuren Xiaochu (广聚仁小厨, “Gathering Kitchen”), a busy stall in the thoroughly unsexy Block 4 Defu Lane 10 food centre, packed with workers from the surrounding industrial area and, early on a Monday morning, one chao ang moh in sweaty fluoro yellow cycling gear. The rows of northern Chinese pastries looked tempting enough, but what really caught my eye was the Uncoagulated Tofu, or “tofu brain” (豆腐脑 dòufunǎo) in the original. It may have been partly the exhaustion and sleep deprivation of pedaling since 5 AM that morning, but when I dipped in my spoon and ate my first bite, the heavens parted and an angelic choir sang. This is what my crazy quest is all about! The tofu was still warm, bathed in a mildly salty, mildly sweet broth, with coriander, pickled radish, a mysterious but zingy green sauce and a central dab of dark black mala sauce, with that Sichuan pepper crunch and just the right amount of chilli kick. Two wheels up, and conveniently located near the south end of the Serangoon PCN for other bikers out there.

I must append a footnote: this particular tofu brain is more Sichuan style, since the Tianjin version goes by the name of lǎodòufu (老豆腐, “old tofu”) and is usually a plainer affair dressed only with sauces like sesame paste. But beggars can’t be choosers, and trust me, I’m not complaining.

Last but not least, at Dough Magic (扑面而来 Pūmiàn ér lái, “straight at you”), a retailer of all manner of northern Chinese doughy comestibles parked in a tent outside People’s Park — South-East Asia’s very first shopping mall, opened 1970 — I found some máhuā (麻花). It’s now eaten all around China and even became Panama’s national snack, with all sorts of sweet and savoury variations, but Tianjin is generally credited with inventing it and the $2 version here is about as simple as it gets: roll out some donut dough, twist it into three strands, and deep-fry. You can’t really go wrong with this, and both kids heartily approved.

All in all, while many of these weren’t quite the real thing, this was still a thoroughly satisfying snack adventure. Onward!

<<< Henan | Shanxi >>>

34 Province Project: Henan 河南

Henan, “South of the [Yellow] River”, is probably the biggest place you’ve never heard of. (If you’re thinking Chairman Mao and spicy food, sorry, that’s further south in Hunan with a “u”.) This is frankly surprising, since the area has been inhabited since around 2000 BC, gave birth to China’s first two dynasties the largely mythical Xia and the better attested Shang, and has housed no less than four imperial capitals. Its inhabitants invented Chinese writing, brought Buddhism to the country, and gave us the Shaolin Temple and its martial arts masters. Today’s Henan has a population of 96 million, larger than Turkey or Germany, and its capital Zhengzhou, which you’ve probably also never heard of, has over 10 million people.

Being located at the crossroads of China with people traipsing across for four millennia means that Henan cuisine (豫菜 Yù cài) is rather hard to pin down and the Wikipedia article on the topic is a real mess, even by the low standards of its coverage of regional Chinese food. Just chew on this:

” Henan cuisines focused on the mean and harmony principle, rather than on a single flavor. The spirit of Henan cuisine equals to the spirit of Henan people. It needs to be stated that Henan cuisine one a whole takes the entire approach of mixed cooking and adds significant cultural elements in it. For instance, looking at the geography of the place, Henan cuisine adds the concept of cultural mixing through harmony between the flavours used. […] the culinary style has embraced the nuances and given rise to what the modern Henan cuisine is. Thus, at the core, of its essence, Henan cuisine is as much a culinary form as it is a reflection of the culture and history of the place.

Helpful innit? Fortunately, my exploration of Henanese cuisine was conviniently curtailed by the fact that, as far as I can tell, there is exactly one (1) restaurant in all of Singapore that offers the stuff.

This shining beacon of Henanity is Zhong Hua Noodle House (中华面荘 Zhōnghuá miàn zhuāng), which as the name hints offers noodles not just from Henan, but all across China. It’s tucked away in the outside row of the People’s Park hawker centre, which over the past 10 years has quietly transformed itself into Mala Central, with what must surely be the heaviest concentration of Sichuanese shops in the country. Located in a sweltering, airless concrete alley without so much as a ceiling fan for a breeze, it’s certainly an effective way to simulate midsummer in Chongqing, and I made the trek here on three separate occasions to find out what Henanese food is all about.

I started off with the Braised Noodle (河南卤面 Hénán lǔmiàn), which is confusingly enough written with exactly the same characters as the completely unrelated Hokkien (Fujianese) dish called lor mee in Singapore, a gloopy dish of thick egg noodles in starchy gravy. By contrast, the traditional preparation of the Henan version involves steaming thin ramen-style noodles, stir-frying them with toppings, then steaming it again. I suspect these guys cut a few corners, since the end result was closer to stir-fried instant noodles with bits of egg, soybeans, and some pork, with zero vegetables but a little star anise to spice it up. Edible, yes; filling, absolutely; exciting, not really.

Second rickshaw off the rank was Mutton Stewed Noodle (羊肉烩面 yángròu huìmiàn), showcasing Henan’s very own noodle style huìmiàn. These hand-pulled noodles, while tasty, are not much different from Gansu lamian, albeit wider and maybe a bit chewier. The real key is the stock: lamb bones are stewed for hours on end until you get a rich, white soup, which is then combined with the noodles, some slivers of fatty, boney stewed mutton, crunchy thin slices of kelp, bonus glass noodles and a sprinkling of Chinese chives. Simple, hearty, and unexpectedly delicious, I can see why this is one of their top sellers.

The ultimate boss challenge, though, was Henan’s most famous dish húlàtāng (胡辣汤), a common breakfast in the region and, if the promotional sign is to be believed, good for all things that ail you, including balancing your qi, removing phlegm and deworming. The Chinese characters mean “pepper spicy soup” and that pretty much sums it up, since it’s a beef broth liberally seasoned with black pepper and chilli powder, with some starch to thicken it up and a splash of vinegar and sesame oil. In the soup lurk a number of half-crunchy, half-gelatinous things: tofu skin, kelp, slivered lily bulbs, enoki mushrooms, sweet potato noodles.

Now I’ll be honest: of all the things I’ve eaten on my quest so far, this was my least favourite. It’s not all that spicy, with the pepper being the predominant taste, yet the chilli powder aftertaste is lingering and a tad bitter. The soup ingredients are all varying degrees of slimy and none have a taste or texture that can stand up to the broth. I can see this hitting the spot on a freezing Zhengzhou morning when you’re on the tail end of a head cold and need a pick-me-up or perhaps a dose of ivermectin, but in Singapore’s eternal summer, not so much.

That brings us to the end — oh, the Henanity! It’s time to hula onwards.

<<< Fujian | Tianjin >>>

34 Province Project: Fujian 福建

Fujian, named after the cities of Fuzhou and Jianzhou and located on the coast around halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong, is the single most intimidating Chinese province to try to cover from Singapore. Uniquely among the Chinese diasporas of the world, in Singapore Fujianese speakers — or Hokkien, as both the people and the language are known here — form the single largest dialect group, and that’s not even counting other groups like the Hakka (Kejia), Henghua (Putian), Hockchew (Fuzhou) and Hockchia (Fuqing) that hail from Fujian as well.

Yet you can hardly describe Singapore as a Fujianese city, and while plenty of Hokkien terms live on in Singlish, the dialect has long since been overtaken by Mandarin among the local Chinese. Similarly, few restaurants in Singapore explicitly advertise themselves as Hokkien: by and large, Fujianese influences have been blended into Singapore-style “Chinese” food, and only an ever-dwindling group of elderly proprietors, many third generation by now, carry on the torch.

Given the sheer variety on offer, for this episode I’m going to focus on Hokkien, Hokchiu and Henghua flavours, choosing both dishes and restaurants mostly for convenience and personal taste rather than popularity. For Hakka, stay tuned for the Guangdong episode, and you can find a few more Fujian-inspired eats in Taiwan as well.

Hokkien (Fujian) 福建

Fujian cuisine (閩菜 Mǐn cài) is one of China’s Eight Great Traditions, best known for its many soups: “no soup, no go” (不汤不行 bù tāng bùxíng), they say, meaning a meal isn’t complete without one. Soups are, of course, eaten across China, but Fujianese ones are often thickened by starch and called gēng (羹) instead of the usual tang. Many dishes also get a Southeast Asian touch from fish sauce (虾油 xiāyóu, literally “shrimp oil”) and shrimp paste (咸虾 xiánxiā), both ingredients rarely seen in the rest of China.

Interestingly — and we’ll see this again in the Hainan episode — the two most famous “Hokkien” dishes in Singapore are local creations largely unknown in Fujian itself. Hokkien mee (noodles) refers to at least three different dishes, which all appear to descend from lor mee (卤面), but in Singapore, it refers to noodles stir-fried in copious quantities of an aromatic broth made from prawns and pork bones and topped off with fresh prawns, squid, a calamansi lime and a dab of fiery sambal chilli spiked with hae bee hiam (虾米香) prawn paste. I’m not even that much of a prawn fan, but I do love this stuff, and when we moved back to Singapore, one of the first hawker meals we had was at Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee (鸿兴炒苏东虾面) in Tiong Bahru, where a long wait and $4 gets you an irresistible Michelin Bib Gourmand worthy umami explosion.

The other classic not-so-Hokkien dish is bak kut teh (肉骨茶 ròugǔchá), or “pork bone tea”, made by stewing pork ribs in a herbal soup. (The tea is an accompaniment, not an ingredient.) By legend, this was invented by Fujianese dock workers in Kuala Lumpur’s port town on Klang, and the original is strongly flavored with Chinese herbs and dark soy sauce. In Singapore, most shops default to the Teochew style, much lighter but peppery, but the Hokkien style is not hard to find either. At the tail end of one of my early morning bike rides, I ended up at the aptly named Morning Bak Kut Tea (朝市肉骨茶 Cháoshì ròugǔchá) at Hong Lim Complex in the shadow of the city centre. The soup here is pitch black but quite sweet, lacking the bitter herbal notes you run into at some shops, and the well-stewed pork was simply superb, meltingly soft and full of flavor. The sides, alas, failed to impress: the you char kway (油炸粿) dough fritters were chewy and stale, not improving much even when dunked in the soup, and my attempt to order stewed pickles (菜尾 choy buai/cài wěi) somehow turned into “fresh vegetable” (生菜 shēngcài), basically iceberg lettuce quickly doused in soup, which tasted about as exciting as that sounds. To add insult to injury, I unaccountably neglected to order the obligatory pot of Iron Goddess of Mercy tea to go with it all. Total damage $8.

One Hokkien dish that has, unusually, made the leap into trendy Asian restaurants worldwide is the pork belly bun, popularized by the Momofuku chain. In Singapore, they’re called kong bak pau (炕肉包) and the undisputed King of Kong Bak Pau is Westlake (西湖小吃 Xīhú Xiǎochī) on Farrer Rd. While named after the famous tourist spot in Hangzhou, the menu consists basically of whatever the chef likes and thus runs the gamut from Hokkien to Cantonese and even some Sichuan fare from his student days in Chengdu. Open since 1974, the yellow and lime green decor is, uhh, eye-catching and the faded newspaper clippings and Japanese signage hint at past days of guidebook glory, but on a Friday night they were still packed.

The justly famed “Braised Pork with Pau” is served DIY style, with pillowy buns, meltingly soft pork belly in a very moreish bean sauce, and a few token sprigs of lettuce and coriander. The regular buns are plenty good in my view, but you can choose to pay double for Iberico pork if you choose. Another classic Hokkien dish on the repertoire here is the ngoh hiang (五香 wǔxiāng), consisting of minced pork and prawn flavored with the five spice powder of the name, wrapped in tofu skin and deep fried until crispy. At Westlake, these are skinnier than usual, served piping hot, and the best I’ve had anywhere. We rounded out the meal with a yam ring, a Cantonese-ish invented-in-Singapore dish with stir-fried goodies in gravy filling out a crispy bird’s nest of mashed taro. At $78 for 4, the price was right, with only one catch: more or less everything was very salty, with the stir-fried veg on the side particularly ludicrous. Drink water, you’ll need it!

Finally, it was time to tickle my sweet tooth and pay a visit to an old-school Hokkien bakery. Tan Hock Seng (陳福成), incongruously located smack dab in the middle of Singapore’s business district, is located in a small row of shophouses surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers, and even its shophouse neighbours are thoroughly gentrified. In perennial danger of their lease running out, they’ve already announced they intend to close their doors by November 2021, leading to queues as patrons rush to stock up. Their signature is the rather obscure beh teh sor (马蹄酥 mǎtísū, “horse hoof biscuit”), a crunchy, flaky, very dry shell hiding a sweet, sticky, mostly-maltose filling. Cautiously flavorful and definitely best eaten as fast as possible, you’ll want to have some tea to wash them down. $5 for 5 while they’re still around.

Hokchiu (Fuzhou) 福州

Fuzhou is Fujian’s largest city and capital, so you might be excused for thinking they speak Hokkien, but no! Singapore’s Fujianese diaspora came mostly from the southern parts of the province around Amoy (Xiamen), and linguists differentiate their Southern Min (闽南 Mǐn Nán) from Fuzhou’s Eastern Min (闽东 Mǐn Dōng). And if that’s not confusing enough, in Singapore this 50,000-odd community is often known as Hokchiu, from the Hokkien reading of the city’s name. Despite their small numbers, Hokchius pack quite a punch in the South-East Asian Chinese diaspora: the richest men in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, Robert Kuok and Sudono Salim, are both of Hokchiu descent.

I unexpectedly kicked off my Fuzhou foodie adventure by stumbling upon Huey Peng Hiang (汇品香 Huìpǐnxiāng) in Sembawang Hills Food Centre on my way back from another early morning bike ride. The stall mostly sells chill banmian and dumplings, but tucked away on the menu was red wine chicken mee sua (红糟鸡面线). Flavored with hóngzāo (红糟), the lees (leftovers) of making rice wine intentionally fermented with a specific red mold, the soup looked pretty intimidating but turned out to be delicious, with a rich broth of chicken stock, bits of ginger and slightly sweet miso-like notes. The mee sua are thin wheat noodles that do a good job of sucking up the broth, and there’s a half-boiled egg on top for that extra protein punch. Two cheery anime girl thumbs up for $5, although probably better for lunch or dinner than breakfast.

For Fuzhou round 2, I paid a visit to Seow Choon Hua (箫钟华) in Kampong Glam. Notionally a restaurant, this tiled, utilitarian, fan-only space decorated with fading posters is a bit of a time warp from the 1980s, and with no online presence of any kind they must be struggling in the COVID era. The Chinese signboard here proudly proclaims “Fuzhou Flavours” (福州风味), and indeed everything on the menu is a Fuzhou speciality: red wine chicken, stir-fried niangao rice cakes, but what they’re famous for is Fuzhou fishballs (福州鱼丸). Fishballs in the normal Teochew style ubiquitous in Singapore are made from finely ground fish, springy, and have very little taste. In Fuzhou, though, they’re stuffed with tasty minced pork, and unlike the bland mass-produced versions you sometimes see at food courts, Seow Choon Hua makes their own. The end result is a bit lumpy, soft to bite into, and bursting with porky goodness inside. I ordered the $6 Foochow Mixed Soup, which came with tasty stuffed fishballs, a token regular fishball, a few chewy biǎnròuyàn (扁肉燕, “flat meat”) dumplings where the dumpling skin itself is made from 90% pork meat mixed with glutinous rice flour, and a standard-issue wonton dumpling or two. Nothing mindblowing, but made with care and generously portioned, and worth a visit before the clock runs out on this relic from the past.

Henghua (Xinghua) 兴化 / Putian 莆田

One of the more obscure dialect groups in Singapore is the Henghua, also known as Putian after their erstwhile hometown in northern Fujian (no connection to Vladimir Vladimirovich). Legend says that they, in turn, migrated to Fujian from Henan province, meaning that like the Hakka they’re now migrants twice over. Putian being a coastal town, they’re best known for their seafood dishes, with Chinese razor clams from nearby Doutou known across the country.

Still, Henghua food would likely languish in obscurity if not for a little coffeeshop called Putien (莆田) in Kitchener Rd that cooked its way to a Michelin star and became a pan-Asian franchise extending all the way back to Fujian itself. Their promise is “Fresh ingredients, original taste”, so with another Sunday lunch in lockdown beckoning it was time to put them to the delivery test. First off the block was bianrou soup, containing Putien’s take on Fuzhou’s meat-skin dumplings, served here in a light seaweed soup not unlike the Korean miyeok-guk. Unlike the usual gloopy, herbal, dark brown Singapore version, the Henghua spin on lor mee was light, packed with clams and mushrooms, and flavored with the red yeast rice we also saw earlier in Fuzhou. The murky pink soup looked pretty unappetizing, bearing a disturbing resemblance to the meat juices sloshing around the bottom of a styrofoam supermarket pack, but once you got over that the taste was shiok, packed with seafood and mushroom umami. Last but definitely not least, Henghua fried bee hoon (兴化炒米粉) was for me the standout: in Singapore, fried bee hoon (thin rice noodles) is the canonical cheap starchy $1 breakfast flavored with soy and a few scraps of cabbage, but this had been cooked in a rich seafood stock and was bursting with more yummy clams, scallops, tofu puffs, eggs, veggies.

All in all, Putien delivered on their promise, the ingredients and preparation was clearly a step above the norm and while there weren’t any tastebud-exploding culinary revelations, it was all very competently done. We’ll be back!

I went back for round two with a quick lunch at Xing Hua (兴化) at Suntec, not to be confused with any of a number of other restaurants called Xinghua Something around Singapore. This seems rather transparently aimed at the same market as Putien, with a similar slick, modern ambiance, menu and pricing. The bian rou soup here was the tastiest of the three I’ve had so far, with larger dumplings with a thin wrapper and meaty pork inside, although I gather Putian’s gluggier version may be more authentic. The Putian Deep-fried Duck with Yam (莆田芋香鸭) was great, flaky and crispy on top with bits of duck in the Teochew-style smooth yam paste. The most interesting dish of the day was the Putian Ca Fen (农家擦粉 nóngjiā cāfěn), literally “farmer-style rubbed noodles”, made with a mix of rice bee hoon noodles and wheat mee sua served in a funky, thickened, mostly pork broth with an aniseed note, studded with bits of prawn, pork meat, intestine and Chinese cabbage. Distinctly un-Instagrammable, and probably better suited to a cold winter day than tropical Singapore, but unusual and tasty just the same. Total damage for three came to $52, but the place looks pretty empty every time I walk past, so get there while you still can. Extra bonus points for the rather striking logo that hides the characters for 兴化 in there if you look carefully.

<<< Shaanxi | Henan >>>

34 Province Project: Shaanxi 陝西

Any post about Shaanxi, “West of the Shan Pass”, has to start with a disclaimer not to confuse it with its near-namesake Shanxi (山西), “West of the Mountains”. Even more confusingly, the two border each other, with single-a/high-tone “wrong” Shānxī just east of double-a/falling-rising-tone “right” Shǎnxī. But here’s an easy mnemonic: nobody ever talks about the other one, because double-a Shaanxi is where it’s at.

Indeed, Shaanxi is the province whose cuisine I fell in love with first. As a foodie, I’m always looking for tastes that are both new and delicious, and the Qin cuisine (秦菜) eaten there delivers in spades. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight though: my first encounter with lamb & bread soup yángròu pàomó in Box Hill, Melbourne left me distinctly nonplussed, and I didn’t quite grok my first biángbiáng noodles in Sydney’s Chinatown either. But at some point I stumbled through the dimensional portal at Murray Place Arcade in Burwood, and before I knew it my tastebuds were hooked.

In 2018, I had the chance to visit Shaanxi’s capital Xi’an for a single day, and I tried to make the most of it by eating everything in sight. With a history spanning some 3000 years, the city’s history defies zippy summaries, but under its old name Chang’an it was the capital of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and its megalomaniacal founder Qin Shi Huang, who was China’s very first emperor and whose famous Terracotta Soldiers guard his mausoleum to this day. (Fun fact: Japan’s old capital Kyoto, founded in 794, copied Chang’an’s layout.) Located at the eastern end of the Silk Road, Xi’an also hosts a significant Muslim community, who had a particularly big influence on the culinary scene. The photogenic Muslim Quarter serves up tons of tasty treats to this day, and a read through this droolsome blog merely scratches the surface.

In Singapore, Shaanxi restaurants are not exactly mainstream, but you can find about half a dozen if you look. I started off with fast food outlet Qin Ji Rougamo (秦记肉夹馍), lurking in the excitingly named Alexandra Retail Complex near Labrador Park MRT, where I sampled the classic Xi’an Triangle: a Chinese-style pulled pork burger (肉夹馍 ròujiāmó/ròugāmó), a bowl of cold liángpí (涼皮) noodles, and a can of Ice Peak (冰峰 Bīngfēng). The rougamo here are great, the mo flatbread a delicate spiral crispy at the edges but soft enough to eat, and the rich pulled pork doused in sauce melts in your mouth — and all over your pants if you don’t eat carefully enough. The liangpi noodles themselves were fine and toppings were positively fancy, with a spray of cucumber, beansprouts, little crunchy dough balls and spongy kǎofū gluten, but you can only get the “default” kind with chilli oil (I prefer the sesame variant) and it comes premixed and quite soggy (I prefer them drier, with DIY toppings). And the Ice Peak, well, it’s orange Fanta, no more, no less. At $11.90 nett, it’s a pretty good lunch, but I’ll get soy milk and try another side dish next time.

Next stop was Biang Biang Noodles Xi’an Famous Food (biángbiáng面西安名吃) in Toa Payoh, a lunchtime delivery saviour for me during Singapore’s “circuit breaker” lockdown. The noodles here are named after the sound they make when slapped against a board while made (biáng! biáng!), and in a clever bit of marketing that biáng has a literally unprintable character that claims to be the most complex in the Chinese language. If you want the original style, you need to order what they call “Shanxi signature noodles” (油泼面 yóupōmiàn, “oil-splashed noodles”), which gets you a bowl of wide, chewy, belt-sized wheat noodles, served “dry” with a splash of oil, a dash of chilli powder, a spray of leeks and a token vegetable: simple but delicious. If you order “biang biang”, you get the same noodles, but with tomatoes, eggs and stewed pork on top.

There’s a fair selection of other Shaanxi favorites here too, but the lumpy, dry rougamo here can’t hold a candle to Qin Ji and the liangpi is nothing special either. One dish did catch my eye, namely Qishan noodles (岐山臊子面 Qíshān sàozimiàn), where the middle word is omitted from the English name because it’s virtually untranslatable. If you look it up in a dictionary, 臊 sāo means “urine-scented”, leading to occasional hilarity, but pronounced with a falling tone (sào) it means “embarrass”. A convoluted legend says the name actually comes from near-homonym 嫂 sǎo meaning “sister-in-law”, and the character was swapped over time. At Biang Biang the menu even spells it wrong as 哨子面 shàozimiàn, which would be “whistle noodles”. Confused yet? After all this, the actual meaning of 臊子 is a tad anti-climactic: it’s… minced meat sauce. Canonical saozi has cubes made from red carrots, green garlic shoots, black wood ear fungus, yellow eggs and white beancurd, all topped with a soup that’s supposed to be hot & sour, but not pungent (urine or otherwise) and no mala either. Biang Biang’s version substitutes potato for eggs, but otherwise ticks all the boxes.

Third up, I paid a visit to Shaanxi Noodles (寻秦记 Xúnqínjì, “Seeking Qin Brand”) in hipster enclave Tiong Bahru for another shot at lamb paomo (羊肉泡馍 yángròu pàomó). This rather unusual soup consists of a thick lamb broth with slivers of meat, a few token veggies, and the same mo flatbread as used for rougamo, shredded by hand and sprinkled into the soup by the diner themselves. The lady taking my order quizzically asked me if I knew how to eat paomo, but apparently didn’t believe my claim that I did, since my mo had been neatly presliced into little cubes. Sigh. On the upside, the soup was rather tasty if salty, and came with the canonical sides of chilli paste and pickled garlic, which added a nice kick.

To wash it down, I tried Ice Peak’s attempt at sour plum drink (酸梅汤 suānméitāng). The can somewhat dubiously claims that “this taste is very Xi’an” (这味儿很西安 Zhèwèier hěn Xī’ān), although it’s ubiquitous in China and widely available in Singapore too. It was syrupy sweet and tasty enough, but rather inoffensive/bland and lacked the smokey notes from the better brands.

Total damage $15.50, which is kinda expensive for a bowl of (not-quite-)noodles, but you are paying a premium for the air con and hip surrounds. One thumb up.

Honorable mention: Xi’An Impression (西安印象) in People’s Park Complex, which serves up all your Shaanxi favorites and more, without unnecessary frills like an English menu, air-conditioning, or reliable opening hours. Onward!

<<< Taiwan | Fujian >>>

34 Province Project: Taiwan 台湾

Taiwan is an island about 180 kilometers off the coast of mainland China. And that’s really all I can say about the place without somebody snorting peas up their nose, since I’ve already gotten brickbats for including it in this series as a “province” of China. This, too, is a political statement: the People’s Republic of China insists this is the case, and while the Republic of China says so too in its constitution, in practice the island has been quietly backpedaling away from the concept for a while.

This kind of thing bedevils all things Taiwanese, since you can’t even write about Taiwanese things without picking sides. Traditional characters like 台灣 lean “Green” (pro-independence), while simplified ones like 台湾 lean “Blue” (status quo), and even the romanization is different, with the pan-Greens opting for indigenous tongyong pinyin, the pan-Blues preferring China’s hanyu pinyin, and a lot of place names still using the older Wade-Giles system. And that’s just for Mandarin: the local dialect and its speakers are called Hoklo locally, Hokkien to the Singaporeans, Minnan if you’re a linguist, Banlam if you’re saying “Minnan” in the dialect itself, and Fujianese from a mainland point of view. Wah lau! For consistency I’m going to stick with Mandarin, simplified and hanyu pinyin, and use dialect names only when used in Singapore as well.

I had the occasion to visit Taiwan for about a week way back in 2007, checking out both some of the top draws (Alishan, Taipei) as well as a few places off the beaten track (Chiayi, Guanziling). Since both have been quite successful in combating COVID-19, there has been talk of Singapore and Taiwan opening up a travel bubble, but in the meantime there’s plenty of Taiwanese eats right here.

Taiwanese food is hugely popular in Singapore, exemplified first and foremost by bubble tea, such that top outlets sported long queues before last year’s lockdown. You know a dish has hit prime time when this concoction of milky tea with chewy tapioca balls, 珍珠奶茶 zhēnzhū nǎichá “pearl tea” to the Taiwanese and 波霸 bōbà “busty lady” in the US, has acquired its own Singaporean acronym, “BBT”. Taiwanese snacks like fried chicken have also long been ubiquitous, with global Taiwanese chain Shihlin Street Snacks originally hailing from Singapore, and Taiwanese Michelin-star dumpling maestros Din Tai Fung now sport no less than 24 (!) outlets across the island.

I started my Taiwanese tour with lunch at 5 Little Bears (五只小熊), an unassuming little eatery in the basement of busy Paya Lebar Square. The Japanese-style red akachochin lanterns gave a good hint of what was to come, since the oyster mee sua (蚵仔面线 kèzái miànxiàn) was the most Japanese thing I’ve eaten outside Japan: there was a powerful dashi-style seafood funk to the soup, with a few token oysters, some strands of black fungus and uniquely Taiwanese caramelized brown wheat mee sua noodles. The starchy soup, though, was much closer to Fujianese geng than anything you’d find in Japan. It was quite good, but a little monotonous and salty.

Our other main was minced pork rice (卤肉饭 lǔròufàn), a Taiwanese family favorite we make at home sometimes using a recipe from a Taiwanese friend. It’s not a terribly photogenic dish, but the pork was soft and flavorful, the zhacai (榨菜) pickles on the side livened it up nicely, and a tea egg and few sprigs of bok choy rounded it out. The kids had a couple of generously portioned bento sets (便当 biàndang), both word and concept being another Japanese loan that stuck around, plus an obligatory plate of crispy chicken to share. Total damage $28, and two thumbs up.

Second stop on my little island tour was Feng Food (丰台湾味 Fēng Táiwān wèi) in the cavernous basement maze of another shopping mall, this time Northpoint City, where you may be lost forever if you don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs marking your way out. Done up like a country village with bamboo and straw decorations, they’ve expanded to cover the space of two regular restaurants and were doing a roaring trade for Sunday lunch. My son’s Marinated Pork Chop with Egg Fried Rice (豬排蛋炒飯) was exactly what it says on the tin, reminding me quite a bit of Din Tai Fung’s equally excellent version, only much more generously sized. I tested their “famous” Tainan Danzai Noodles (台南担仔面), but I’m sorry to say I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is about: the topping was a small pile of chopped pork belly with a single shrimp and a chewy tea egg, the soup was a mild variant of Singaporean prawn noodles, and the special imported guān miào (关庙) sun-dried chewy noodles I’d paid a buck extra for tasted very much like Shanxi‘s “knife-shaved” daoxiaomian. Taiwanese beef noodles still retain the noodle crown for me.

To wash it all down, the only option was bubble tea. Singapore is spoiled for choice, with half a dozen Taiwanese chains staking their claims on the island, but after extensive research consisting of reading this blog article, I ended up at the Paya Lebar PLQ outlet of Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千), hailing from bubble tea epicenter Taichung and now franchised across Asia. The name means “Eat Tea Three Thousand”, which for the record makes no sense in Chinese either. Every high-end BBT retailer has a schtick, and Chicha’s is that each cup of tea is made from actual tea leaves brewed to order, hence the chunky percolators at the register and the clinical lab-coated vibe. I went with a Dong Ding Oolong Fresh Milk Tea (冻顶乌龙鲜奶茶) with added Country King Pearls (国王珍珠), Dong Ding (Frozen Peak) being a Taiwanese variety of oolong tea, plus what the English menu insipidly calls Fruit Tea, which really doesn’t do justice to the majesty of the Chinese name, “Treasure Island Classic Fruit Tea” (宝岛经典水果茶). Were they worth $5 a cup? Somewhat to my surprise, probably. The Dong Ding oolong had a deep, roasted flavor my wife likened to Japanese hōjicha, with soft chewy pearls, while the Fruit Tea was indeed a Treasure Island of apple, lime, passionfruit and tiny pineapple slivers, marinated in surprisingly light Phoenix Eyebrow black tea (凤眉红茶) that as far as I can tell exists solely at Chicha.

Round 2, sponsored by ComfortDelgro Taxis in a bizarre campaign to encourage hailing cabs off the street, was their plain old Bubble Milk Tea (国王珍珠奶茶), basically the same as drink #1 but with regular black tea instead of oolong, and Osmanthus Oolong Tea with Mango (水仙桂花), where the marketing department probably correctly concluded that nobody would order a “Narcissus Osmanthus” in English. The Bubble Milk Tea was, indeed, classic and very tasty indeed, while the Mango-Oolong-Narcissus thing was a bit too much and lacked the excitement of any actual Fruit.

I ordered all four drinks with 0% added sugar, but the fruit and the milk respectively were sweet enough that this tasted just fine. All in all, probably the best BBT I’ve had to date, and fruit teas in particular warrant further exploration.

If Taiwanese food is your thing, there’s plenty more to explore in Singapore, with Taiwanese style breakfasts like pork floss omelettes at True Breakfast in Cuppage Plaza and three cups chicken at Lai Lai Taiwan Casual at City Square. But over twenty more provinces await, so my Long March continues.

<<< Jiangsu | Shaanxi >>>

34 Province Project: Jiangsu 江苏

Jiangsu is one of those provinces most people may have heard of, but know little about. Just north of Shanghai, it’s named after its two largest cities Jiangning, now better known as Nanjing, and Suzhou. Located on the Yellow Sea at the mouth of the Yangtze River, with a population of some 80 million people, it has been a powerhouse of commerce and industry since around 500 BC and is today second only to Guangdong in income per capita. Nanjing, the Southern Capital to Beijing’s Northern Capital, has been the seat of government for 10-odd dynasties and pretenders, was the world’s largest city for a spell in the 1400s, and to this day the Taiwanese government claims that it remains the de jure capital of the Republic of China.

With this pedigree, it’s hardly surprising that Jiangsu cuisine (苏菜 Sū cài) is one of the Eight Great Traditions, and its fancy subset Huaiyang cuisine (淮揚菜 Huáiyáng cài) is considered one of the Four Great, right up there with Cantonese and Sichuan. Yet with the arguable exception of Yangzhou fried rice (扬州炒饭 Yángzhōu chǎofàn), aka the eggy fried rice with ham bits served up in varying degrees of fidelity at every Chinese restaurant on the planet, I don’t think I’ve ever had Jiangsu food before. Clearly it was time to try it out.

There are really only two dedicated Jiangsu restaurants in Singapore, and since Yechun Teahouse in Marina Sq gets consistently appalling reviews, my choice was easy: Nanjing Impressions (南京大牌档 Nánjīng dàpáidàng), a Chinese chain whose sole local outlet takes up a large chunk of the 4th floor of the Plaza Singapura mall on Orchard Road. The English name is a bit unfortunate in that most Westerners’ Nanjing Impressions consist primarily of rape and murder during the Japanese occupation, but the Chinese name references the “big-plate stalls” that serve as the Chinese equivalent of Singapore’s hawkers. Indeed, the interior is done up to look like a Chinese tea house lit up by paper lanterns, complete with heavy wood paneling, stone eaves and staff in polyester versions of traditional outfits. The overall effect is rather cheesy, but hey, at least it makes a nice change from the average shopping mall food court blare and glare, and despite the cavernous size it was almost full during both our visits. There are no separate stalls as such, instead ordering is dim sum style: tick off what you want from a large paper menu, with most single portions in the $6-10 range, and within minutes tasty things will materialise at your table.

So how’s the food? In a nutshell, both unusual and good. Nanjing is best known for its duck, so we kicked off with their Signature Salted Duck (盐水鸭 yánshuǐ yā, “saltwater duck”), which was salty but melted in your mouth, fat, skin and all, with just a hint of Sichuan pepper and spices. (Apologies for the sad photo of leftovers, taken only after the kids ravaged it.) The Celestial Roast Duck Dumplings (天王烤鸭包 Tiānwáng kǎoyā bāo) are essentially xiao long bao with a duck meatball in sweet, dark broth inside, and by popular acclaim we had to order seconds. Jiangsu’s famous giant lion’s head meatballs (狮子头 shīzitóu) are traditionally served in brown sauce, but here it came alone steamed in broth, wonderfully fluffy and soft on the inside with crunchy bits of water chestnut. The winner for the best named dish goes to Madam Chiang’s Nutritious Beauty Porridge (民国美龄粥 Mínguó měilíng zhōu), a slightly sweet confection of soy milk and glutinous rice with edible lilies and chunks of wild yam, reputedly created for Chiang Kai-shek’s glamorous wife Soong Mei-ling and, to quote this travel guide, “recommended for weak and elder people”. The one dish we were collectively not super keen on was the extremely salty Nanjing Noodles in Light Soy Sauce Broth (老牌阳春面 lǎopái yángchūn miàn), where the broth tasted like it was at least 50% straight-up soy sauce.

Overall, we liked it enough to go back for a second visit later. ​​The Heritage Roast Duck Claypot with Beancurd Julienne (家传云斗煮干丝) showcases the Nanjing speciality of bean curd threads (煮干丝 zhǔgànsī), basically thin sheets of hard tofu shredded so they look very much like egg noodles, served here in a rich bone broth not unlike Japanese tonkotsu, with a few shreds of duck meat and skin. Tasty! Potstickers are usually a porky and garlicky northern dish eaten in bulk, but the Nanjing variety — here called “golden fried dumplings” (金牌煎饺 jīnpái jiānjiǎo), although the usual name is just “beef potstickers” (牛肉锅贴 niúròu guōtiē) — are much bigger than usual and come with a moist and aromatic beef filling leavened by more crunchy water chestnuts. Finally, the Huaiyang Sweet Strata Cake (淮扬千层油糕) is pretty much what it says on the tin, a simple sweet, steamed bun made by repeatedly folding thin dough on itself (the Chinese 千层 means “thousand layer”) and sprinkled with bits of oily, cinnamony Chinese sausage for flavor. Dessert or side dish? The Western palate may have a hard time deciding.

There’s one more Nanjing dish I was keen to try, namely duck blood vermicelli soup (鸭血粉丝汤), but Singapore’s absolute prohibition on blood products means they can only offer a bloodless, offal-less version, so I passed. Sigh.

On both occasions, total damage for 3, including a pot of rather light, delicate and (dare I say it?) almost Japanese-tasting Nanjing Yuhua (雨花 Yǔhuā, “Rain Flower”) green tea came to around $70. Recommended!

<<< Hubei

34 Province Project: Hubei 湖北

Hubei, “North of the Lake” — that’s Dongting Lake, on the Yangtze River — is the less well known twin of its southern cousin Hunan. You may, however, recently have heard a thing or two about its provincial capital Wuhan, and a hankering to try out the signature “hot dry noodles” (热干面 règānmiàn) that kept being mentioned in news reports was one source of inspiration for this project.

The Chu cuisine (楚菜 Chǔ cài) eaten in Hubei has a fairly low profile even in China though, without an obvious spice or cooking style to differentiate it. Chu food revolves around freshwater produce like fish and lotus roots from the many lakes, rivers and marshes, with soups and steamed dishes predominant. The one originally-Hubei dish you can easily find in Singapore is pork rib and lotus root soup (排骨莲藕汤 páigǔ lián’ǒu tāng), but here it’s always done in the slowly simmered, herbal Cantonese style, which is quite tasty but doesn’t cut the mustard for this blog.

Singapore used to have one dedicated Chu restaurant, named after Wuhan’s top attraction the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼), but alas, this kicked the bucket even before COVID-19 put a crimp in business. The closest thing now is Xie Lao Song (蟹老宋 “Old Song’s Crabs”), a chain hailing from Wuhan but coming to Singapore via Beijing. The extensive menu has a lot of reputedly mediocre local food like satay and chilli crab as well as Peking duck, but the dish everybody including us came for is their own invention xiānglà xiè (香辣蟹), drably called “spicy sauce crab” on the menu but perhaps better rendered as “fragrant spicy crab”. Ordering the $38 medium set gets you two smallish mud crabs, cracked and tossed in a wok with celery, sweet potato, peanuts and soft cylindrical rice cakes similar to Korean tteokbokki, all doused in a fragrant chilli & Sichuan peppercorn mala sauce. This is sufficiently hard to eat that you’re given disposable plastic gloves for the job, but it’s worth the effort: the sauce is zippy, but not excessively so, and we ended up eating every last bit of the generously sized pot.

The restaurant recently relocated from Smith St to Pagoda St, right next to Chinatown MRT Exit A, and the new digs manage to be both clinical and tacky at the same time, with aquaria, backlit signage and bright orange plush leather seating (perhaps a nod to the crabs?). Like many other shops in this district, virtually no English is spoken, but the menu is in English. Xie Lao Song is also the only restaurant in Singapore that claims to have Wuhan “hot dry noodles” on the menu, but the first time around our order disappeared into the ether, and the second time we waited around for 45 minutes only to be told meiyou (don’t have). Curses! But at $68 for two all in including Tsingtao beer, soup and sides, it was still pretty good value.

One minor Singaporean food trend that kind of fizzled out before it went mainstream was/is guokui (锅盔 guōkuī), reputedly hailing back over 1000 years to the Tang Dynasty when a hungry laborer fried up some simple flatbread inside his iron helmet — hence the name, “pot helmet”. A common street food eaten all over China, Chinese chains Xiao Yang and A Gan, both from Jingzhou, Hubei, landed in Singapore pretty much simultaneously in 2019, boasting some 8 outlets combined at their peak. At time of writing, though, all that’s left is a solitary outpost of A Gan Guo Kui (阿甘锅盔) in the basement of the flashy but struggling Funan mall, so that’s where I went to get my fix. They’re made to order, a little ball of dough with the stuffing already inside flattened into an oval shape and slapped onto a wall of a cylindrical oven very much like the Indian tandoor to cook: turns out this is basically Chinese naan! The Spicy Pork (香辣鲜肉, $3.60), eaten on the spot, was delicious, crispy, fragrant and meaty but not insanely spicy or oily. Alas, I saved the Brown Sugar Red Bean Paste (黑糖红豆, $3.20) for later and regretted it: what’s warm and crispy fresh turns chewy and bland in minutes when cold. Clearly delivery isn’t an option with these guys, so go out to eat one while you still can.

Hubei also makes a couple of interesting drinks. We already encountered retro hipster soda from Wuhan’s Hankow Factory Nr 2 (汉口二厂 Hànkǒu èrchǎng) back in the Xinjiang episode, and poking around baijiu options in Singapore, I stumbled on a tipple called Maopu Xiaoqiaojiu (毛铺小荞酒), made from Tartary buckwheat in Daye, Hubei. At $12.50 for a 42%, 125 mL flask, I was fully expecting this to be somewhere between rocket fuel and nail polish remover, so imagine my surprise when this was actually… rather nice!? It packs a complex punch, clearly in the same “strong aroma” class as Sichuan’s Wuliangye and Luzhou Laojiao, but to quote their own marketing, “compared to traditional Chinese baijiu, which has a stinging and fiery taste, the buckwheat spirits have a harmonious one”, with several changing layers of unexpectedly fruity notes. My favorite baijiu so far!

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34 Province Project: Inner Mongolia 内蒙古

Inner Mongolia, as you might guess from the name, lies in northern China nestled up against the belly of Outer Mongolia. Back in the days of the Qing dynasty, the Inner region was ruled directly from Beijing while the Outer part was more autonomous, a state of affairs that persists even now, since Outer Mongolia became the independent Republic of Mongolia.

I spent some time in outer Mongolia in 2018, sampling meat buckets and fermented mare’s milk and realizing why even the most cosmopolitan cities in the world tend not to have Mongolian restaurants. On my onward train journey, I dipped briefly into Inner Mongolia, including 4 hours at Erenhot (二连 Èrlián), a dusty border town that pulls off the rare trick of being misnamed in two languages at once, resembling neither the Mongol “Colorful City” nor the Chinese “Lotus Two”. Alas, my culinary intake was limited to Beijing staple Yanjing Beer and some rather un-Mongolian bananas, so it was time to go on a belated hunt for Inner Mongolian food in Singapore.

The only self-proclaimed Mongolian restaurant in Singapore is the Kublai Khan International Seafood Buffet & Mongolian BBQ, whose menu boasts dubiously Mongolian delights like sushi, oysters and chocolate fondue, not exactly the level of authenticity this blog vainly strives for. (For one, “Mongolian barbecue” is neither Mongolian nor barbecue.) Fortunately, there is one actual Inner Mongolian restaurant that has made a dent on the world’s culinary scene: Little Sheep (小尾羊 Xiǎowěiyáng, “Small Tail Sheep”), hailing from Inner Mongolia’s steel city Baotou, memorably described by the BBC as “the worst place on Earth“. A hotpot chain with some 300 restaurants, including 3 in Singapore, it was once probably the world’s largest hotpot brand, but it was acquired by Yum! Brands of KFC, Pizza Hut & Taco Bell fame in 2011 and promptly lost the hot pot wars to Sichuanese upstart Haidilao. Oops.

I had previously eaten at a dingy, low-rent Little Sheep up a narrow staircase in Montreal’s dingy, low-rent Chinatown, but the operation at Sky Garden in Singapore’s Suntec City, all wood paneling and brass plaques, was considerably classier. Little Sheep’s hotpot is derived from instant-boiled mutton (涮羊肉 shuàn yángròu), where thinly-sliced meat is only briefly dipped in boiling water, then eaten right away, similarly to Japanese shabu-shabu. In the classic version the stock may be simply water, and Little Sheep offers this as an option too, but their claim to fame is that their special clear herbal soup (清汤 qīngtāng) minimizes the most distinctive characteristic of urban Mongolia, the penetrating funk of boiled mutton. To further cater to local tastes, you can get the usual assortment of hot pot ingredients up to and including live Australian lobsters at $218 a pop, but the name of the game here is obviously lamb, so stick to the clear soup and let the fat melting off mutton do the flavoring. And trust me, magic soup or not, there’s still plenty of Mongolian boiled mutton scent to enjoy. The sliced lamb was delicious, the lamb dumplings we cooked in the soup were also excellent, and to round it off we had a couple of lamb skewers, perfectly cooked and seasoned with a touch of cumin, chilli and more. Lambtastic!

Another side dish worth trying is what the menu calls Mongolian fried bread (Ménggǔ huǒshāo 蒙古火烧), a type of deep-fried elongated dumpling-pastry stuffed with fatty lamb mince. In rhotic northern Mandarin, that’s huǒshāoer (火烧儿), and this is the origin of Mongolia’s national snack khuushuur (хуушууp). The ones we had here, floppy, juicy and freshly deep fried, were straight outta Ulan Bator.

One more dish I’d been hoping to try was oat noodles (莜面 yóumiàn), but like quite a few other dishes on the electronic menu, it was unavailable on this quiet weekday night. Hot pot places like Little Sheep have been hit hard by the pandemic, since they’re singularly unsuited to delivery, but here’s hoping the spirit of Genghis Khan lives on for a bit longer. Total damage for 4 was $150, and even the kids approved. Like the happy Mongol dude in the ad on the right, thumbs up, I’ll have some more.

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