34 Province Project: Fujian 福建

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

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

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

Hokkien (Fujian) 福建

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hokchiu (Fuzhou) 福州

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

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

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

Henghua (Xinghua) 兴化 / Putian 莆田

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

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

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

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

<<< Shaanxi | Henan >>>

34 Province Project: Shaanxi 陝西

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Taiwan | Fujian >>>

34 Province Project: Taiwan 台湾

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Jiangsu | Shaanxi >>>

34 Province Project: Jiangsu 江苏

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Hubei

34 Province Project: Hubei 湖北

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

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

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

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

Soon after my visit, I heard that the awkwardly named Nuodle (牛一嘴 Niú yīzuǐ, “A Cow Mouth” [!?]) also had hot dry noodles on the menu, so I trekked to their flagship store in Our Tampines Hub try it out. The wood-lined restaurant is decorated with manga-style cartoons where various people are shocked by how tasty their Lanzhou beef noodles are, but true enough, the menu has an item coyly called “Sesame Paste Dry Noodle” in English. The Chinese version is clearer: 武汉热干面, Wuhan reganmian. Orders are placed by machine, prepared by chefs assisted by a collection of very loud machines, and announced by an insistent GlaDOS-like female voice: “<DING> Order 202 <DING> Order 202 ready for collection <DING>”, and soon enough I had a bowl in front of me.

Having never had the real thing, I’m not well positioned to rate the authenticity, but this was… probably not quite right. Wikipedia indicates that reganmian are supposed to be a pretty spartan street food meal of noodles with a minimum of toppings, but at Nuodle my bowl was piled high with pickled beans, carrot, radish, thick sesame paste and a solid glug of spicy-numbing mala sauce. In short, there was a lot going on here, with the sesame paste and the vinegary pickles dominating. Interesting, but definitely not what I expected.

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

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

<<< Inner Mongolia | Jiangsu >>>

34 Province Project: Inner Mongolia 内蒙古

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Tibet | Hubei >>>

34 Province Project: Tibet 西藏

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Macau | Inner Mongolia >>>

34 Province Project: Macau 澳门

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Gansu | Tibet >>>

34 Province Project: Gansu 甘肃

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Xinjiang | Macau >>>

34 Province Project: Xinjiang 新疆

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total damage for 4 people: $80. Recommended.

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

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

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

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

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