34 Province Project: Sichuan 四川

Sichuan (Four Rivers), sometimes spelled Szechwan, is in southwestern China and probably second only to Cantonese as the most recognizable style of Chinese cooking in the West. From the US to Japan and India, it’s shorthand for “spicy”, and even the exceedingly localized pseudo-Chinese joint in my home suburb in Helsinki offered a vaguely ketchupy concoction called “Szechwan beef” on its menu, next to the rye bread, buttermilk and salad bar of chopped raw Chinese cabbage with canned mandarin slices.

Hardcore amounts of chilli peppers are indeed a definite characteristic of Sichuan cuisine, known in China as as River Cuisine (川菜 chuān cài) after the Four Rivers of Sichuan’s name, but in my opinion the true differentiator to the other merely spicy cuisines of the world is the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒 huājiāo). When I was a kid, my mother had a rarely used little glass jar of shriveled up reddish-brown Sichuan pepper husks in her kitchen cupboard, tasting of nothing in particular, and it wasn’t until I chanced upon the fresh stuff in Singapore around 2005 that I realized why it’s so central to real Sichuanese food. The Chinese call the taste of Sichuan peppercorn (麻 ), usually unhelpfully translated as “numbing” because the same character is also used for anesthesia, but if you ask me they should pick “drugging” instead, because those two spiky bits under the roof (广) are actually hemp leaves! In a similar way that the capsaicin of chilli goes beyond the classic five tastes by hitting your pain receptors, trigging that sweet masochistic endorphin rush, the sanshool of fresh Sichuan pepper is a hallucinogen for the tastebuds, altering their reactions sideways in weird, wonderful and ideosyncratic ways. For me, after eating the pepper, even a glass of plain cold water suddenly tastes sour, salty and thick.

When you mix together chillies and Sichuan pepper, you get the killer spicy-numbing combo called málà (麻辣), which took Singapore by storm while I was away — as I write this even McDonalds is now hawking mala fries. However, I’ll leave exploring my pain tolerance for the Chongqing episode, since Sichuan’s largest city is administratively its own province and famed even in Sichuan itself for completely ridiculous levels of spice.

To kick things off, I strapped on my training wheels and invited the family and some friends to Shisen Hanten (四川飯店), the Singapore outpost of what just might be the world’s most famous Sichuanese restaurant. Founder Chen Kenmin (Jianmin) opened the original in Tokyo in 1958 and it’s often credited with introducing Japan to Chinese food, although this also meant that the spice levels were toned down considerably for the Japanese palate. My grandfather-in-law, OG hipster poet that he was, used to hold his tanka poetry clubs at the Osaka branch even before it became cool, because the restaurant really took off in the 1990s when the founder’s son Chen Ken’ichi became the original Iron Chef Chinese and a fixture on TV screens across the entire world.

Grandson Chen Kentaro’s name is plastered on the Singapore branch, which is high up on the 35rd floor of the new Hilton (former Mandarin Orchard), looking every inch like the hotel ballroom it is with the classic round tables with white tablecloths and lazy Susans in the middle. On this quiet Tuesday night the majority of clientele was Japanese, attesting partly to the restaurant’s fame in Japan, and partly to the fact that the restaurant has scored two Michelin stars every year since 2016 and is priced to match. How would the food hold up?

We kicked off with a selection of Sino-Japanese classics, starting with the famed Kung Pao chicken (宮保雞丁 gōngbǎo jīdīng). Order this in the West and you’ll get a mess of orange juice and corn starch, but Shisen’s rendition was dry, not too spicy, generously provisioned with cashews and had a few token Sichuan peppers thrown in. The kids loved the twice-cooked pork (回锅肉 huíguōròu), a simple dish of crispy pork, cabbage and mild Japanese piman peppers with just a hint of chilli. Stir-fried green beans (干煸四季豆 gānbiān sìjìdòu) are a Sichuanese favorite that’s really tasty when done right, but Shisen’s version was curiously denatured, with not much going on and the beans limp, not crisp. Shredded Wagyu Beef with Japanese Green Pepper (青椒牛肉丝) is apparently a Sichuanese dish as well, but I’ve never seen this outside Japan, and Shisen’s version tasted exactly like cheap Chinese food in Japan: gluggy and curiously tasteless.

The standout for me was, though, was Shisen’s second-most famous dish, their take on chilli shrimp (干烧明虾 gānshāo míngxiā). In Japan, ordering ebi-chiri (エビチリ) gets you a plate of gloopy, sickly sweet prawns, but here the complex, multilayered sauce was reminiscent of chilli crab gravy, yet somehow more fresh and zingy, and the prawns were huge and bursting with flavour. As a bonus, they came with a side of deep-fried mantou buns perfect for sopping up the gravy, and so good we had to order more. (Factoid: Iron Chef’s Chairman Kaga said that this was the best dish he ate in the entire series!)

Yet Shisen’s top dish is mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐), “pockmarked grandma’s beancurd”, a seemingly simple dish of soft beancurd in a sauce of minced meat and plenty of mala chilli and Sichuan pepper. The version here pulls no punches: it was oily and both la (spicy) and ma (numbing), a little too much so for the kids, who are more used to the slightly-la, non-ma Japanese version.

Our final dish of the day was also perhaps the most authentic Sichuan dish of the day: “water-boiled” (水煮 shuǐzhǔ) marble goby, prepared by poaching the fish for 20-30 seconds and then finished off by pouring boiling oil on top. The English menu warns that this is “super-spicy”, and it was indeed the spiciest thing we ate today, but despite the intimidating pile of chilli on top and plenty of Sichuan peppercorns popping in my mouth, the sweetness of the very fresh fish still came through. Very nice!

For dessert, we had the Trio of Desserts: Sino-Japanese staple “almond” tofu (杏仁豆腐 xìngrén dòufu, or annin dōfu in Japan), which is actually made from ground apricot kernels and tastes a bit like almond liquor; mango pudding; and a little cube of doughy sponge cake cautiously flavored with dark sugar. The kids tried the aloe vera and lemongrass jelly, which had a touch of Chinese herbal flavor, with palate-cleansing yuzu sorbet. The final Japanese touch awaited in the toilets, where the seats are equipped with high-end Toto washlets that let you choose between Oscillating, Pulsating, or even both.

Speaking of butt-puckering things, it was time for the bill, which came to $479 for the eight of us — the priciest meal by a long way of the entire project, and that’s with zero alcohol and half the table being kids who subsisted primarily on fried rice. There are two ways to look at that figure: by Singapore Michelin star dining standards, where a meal for two at Odette goes well north of $1000, it’s actually a reasonably good deal; but by any other standard, it’s a ridiculous price to pay for food that would cost a quarter or less a few blocks away in Chinatown’s Little Sichuan. To be honest, the most disappointing thing was that Shisen can’t quite seem to make up its mind about whether it’s Sichuanese or Sino-Japanese, down to details like the background music alternating between Chinese traditional and twangy Japanese shamisen plucking, and this makes the menu a bit of a crapshoot as well.

And psst: if you’d like to check out that mapo doufu yourself without breaking the bank, they’ve now franchised out Chen’s Mapo Tofu to shopping malls islandwide, with a basic bowl starting from $12.80.

Next, I atoned for my culinary sins by eating perhaps the most iconic Sichuanese dish, hotpot (火锅 huǒguō), and what better place to eat it than China’s most famous hotpot chain, Haidilao (海底捞, “Deep Sea Dredging”). Founded in suburban Chengdu in 1994, the chain’s founder Zhang Yong is now the richest man in Singapore, with a net worth of some $15 billion. His recipe for success? Reasonable food, fairly high prices, and famously obsessive service: for example, ladies waiting in line may get treated to a free manicure.

There are a dozen Haidilaos in Singapore, but wait times are still often measured in hours, so we booked a table at their comparatively quiet Clarke Quay outlet. Order of the day was a double pot split between the Sichuan original, generously mala-flavored of course, and Bai Yu (白玉, “white jade”), a complex but non-spicy fish-chicken-pork broth in the same family as Japanese tonkotsu of ramen fame. Into the pot went sliced lamb shoulder, “hairy belly” beef tripe (毛肚 máodù), pork kidney, black pork slices, pork balls, tofu skin, black fungus, winter melon, lotus root, crown daisy (茼蒿 tónghāo, or shungiku in Japanese), lettuce leaf and instant noodles. Whew! We also ordered the famous homemade “kung fu noodles”, usually prepared at your table, but in these COVID times brought on a plate.

In Japanese hotpots, it’s all about the ingredients, the broths are simple and any condiments are strictly optional. In Sichuan hotpot, though, most items are cooked for mere seconds, so the broth has to be overloaded with ingredients so the flavor can infuse quickly. What’s more, there’s a near-absurd array of condiments to mix and match, with their signature “Haidilao sauce” (middle pic) stretching the definition of “sauce”: not only is it quite dry, but it contains things like roasted soy beans, minced beef, coriander and a ton of raw garlic. The condiment bar also serves up unlimited snacks, fruits and ice cream.

So how was it? Not quite as spicy as I expected: the chilli oil was largely concentrated on the top of the pot, and the dipping sauces helped numb the pain. My favorites were the kidney, sliced thin and cooked in seconds; the tofu skin, silky smooth yet absorbent; and the lamb. The house sesame sauce was also quite tasty and, being liquid, much more effective at cooling. Total damage for 4 came to $147 without drinks, which is definitely on the pricy side for hotpot, but it was tasty and fun, so odds are we’ll be back.

The final dish of this little tour was hot and sour noodles (酸辣粉 suānlàfěn). My new favorite vloggers 聪生家SG Chengdu Family did a great “PK” episode (literally Player Killer, but meaning any kind of winner-takes-all competition) sampling 5 bowls across Singapore, so when I found myself in Jurong on a Sunday, I made a beeline for their top pick, Divine Chicken Pot (好滋味鸡公煲) tucked away in the Food Republic food court in the basement of the Westgate shopping mall. They really don’t make it easy for you to order it though: not only does the English menu dub it the thoroughly misleading “Sausage Rice Noodle” (!?), but even the Chinese name is “Fat Intestine Noodles” (肥肠粉 féichángfěn) instead. All was forgiven once I tasted it though, as despite the intimidating appearance, it was only mildly spicy (微辣 wēilà) as promised and the mala, the vinegar and the earthy funk of intestines sang in harmony. I’m generally not a huge fan of intestines, but these were really well done, soft and only slightly chewy with a moreish meaty taste. The glass noodles were thick, chewy and the peanuts on top added a nice bit of crunch. I’m getting hungry again just typing this. Two thumbs up, and only $7 too!

In addition to food, Sichuan is also famed as the home of one of the four signature styles of baijiu white liquor, namely “strong aroma” (浓香 nóngxiāng). If you’ve ever recoiled in horror after being punched in the nostrils by a “clear aroma” baijiu like Beijing’s Red Star, you may find the concept of something even stronger to be rather intimidating, but for the betterment of mankind I invested the princely sum of $9.50 in a 125 mL bottle of Luzhou Laojiao Er Qu (泸州老窖二曲). Distilled since 1573 by China’s oldest baijiu makers Luzhou Laojiao, the “Second Song” is the third and cheapest grade they have, and consequently has the sobriquet “the People’s Baijiu”.

So how was it? It’s strong alright (45°) and clear like vodka, but surprisingly drinkable, like an amped-up version of Hubei’s Maopu with a similar layered, complex taste that’s incongruously fruity and floral at times. And on that incongruously fruity note, we’ve sung our song to Sichuan.

<<< Liaoning | Index

34 Province Project: Liaoning 辽宁

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Qinghai | Index | Sichuan >>>

34 Province Project: Qinghai 青海

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Ningxia | Index | Liaoning >>>

34 Province Project: Ningxia 宁夏

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Beijing | Index | Qinghai >>>

34 Province Project: Beijing 北京

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Chongqing | Index | Ningxia >>>

34 Province Project: Chongqing 重庆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Jiangxi | Index | Beijing >>>

34 Province Project: Jiangxi 江西

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Anhui | Index | Chongqing >>>

34 Province Project: Anhui 安徽

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Guizhou | Index | Jiangxi >>>

34 Province Project: Guizhou 贵州

Guizhou (“Precious Province”) is in southern China, just north of Yunnan and Guangxi. “The sky is never sunny for three days, and the ground is never flat for three feet” (天无三日晴,地无三尺平), says a local proverb, summing up how rainy and mountainous the area is. As you might guess, it’s historically poor and thinly populated, and like its neighbours has a reputation for being a wild and woolly borderland inhabited by many minority people. Peter Hessler’s Country Driving recounts how Zhejiang factory owners used to summarily reject any applicants with Guizhou IDs, and my own prejudices stem from something nearly as irrational: the guì (贵) in Guizhou sounds awfully close to the guǐ (鬼) of “devil/ghost”, as in yángguǐzi (洋鬼子) and the Cantonese gweilo (鬼佬), both meaning “foreign devils” like me.

Guizhou cuisine (黔菜 qián cài) is famous for being spicy and sour, so much that, to quote another proverb, “if you don’t eat sour for three days, you’ll stagger when you walk” (三天不吃酸,走路打窜窜). However, this sourness is usually not derived from vinegar, but by fermenting and pickling, and like Sichuan and Hunan to the north, chillies are used in abundance. Lao Gan Ma (老干妈), a sauce made from chillies, soybeans and onions now trending worldwide in hipster circles under the bizarre moniker “chili crisp”, originally hails from Guizhou.

Much to my dismay, I could not find a single Guizhou restaurant in Singapore. I was contemplating drowning my sorrows Finnish style with a large bottle of Guizhou’s most famous product (about which more later), but out of the blue, the lovely Sam of @appropriateamount reached out to this random yángguǐzi and offered to host a feast at her place. A Guizhou native who moved to Singapore when young, her quarantine project was recreating the tastes of home. How could I possibly say no?

So on a Saturday night we rocked up at Sam’s place to find Sam, two of her friends, a puppy and a veritable feast awaiting us. By special request, she had made the effort to rustle up some fish mint, commonly known in Chinese as yúxīngcǎo (鱼腥草, “fish-smelling herb”) but in Guizhou usually called zhé’ěrgēn (折耳根, “broken ear root”). The Yunnanese like to chow down on the leaves, but in Guizhou it’s the crunchy roots that are the star of the show, with an unusual flavour that’s partly minty, partly lemony, and, yes, vaguely fishy, but not at all in a “fish sitting out in the hot sun for a week” kinda way, more a gentle whiff of fresh sashimi. The rhizome was served up both cooked in a tasty stir-fry with chilli and bacon (折耳根炒培根), the bacon substituting for cured ham (腊肉 làròu), and raw in a delicious dipping sauce flavoured with coriander, chilli, and a few drops of another uniquely Guizhou ingredient, mùjiāngzǐ (木姜子, “tree ginger”) oil extracted from Litsea cubeba. The oil has a strong lemongrass-like scent, and as a result the dip reminded quite a bit of the ubiquitous nam jim dipping sauces in Thailand, only you don’t need fish sauce because fish mint does the job!

The hit parade continued. Guizhou-style làzǐjī (贵州辣子鸡), very different from the dry Chongqing-style “popcorn chicken” you usually get in Singapore, with cíbā làjiāo (糍粑辣椒) pounded “mochi” chilli paste in oil (thus named for the texture, no actual glutinous rice involved) and springy cubes of konjac (魔芋豆腐 móyù dòufu, “devil’s tofu” in China, konnyaku in Japan). Tofu stew with fresh green chillies, tomatoes and garlic (西红柿青椒豆腐), this trio being a signature of Guizhou cuisine. And a mild pork meatball soup (肉丸子汤), perfect for eating with the fish mint chilli dip.

Last but not least, one dish even a Finnish country boy would recognize, namely mashed potatoes (土豆泥), albeit with crispy chunks of pork crackling (脆哨) mixed in. The way to eat this is by dipping chunks into the unassuming red powder above, which looks like the kind of ground chilli that makes you sneeze just by looking at it, but was actually a blend of chilli and spices, nowhere near as fiery as it looks and straight-up addictive. I’m kind of tempted to start importing this to Finland, but it may still be an uphill fight to convince my countrymen to start adding chilli to their potatoes.

To refresh our palates, the obvious choice was Kweichow Moutai (贵州茅台 Guìzhōu Máotái), the official liquor of the People’s Republic, used for disinfecting soldiers’ wounds during the Long March and served by Mao to Nixon in 1972. A powerful sauce-type baijiu generally considered an acquired taste, one review says that it is “reminiscent of a very rough vodka, followed by soy sauce notes”. But while the taste may be debatable, the prestige is not: a standard 500 ml ceramic bottle of their flagship “Flying Fairy” clocks in around $700, vintage editions sell for hundreds of thousands at auction, and the Moutai Group is now more valuable than Diageo. Fortunately for proles like me, the marketing department has come up with two innovations: a new more-herbal, less-acetone formulation called Moutai Bulao (某台不老, lit. “Ageless”), sold in 125 ml bottles for “only” $80 a pop, and nifty vending machines to dispense these shots. And it was… quite nice! At 53% it’s obviously strong stuff, but at least in the Bulao formulation, much more drinkable than I expected: the taste was complex but smooth, no soy sauce or paint thinner in sight.

Last but not least, we sampled some Guizhou tea as well. Kǔdīng chá (苦丁茶) means “bitter nail tea”, since the leaves dry up into sharp needle shapes, and it’s supposed to be quite bitter — although to my tastes, trained on Japanese green teas, it was quite mild and pleasant. Fun fact: the Ilex kaushue plant it’s made from is closely related to Ilex paraguariensis, the source of South America’s yerba mate.

All in all it was a great evening with great food, great company and great conversation, and absolutely one of the highlights of my culinary journey so far. Sam is considering sharing her Guizhou food with Singapore and the world by setting up a private dining experience, so drop her a line if you’d be keen. The next feast on her agenda is Guizhou street food, and I’m already on the waiting list!

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34 Province Project: Hebei 河北

Hebei, “North of the [Yellow] River” , is a C-shaped province in northern China wrapping around Beijing and Tianjin, not to be confused with its near-namesake Hubei down south. While it has a population of 75 million people, it lacks a clear identity; in most of China, the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away (山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn), but Hebei was always right next to the Dragon Throne and thus firmly under the thumb of whoever in charge of Beijing at the time.

In the narrowest possible sense, I technically have been to Hebei since I trundled through some 250 km of it on my way to Xi’an, but our train didn’t even bother stopping at its 10 million strong capital Shijiazhuang, and it was an overnight train to boot. Perhaps I also saw a few Hebei hilltops from atop the Mutianyu Great Wall, but even that seems unlikely since the border was a good 40 km away and it was so hazy I could barely see 2 km.

It is thus not surprising that “Hebei cuisine” (冀菜 Jì cài) does not really seem to exist as a separate entity, without so much as a Wikipedia article to its name. There’s a Hebei branch of Imperial cuisine known as Chengde Royal Cuisine, after a mountaintop summer palace that the Qing emperors used to frequent, but this is hardly the kind of thing I’m looking for in this blog. Yet there was one street food dish that every search for Hebei cuisine always put front and center: donkey burgers (驴肉火烧 lǘròu huǒshāo), immortalised in the catchy slogan “In Heaven there is dragon meat, on Earth there is donkey meat” (天上龙肉,地上驴肉 tiānshàng lóngròu, dìshàng lǘròu). Having already sampled a horse burger (below) in at famous Slovenian chain Hot Horse in Ljubljana, a donkey burger was clearly the next evolution. (Honorable mention goes to Bikkuri Donkey in Japan, whose disquieting name literally means “Donkey Surprise”, but the surprise, whatever it may be, does not seem to involve actual donkeys.)

In theory, this is a simple enough dish, just boil up some donkey, stick it in a huǒshāo bun, and Eeyore’s your uncle. Unfortunately, try as I might, I couldn’t find anybody actually selling donkey burgers in Singapore. Eventually it became clear that while the Singapore Food Agency has a long list of things you can import, including delicacies like MVF0WH WILD GUINEA FOWL FROZEN and MVC081VN VENISON TONGUE CHILLED, donkey in any form was not on the list, and in minutely regulated Singapore, if bureaucrats can’t conceive of it, you can’t have it.

So donkey was off the menu… or so I thought. Fortunately for me, a local retailer whose name, location and contact details I have sadly forgotten didn’t get the memo, and somehow a retort pouch of Donkey Prince Five Spice Donkey Meat (驴太子五香驴肉) may or may not have landed in my possession. The bag does sacrilegiously proclaim that this is a Shandong speciality, but fortunately we all know better.

To my surprise, the second challenge of finding those huǒshāo buns proved nearly as difficult. Fortunately Dough Magic from the Tianjin episode came through once again, with 10-packs of the Xian-style Thousand Layer Buns (千层饼) that you’d use in Shaanxi ròujiāmó “burger”; not quite the same as a huoshao, which is supposed to be more doughy and less flaky, but close enough for me. They come frozen, looking much like miniature roti pratas to the Singaporean eye, and per the instructions, you first fry them in a frying pan to a golden-brown color (you can just about squeeze 3 per pan) and then pop them in a 200-degree oven for 5 minutes until they puff up nicely. As luck would have it, the gas cut out while I was frying batch 2, so no prizes for guessing which batch is which in the oven.

Then I reheated some meat that may or may not have been donkey, shredded it up with a fork, split open a mo and it was time to start singing the Don Don Donki song. And survey says…. yummo! Our mystery meat was mild with no gamey taste or smell, had a nice soft texture that wasn’t stringy at all, and all things considered reminded me quite a bit of slow-cooked shredded beef like you’d get in a good American BBQ place. The five spice was barely perceptible, but a few drops of Mexican habanero sauce livened it up nicely.

And hey, did you know that in Finnish, an awkward segue between two topics is called a “donkey bridge” (aasinsilta)? So now it’s time to pounce onto our next province like Tigger knocking over Winnie the Pooh.

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