34 Province Project: Tibet 西藏

Tibet, the “Roof of the World”, once straddled both sides of the Himalayas and stretched far north into what is now Xinjiang. Now split across many states, the largest chunk has become the Tibet Autonomous Region (西藏 Xīzàng, “Western Storehouse”) of China, and much like the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Tibetans have become a minority in their own land.

Tibet is not easy for a foreigner to get to, but I had the chance to visit in 2018 and explore the food as well: yak steaks, tsampa barley porridge, salty churned butter tea and momo dumplings. Alas, it was all rather functional — this is food for people who eat to live, not those who live to eat, which is why descriptions of butter tea tend to focus on its high calorific value — and not even the Chinese seem particularly keen on stuff, since Lhasa was packed to the brim with Sichuanese restaurants. With the sole upscale Tibetan place in Singapore closing its doors even before COVID hit, is there really a market for this stuff in Singapore?

Turns out the answer is yes, kind of, and there’s even an actual Tibetan Buddhist temple in Singapore, named after the splittist traitor exiled 14th Dalai Lama and following his Gelug “Yellow Hat” lineage to boot. While the temple doesn’t serve any food, the Tibetan food there is in Singapore comes to us via a similar indirect path of exile and migration. In the 1800s, India’s small Chinese community created what we now call Indian Chinese cuisine by fusing together Chinese techniques and Indian ingredients. When Tibetan refugees flooded across the border in the 1950s, eventually setting up their capital in exile at Dharamsala, some of their dishes were merrily incorporated into the pantheon, with momos in particular now ubiquitous throughout northern India — and there are now two restaurants in Singapore that claim to have specifically Tibetan momos as well.

Fifth Season Tangra Chinese Cuisine on Race Course Rd in Little India has a complicated name that reflects this complicated heritage, self-proclaimed as “True fusion of India, China and Tibet”. Tangra is the neighborhood in Kolkata (Calcutta) where Hakka migrants first settled, so Bengali and Chinese influences jostle happily on the menu. Tibetan choices, however, are limited to thukpa noodle soup and several styles of momo dumplings. In Tibet, thukpa usually means a hearty main course of thick noodles and vegetables, but Tangra’s version was a rather sad bowl of skinny wheat noodles in watery broth with half-cooked cabbage and some chilli oil. The steamed chicken momos, on the other hand, were a hit particularly with the kids, large in size and generously stuffed with chicken mince. But unlike the thick, round, top-pinched dumplings we’d eaten everywhere between Buryatia, Mongolia and Tibet, the ones here were skinny half-moon crescents much closer to Chinese jiǎozi or Japanese gyōza (餃子), and chicken stuffing seems out of place too (lamb and yak being the fillings of choice in Tibet). Then again, perhaps this only completes the full circle of dumpling migration, since even the name appears to originate from Shanxi in eastern China, where they’re called momo (馍馍) in the local Jin dialect.

To round out the meal, we introduced the kids to a couple of Indian Chinese classics: chicken lollipops, gobi Manchurian and good old fried rice. The lollipops (drumsticks) were thickly battered and spicy, while the gobi Manchurian, a purely Indian invention with no known connection to Northeast China, was the gravy version with oodles of what is basically curry if you swap out the garam masala and replace it with soy sauce. The star of the show for me though was the fried rice, made in the Indian style with long-grained biryani rice, egg and what the Cantonese call wok hei, with each ingredient cooked fast at extreme heat.

With two glasses of Kingfisher and a mango lassi, the total damage for four came to $120. Only one other table had joined us for a Saturday lunch, but there was a constant stream of family-size Grab orders, so Tangra has definitely found its niche.

My intention was to follow up with a visit to TT Kitchen in Katong, where the TT stands variously for “Tenzin Tibetan” or “Tibetan and Teochew”, reflecting their rather unique combo of Tibetan fusion momos stuffed with things like gobi Manchurian with classic Teochew kueh like soon kueh (radish dumpling), png kueh (glutinous rice dumpling) and ang ku kueh (turtle-shaped sweet bean paste dumpling). However, despite a shiny website and an active social media presence, when I arrived the store was firmly shuttered and a power company note dated March 11th stuck in the shutter indicated that nobody had been here for weeks. The phone number has been disconnected and my emails went unanswered. Alas, it seems clear that this is now an ex-store; as a consolation prize, you can watch some adorable Tibetan child labor on their YouTube channel.

<<< Macau

34 Province Project: Macau 澳门

Macau, or Àomén (澳门) in Mandarin, is a peninsula and a smattering of small islands on the west side of the Pearl River delta, across the bay from Hong Kong. Covering just 32 sq.km., two-thirds of that reclaimed land to boot, it was a sleepy Portuguese colony for over four centuries from 1557 until 1999, before returning to the People’s Republic of China as a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong. Shortly thereafter, Stanley Ho’s monopoly on gambling ended and it metamorphosed into the Las Vegas of Asia, with a strip of glitzy casino-hotels catering to punters eager to gamble and/or launder away their fortunes.

I’ve been to Macau three times, most recently in 2018, but while there’s plenty of tasty Cantonese treats to go around (whisper it quietly, but some say the dim sum in Macau is better than Hong Kong), finding actual Macanese cuisine takes some work. Under 1% of the territory’s present population identify as Macanese, meaning of mixed Portuguese-Cantonese descent, and aside from the ubiquitous egg tarts (pastéis de nata, 蛋挞 dàntǎ), their cuisine is thus largely confined to a few high-end restaurants specializing in the stuff. Pato de cabidela (duck stewed in vinegar and blood), galinha à Africana (chicken with mildly spicy sauce), lots of dried cod (bacalhau)… it’s tasty, but hardly the stuff of culinary fantasy.

So if it’s hard to find in Macau, is it an even bigger culinary fantasy to find any Macanese in Singapore? In short, yes. There used to be a small chain called Macau Express (澳门顺记茶餐厅), but as the Chinese name hints they were more Hong Kong cha chaan teng style casual fusion eateries and they’re now long gone.

Now egg tarts have long since gone mainstream in Singapore, but they tend to be in the Hong Kong style with a smooth pie crust and flawless yellow skin on top, while a true Portuguese/Macanese egg tart is caramelized on top and has a crumbly, flaky crust like a croissant. One of the few places that claim a Portuguese heritage is Madelaine’s Original Portuguese Egg Tart (玛德琳葡式蛋挞), a little shopfront in residential Tanjong Katong that sells exactly what it says on the tin. At $1.80 a pop, or from $2.80 per 3 minis (pictured), the price is right and both taste and texture deliver. Saboroso!

But I wanted something a bit more substantial, so if I couldn’t find Macanese food, how about Portuguese? Never having visited the country, my previous experience with Portuguese food was largely limited to Sydney’s Little Portugal of Petersham, with Frangos drawing crowds including my kids for takeaway charcoal chicken burgers slathered with piri-piri sauce. We occasionally substituted the chips with bacalhau, onion and potato casserole, or added on a few crispy bacalhau croquettes, but that was about it.

Turns out there is precisely one Portuguese restaurant in Singapore, Tuga, run by an owner who spent 30 years in Macau to boot. Unlike its proletarian cousins Down Under, Tuga is in the posh expat enclave of Dempsey Hill and caters squarely to the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, so we ditched the kids and invited another couple to join us. Tables at the restaurant are tucked away in corners of a maze-like 7000-bottle wine cellar, done up in a stark modern style of pale wood and black placemats, with an army of waiter ninjas clad head to toe in black scurrying about. The starters set the tone with bread and garlic butter, olives in garlic, garlic prawns, clams in garlic: no prizes for guessing what the condiment of the day would be. I ordered the arroz de marisco, a soupy half-paella-half-soup laden with rice and seafood and a subtle chilli kick, while my better half tried the classic porco à alentejana, an unlikely but tasty combo of pork, clams and cubed fried potatoes not entirely unlike Finnish pyttipannu.

The wine list at Tuga is a multi-page Excel printout of what’s in stock today, every last bottle of it Portuguese of course, so the sommelier’s recommendations came in handy. We kicked off with Arinto dos Açores, an obscure white varietal from the Azores, but I’ll cheerily confess I have no idea what the 2nd bottle was. For 2 starters and 4 mains, total damage for 4 was well north of $300, making this by far the most expensive meal of the Project so far, and that’s before the wine, which starts from around $80/bottle and climbs up in the stratosphere. Worth visiting once? Absolutely, at least if you’re OK with garlic. Will we become regulars here? Unlikely.

<<< Gansu | Tibet >>>

34 Province Project: Gansu 甘肃

Of all the provinces in China, the one I’d like to visit the most is Gansu. I suspect this is a rather rare sentiment, as in China the name was until recently is a byword for poverty, with peasants eking out a marginal existence at the drought-prone edge of the desert and dying in droves when the frequent earthquakes collapsed the their yaodong cave homes, dug into the brittle loess of the plateau. In the fading days of the Qing dynasty, the area was wracked by rapacious warlords, while after the Revolution, Gansu became a base for heavy industry.

So why go? Gansu’s odd bone-like shape hints at its deep history. Sandwiched between the Qilian Mountains to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, the Gansu (Hexi) Corridor is the first stretch of the northern Silk Road, running from Xi’an in Shaanxi to the east via the oasis town of Dunhuang, home to the fabulous Mogao Caves, to Xinjiang and Central Asia to the west. The Great Wall of China runs along its length, protecting the northern flank from Mongol invasion and ending at Jiayuguan, where those exiled from the country were cast out into the wilderness and where, oddly, China’s space program is now based. At the eastern end, the Yellow River (Huang He) passes through capital Lanzhou, and if you’re looking for a rollicking account of life in these parts in the late 1930s I warmly recommend In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan by John DeFrancis. Back in kindergarten in Finland, we used to sing a catchy ditty about wanting to row on the Huang He river, and after crossing the Gobi by camel John did just that, sailing 1200 miles on a sheepskin raft from Lanzhou to Baotou in Inner Mongolia. You can still go rafting in on the Huang He today, but try not to sing the song, since it has recently been cancelled.

These days Gansu is famous for exactly one dish, hand-pulled Lanzhou beef noodles (蘭州牛肉拉面 Lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn), the self-proclaimed “First Noodles in China” now ubiquitous not just throughout the country, but arguably the entire world, since the Japanese ramen descends from this. A canonical bowl is described by the mantra “One Clear, Two White, Three Red, Four Green, Five Yellow” (一清二白三红四绿五黄; Yī qīng, èr bái, sān hóng, sì lǜ, wǔ huáng), meaning that it must have clear soup, white radish, red chilli oil, green leeks and yellow wheat noodles.

Lanzhou beef noodles are widely available in Singapore, and there are even a number of dedicated restaurants. My first stop was Western Mahua (西部马华 Xībù Mǎhuá), the sister restaurant of Alijiang from the Xinjiang post and in fact sharing the same premises in Vivocity, only more fast food than fine dining with a funky modern vibe, including a distinctly Chinese cover version of Despacito playing in the background. Musical atrocities aside, the noodles here are as good as it gets, and you don’t need to take my word for it, since the Deputy Secretary of the Gansu Party Committee has certified them as authentic. You can watch them made to order by hand, using that near-magical Chinese technique to tease apart a ball of dough into noodles using nothing but your fingers. The whole generously sized bowl is composed of one giant uncut noodle, made to any of 8 sizes, which even encode some social signalling: ladies and intellectuals are supposed to order thinner noodles down to sub-millimeter “hair width” (毛细 máoxì), while workers and peasants should go for wider ones, which range all the way up to the 50mm “big belt” (大宽 dà kuān). I tried the default size (普通细) is 2mm, while my wife sampled the waitress’s recommended 5mm, and they were both great although the bigger sizes are definitely harder to eat. All five canonical ingredients were present, with a mild chilli-mala kick but nothing over the top, and the 6th (beef) was well-stewed and tasty as well. The kids chickened out with a chicken broth, but ended up preferring ours, although they lavished the most praise on what the English menu calls Braised Beef in Pita (精品煨牛肉夹馍 jīngpǐn wēiniú ròujiāmó), a Chinese “burger” I’ll talk more about when we get to Shaanxi. A regular bowl of noodles goes for $9.80, and total damage for 4 was just $44. Two thumbs up.

For balance, I went to test out the competition, Tongue Tip Lanzhou Beef Noodles (舌尖尖兰州牛肉面 Shéjiānjiān Lánzhōu niúròumiàn). A franchise of the Chinese chain of the same name, they have 4 outlets in Singapore, so I tried the one at Chinatown Point, which is also bedecked with the same certificates of authenticity as Western Mahua and has two behatted noodle masters doing their thing in a glass box.

This time, I tried the Sauerkraut Beef Noodles (酸菜牛肉面), but it was a sad disappointment in all respects. I have only myself to blame for ordering the suan cai variation with vinegary pickled cabbage, but there was also way too much chilli sauce, and the combo completely overpowered the broth. The “normal” sized noodles were thin and mushy, with none of the chewy bite I expected (were these really made to order?), and the beef slices were small, thin and mostly buried at the bottom of the bowl. I had paid an extra $4 for a set, which consisted of a cold braised egg whose yolk had long since turned green, a dish of rubbery “vegetarian chicken” (素鸡 sùjī, made from beancurd) straight from the fridge, and a can of soft drink. Neither the side dishes nor the noodles were worth it; not recommended.

<<< Xinjiang | Macau >>>

34 Province Project: Xinjiang 新疆

Xinjiang, literally “New Territory”, is the largest and westernmost of China’s provinces. A significant fraction of its inhabitants, primarily the Uyghurs who until recently made up the majority of its population, is rather unhappy with this state of affairs and would much prefer that it be called East Turkestan in recognition of its cultural and linguistic roots with fellow Turkic peoples further to the west. The Chinese Communist Party, in turn, is rather unhappy with this state of affairs and has spent the past half century trying to assimilate them by hook or crook.

I’ve dreamed of the markets of Kashgar, the oases of Turfan and the deserts of Taklamakan ever since I watched The Silk Road in the 1980s, but I’ve never actually been to Xinjiang. I first encountered their food in Australia, where some 5,000 Uyghur refugees have settled and not a few have opened restaurants, like the daggy but iconic, uncompromising and rather tasty Kiroran in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. Uyghur cuisine features many Central Asian staples like rice pilaf (polu, in Chinese 抓飯 zhuāfàn); mutton kebabs (羊肉串 yángròu chuàn); flat, wide handmade laghman noodles (手拉麵 shǒu lāmiàn); and nan (饢 náng) bread, the last of these not referring to the soft, pillowy nan of India, but crisp, perfectly round discs often studden with sesame seeds or spices.

Here in aggressively apolitical Singapore, no restaurant dares utter the U-word, but there are two restaurants that claim to feature Xinjiang cuisine — so of course I had to go visit both.

Aisyah (西北香 Xibeixiang “Northwest Fragrance”) is a surprisingly hip & happening pint-size joint on Telok Ayer St, right next to Thian Hock Keng temple. Figuring the CBD would be deserted on Sunday, we rocked up at lunchtime with no reservation and were lucky to snag the last table.

The menu is short, and the name of the game here is kebabs and hand-pulled noodles (laghman) served with a variety of toppings, ranging from braised mutton (黄焖羊 huángmènyáng) to the more-Sichuanese-than-Uyghur “saliva” chicken (口水鸡 kǒushuǐjī), so called because it makes your mouth water. Both kebabs and the stewed mutton were excellent, with the meat soft and falling off the bone/skewer, and you can choose to have your noodles with spicy soup, mild soup or “dry” with soup on the side.

An unexpected new acquaintance was Hankow Factory #2 (汉口二厂 Hànkǒu èrchǎng) soda, hailing from a city better known these days as Wuhan. Selling their fruity Mystery Factor X soda overseas may be a bit of branding challenge these days, so I tip my hat to their marketing team, but at least the product was good: it was probably the closest thing I’ve had to Pommac outside Finland!

Total damage for 4 people: $80. Recommended.

I had my doubts about Alijiang (阿里疆), the lavishly decorated local outpost of a Chinese chain that claims to offer “Silk Road cuisine”, perched atop Singapore’s largest shopping mall Vivocity to boot. Not only are technicolor camels outside a restaurant usually a bad sign, but the menu veers way the hell off the Silk Road and onto completely the wrong continent: lobster noodles or avocado salad with cherry tomatoes, anyone?

However, we struck to their self-proclaimed Xinjiang specialties and were pleasantly surprised. The mutton-laden polu cooked to order in a clay pot was oily and yummy, the nan was made fresh, the pickles were zingy and crunchy, and the kids devoured the kebabs and asked for more. All agreed the star of the show was the one Xinjiang dish the Uyghurs don’t usually get credit for, namely “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), a hearty stew of chicken, potatoes, and laghman noodles all slathered in oil and spicy-numbing mala sauce, reputedly invented by Sichuanese truckers to keep them going during that admittedly tedious 4,000-km drive from Beijing to Kashgar.

One dish we didn’t try was the roasted whole lamb, available for auspicious price of $888, but probably not selling that well in these COVID-constrained times of groups up to 8. I wonder if they actually dress it up with gold jewelry as shown in the brochure?

Two bonuses came at the end: the kids got free soft-serve ice cream, and I realized a bit too late that I got somebody else’s bill and consequently saved a fair chunk on what would otherwise have been a $120-ish tab. Oops: guess we’ll have to go back to atone, or check out the Gansu-style Lanzhou beef noodles at their sister outlet next door.

<<< Index | Gansu >>>

34 Province Project: Eating my way through regional China in Singapore

Coming back to Singapore after almost 10 years away, one thing that struck me is the proliferation of regional Chinese food. Mala is the most visible manifestation, but the southern Chinese dishes we all know and love have been supplemented by restaurants serving up more or less unadulterated dishes from northern, northeastern, western and central parts of China. Yet since they cater mostly to recent immigrants, many of them are nearly invisible on the English-speaking Internet: they’re rarely covered by local bloggers, mostly missing from the usual delivery services and often not even listed on Google Maps.

With my business travel plans to China scotched by COVID-19 for the foreseeable feature, I figured I’d set a goal for myself: trot out my 非常不好 Mandarin and try to explore the food of every one of China’s 34 provinces right here in Singapore. Easy enough for Shanghai or Hong Kong; a bit more challenging for Guizhou or Anhui.

The 34 provinces as we know them today were only set up in the 1950s, with tweaks continuing up to the 1990s, so Chinese culinary traditions don’t map them to them all that neatly either. So here’s a listing of China’s regions, their culinary traditions (the Eight Great highlighted in bold) and, roughly, how the provinces slot under them.

Region 地区CuisineProvince
Northwest 西北 XīběiXibei 西北菜Qinghai
Gansu
Ningxia
Xinjiang
Qin 秦菜Shaanxi
Northeast 东北 DōngběiDongbei 东北菜Heilongjiang
Jilin
Liaoning
North 华北 HuáběiInner Mongolia
Jing 京菜
Imperial/Yushan 御膳
Beijing
Jin 津菜Tianjin
Ji 冀菜Hebei
Jin 晋菜Shanxi
East 华东 HuádōngLu 鲁菜Shandong
Hu 沪菜Shanghai
Su 蘇菜
Huaiyang 淮扬菜
Jiangsu
Zhe 浙菜Zhejiang
Hui 徽菜Anhui
Gan 赣菜Jiangxi
Min/Hokkien 闽菜
Putian/Henghwa 莆田/兴化菜
Fujian
Taiwan
Southwest 西南 XīnánChuan 川菜Sichuan
Chongqing
Dian 滇菜Yunnan
Gui 黔菜Guizhou
Tibet
Central 中南 ZhōngnánYue 粤菜
Chaozhou/Teochew 潮州菜
Kejia/Hakka 客家菜
Guangzhou
Hong Kong
Macau
Hainan
Chu 楚菜Hubei
Xiang 湘菜Hunan
Yu 豫菜Henan
Guangxi

Here’s my current plan of action, noting dishes & drinks to try and places to try them, and the map version of the same.  All things considered, I’d prefer to eat everyday/street/”real” food instead of fancy 5-star hotel restaurant stuff, but I’m open to everything.  If you have suggestions or would like to you’d like to offer your services as tour guide/translator/culinary consultant, please comment directly on the doc or drop me a line!

Pick an link from the table above, or start your journey here: Xinjiang >>>

El Gringo Máximo en México

I’ve been lucky enough to explore much of the world, but the Americas south of the United States have long remained a blank for me. I’ve nibbled at the edges — Bermuda, the Bahamas, a long-ago day trip to Tijuana — but until recently the closest I’d been to Latin America was a week in Puerto Rico, a not-quite-country which oscillates between being a Spanish-flavored piece of the US and and a US-flavored piece of Latin America.

But recently I finally had the chance to pay a quick visit on the company time to the real Mexico, namely Mexico City (Ciudad de México, aka CDMX; formerly known as the Distrito Federal or D.F.). Here are a few impressions from a maximal gringo.

Climate

Quick, imagine what Mexico looks like. Odds are you’re thinking a stretch of broiling sandy desert, where the inhabitants spend most of their time in hammocks suspended between two saguaro cacti, taking siestas with oversized sombreros covering their faces.

Well, turns out Mexico City is completely unlike this. It’s located high up in the altiplano in the mountains of Central Mexico, so I knew it was going to be cooler than, say, Texas, but being more accustomed the bone-dry highlands of Australia, I did not expect it to be soggy, wet and humid. So much so that, when the departure of my incoming flight from Houston was delayed, it arrived smack in the middle of a rollicking thunderstorm and we ended up having to divert to Veracruz on the hot, muggy, tropical coast instead. I soon found out that at least this time of year, these evening thunderstorms were a daily event and not a day of my visit passed without rain.

The result is that the city is lush and green, with large trees, green grass and moss creeping up stones. Mornings were cool (15 C), afternoons warm (25 C), although the 2,250m altitude amps up the strength of the sunshine.  I kept having unexpected flashbacks of Bangkok: in addition to being distinctly humid, both cities have pockets of wealth and quite a lot of poverty, but also a healthy, growing middle class, supporting a lively mix of street vendors, markets, hip little cafes and boutiques.  The World Bank agrees, as on a GDP (PPP) per capita basis, the two countries are almost at par.

Getting Around

Mexico City is enormous and lacks an identifiable downtown: being highly earthquake-prone, skyscrapers are few and far between.  I was staying the leafy but untouristy residential neighborhood of Anzures, which was convenient to the office, but nowhere near a metro station.  Ubers in CDMX are easy to catch and cheap, but they’re a pretty crappy way to experience a city.   ¿Qué hacer?

An easy orange answer was parked right outside my hotel: Mobike!  Turns out everybody’s favorite Chinese bike share company had just launched in CDMX, and while the allowed usage zone was limited to a few posh districts, my hotel, the office and many sights were in it.   While my monthly Sydney pass was no good, single rides were just 10 pesos a pop; pricy by local standards, particularly compared to the 50 peso monthly pass, but still a steal at around 70 Aussie cents each.  The city being by and large flat as a pancake, bikes are a very popular way to get around, with copious bike lanes and, much to my pleasant surprise, a large chunk of the Paseo de la Reforma was cordoned off for bikes & pedestrians only on Sundays.  ¡Perfecto!

To get to the Centro Historico, though, I ditched the bike and tried out the Mexico City Metro.  Still using very distinctive signage and coloring developed in the 1960s, when 40% of Mexicans were illiterate, the subway has a very retro feel to it, with paper boletos purchased from humans behind taquilla counters, although there is now a smart card option.  The trains are also best described as functional, with tunnel fumes gusting in through the open windows (there’s no aircon) and a whole lotta shaking going on despite the rubber tyres, with drivers accelerating and braking hard at every station.  Still, while it may not be luxurious, it’s a vital service and second only to New York in size in the Americas, with 12 lines criss-crossing the city and more passengers than London or Paris.

The Metro has a bit of a sketchy reputation, and I can see why.  Station entrances were often hard to spot, there were often dimly lit inside, and the trains themselves had endless processions of merchants, entertainers and beggars squeezing through the crowds, hawking everything from Silly Putty to mobile accessories and slips with Bible quotations.  But there also were plenty of whimsical touches, with staircases turned into piano keys and rather brutalist artworks here and there, and I can’t say I ever felt threatened — either in the Metro or anywhere else in CDMX, for that matter.

My biggest regret of this trip: not having the time to visit the Metro Museum in Mixcoac.  Have a read of Craig Moore’s trip report if you’re keen to learn more about this underappreciated system.

Speaking

My rusty high school español got a pretty good workout on this trip, and I was glad I had hit the Duolingo pretty hard for the previous three months or so.  Fortunately, while full-on Mexican Spanish is famously fast and slurred even Spanish standards, everybody I met was quite willing to switch to speed-limited Gringo Spanish for my benefit.

I was also a little surprised that virtually everybody assumed I could speak Spanish, despite being a two-meter-tall blond quite clearly outside the generally rather broad spectrum of Mexican appearances; quite the contrast to most of Asia, where nobody even tries to speak the local lingo with me.  What’s more, quite a few people actually had more than passable English, although I’ll admit my sample set was rather biased towards the leafy neighborhoods where I was staying.

History

I had one free day in CDMX before getting down to work, so I started it with a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, which must surely rank among the greatest museums in the world. An average gringo like me has learned in history class about Mexico’s pre-Columbian rulers the Aztecs and the Maya (although they’re likely to mix them up with the Incas of Peru), but this single large building covers not just the big two, but the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mixtecs and many more. Nevertheless, there’s a clear thread connecting them all: blood. Or, rather, unfathomable amounts of hardcore gore of the kind that would be rejected as a horror movie plot for being too gruesome and implausible.

Consider this: the Great Temple (Templo Mayor) of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica tribe of Aztecs that is the predecessor to today’s Mexico City, was consecrated with the ritual sacrifice of several thousand captives every time it was expanded when a new king took power, or when there was a festival, or when a war was won, or whenever any other convenient excuse presented itself. And by ritual sacrifice, I mean strapping the victim down to an chac-mool altar, carving their still-beating hearts out with an obsidian knife, smearing the blood on the statues of the gods, then throwing the corpse down the stairs to be eaten. Meanwhile, the victim’s head would be skillfully flayed and mounted on the skull rack (tzompantli), with the main one (there were several) in Tenochtitlan (only one of many cities) having the capacity for 36,000 skulls. This was just temporary storage, mind you, once they had dried out properly the skulls were removed, decorated and passed around as handy decorative knick-knacks.

The museum consists basically of variations on this theme. Here’s Coatlicue, who wears a dress of live serpents and necklace of human hearts, hands, and skulls. Here’s a ball court where teams played pelota maya, which was kind of like volleyball, only you can’t use your hands and the losing team is sacrificed to the gods. Here’s the rain god Tlaloc, who was worshipped by sacrificing children, who first had to endure torture so their tears would moisten the earth.  And on and on, for thousands of years!

In case all this seems too abstract when presented in the dramatically lit but carefully cordoned off confines of the museum, or you doubt the florid accounts of the conquistadors who are our primary source of written evidence for Aztec/Mexica life, you can also go visit the actual ruins of the Templo Mayor, lurking right behind Zócalo Square in the heart of CDMX. The final incarnation of the temple was largely razed by the Spaniards, but as it was built like a Russian matryoshka doll with each version simply built on top of the other, some of the older parts remain. The chac-mool sacrifice altars, the stairs the victims were thrown down, the skull racks, it’s all there… including a particularly lovely hall where nobles practiced the art of auto-sacrifice, purposely bleeding their ears, tongues, genitals etc. This blood was collected and mixed with amaranth seeds to create an idol of Huitzilopochtli, which was ceremoniously eaten every year during the feast of Panquetzaliztli, with the accompaniment of (what else?) copious human sacrifice.  Delicious!

Food

Congealed human blood idols aside, I have long been a huge, tragic fan of Mexican food, the tragedy being that my chosen abodes for the last 16 years (Singapore and Australia) are both laughably terrible places to find any of it. It’s saying something that the arrival of Guzman y Gomez, a semi-decent burrito chain founded by a distinctly non-Mexican former hedge fund trader from New York, was a highlight of my culinary calendar.

So I was tickled pink to get a chance to visit Mexico and eat actual Mexican food, and I did my best to devour everything in sight.  Huaraches (literally “sandals”, because that’s what they look like, smeared with beans and salsa), sopes (small, thick tacos), pozole soup (“these days we use pork, but traditionally the Aztecs used human flesh!”, a colleague informed me slightly too cheerily), sopa azteca (tortilla soup), cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork in achiote sauce)…

Yet the culinary highlight, in fact one of the most sublime dishes I’ve had anywhere, was chile en nogada at Angelopolitano.  I had tried this before (in Singapore, unpromisingly) and been somewhat non-plussed by a squishy stuffed pepper covered in grainy, cold walnut sauce.  Originating from the nearby city of Pueblo, they’re a rare, somewhat expensive delicacy in Mexico, and Angelopolitano, a place that’s very serious about poblano food, only serves them in pomegranate season between August and September.  The walnut sauce was smooth this time, studded with pomegranate seeds and still served cold, but it was the filling that made it sing: panochera apples, pera de leche pears, criollo peaches, minced meat and a complex mix of spices, all washed down with a shot of tequila.  Incredible.

The intended highlight was scheduled for Tuesday night, when I had managed to secure a seat for the taco degustation at Pujol, which is arguably the most famous restaurant in Mexico: think el Bulli, only with Mexican ingredients.  Alas, the plan went, ahem, down the toilet when, on Monday night, I contracted violent food poisoning, aka Moctezuma’s revenge.

I’m still not entirely clear what hit me, although odds are it was something in that pretty flower-like taco platter above.   Both restaurants I went to on Monday were really popular, so the food certainly wasn’t sitting around, although tacos al pastor, the porky Mexican version of doner kebab (bottom right taco), is somewhat notorious even among Mexicans for causing attacks of la turista.   I also wasn’t as careful as I should have been about fresh herbs and vegetables, which Mexican food uses with abandon even though tap water in CDMX is not safe to drink; in retrospect, piling raw lettuce into my lunch pozole was asking for trouble.  Or maybe it was something as innocuous as the fresh salsa accompanying the tacos.

Regardless of the cause, the end effect was that I spent the next two days unable to do much more than tap away at my laptop or ingest anything more electrolyte drinks and the occasional banana.  Fortunately loperamide worked its magic and I was able to survive the 24-hour flight odyssey back to Sydney, although I had to give the rather spiffy-looking Polaris lounge restaurant in Houston a miss.

So adiós, Mexico, I hardly knew ye.  I’d like to say I’ll be back soon, but that’s pretty unlikely — however, this did definitely kick my long-incubated first visit to South America (Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil…!) a few notches up the bucket list.

 

 

From Siberia to Tibet: Hong Kong and Macau

Our road to Hong Kong was paved with disappointment.  We originally wanted to arrive by train, but the much-delayed Guangzhou-Hong Kong high-speed link was delayed again and the logistics of traveling from Lhasa to Guangzhou to HK without it didn’t look great, so in the end we opted to fly in directly via Chongqing.

Hong Kong 香港

It’s been 21 years since the handover, but after China, Hong Kong still felt remarkably British, with ubiquitous English, driving on the left, and (after China) remarkably polite people.  It rained pretty much non-stop for the first two days, which put a bit of a damper on tourism but did provide great soaked-neon Blade Runner streetscapes at night.

We went to Maxim’s Town Hall for the obligatory dim sum pilgrimage.  Since my last visit the place has clearly found its way into a few too many guidebooks, since it was heaving with people even on a weekday and we had to wait an hour to get in — next time I’ll need to find an alternative or at least book online.  At least egg waffles off the street were fast, cheap and cheerful.

Hong Kong is still very much a Chinese city at heart and much more that heritage seemed to remain than on the mainland.  The dull-sounding Hong Kong Museum of History was epic in size and ambition, covering the city from prehistory to today with floors of massive life-size recreations, and the temple of Wong Tai Sin showed that Taoism is alive as well.

Anorak bonus album: Transport in Hong Kong & Macau

Macau 澳門

Macau will soon be linked to Hong Kong by a shiny record-breaking bridge, which was scheduled to open two weeks before our arrival, but surprise surprise, that was delayed too.  So we ended up taking the Turbojet ferry, which plowed through the waters pretty much right next to this white elephant of a bridge for most of the way: the bridge has no provisions for trains, so the only way to use it will be buses.  Sigh.

To a first approximation, nothing had changed in Macau since I visited 10 years ago.  Senado Square was still there, looking like a chunk of Portugal airlifted into the South China Sea, as were the ruins of St. Paul’s, dense alleys much like Hong Kong’s, and tacky casinos on the outskirts.

To escape the muggy heat and sputtering rain, we followed a local tip and went for a surprisingly respectable Portuguese meal at Solmar, a restaurant too old-school to have a website.  Sopa de mariscos (seafood stew), galinha à africana (“African chicken”), bolinhos de bacalhau (cod balls), all washed down with vinho verde: not the stuff of culinary epiphany, but certainly a welcome change after a week in Tibet.  And for a snack we stopped off at Margaret’s, which as always was baking the best pasteis de nata (egg tarts) in the business by the trayload.

Lamma Island 南丫島

My personal Hong Kong highlight, though, was to an island quite unlike the rest of the ex-colony: Lamma.  Perched off the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island and only reachable by ferry, buildings taller than three stories and motorized transport (except for a few utility vehicles) are banned on the island , so the only ways to get around are bike or foot.  After a mercifully brief flirtation with the plastics industry fizzled out, plenty of hippies and other countercultural types escaping the rat race have found their way here, and the grubby village Yung Shue Wan now hides more than its fair share of organic vegetarian cafes and artisan gelato places.

Many daytrippers comes here for the beaches, which aren’t too shabby even by South-East Asian standards, but the island’s second major draw is seafood.   On local advice we parked ourselves at Andy’s Seafood, and hawt diggity dawg, everything we ate here was nothing short of incredible.   Razor clams steamed with noodles, scallops with veg, sizzling eggplant, a bottle of Yanjing Beer dripping with condensation and the sun setting over the South China Sea.  The perfect end to the trip…

And to this blog series.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!

<<< China as a Tourist

 

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Jaan, Singapore

A friend of mine recently came into possession of a stack of CapitaLand vouchers, and while looking for a place to dispose of them, we realized that the entire Equinox complex perched atop the Swissotel Stamford — not long ago the world’s tallest hotel — accepts them.  What better excuse for a birthday splurge at my near-namesake, the newly renovated Jaan?

Making reservations at Jaan is hard, not because it’s so popular, but because you have to go through the Swissotel’s centralized system and they usually just refuse to answer the phone.  But reserve we did, and I asked if I could bring along a nice bottle of Lebanese wine…  to which I was told that yes, certainly, but a token corkage fee of S$100 (about 5x the cost of the bottle) would be charged.   Yowza!  Scratch that then.

We showed up at 7 PM, along with two other groups of customers, only to find the entrance to the restaurant closed.   After five minutes of drumming our fingers and collectively wondering if we were in the right place, somebody finally showed up and let us in; not, perhaps, the best way to treat your customers.  The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows on the 70th floor is impressive, although I was mildly disappointed to find us facing towards the endless housing block jumble of eastern Singapore, instead of the rather more dramatic Singapore River, banking district and Chinatown area.

Jaan offers 5/8 course tasting/degustation menus for $180/250 (plus around $100 extra for wine pairings), but we decided to go for a la carte.  The a la carte menu was fairly stripped down: half a dozen appetizers, three Poissons et crustaces, three Viandes, and half a dozen desserts, all listed in French and English.

Amuse-bouche

Prawn and mango ceviche with kaffir lime froth, served in a shot glass.  This was just terrible, a pretentious attempt at fusion that didn’t work on any level at all.

Super-skinny breadsticks (crostini?) with squid ink-parmesan puree and butter.  A work of art in appearance — if not for the waitress’s explanation, I would’ve thought what appeared like a bunch of twigs in a glass was a table decoration — and very tasty too, especially the subtle sea flavors of the squid ink dip.

Appetizer

His: Tartar of Hokkaido sea scallop with dabs of oscietra caviar and a spray of random vegetables ($68).  The one whole grilled scallop was mindblowingly tasty; the tartar paste was just generically fishy (and I usually love raw scallop).  The grudgingly dribbled caviar came atop halves of baby potatoes, and the veggie side dishes included artichoke, asparagus and peas, carefully boiled and laid out into a strip not unlike a Japanese garden.  A little uneven, but pretty good.

Hers: Foie gras ice cream (!) and a layeed foie gras pastry of sorts ($5x?).  This was really, really good, especially the pastry-thing: the pureed foie gras with a little crunch from the pastry with a little sweetness and spice from the sauce just hit all the right spots, and while the idea of mixing goose liver and ice cream sounds pretty disgusting, it worked quite nicely.  Best dish of the evening.

Main course

His: “Duo of Pigeon”, two halves grilled in red-wine-type sauce, plus a miniature salad with two pigeon legs served cold in a mild Chinese-style sauce and pats of apple-ginger(?) compote ($68).  The grilled pigeon was quite OK, if no match for the duck at Kafe Warisan; the teeny tiny little legs were very tasty, but, well, teeny tiny.  In all, competent but unextraordinary.

Hers: Pumpkin soup ravioli with popcorn and black cod a la plancha with bacon bits ($5x?).  Yes, bacon bits, and intensely salty ones at that, which pretty much obliterated any taste the cod (already plenty salty in itself) might have had.  I snagged one of the raviolis and kind of liked the intense sweet soup within, but she didn’t, at all.  Quite disappointing.

Dessert

I was somewhat intrigued by the offering of le bar “Snickers” with ice cream ($20), but in the end, we just shared some chocolate mousse with white chocolate vodka sorbet ($22).  The sorbet was quite good, although the vodka was hardly noticeable, but only a single spoonful was served and it melted pretty much immediately.  The mousse came wrapped in a unidentifiable and quite tasteless red jelly wrapper and was quite dense, so much so that it was hardly a mousse anymore, but hey, it was chocolatey.

And finally, the house plied us with little violet-colored lavender pastries (very sweet: I liked ’em, she didn’t), orange peel dipped in chocolate (usually a favorite of mine, but these were kind of blah), and a miniature Madeleine-type pastry flavored with almond (?), all served on a metal plate engraved with “Jaan by Andre”. Ooh.

Drinks

Jaan has an extensive wine menu, spanning the globe (albeit with an emphasis on French) and the gamut from $90 to $17,000 bottles (a Chateau Margaux), but they do not offer wine by the glass.  We (fine, she) opted for a Beni di Batasiolo Barbaresco 2003 ($160), which was a very good choice: a very light and drinkable red, which paired quite nicely with the fish dishes as well.

My eyeballs were set rolling, though, by their other drink menu: this is the first time I’ve seen a water menu in a restaurant, offering everything from artisanal Welsh well waters to bottles from Japanese mountain springs, all (needless to say) at ridiculous prices, some north of $20 for a 0.5L bottle.  Our pick of a very lightly carbonated Saint-Géron ($12.50/750mL) was OK — at least it’s better than Evian.

Overall

The damage done came to just over $500, easily my most expensive dinner in Singapore (or, on second thought, anywhere), and we didn’t even order from the expensive end of the menu, which had things like Kobe beef steak for $125.  The service was very good, the views were nice, the setting was OK, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at these prices, the food was a bit of a letdown.  I doubt I’ll be back.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Kafe Warisan, Seminyak, Bali

When I booked Kafe Warisan for a friend’s birthday dinner, I couldn’t help but snigger at their slogan of “World Famous French Mediterranean Cuisine in a Classic Rice Terrace Setting” — surely a little pretentious for a small restaurant in a podunk town in rural Bali, no? And thus I was expecting mediocre, somewhat overpriced food in a cheesy Balinese setting… only to get way more than I expected. This was easily among the best Western meals I’ve had in Asia, or anywhere else for that matter.

First a word about the restaurant: it’s been around for a good 15 years now and looks quite unremarkable from the dusty main street outside, but everything changes once you’re inside: it turns out to be a sprawling colonial-style house, with the sun setting over the rice paddies in front — bought and maintained by the restaurant to make sure they stay there! — as you settle down for dinner.

We had dinner on the patio outside, which certainly has the best views in the place but, being open-air, can be kind of hot. (Once we’d settled down, though, it was fine.) Service is excellent, with staff always there when you need them, but not in your face like they are in most of Singapore’s fancy Western places. The restaurant offers both set meals (which should be booked in advance) and a huge a la carte menu, along with a lengthy wine list, but alas, due to Indonesia’s silly tax policies, a bottle that would set you back $10 in the US was selling for $40 here. We picked an interesting-sounding bottle of Costieres De Nimes Domaine de Perrieres 2001 from the cheaper end of the list, which turned out to be a decent choice: a fairly dry, strong red that was a good fit for the mains.

On to the food!

Artichoke Ravioli, Grilled Scallop and Prawn, Lemon Butter Sauce

We shared this appetizer. The artichoke ravioli (all three or four of them) were a little limp in texture and muddled in taste, but the scallop and prawn on top were both outstanding: huge, fresh and juicy, and the mild lemon butter sauce just accentuated the taste.

Hers: Duck Leg Confit, Cêpes Mushrooms, Garlic and Parsley Sauté Potatoes

This was just spectacular. Duck is a Balinese favorite, and I thought I’d had some pretty decent entrees elsewhere (esp. bebek betutu, the local “blackened duck” rubbed with spices and cooked in a banana leaf). However, these guys managed to cook it perfectly: the skin had crystallised into a crispy layer that just burst with fatty goodness as soon as it hit your teeth, while meat inside was so rich and moist that it literally just fell off the bone. On the side, I found the cepes a little astringent, but she liked them as well.

His: Pan Roasted Black Angus Tenderloin, Braised Oxtail with Shimeji Mushrooms, Black Truffle Sauce and Potato Galette

I’d asked for my steak medium rare, and while it came back rare by any measure, I was glad the chef overruled me: I’m usually not a huge steak fan, but this was just out of this world. Cooked to perfection, grilled on the outside, marbled smooth as silk on the inside, not even the tiniest hint of stringiness. The side dishes kind of faded in comparison, but the mushrooms were inoffensive and sauce was a good fit.

Passion Fruit Sherbet

To top it off, a shared scoop of their homemade sherbet, which really did taste like the Indonesian markisa passionfruit: crisp, acidic and refreshing. The perfect ending to a meal.

And the bill for two with a bottle of wine after one of the best meals of my life? About $100 — a month’s wages in Bali, to be sure, but for a meal of this caliber it was excellent value by Singapore standards.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Le Tonkin, Mohamed Sultan, Singapore

One year had passed since my incorporation, and with the annual report out and a fairly healthy-looking balance sheet, it was time to dig a hole in it. Plan A was Italian-Indonesian fusion joint Buko Nero, but getting a reservation there remains impossible and my virtual secretary had pasta coming out her ears anyway, so we opted for Le Tonkin, a recently opened French-Vietnamese place on Mohamed Sultan.

Mohamed Sultan was until recently Singapore‘s cheapest bar district, but it’s now looking somewhat out of sorts, with the crowds packing Clarke Quay instead. Most of the restaurants in the area serve the local Japanese community, and Le Tonkin doesn’t seem to have caught much wind under its sails — the main reason I decided to give it a shot was a glowing review from a French friend.

I’d made reservations for 7 PM, but on this Friday night we found ourselves the only customers inside, although a few other couples filtered in during the next hour, most of whom headed for the outdoor tables in the miniature back garden. Inside, the decor is straight from Moulin Rouge, all scarlet plush, lacquered black wood, crystal chandeliers and gold paint, slightly crossing the line from funky into tastelessness. The kitchen set the tune for the evening with a complimentary amuse-bouche of a crab and cream cheese wonton in raspberry sauce: tasty enough, but not more than the sum of its parts.

Appetizers

We planned to share a Le Tonkin Selection plate of appetizers, but on being warned it was too small, the lady opted for pan-seared foie gras on apple and fig compote. In the event both turned out to be generously sized: the Selection had some fish grilled on sugarcane, nicely flavored with dill (!), another wonton and a fresh sliced-up Vietnamese spring roll, with wholly unnecessary tiny dabs of foie gras and caviar atop each slice to justify the price tag. Her foie gras was generously sized — I’ve seen smaller steaks in Japan — but not well cut (slightly stringy) and seared a bit too fast to my taste, with the inside still raw.

Mains

I picked the house speciality of Cha Ca La Vong, the classic Hanoi dish of fish drizzled in sauce and cooked on a hot plate, served on a bed of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and topped with oodles of fresh dill. Tasty, but the portion was perhaps a little on the small side. The lady opted for a creamy seafood stew, which I thought would be a recipe of disaster (it’s how chefs like to dispose of leftovers), but nope, it was big and generous, with scallops, shrimp, salmon, the same white fish as my CCLV and even a lobster tail for good measure. The only oddity was that there was no starch (rice, potatoes etc) served along with it, just the stew!

Dessert

And to top it off, we decided to share a vanilla souffle, which came with orange sauce to drizzle over it. It cost a fair bit and took a while to arrive, but it was impressively sufflated and won full marks from the female half of the jury. (Too bland for me.)

Drinks

The restaurant has a reasonably impressive wine selection, with half a dozen reds by the glass but only a few whites, a bit odd considering that they specialize in seafood. The lady had a New Zealand Chardonnay, I had a Chilean Pinot Grigio, which were both on the fruity side but entirely drinkable.

Overall

Overall, it was one of those restaurant experiences where you can’t really find much fault in anything, but end up slightly disappointed just the same. None of the dishes were particularly memorable, the fusion attempts just didn’t work and, at S$180 for two, it wasn’t particularly good value either. I doubt we’ll be back, and given the restaurant’s awkward location, I give it half a year tops before it disappears.