34 Province Project: Vegetarian Chinese food in Singapore

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

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

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

Hubei

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

Tianjin

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

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

Shaanxi

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

Shanghai

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

Heilongjiang (Dongbei)

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

Yunnan

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

Hunan

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

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

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

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34 Province Project: Hunan 湖南

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Shandong | Index | Vegetarian >>>

34 Province Project: Shandong 山東

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Sichuan | Index | Hunan >>>

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.

I thought that was that for Sichuan hotpot, but Mr Wang of Heilongjiang episode fame came back with an offer I couldn’t resist: the chance to sample a Chengdu-style hotpot across the border in Johor Bahru, featuring various ingredients banned in Singapore, like blood tofu and duck intestines. Sign me up! And that’s how Mr & Mrs Wang & I ended up at Shuguo Yinxiang Hotpot (蜀国印象-火锅) at the Opera House of R&F Marina Place, the shiny new/still under construction skyscraper complex just east of the Causeway, so close that from a window seat you can keep a nervous eye on the jam situation of this famously congested border crossing while you eat. Incidentally, Shuguo is an ancient kingdom that once existed in Sichuan, and I do mean ancient: they were conquered by the Qin in 316 BC!

Shuguo’s present concept here is quite close to Haidilao: pick two soups or three, choose your ingredients, then DIY your own sauce and dig in. Starting with a zhongla (medium spicy) beef oil and suancai pickled cabbage duck double set, we ordered (deep breath) beef “hairy belly” (毛肚, aka omasum), beef meatballs, tender beef (with an egg on top!), beef cubes, spiced pork intestine, pork kidney, duck tongue, old tofu, crown daisy, green bamboo shoots (青笋 qīngsǔn), “Chinese asparagus” (龙须笋 lóngxūsǔn “dragon beard shoots”, actually a type of dried and shredded bamboo shoot) and a mushroom platter. Phew! If that sounds like way too much for three people, it was, but it was all very good quality and we pretty much finished the lot.

But my excuse to be here was the two forbidden fruits meats. Fresh pork blood (鲜猪血 xiān zhūxiě) is simply coagulated pig blood with a dash of salt. Sliced thin and cooked in the hotpot, it’s smooth like firm tofu and has a mild, pleasant, iron-y taste that brought me back to Thailand, where it’s a common ingredient in soups. Chilled duck intestines (冰镇鸭肠 bīngzhèn yācháng) came piled on ice, wide, flat and long like fettuccini, but curled and shriveled up as soon as they hit the pot, making them half-chewy, half-crunchy. Meh. On the side, we had some “Shuguo Strings” (上上签 shàngshàngqiān), a pot containing thinly sliced skewers of beef, lotus, kelp (kombu) and potato, already cooked in a light broth of fresh chilli and Sichuan peppers. Since the pot was large enough to hide the contents, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolate you never knew what you were going to get when you picked a skewer — hence the name, which invokes pulling divining rods — but they were all tasty. We also had some really nice century eggs with a roasted green chilli sauce (双椒皮蛋 shuāngjiāo pídàn) that I neglected to photograph, looking vaguely like this but better.

On the side, I hit the sauce bar and followed the instructions for their Shuguo Not Spicy sauce, consisting mostly of sesame in various forms with some fresh spring onion and coriander, and it was so tasty I came back for more. To wash it all down, some jugs of watermelon juice (!), and complimentary fruits and green tea & chocolate ice cream for dessert. The bill came to MYR 452, about S$140, so quite pricy by Malaysian standards, but it was also the best hotpot I’ve ever had, bar none, everything down to the spice level was juuuuust right. Strongly recommended! Shuguo has 6 outlets in Malaysia and is expanding fast, so here’s hoping they cross the border soon.

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 | Shandong >>>

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.

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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.

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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.

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