34 Province Project: Tibet 西藏

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Macau

34 Province Project: Macau 澳门

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Gansu | Tibet >>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Siberia to Tibet: China as a Tourist

So how is traveling around the less visited parts of China when you’re a tall, blond, distinctly non-Chinese-speaking alien?

Language

I have to state up front that my experience of China is likely pretty different from that of the average foreign visitor, since I’m reasonably fluent in Japanese and that gives a huge leg up for parsing Chinese: I can’t read larger chunks of text because the grammar is too different, but I can generally manage maps, simple websites and signage.  However, my spoken Chinese is terrible and my comprehension isn’t much better.

Nevertheless, I was positively surprised by the amount of English signage present.  Sometimes there was clearly a government edict at work — for example, every single shop in the villages near the Mutianyu Great Wall has English signs, just in case a tourist has a sudden urgent to acquire construction supplies or wholesale quantities of fertilizer — and equally often it was clearly run through an online translation tool, occasionally with hilarious results.  A large part of the “English” signage was actually just pinyin phonetics, so those Chinese who struggle with hanzi can still spell out SHE HUI ZHU YI and connect the red billboard with a hammer and sickle to socialism — but as a useful side effect, this meant that most trains, subways, buses etc were signposted in friendly Roman letters.

By comparison, English speakers were definitely on thinner ground.  We ran into a few in odd places, like a young Didi (Chinese Uber) driver in Xining, but when it came time to request a late checkout at one of Xining’s top hotels, the bellboy spoke more English than the three ladies behind the counter combined, and I still had to trot out my pidgin Mandarin.  Border crossings and security checkpoints were also invariably quick & wordless affairs, since staff vocabulary didn’t seem to extend much beyond “passport” and “ticket”.

Would we ever really have been in trouble without knowing Chinese?  No, but any scraps you can pick up beforehand will certainly helped.

Civility

China — and I’m referring specifically to the People’s Republic here — gets a pretty bad rep for being tourist-hostile, and if you read the Stay safe section on Wikivoyage it’s easy to come away expecting that your children will be kidnapped and/or run over while you’re choking on toxic air and sold overpriced tea by attractive but starving art students.

Now it’s fair to say that if it’s personal space you’re after, most of China is the wrong place to be: in a city like Beijing, with twice the population of New York, you’re going to get a lot of crowds and the occasional sharp elbow.  Interestingly, most of these belonged to the elderly, who were either taking their Confucian mores of mandatory respect for the aged seriously, or had honed their queue-cutting skills fighting for scraps of cabbage during the Great Leap Forward.  Overall, though, most queues were kinda-sorta respected (heavy security presence must help), people mostly waited for others to get off the subway before barging on themselves, and even train stations felt more like busy airports than the crush of desperate humanity that is an Indian train station’s waiting room or ticket office.  And while there are a few places like Beijing’s Silk Alley (now just a shopping mall) and that drinks shop atop the Mutianyu Great Wall that will happily fleece foreigners for every last yuan they’ve got, if you pick your own places, you’ll pay what the locals do: we never paid more than printed on the menu or otherwise agreed.

We did run into a couple of power-tripping bureaucrats, most memorably an attendant on our Beijing-Xi’an trian, who completely flipped out over my dad’s effrontery in using the bottom bunk in our 4-bunk cabin when his ticket said top bunk — never mind that we had purchased all four seats.  A friendly English-speaking lady from a nearby cabin was roped in to help translate, and after much foot-stomping and gnashing of teeth the attendant admitted defeat when we pointed out that this was a non-stop train, so it was physically impossible for anybody else to board en route and claim that bunk.

Toilets in China are also worth a mention, since the country has a reputation for unutterably grim facilities.  We found a few at some of the less visited Tibetan monasteries, but as a rule they were generally modern, tolerably clean and generally a cut above Russia or Mongolia.   You will, however, need to learn to squat and carry your own toilet paper, since Western-style thrones are few and far between and TP is a national treasure only grudgingly doled out once authorities have scrutinized your schnozzle.

One final component of the China experience is security, surveillance and bureaucracy, but that’s a topic large enough to deserve its own blog post.  (Coming soon.)

Internet

Speaking of security and surveillance, one of the more annoying parts of travel in China is the Great Firewall, which keeps getting higher and tighter: virtually all name-brand Western services (Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Maps, Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram etc) are now inaccessible.  I had prepared by setting up ExpressVPN in advance, and it worked fine when on wifi, but when roaming on my Australian SIM, the connection was censored and throttled to be hopelessly slow, making using the VPN nearly impossible.

In the end I bought a China Unicom prepaid SIM, which was several orders of magnitude faster and well worth the investment, but Western services remained glitchy.  For example, on Google Maps, local data is not just spotty and out of date, but places were often hundreds of meters in the wrong direction, and even if you could use WhatsApp, nobody you meet could.  So the only way to go is to dip your toe into the local ecosystem.

  • WeChat/QQ (微信 Weixin) is the local juggernaut and the de facto choice of messaging.  It also has the very popular WeChat Pay (微信支付 Weixin Zhifu) payment system, which has recently started accepting non-Chinese credit cards, but registration is complicated and apparently the rules vary continually.  When I signed up, I needed a Chinese number and a local trusted user to verify me, but no Chinese ID or bank account; others report being required to provide one or both of these though.  It’s also important to download the mainland China version of the app directly off weixin.qq.com, not the overseas version from App Store/Play Store.
  • Baidu Maps (百度地图 Baidu Ditu) is the local equivalent of Google Maps.  In addition to being Chinese-only, the UI is pretty busy and takes some getting used to, but place search and directions for driving, public transport and walking are all pretty good.  (Weird quirk: travel times for bus were systematically inflated by 30-60 min.)
  • Ctrip (携程旅行 Xiéchéng Lǚxíng) is your best source for long-distance travel information, including detailed train schedules.
  • Mobike (摩拜 Móbài) is great for booking some of the ride share bikes littering the streets of China’s larger cities.  Rides start from Y1 a pop and the same app & credit works fine in Australia too.

Transport

It’s difficult to overstate just how much investment China has put into planes, trains and roads over the past decades, or how much pent up demand this has unlocked.  For example, we took the CRH bullet train from Xi’an to Xining, fully expecting this recently opened line from a 2nd-tier city to a 3rd-tier city to be a white elephant, but no — the train was packed to the last seat. Xi’an has sprouted 3 lines and 91 km of metro in the past 7 years, all of it packed, and Beijing is still catching up after opening 22 lines covering 608 km.  Train stations like Beijing West are not enormous (just) because the government likes massive buildings, but because they have to be: the 34-platform, 60-million-pax-per-year Xi’an North is by some measures the largest in Asia, with a central concourse that puts most stadiums to shame, and it was still difficult to find a seat.  Even Lhasa airport was bursting at the seams.  The only empty Chinese transport hub during the entire trip was the shiny new international wing of Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, but I suspect we were there just at the wrong time during the afternoon lull, since CKG too has seen 1,000% (yes, three zeroes) international passenger growth since 2009.

Food

In short, the food in China was amazing, if often a bit hit and miss since we were traveling without much local advice and mostly choosing places by convenience.  The learning curve for “real” Chinese food can be steep though, so here’s a trek up the scale.

Crowd-pleasers abounded in Beijing: the justly famous Peking Duck (Xiheyaju
羲和雅居 was among the best meals of the trip) and the less famous but no less tasty zhajiangmian (炸醬麵) aka Chinese spaghetti bolognese.  Roubing (肉餅) meat pies are also widely available, although the precise origin of the meat may be a mystery at times.

Mildly more adventurous or surprising were the many Muslim eateries of Xining, serving up a constellation of noodles.  Even with basic knowledge of hanzi and Google Translate, you never quite knew what you’d get, but rarely were we disappointed.  One Chinese innovation that will take the West by storm sooner or later is the conveyor-belt hotpot: take a personal mini pot, select a broth and dipping sauces, then pick what you like from the parade going past you and pay for what you ate.  Magic!  And if you put too much chilli in your sauce, cool down with some yogurt (酸奶 suānnǎi), which is sold everywhere on the streets.  And if all else fails, head to a hotel breakfast buffet and eat an cute animal-shaped steamed bun.

At the more challenging end of the spectrum were Yunnanese cuisine, which appears to consist mostly of mushrooms and unusual veggies; the enormous gelatinous niangpi (酿皮) noodles of Qinghai served with bread-like steamed gluten dipped in chilli, the Chinese trucker favorite of “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), basically a stew of chicken, potato and lots of chilli, and the Chongqing classic xiǎomiàn (小面), the deceptively named “small noodles” that pack a big numbing-hot mala punch.

And oh, if you’re reading this and thinking “that’s nothing, once in Shenzhen I ate…”, go chew on this previous blog entry for a while.

<<< Lhasa and Tibet | Hong Kong and Macau >>>