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” daoshaomian. 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

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 restaurant in Singapore that claims 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.

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: 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
Fuzhou/Foochow 福州菜
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 >>>