34 Province Project: Liaoning 辽宁

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Qinghai | Index

34 Province Project: Qinghai 青海

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Ningxia | Index | Liaoning >>>

34 Province Project: Anhui 安徽

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Guizhou | Index | Jiangxi >>>

34 Province Project: Hebei 河北

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Jilin | Index | Guizhou >>>

34 Province Project: Jilin 吉林

Jilin, derived from the Manchu for “along the [Songhua] river”, is sandwiched between North Korea and Inner Mongolia. It shares both its borders and much of its cuisine with the other two Northeast (Dongbei) provinces. However, since Jilin has China’s longest border with Korea and hosts the country’s only Korean autonomous region (Yanbian), I’m going to somewhat arbitrarily devote this episode to Chinese-Korean/Korean-Chinese food, leaving Manchu cuisine for Liaoning and “true blue” Dongbei for Heilongjiang.

I started my journey at Chinese Noodles (面面俱到 Miànmiànjùdào) at NTP+ in Lorong Chuan, whose bland English name hides a Chinese pun. Miànmiànjùdào is a chengyu (four-character phrase) meaning “to every aspect” or “comprehensively”, but in simplified characters 面 means both “face/side/aspect” as well as “noodles”, so it’s a shop that has all kinds of noodles! Ha-ha!

My kind of noodles today was the $6.80 Dongbei cold noodles (东北冷面 Dōngběi lěng miàn), which to my surprise turned out to be effectively identical to the famous Korean cold noodles (냉면/冷麵 naengmyeon). It’s a pile of very chewy grey-brown potato/buckwheat noodles, topped with a spray of sliced cucumber and tomato, a boiled egg and a few token slices of beef, all in a bowl of cold beef broth. There were also a couple of pieces of crunchy homemade pickled but unfermented cabbage (proto-kimchi or 酸菜 suān cài, take your pick) adding a tiny bit of zing. I haven’t seen tomatoes in Korea, and traditionally it’s served in metal bowls with metal chopsticks, but other than that this could have been in Pyongyang and I’d take it any day over that city’s second most famous dish, stewed dog penis. Two thumbs up.

As far as I can tell, there are no dedicated Chinese-Korean restaurants in Singapore, but there are at least 3 Korean-Chinese ones. O.BBa Jjajang on Tanjong Pagar Rd, Singapore’s Koreatown, is the one of four shops in the orthographically challenging O.BBa empire, and in case you miss the giant pink inflatable cannibal pig outside, the inescapable O.BBa jingle playing outside will lure you in. Rocking up without a reservation early on a random Sunday, we were lucky to snag one of the last tables (in our case a booth) remaining. First up were the Korean-style complimentary banchan starters, consisting of kimchi, danmuji (Jp. takuan) radish pickles, some hardboiled eggs (!?) and a tip of the hat to China with some stir-fried onion with chilli and Sichuanese staple zhàcài (榨菜), usually awkwardly translated into English as “pickled mustard tuber”. Stop snickering! This is serious stuff, and tasty too.

The eponymous star of the show here is jjajangmyeon (짜장면), the Korean take on northern Chinese staple zhájiàngmiàn (炸酱面). While the two look outwardly similar, they’re quite different: zhájiàngmiàn is salty, umami-laden and typically contains little other than minced meat, hence the epithet “Chinese spaghetti bolognese”, while jjajangmyeon dials down the saltiness and packs the sauce with soft, sweet caramelized onions instead. Another famous Korean-Chinese dish is jjamppong (짬뽕), the spicy Korean version of champon, a famous Nagasaki seafood & pork ramen soup, which in turn was imported to Japan from Fujian. O.Bba’s take was generously laden with mussels, shrimp, squid, and despite the blood red color wasn’t all that spicy. As always, the kids devoured a plate of dumplings, this time deep-fried (군만두 gunmandu), served with a very tasty dipping sauce of soy, chilli and sesame. These, too, are of Chinese origin, and even the name comes from the Chinese mántou (馒头), although that means a meatless steamed bun these days and these would be called zhàjiǎo (炸饺).

The most memorable dish of the night, though, was tangsuyuk (탕수육/糖醋肉), the Korean-Chinese take on sweet and sour pork and a cousin of the guōbāoròu we tried in the Heilongjiang episode. Strips of pork and lotus root are cooked, dipped in a very heavy potato starch batter, deep-fried, and then the pièce de résistance: the waiter comes and pours a solid half-litre of warm sweet and sour sauce over it all, with a few token veggies to assuage your guilt. Alas, while the presentation wins full points, the end result was kind of gluggy, with the meat buried in a pile of gooey starch, and I’ve never been a huge fan of sweet and sour pork anyway. (Mostly due to an epic bout of food poisoning from a way-too-cheap buffet in Kobe, but that’s another story.)

We also ordered a kimchi pajeon pancake with cheese, some steamed egg and a big old brown plastic vat of makgeolli rice wine, Korea’s answer to sake, nearly running out of table space in the process (see above), but nevertheless managed to plow our way through it all. Total $140 for 4, and two snouts up.

Last but not least, Bar Bar Q in Suntec has nothing whatsoever to do with Jilin, but is, at least to me, emblematic of Singapore’s next wave of Chinese-Korean fusion. (Just don’t confuse it with Pakistani kebab joint “BarBQ” or Boat Quay hangout “BQ Bar”; I’m sure all three mutually regret their branding decisions.) Originally a live music joint, the stage has been gathering dust since 2020, but at least background music is now back and it was hopping on a Friday night. Sponsored by Tsingtao Beer, with a Chinese slogan promising Wine, Meat, Friends (酒肉朋友 jiǔròu péngyǒu) and the first page of the menu devoted to classic chuan, the same Chinese kebabs we already met in Heilongjiang, you’d be excused for thinking this is yet another generic Northeastern skewer joint… but wait, why is there a lifesize leggy lady cutout advertising Jinro soju, the quintessential Korean rotgut, outside?

Turns out not only does the drinks menu feature soju cocktails and Cass on tap right next to the Tsingtao, but basically everything else on the menu is also Korean! Army stew (budae jjigae); tteokbokki rice cakes with cheese; japchae (잡채/雜菜) stir-fried sweet potato noodles, another Chinese import into Korea; ramyeon (라면) noodle soup, a distant cousin of Gansu lamian and more, with a couple of token “Japanese” dishes if you wanted non-spicy options. The tteokbokki was particularly nice, served on a sizzling iron plate that gave the cheese a nice crust underneath, and the sauce had lots of chicken chunks and much more depth than the usual insipid ketchupy mess. The chuan were also OK, very Chinese in flavor with generous chilli-cumin dusting, but the portion sizes were quite small. A good deal at $1 a skewer for happy hour, less so when we were paying the full $3-5 per whack. Then again, this is clearly more a place for drinking than eating, so if you’re down for a bucket of soju and want some meaty snacks to go with it, you could do far worse. $160 for 4, which is not great, not terrible.

And that brings us to the end of this trip down fusion lane. At least for me, this was a useful reminder of much Japanese, Korean and Chinese food have inspired each other over the years, and this process of fusion continues today: it’s easy to laugh at the mala bak kut tehs and tobiko cheese mochis that infest the menus of trendy eateries in Singapore, but give it another hundred years and Darwinian evolution will pick a few winners that everybody will soon think of as hallowed traditions.

<<< Shanghai | Index | Jilin >>>

34 Province Project: Shanghai 上海

Shanghai, “Upon the Sea” after its location on the estuary of the mighty Yangtze River, needs little introduction. The “Pearl of the Orient” is China’s largest city and its undisputed commercial hub.

Sadly, I’ve only managed visit Shanghai once in the dim antiquity of 2004, on my very first trip to mainland China, and even that was just a long weekend. (I was supposed to finally go back in 2020, but as we all know, COVID had other ideas.) One telling statistic of the growth since then is that back then it had 2 subway lines, while as I type this it has 18. Yang’s Dumpling (小杨生煎 Xiǎoyáng Shēngjiān), in 2004 just a busy little stall in the backstreets of Wujiang Rd dishing out 4 shēngjiānbāo dumplings for 4 yuan, is now an empire of 250 shops well entrenched even in Australia. In Sydney, we were regulars at Ashfield’s Little Shanghai, a strip of half-a-dozen Shanghainese restaurants of varying degrees of authenticity but a great deal of popularity among Chinese and Westerners alike.

Shanghai cuisine (沪菜 Hù cài) is broadly similar to the cuisine of Jiangsu, the surrounding province: lots of “red braising” (红烧 hóngshāo) in soy and sugar, “drunken” dishes stewed in rice wine, and the famed xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包) “little basket” dumplings with soup inside. Thanks to its status as an international trading port, there’s even a “Shanghai Western” cuisine called Haipai (海派, “ocean style”) with dishes like borscht and potato salad given a local twist, not entirely unlike Hong Kong’s fusion food.

This blog features mostly everyday fare, but this time around we started off with a table for two at Yan’s Dining (嬿青私房菜, “Yan Qing’s Private Kitchen”), almost certainly Singapore’s most upscale Shanghainese joint. The interior looks like a small hotel ballroom complete with chandeliers, round tables and cream white everything, as well as a museum-style glass case of pre-war Shanghai memorabilia, but it’s inside the upscale Mandarin Gallery shopping mall. Our excuse for the splurge was that it was the season for Shanghai hairy crab (上海毛蟹 Shànghǎi máoxiè), thus named after the brown fuzz on their legs, whose females are full of bright orange, gooey, lip-smackingly umami-laden roe during the narrow October/November window, but at $48++ a pop they don’t come cheap. Yan’s offers both drunken (cooked in wine) and steamed crab, but we opted for the latter, and they came steamed to perfection — not overcooked, not raw — and were mighty good eating, we didn’t even bother with the vinegar and ginger dip on the side. Alas, once the roe is scraped out, these fellows are pretty stingy on the meat (a typical hairy crab weighs under 200g) and you’ll need the provided gloves, crackers, scissors and picks to scrape out a few extra calories.

Since dismantling hairy crab armor probably burns more calories than you gain from eating them, we had a good excuse to sample a few more Shanghai delicacies. The Jiangnan Crispy Eel (江南脆鳝) was deep-fried and almost candied in syrup, tasting more like a dessert than a starter; I was reminded of the Japanese brown sugar puff candy karintou. The Shanghai Braised Pork Meatball in Brown Sauce (上海红烧狮子头, “Red-Braised Lion’s Head”), a cousin of the Lion’s Head soup we had earlier at Nanjing Impressions, was very tasty but also very meaty, with a chunky texture not unlike some European sausages. The Crab Roe Tofu (蟹粉豆腐) was extremely rich, perhaps a little too much so after we already ate two whole crabs. Last but definitely not least, the boringly named Shanghai Stewed Rice (上海砂锅菜饭, “Shanghai claypot vegetable rice”) was downright delicious, premium short-grain rice tossed with shreds of bok choy, spring onion, bamboo shoot and ham. With a couple of pots of Dragon Well (龙井 Lóngjǐng) tea from nearby Hangzhou to wash it down, the total damage came to a whopping $240 for 2. It had been a good 10 years since we last ate hairy crab, so the meal was still worth it, but this is not exactly everyday eating.

A more proletarian Shanghai experience can be had at Dingtele (鼎特乐), literally “Three-Legged-Cauldron Special Fun”, but suspiciously close to Taiwanese dumpling masters Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰). Located in Kovan, the narrow restaurant has a bit of a retro classroom vibe with chalkboards along the wall and a glass box full of chefs busily cranking out dumplings.

Like Yang’s Dumpling, the house speciality is the shēngjiānbāo (生煎包) dumpling, available in regular (pork) and “double” (双拼) with prawn as well. These were hot and juicy, with a crispy bottom and soft top, and while I’m not sure adding prawn improved the flavour, it didn’t hurt either. The xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包), however, would not have passed quality control at DTF, they were misshapen and the skin, which is supposed to be paper-thin, was way too thick.

There’s more to the menu than dumplings, so we sampled the pick-your-own-adventure Appetizing Platter (冷菜四拼 lěngcài sìpīn, “pick four cold dishes”). Pick #1 was Shanghai drunken chicken (上海醉鸡 Shànghǎi zuìjī), which true to the name had a strong note of Chinese wine. This is served cold, with the broth and the wine forming a layer of jelly on top of the meat. #2 was mixed black fungus (拌木耳 bàn mù’ěr), crunchy with a strong chilli kick and surprisingly nice. #3 was coriander with “Bean Product” aka “vegetarian duck” in Chinese (香菜拌素鸭 xiāngcài bàn sùyā), a rubbery cake of layered beancurd with virtually no flavor. Last and least, some cold blanched gai lan with, as far as I could tell, no spices whatsoever.

The cold Shanghai noodles (上海冷面 Shànghǎi lěng miàn) brought back memories: back in my student days, I once ended up with a 1 kg tub of Middle Eastern sesame paste tahini, and a version of this, attempted without ever trying the real thing, became a staple for a while. Much to my surprise, at least based on this I wasn’t too far off the mark, the dish consisting of noodles with sesame and peanut paste in a broth of soy, vinegar and just a touch of chilli. Quite nice. The other hit of the day was the Noodles with Braised Pork Chop (大排面 dàpái miàn), with a generously sized slow-cooked pork chop so soft you could tear it apart with your chopsticks. The Fried Rice with [Fried] Pork Chop (猪排炒饭 zhūpái chǎofàn), on the other hand, had a reasonable if somewhat plain pork chop, but the rice failed to meet with DTF bar, with the rice a bit too wet and gluggy. Overall verdict: shēngjiānbāo, noodles and braised pork quite good, but skip the rest.

I’ll finish with a plug for my favorite Shanghai restaurant, which I sadly haven’t had the chance to visit recently with a camera in tow: Shanghai Renjia (上海人家, “Shanghai Family Home”) in Ang Mo Kio, not to be confused with another identically named restaurant in Geylang. True to the name, this is a tiny 8-table family-run operation in an HDB block, with dishes that are by and large pretty similar to Dingtele (xiǎolóngbāo, shēngjiānbāo, pork chop noodles, etc); Eatbook.sg has a good review. It’s cheap, it’s friendly, it’s tasty, it’s really slow because everything is made to order, and it’s virtually impossible to get a seat without a reservation, so call ahead and trot out your best Mandarin because the Shanghainese husband-wife couple running the show speak virtually no English.

And with that, we bid farewell to Shanghai. Here’s hoping to visit you again someday.

<<< Heilongjiang | Index | Jilin >>>

34 Province Project: Heilongjiang 黑龙江

Heilongjiang, “Black Dragon River”, is the coolest Chinese province, both because of the badass name and because, nestled up against eastern Siberia at the northernmost tip of Russia, it’s China’s coldest province too. Capital Harbin was founded as a railway junction on the Russian-designed Chinese Eastern Railway and built as a sort of Eastern St Petersburg showcasing the wonders of Russian imperialism, although virtually all Russians fled after the Japanese invaded in 1931. Today the city is best known for averaging -19 C in January and hosting the Ice Festival.

Heilongjiang’s cuisine is usually lumped together with nearby Jilin and Liaoning as Northeast cuisine (东北菜 Dōngběi cài), so my plan of action is to cover Korean-Chinese dishes in Jilin, Manchu flavors in Liaoning, and devote this episode to Russian-influenced straight up Dongbei food. As you’d expect from the climate, this features of a lot of wheat, potatoes, meat and pickles, but all served very differently from (say) Germany. Time to dig in!

First station on the Dongbei train was the awkwardly translated Oriental Chinese (东方美食 Dōngfāng měishí, “Eastern Delicacy”), actually a cluster of no less than four restaurants clustered around the corner of New Bridge Rd and Pagoda St in Chinatown. The ridiculously long menu runs to 30-something pages, spanning northeast to southwest, but as the giant 东北大串 (“Northeast Big Skewer”) sign hints, the name of the game here is Chinese kebabs (串儿 chuàn’r) aka Chinese barbecue (烧烤 shāokǎo), a street food eaten across the entire country but at least in Singapore strongly associated with Dongbei. Dusted with a cumin-chilli mix and cooked and served on flat metal skewers, the lamb kebabs here weren’t up to Xinjiang/Inner Mongolia standards, but the beef and pork belly were quite OK and the grilled mantou buns and string beans were nice. The real standout for me was the Dried Beancurd Roll (烧干豆腐巻 shāo gāndòufu juàn), with garlic chives wrapped in firm tofu skin and basted with an almost Middle Eastern cumin-chilli sauce — delish! On the side we had some stir-fried shredded potatoes (土豆丝 tǔdòusī), a dish improbably claimed by both Sichuan and Dongbei: still translucent and half-raw by European standards, they’re doused with vinegar and a touch of chilli. Throw in some mediocre dumplings, a forgettable eggplant dish, some giant steamed flower rolls (花卷 huājuǎn), this in turn a relative of the Tibetan tingmo, and washed down with Harbin Beer, from China’s oldest brewery at that, the total damage for 4 came to $60. Not bad, but a little uneven: the ride continues.

Two readers from Dongbei had separately reached out to recommend BBQ City (东北菜馆 Dōngběi càiguǎn, “Northeastern Dishes Restaurant”), and one of them, Mr Wang from Liaoning, was kind enough to be our guide for the first-ever 34 Province Project readers’ dinner. Getting here is an adventure in itself: to find the restaurant, you need to take a lift up to the third floor of an industrial building in Bukit Batok filled with car parts shops, follow signs marked “CANTEEN” through a corridor filled with cardboard boxes and forklifts and enter a gateway that looks like the opium den exhibit at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Our reward was a large restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating, quite packed on a Friday night, and once our quorum of 5 was assembled (/me waves at Jessica and PJ) we outsourced the ordering to Mr Wang. Here, too, the menu is extensive, since apparently it’s common for Dongbei chefs to think they can cook Sichuanese and vice versa, but fortunately (?) we stuck to Dongbei dishes.

We started with three serves of classic northern Chinese dumplings, one plate of fried guōtiē (锅贴) with what the Japanese call “wings” (hanetsuki-gyōza) still attached, and two varieties steamed (水饺 shuǐjiǎo), with pork and cabbage or scallion respectively. A plate of fried tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋 fānqié chǎo dàn) followed, a simple but classic dish and very well executed here, the sauce was spot on, plus Dongbei cold noodles, a Korean-inspired dish we’ll talk more about in the Jilin episode.

Starters out of the way, it was time to get down to some serious eating. Guōbāoròu (鍋包肉) is the Dongbei take on sweet and sour pork, thinly sliced pork fried to a crisp with caramelized sugar, quite different from the usual Cantonese variety and a little too chewy for my taste. Red-braised yellow croaker (红烧黄鱼) doesn’t photograph very well, but this was a real highlight, cooked to perfection. Pork knuckle (原汁肘子) boiled until soft and tender, with fresh cucumber, scallion and dips of garlic soy and chunky soybean paste. “Dry pot” organic cauliflower (干锅有机菜花), crispy with chilli and bean sprouts and kept hot by the mini wok, this was also really nice. Dìsānxiān (地三鲜), the “Three Earth Treasures” of potato, eggplant and green capsicum stir-fried together. Last but not least, a simple potato gratin liberally spiked with garlic and chilli.

We were all pretty stuffed at this point, but the restaurant wasn’t done with us yet. A plate of garlicky fried chicken wings showed up, this likely a more modern import from Korea where chimaek, fried chicken and beer, is threatening to displace kimchi as the national dish. Following shortly thereafter was a pile of BBQ skewers, with more of those delish tofu skin and chive wraps, grilled mantou, and some rather nice deeply marinated shiitake mushrooms with some zippy chilli action going on. This being a proper Chinese banquet, no rice was involved, and despite washing all this down with Snow Beer, Liaoning’s answer to Budweiser, the bill for 5 came to just $200. Excellent value, excellent company and excellent food, so looking forward to more of these dinners!

There was one more specifically Heilongjiang dish I wanted to check out: smoked Harbin sausage (哈尔滨红肠 Hā’ěrbīn hóngcháng), literally “red sausage”, originally crafted by Lithuanian workers and thus much closer to a Polish kielbasa than the hard and sickly sweet Cantonese-style sausages you usually get in Singapore. Much to my surprise, there are now not one but two stalls selling made-in-Singapore Harbin sausage at People’s Park Complex, so I bought one for $6 from Gulixiang Shushi (骨里香热食, “Bone-In Fragrance Cooked Food”), a Chinese chain that we will see again in the Anhui episode. The classic Russian accompaniment to sausage is a loaf of solid brown rye bread, also widely sold in Harbin under the name liěba (列巴) from the Russian khleb (хлеб), so I acquired a nice Lithuanian (again!) Borodinsky from Russian grocery Bublik.sg in Jalan Besar.

So how? Очень хорошо. The sausage was, indeed, pretty close to home and worked nicely sliced on bread, although there was a distinctly Chinese twang to the spices used (nutmeg, cumin, and cardamom, suggests one recipe). The Borodinsky, dense, sweet and malty with whole coriander seeds baked into the crust, was Russian alright but pretty far from the fluffy white wheat loaf that seems to pass for “Russian” bread in Harbin — but being a rye kinda guy myself, I’m not complaining.

And that wraps it up for our Sino-Russian adventures in the Black Dragon River. Onward!

<<< Guangdong | Index | Shanghai >>>

34 Province Project: Guangdong 广东

Guangdong (“Eastern Expanse”) sits on the shores of the South China Sea, enveloping Hong Kong and Macau. Still better known to many as Canton, a label confusingly also applied to its capital Guangzhou, Guangdong is China’s most populous province and its most prolific source of emigrants. If your city has a Chinatown, or even an “old-school” Chinese restaurant targeted at non-Chinese, odds are they were founded by Cantonese, and Chinese cuisine as found in the West is largely built on Cantonese roots.

Interestingly, while Cantonese culture and language predominate among the Chinese in many overseas Chinese communities including much of neighbouring Malaysia, in Singapore they’re third place at best. So for this episode, I’m also going to try to cover the cuisine of two subgroups also originating from Guangdong: the Teochew and the Hakka.

Cantonese (Guangdong) 广东

Cantonese cuisine (粤菜 yuècài) is well regarded in China, and according to a well-known saying, you should be born in wealthy Hangzhou, marry a beautiful denizen of Suzhou, eat in tasty Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou because, uhh, apparently their wood makes the best coffins. Cantonese food is typically characterized as being light on spices and oil, instead emphasizing quality ingredients, and there are so many Cantonese restaurants in Singapore that the hardest part was really choosing what to eat and where to go.

I started by exploring siu mei (燒味), literally “roasted tastes”, the umbrella term for Cantonese roasted meats. Every self-respecting hawker centre in Singapore has a roast meat (烧腊 siu laap) stall or two dishing out the standard trio of sweet red char siu (叉燒) barbecued pork, salty crispy siu yuk (燒肉) pork belly, and siu aap (燒鴨) roasted duck, but one Cantonese meat that’s not so easy to find in Singapore is siu ngo (燒鵝) roast goose. Likely the world’s most famous purveyor of this is Kam’s Roast Goose (甘牌燒鵝) in Hong Kong, where I’d once made a pilgrimage only to be denied (sold out!), so I tried my luck again at their Singapore branch at Jewel. Alas, there’s no roast goose on the menu here, because you can’t legally import it from China! For lack of better options I tried the roast duck noodles, which were lukewarm, greasy and distinctly forgettable despite the steep $10.80 price tag, 3x what you’d pay at a hawker. The one goose dish they did have on the menu, Cured Goose Liver Sausages (鹅肝香肠), was really gamey and kind of overpowering — and I say that as the guy who always orders the liver at roast duck joints. Quite disappointing.

The most famous Cantonese tradition, though, is dim sum (点心), the vast array of “small hearts” eaten at family weekend brunches and washed down with copious quantities of tea — hence the name yum cha (饮茶), “drink tea”, for entire operation. Tim Ho Wan from the Hong Kong episode did not satisfy, so round 2 was a company event at a far more high-SES option, the Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion (夏苑) at the Ritz-Carlton. You can easily blow $500/head here on Japanese kippin abalone if you’d like, but since the generosity of my corporate masters is not entirely unlimited, we stuck mostly to the dim sum lunch menu, where most dishes clock in at $7.50/plate. There are only 12 options here, all of them with a little twist on the usual: for example, the classic char siu bao (叉烧包) buns have a hint of meicai preserved vegetable, the crystal dumplings (水晶饺) hide beancurd and Sichuan vegetable, the delectably light and fluffy deep-fried taro balls (芋角) have scallops and cream, etc. One unique option was the Pan-Fried Shredded Yam Pumpkin (金瓜煎芋丝), where the “yam” (actually taro) had a crispy exterior, a chewy, mochi-like inside and a layer of pumpkin paste in the middle. Venturing a la carte, we dialed up a Barbecued Combination Platter (the roast duck was quite good), a chive & beansprout stir-fry with bits of you tiao fried breadsticks (!), braised beancurd with bamboo and a bowl of “Hong Kong” (伊麵 yi mein) noodles, thin wheat fettucine-ish noodles that are cooked until they soak up the broth and served almost dry, the classic end to a Cantonese banquet. Total damage for 4 was $240, not exactly cheap given that I was complaining about $10 noodles earlier, but not entirely unreasonable for food of this caliber and definitely worth checking out if you’re tired of the usual har gaos and shu mais. (Random reco: Jade at the Fullerton also does excellent fancy dim sum, but they’re straight-up fusion with things like chilli crab buns and red wine dumplings.)

A common dim sum dish I’d never really gotten into is chee cheong fun (猪肠粉), literally “pig intestine noodle” but usually rendered into English more palatably as “rice noodle roll” or similar. Despite the name, no pigs are involved in the production process. They’re made by steaming a sheet of watery rice flour batter, carefully peeling them off the cloth, adding any toppings and rolling them up so they resemble intestines. As the rice has very little taste, they’re served with a slightly sweet soy dressing and, this being Singapore, some chilli on the side. Chef Wei HK Cheong Fun in Bishan is a newly-founded but hugely popular chain specializing in nothing but the stuff, and despite the $4-5 price tag there was a line before 8 AM on a Thursday morning. With plain, mushroom, char siu, and shrimp on the menu, I picked the shrimp and hot damn, this was really good. Silky smooth texture, considerably larger than your average portion, and being still warm made it so much better. Two thumbs up.

I’d like to jabber on for another few pages, and I’m feeling really guilty about missing out on the vast array of Cantonese soups, fresh seafood, rice porridge, claypot rice, tong sui (糖水) desserts and more… but I’ve got two more entire cultures to plow through in this entry, so the duck stops here. Quack.

Teochew (Chaozhou) 潮州

The Teochews of eastern Guangdong make up the Singapore’s second largest dialect group, second only to the Hokkiens, and despite the province boundary are in many ways closer to their Fujianese cousins than to the Cantonese. Even the Teochew dialect is a branch of Southern Min, not Yue (Cantonese), and you should totally go listen to some because it’s about as far from Mandarin as you can get.

Teochew cuisine (潮州菜 Cháozhōu cài), unsurprisingly, is similar to southern Fujianese cuisine, with plenty of seafood on the menu, but a lighter touch on the seasonings thanks to the Cantonese influence and more poaching, steaming and braising than oily stir-fries.

We started our journey by sampling Teochew rice porridge (糜 mí, or mue in Teochew) at Ah Seah Teochew Porridge in Serangoon, perennially packed even in the COVID era. Unlike Cantonese congee (粥 zhōu, juk), slowly cooked and stirred until the rice dissolves completely and a meal in itself, Teochew mue is a light, milky rice broth with distinct grains, largely flavourless by itself but designed to wash down the accompanying array of delectables. At Ah Seah, you pick what you want from the economy rice -style glass case, and it’s brought to your table on a series of small plates. Lo bak braised meats, kiam chye pickles, omelette with chai poh (preserved radish), salted duck egg, stewed peanuts, steamed pomfret, springy fishballs, juicy meatballs, lala clams with chilli, ngoh hiang (five spice) pork rolls… we devoured most of it before I remembered to bring out the camera. And the cost for stuffing the four of us to the bursting point? $40.20. No frills, no air-con and no reservations, so get here before 6 PM if you want to find a table!

When I’m at a hawker and not quite sure what to eat, I default to a quintessentially Singaporean Teochew dish called bak chor mee (肉脞面), literally “meat mince noodles”, but the bland name hardly does the dish justice. I’ve eaten this dozens of time all over the island and am rarely disappointed, but the version served at Chai Chee Noodle Village (菜市潮州鱼丸面 Càishì cháozhōu yúwánmiàn, “Chai Chee Teochew Fishball Noodles”) in Ang Mo Kio is particularly magnificent. At a regular “BCM” place, for around $3 you’ll get fettucine-like flat egg noodles (mee pok) with minced pork, thinly sliced pork liver, fish balls, slices of fish cake, stewed mushrooms and sinfully delicious crispy bits of fried lard, tossed in a chilli and vinegar sauce and served with the cooking broth on the side. Here, you pay $2 extra but get no less than 18 ingredients in your bowl, all of them primo quality.

More a snack than a meal is the popiah (薄饼 bóbǐng), often described as the Teochew take on spring rolls, and I had one to celebrate my 2nd shot of Pfizer at the thoroughly un-famous yet popular Ding Wang (鼎旺) stall in the equally nondescript 151 Coffeeshop at Serangoon North Ave 2, near the vaccination centre at Serangoon CC. A popiah is a paper-thin wheat crepe — hence the name, “thin cake” — coated with sweet bean sauce and chilli paste, stuffed with soft steamed jicama (a turnip-like root), and wrapped up into a burrito of sorts. Each stall has their own mix of extra ingredients, here consisting of ground peanuts, chopped boiled egg, julienned cucumber (I think?), but only a bit of each so the flavour was dominated by the jicama and the pretty zippy chilli underneath. At $1.80 a pop(iah), it was OK but hardly worth a detour.

The Teochew are also known for their kueh (粿), a concept that doesn’t fit easily into any one English word. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, it has been adopted to refer to a vast range of Malay/Indonesian snacks and cakes, mostly based on rice flour, tapioca and coconut milk, often colourful and usually sickly sweet but delicious. Original Teochew kueh, however are mostly steamed, savoury concoctions particularly popular for breakfast, and I queued up at Fatt Soon Kueh (发笋粿) in Kovan to test out if the implied threat in the name should be taken seriously. (Spoiler: Yes. Although the fatt here is Cantonese for “prosperity”, not increased belt size.)

Despite the dine-in ban at the time, at 7:30 AM there was already a long queue outside, waiting for the two ladies manning the stall to roll out, stuff and steam their kueh from scratch while you wait. The star of the show was the eponymous soon kueh (笋粿), “bamboo shoot kueh“, a steamed rice and tapioca flour dumpling stuffed with a crunchy, spiced mix of jicama, bamboo shoot, dried shimp. Piping hot, these were absolutely delicious and enough for me to completely revise my view of what I’d always thought were gluggy, mediocre facsimiles of “real” dumplings. They also sell ku chai kueh (韭菜粿) stuffed with chives, which were OK but pretty oniony even for a chive fan like me, and png kueh (飯粿, “rice cake”), dyed a pretty pink and stuffed with heavy glutinous rice, making a bit of an odd combo with the soft exterior. Verdict: the soon kueh are absolutely worth the wait and a steal at 3 for $3, the other two are skippable.

Hakka (Kejia) 客家

Of all the Chinese dialect groups, the Hakka have the most interesting origin: it’s effectively unknown. The best we can tell, sometime around 200 BC (!) the ancestral Hakka started moving south from northern China near Gansu, ending up thinly spread across much of the country but with some 60% of Hakka speakers eventually landing in Guangdong. The locals weren’t always happy about these “guest families” (the literal meaning of the name) showing up, with around 500,000 massacred in the 1850s, and unsurprisingly many of the survivors chose to migrate overseas. One of them was Lee Bok Boon in 1862, the great-grandfather of Singapore’s most famous Hakka, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Given this geographical dispersion, Hakka cuisine (客家菜 Kèjiā cài) is a little hard to pin down. but usually it’s described as simple and rustic: lots of tofu, pork and pickles, not much in the way of seafood. The quintessential Hakka dish is lei cha fan (擂茶饭 léichá fàn), literally “pounded rice tea”, but often rendered in English as “thunder rice tea” since 擂 léi “pounded”, written with the “hand” and “thunder” radicals, sounds exactly the same as 雷 léi “thunder”. The key ingredient is (surprise!) finely ground tea, not entirely unlikely Japanese matcha, but made with various other herbs mixed in and served as a hot soup. Born out of poverty and long rather obscure, it has recently undergone a bit of renaissance as a trendy health food and there’s even a dedicated chain called Thunder Tea Rice now. (The pictures above were taken a few years ago at their now closed Lau Pa Sat outlet, in the heart of the financial district.) In the modern interpretation as shown here, the bulk of the dish is a bowl of rice topped with peanuts, shredded cooked cabbage and beans, dried radish and crispy dried tiny anchovies (ikan bilis in Malay). The lei cha, deep green, herbal, funky, often a bit bitter, is served in a separate bowl on the side, to be spooned into the rice or drunk straight as you prefer. Always a nice change of pace, and vegan too if you skip the anchovies.

But I was keen to explore more, so it was time to pay a visit to what, astonishingly, appears to be the only remaining Hakka restaurant in Singapore, Plum Village (梅村酒家 Méicūn jiǔjiā) off Upper Thomson Rd. Opened in 1967 and now run by the 3rd generation of the Lai family, precisely nothing appears to have changed in the 50+ years since, with daggy-but-homely red lanterns, Hakka poetry and landscape paintings on the fake brick veneer walls. It’s also the only restaurant I’ve been to in Singapore that has both only an Asian-style squat toilet and a menu exclusively in Chinese, but fear not, ordering is easy: just get the set for 4 people (4人配套), and you’ll get the full Hakka hit parade. Abacus seeds (算盘子 suànpánzǐ). named after their resemblance to the beads of an abacus, are the Hakka equivalent of gnocchi, soft doughy balls of tapioca and yam fried with dried shrimp, bits of mushrooms and a sprinkling of chives. Yum! Pork belly with preserved mustard greens (梅菜扣肉 méicài kòuròu) was great, the fatty meat smoothly melting into a generous salty, tangy pile of what Singaporeans usually call mui choy. The salt-baked chicken (盐焗鸡 yánjú jī) was OK but not terribly exciting; despite the name, it’s steamed, not baked, and was basically a saltier version of the ubiquitous Singaporean/Hainanese chicken rice. The tau pok (豆卜) fried tofu puffs stuffed with minced pork were piping hot and delicious, and last but not least, we had a heaping plate of Hakka egg noodles with pork (肉碎面 ròu suìmiàn), which to me looked and tasted an awful lot like the Cantonese yi mian often served as the last course of a banquet. At $48 for the whole shebang, including endless tea refills, this was almost absurdly good value. Two thumbs up, and easily one of my top picks for the journey so far.

Yet I was still missing probably the most popular Hakka dish in Singapore, namely yong tau foo (酿豆腐 niàngdòufu), inevitably abbreviated as “YTF”. In Singapore, this is usually served at stalls that operate with a “salad bar” concept: pick what you’d like, specify how you’d like it prepared, and then pay per piece. The selection is often huge (see above), with veggies, sausages, fake crab, seafood etc, with my personal default order being “dry” (soup on the side) with yellow mee noodles, plenty of mysterious sweet brown bean sauce and a little dish of sambal chilli on the side to dip into. The keen reader will note that this setup is quite similar to how mala xiangguo shops operate, and the double whammy of mala and COVID has definitely trimmed the numbers of the once ubiquitous YTF stalls, since this is also not very delivery-friendly.

However, the original Hakka style is much simpler, and I ventured out to Koo Kee Yong Tow Foo Mee (高記釀豆腐面) at Bishan’s recently reopened Kim San Leng (金山嶺) coffee shop to try it. This is a chain with firm opinions about their recipe, which remains unchanged since 1954: your yong tau foo will consist of a bowl of soup with exactly five things, which are tau hu (豆腐, tofu with fish paste), tau pok (豆卜, tofu puff with fish paste), tau kwa (豆干, fried hard tofu with fish paste), tau kee (豆皮, bean curd skin with fish paste) and a single fish ball made with, you guessed it, fish paste. With grandmotherly kindness, they do permit you to choose your noodles, so I went with egg noodles on the side with a bit of minced chicken on top.

At this point, I’d like to wax poetic about upholding traditions etc, but truth be told, five pieces of bland fish paste and tofu just doesn’t taste all that exciting. One reason I like dry YTF is that deep-fried things stay crispy and everything retains its texture, but at Koo Kee you just get blobs in soup. Not super impressed, although I am curious about the “hot plate spicy” YTF on the menu. Next time…

And that brings me to the end of this monstrously long yet still sadly incomplete episode, with 10 hawkers and restaurants that still only scratched the surface of the province’s culinary offerings. But while comrades may fall by the roadside, hopefully buried in coffins of Liuzhou wood, the Long March continues.

<<< Hainan | Index | Heilongjiang >>>

34 Province Project: Hainan 海南

Hainan, “South of the Sea”, is China’s answer to Hawaii, a semitropical island in the South China Sea some 20 km off the coast of the mainland and not far from Vietnam. Historically a remote backwater, Hainan didn’t even become a full province until 1988, and today it’s best known for the sandy beach resorts of Sanya and China’s answer to Kennedy Space Center, the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site.

Being both historically poor and geographically close to Southeast Asia, despite its small size Hainan was a major source of Chinese settlers to Singapore, accounting for some 7% of the local Chinese population. Many ended up working in the hospitality sector as cooks and waiters, and hence many of Singapore’s most famous dishes bear the label “Hainanese”, including Hainanese chicken rice, Hainanese kaya (coconut jam), etc.

There’s only one little problem: most of what Singaporeans think of “Hainanese” food was in fact developed locally, and bears little if any resemblance to the original. Even local Hainanese comes in two distinct strains: one type that I’ll dub “Singaporean-Hainanese” took Chinese dishes and mutated them until they became distinctively Singaporean, while “Hainanese Western” descends from Hainanese cooks hire to make Western food for their British employers.

What to do? The answer was clear: eat all of them.

Hainan-Hainanese food

As far as I can tell, there is exactly one restaurant in Singapore offering Hainanese food that a person from Hainan might recognize: Yeh Ting (椰庭), the “Coconut Courtyard”, tucked away above the Woodlands Regional Library deep in the heartlands of Singapore, with tacky yet somehow endearing decor of fake thatched huts and painted palm trees. Oddly, it’s a corporate offshoot of the Jack’s Place cheap steak chain, but turns out the founder was Hainanese, so at least there’s some connection.

Their speciality is Coconut Chicken Soup Pot (椰子鸡汤煲 yēzǐjī tāngbāo), an actual Hainanese dish, which true to the name consists of bony, yellow-skinned chicken boiled in coconut water with wriggly translucent worms of coconut flesh, both ingredients rarely seen elsewhere in China. Water chestnuts add some crunch, but at the end of the day it’s just not a terribly exciting dish. Much more to our liking was the Hainan Fen (here 海口腌粉 Hǎikǒu yānfěn on the menu, after the provincial capital, but usually just called 海南粉 Hǎinán fěn), a dish of rice noodles served at room temperature (by design) that have absorbed an dark, unseen and tasty sauce, with toppings of marinated beef, roasted peanuts, pickles, crispy dough fritters and coriander. This was quite tasty as is, but it’s kicked up another notch by a flavourful Thai-style sauce of chilli, garlic, ginger, and more coriander, served on the side to ladle according your own liking. Definitely the best dish of the day! Total damage for three dishes $42, and we’ll be back for more.

Hainanese restaurants may be thin on the ground, but there are a few hawker stalls carrying on the tradition, two of which can be found at Kim Keat Palm Market in Toa Payoh. First off the block was Hai Nan Xing Zhou Beef Noodle Soup (海南星洲牛肉粉 Hǎinán Xīngzhōu niúròu fěn). Xīngzhōu (星洲), literally “Star Province”, is an old Chinese name for Singapore, and the stall is run by two elderly gentlemen who should probably be enjoying a well-earned retirement now. But there they were, slicing up a huge slab of beef at 8 AM in the morning, so I ordered a $5 “dry” bowl of Sliced Beef + Beef Ball with flat kway teow (粿條 guǒtiáo) rice noodles and dug in. The initial impression is reminiscent of Vietnamese pho, with Chinese herbal notes, a spray of green onion and bean sprouts, and that umami-rich just-cooked beef flavor, but the texture is utterly different, with a viscous, thick gravy not unlike Singaporean favorite lor mee ladled on top. Since I’d ordered mine dry, a small bowl of broth was served on the side, with more of that beefy goodness but a distinctly different set of spices, this time dominated rather incongruously by cinnamon.

Only a few stalls away is Hainan Cuisine & Snacks (海南小吃 Hǎinán xiǎochī), which has garnered mild fame for being one of Singapore’s few purveyors of yi bua (薏粑 yìbā), a distinctly Hainanese type of kuih, the sweet snacks beloved across Southeast Asia. It’s made by steaming glutinous rice flour with a filling of palm sugar (gula melaka), grated coconut and peanuts, then wrapping it with banana leaf. The rice here is very sticky, effectively gluing itself to the plate, and while the filling is sweet and tasty, it’s rather overpowered by copious lashings of ginger, although if this video is to be believed plenty of ginger is traditional. An interesting experience, and priced right at $1.20 a pop, but one was enough.

Honorary mention: this stall is also possibly the only place in Singapore that sells the euphonious Chicken Poop Soup (鸡屎藤粿仔 jīshǐténg guǒzǐ), after the Chinese name of Paederia foetida aka skunkvine. Unfortunately they didn’t have any when I visited.

Singaporean-Hainanese food

I took my first steps on the Singaporean-Hainanese trail with a visit to the ruins of the Hainan Village in what is now the Thomson Nature Park. Abandoned only in the 1980s, the extent to which the jungle has devoured the ruins in a few short decades is astonishing and some of the buildings look like they could be from Angkor Wat. (Food trivia: ubiquitous “mediocre but cheap” Asian-Western fusion chain Han’s Cafe originally hails from here.) A Hainanese Village Centre at Hougang feebly commemorates another former community at nearby Lorong Ah Soo, but sadly, this looks like any other heartland HDB market and the hawker centre doesn’t appear to have even a single Hainanese stall left.

Nevertheless, the definitive Singaporean-Hainanese dish, and a firm contender for the national dish of all Singapore, is Hainanese chicken rice. Chicken and rice are eaten all around the world, and indeed an ancestor to this called Wenchang chicken exists in Hainan, where the chicken is slowly poached in sub-boiling temperatures (today we’d call this sous vide) to make it soft, tender, and let’s face it, rather bland. The key to making it tasty is the two Singaporean innovations you won’t find in Hainan. First, the rice isn’t just plain old rice, but rice cooked in a rich chicken broth flavored with garlic, ginger and fragrant pandan leaves. Second, it’s always served with a freshly made chilli sauce with a citrusy tang.

As you can imagine, the title of Singapore’s best chicken rice is hotly contested. Boon Tong Kee remains justly a legend, but actually started out as a Cantonese stall. Hainanese stalwart Yet Con closed in 2020, done in by the double whammy of COVID-19 and their head chef passing away, so in the end I went with the modestly named Loy Kee Best Chicken Rice (黎记海南鸡饭 Lí jì Hǎinán jīfàn), founded in 1953 by Hainanese immigrant Loy Nie. The first time around, we ordered delivery in spiffy branded bento packs for $9 a pop, and it was good enough that we returned for lunch at their shop in Balestier, complete with their glorious if mildly disturbing slogan of “Chicken Lickin’ Good”.

We ordered 4-person Family Plate ($32), with half/half steamed & roasted chicken, plus some extra eggs and chicken liver on the side. Traditionally, the chicken is served lukewarm, whose appeal I’ve never quite understood and it certainly didn’t do the limp, mushy, boney steamed version any favors. The roast chicken was nicer in texture, but the oil poured on top to finish it off nuked any hint of crispiness. Fortunately the key to good chicken rice is the rice itself, which was spot on, rich in taste but not too oily and none of the ingredients overpowering. And the vital chilli sauce nailed it: chilli kick with a lemony zing, spicy but not overpoweringly so.

The sides were a bit meh: cold chicken liver without a hint of spice, soggy bok choy, braised eggs doused in gloopy sauce. And sadly, the usually-obligatory chicken broth served on the side was missing: apparently this is considered an optional $1 extra, which seems a little cheap given we’re already at 2-3x the regular hawker price here. Total damage came to a reasonable $57, so one and a half thumbs up.

Another only-in-Singapore “Hainanese” dish is Hainanese curry rice, which manages to cram together influences from all of the island’s four major ethnic groups. Inspired by an episode of CNA’s Who We Are, What We Eat, I headed down to Hong Seng Curry Rice in Redhill Market and ordered the “Four Heavenly Kings” combo ($6.90). King #1 comes from Britain, namely a tasty pork cutlet, breaded and fried like Japanese tonkotsu; mine was piping hot and easily the best part of dish. King #2 was braised pork belly, a classic Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) dish, quite fatty and served some bones still in; alright, but nothing spectacular. King #3 was supposed to be chicken curry, but instead I got a chicken cutlet, lukewarm but spiked with a lot of garlic. Last and least, King #4 was a less than inspirational pile of cold, boiled cabbage straight out of a Soviet canteen. All this was served with an egg, a pile of rice and the Indian innovation that turned the instruments into an orchestra, namely a ladleful of thick, rather mild curry. Competent, yes; filling, extremely; spectacular, no.

Honorary mention: Ivy’s Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup in Pasir Panjang, which has a Michelin Plate but, as far as I can tell, no connection to any actual Hainanese dish.

Hainanese Western

And for the last of the three Hainanese food groups, we’re going to untether almost entirely from the Sinosphere, since Hainanese Western food came about when Hainanese cooks were hired by Western families and companies and tasked with recreating the tastes of Britain. Inevitably, the availability of ingredients in Singapore, the chefs’ own tastebuds and the need to cater to local tastes resulted in the dishes slowly mutating over time, and the best example of this is the classic Singaporean breakfast of coffee, toast, and egg. Sounds rather British, wot? Less than you might think, old fruit.

The Hainanese are synonymous with Singapore’s coffeeshops (咖啡店 kopitiam/kāfēidiàn), and one of the local legends is Heap Seng Leong (協勝隆), an exceedingly old-school establishment tucked away at the Kallang end of North Bridge Rd. Run by a father-and-son duo since 1974, the shop opens 5 AM to 5 PM every day except Chinese New Year. Their thick, strong kopi is made from robusta beans roasted in butter, ground and brewed with a sock, and served with condensed milk, teeth-shattering amounts of sugar, and the optional bonus that made them famous, a pat of salty butter to make it kopi guyou (咖啡牛油, “cow oil coffee”). Invented long before bulletproof coffee became hip, if you can get over the appearance it’s actually rather tasty, adding a surprisingly mild salty caramel note to the concoction. Their soft toast is grilled over charcoal and slathered with orangey-brown Hainanese kaya (coconut-egg jam) and more butter. The eggs are served Singapore style, meaning extremely runny — even the egg white has not set — and with a dash of white pepper and Maggi seasoning (like soy sauce, only even more MSG-laden). As a bonus, you can admire the interior, which is a direct time warp to the 1970s complete with abacus and coin-op public phone. All this will set you back the princely sum of $3.60, so go for a visit now, since Pops is over 80 years old and his work routine would be grueling even for a much younger man.

For a more filling Hainanese Western experience, we headed for lunch at the flagship Joo Chiat outlet of British Hainan, whose website somewhat disturbingly promises “Deliciousness Jumping Into The Mouth” (somebody must have been lickin’ the chicken again). Located in a quiet residential neighbourhood a block off the main drag, the restaurant is famous for its retro decor, with the English Room packed full of British-American kitsch like jukeboxes, sewing machines, and framed portraits of muttonchop-festooned Victorian gentlemen, and the Hainan Room packed equally full of Mao-era Chinese propaganda, including a portrait of the Mao of our generation, Xi Jinping. On a random Sunday the joint was packed, for which the affable owner Frederick Puah, who was doing the rounds of the customers and dropped by to wish us “Welcome home!”, thanked a recent video by Japanese-Singaporean vlogger Ghib Ojisan.

Of course, the main reason we were here was the food, which leans much more British than Hainanese. I had their signature Braised Oxtail Stew ($29.90), stewed for fifteen hours, and I can believe it: the meat fell apart if you so much looked at it sideways, and the thick, umami-laden gravy was so good we ordered an extra portion of bread to sop it all up. The Hainanese Curry Rice ($15.90) here was a fancier affair than Hong Seng, with spicier curry, more pork belly and a side of chap chye (雜菜) mixed vegetables, while the 3 Porky Combi ($18.90) came with two pork cutlets (one fried, one grilled), a pork sausage and an authentically abominable “fruit salad” of lettuce, tomato and tinned mango (squick). I washed down my flashbacks of the BBC canteen at Shepherds Bush with a Saltaire Proper Stout, which lived up to its name, and Frederick sweetened the deal with complimentary cups of mango pudding for dessert. Tasty? Oh yes. Hainanese? That’s a bit of a stretch, although to their credit, British Hainan does have a limited selection of Hainanese-Chinese dishes like beef soup, herbal mutton soup and even yi bua on the menu.

I started writing this blog to learn more about Chinese food, but with this episode more than any other, I think I’ve learned about Singapore instead. I don’t think it’s too much an exaggeration to say that the Hainanese story of how a bunch of immigrants can come in, adapt themselves to local conditions and produce something greater than the sum of its parts is the story of Singapore itself, and the next chapter of that story is being written today.

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34 Province Project: Zhejiang 浙江

Zhejiang is another one of those Chinese provinces most people may have vaguely heard of, but likely know little about. On the coast just south of Shanghai, its capital Hangzhou lies at the mouth of the Zhe River, or Zhèjiāng in Chinese, hence the name. During its Song dynasty heyday in the 1200s, it was likely the world’s largest city and, if you trust Marco Polo, “the finest and noblest city in the world”, making it, if you trust Wikipedia, “synonymous with luxury and opulence in Chinese culture” ever since. Today it’s best known for its scenic spot the West Lake and the HQ of tech conglomerate Alibaba.

Befitting Hangzhou’s reputation for luxurious living, Zhejiang cuisine (浙菜 Zhè cài) is one of the Eight Great Traditions, but at first glance it’s hard to differentiate from the fare eaten in nearby Shanghai and Jiangsu. (Bonus confusion point: the famed Zhenjiang vinegar, with an extra “n”, comes from the town of that name in Jiangsu, not Zhejiang.)

In Singapore, as far as I can tell, there are no dedicated Zhejiang restaurants, although there’s a place called West Lake that serves mighty fine Fujian food. Instead, the whole broad area tends to get lumped together as Jiangnan, meaning “South of the Yangtze”, and even that is a bit rare on the ground, with flag bearer Jiang-Nan Chun at the swanky Four Seasons hotel upholding the aforementioned reputation by charging a cool $248++ a whack for their apparently less than traditional haute cuisine interpretation.

Possibly the most iconic Hangzhou dish is Dongpo pork (东坡肉 dōngpōròu), which I sampled at local chain Dian Xiao Er (店小二), the modestly self-proclaimed “Best Chinese Restaurant in Singapore”. This is basically a thick slice of pork belly, first pan-fried and then slowly stewed in soy sauce, a technique called hóngshāo (紅燒) or “red braising” in Chinese, and according to legend invented by or at least named after Song-era poet Su Dongpo. Versions of this are eaten across Asia, including the Japanese kakuni (角煮), and Dian Xiao Er’s version delivered in spades, being meltingly soft and even the layer of fat infused with flavor.

Dian Xiao Er makes no pretension to being a Zhejiang or even Jiangnan restaurant, but we ordered a few other things that seemed to point in the right general direction. The Fish Maw Thick Soup with Seafood (海鲜鱼鳔羹) was a nice example of the thickened soups called geng (羹), which are particularly prominent to the south in Fujian, served here with springy if essentially tasteless fish maw (swim bladder), slices of abalone and shreds of crab meat. This, I’m afraid, was one of those Chinese dishes that dispense with taste in favor of texture, which has always been a concept my barbarian palate struggles with.

Last but not least, Dian Xiao Er’s signature dish is the Duck Roasted with Ten Wonder Herbs (十全药材烤鸭), not to be confused with KFC’s Chicken Fried with 11 Secret Herbs and Spices. The roast duck were was competent if unspectacular, but the dark, runny sauce on the side was something else, with a bouquet that the Western nose can only describe as mulled wine: ginger, star anise, cinnamon? Delish, if not particularly Zhejiang; Hangzhou has a mildly famous soy sauce duck as well, but I doubt it has much if anything in common with this one.

Next stop was Crystal Jade Jiang Nan (翡翠江南) in Vivocity, a themed outlet of the ubiquitous Singaporean chain. The restaurant is pretty dapper for a shopping mall, with the latticed wood booths topped by hundreds of fluttering flower cutouts particularly appealing. The menu is “inspired by” (always a dangerous phrase) “the Jiangnan and Sichuan regions”, but we steered clear of the Mala Crispy Chicken and the Mochi Cheese Balls (shudder). The Three Delicacies Platter (巧手三拼) had the Nanjing Salted Duck we already met in Jiangsu, a rather tasty take on Jiangsu Smoked Fish (江苏熏鱼) that we sample later in the Shanghai episode, and Spinach with Sesame Sauce (麻酱波菜鲜百合) that tasted an awful lot like the classic Japanese cold dish of hōrensō no goma-ae. A quick Google was inconclusive, but given that spinach is a reasonably recent import to Japan (1800s?), the two dishes may well be related.

The one indubitably Zhejiang dish on the menu was Sister Song’s Thick Fish Soup (宋嫂鱼羮). Per legend, in 1197 Emperor Gaozong was out for a spin on Hangzhou’s West Lake when he felt a bit peckish and ordered some fish soup from a lady called Song Wusao, and the rest is history. It’s a deceptively simple-looking starchy soup that hides a light but complex flavour: shreds of white fish and egg white, julienned bamboo shoot, ginger and ham, a touch of vinegar, quite a bit of white pepper and a touch of Shaoxing wine (绍兴酒), commonly used as cooking wine in countless Chinese dishes but originating from Shaoxing, Zhejiang. Very moreish. Less Zhejiang but an unexpected hit with the kids was the Scallion Oil Noodles (葱油面), an even simpler Shanghai dish: hand-pull lamian noodles, fry slivered scallion in oil, combine and enjoy. And we rounded things out with Crystal Jade’s signature xiao long bao dumplings, another tasty Shanghai dish, and pan-fried shengjianbao, which unfortunately were soupless and sad. (More about both in the Shanghai episode.)

The one unforgivable crime of the restaurant, though, was that the tea menu did not feature what is probably China’s and certainly Zhejiang’s most famous tea, namely Dragon Well (龙井 lóngjǐng) from Hangzhou. Instead I had to drown my sorrows in a pot of Precious Eyebrows (珍眉 zhēnméi), variously credited to Anhui and Jiangxi but quite possibly grown in Zhejiang, and the kids were bribed with complimentary pig-shaped red bean buns courtesy of the Vivo Kids Club. Total damage for 3 came to $88, which is actually kinda ex given that we were still a little hungry afterwards.

And that brings us to the end of the Zhe River. The final Zhejiang-in-Singapore dish I wanted to tick off my list is West Lake Beef Soup (西湖牛肉羹), but this is conceptually pretty similar to Sister Song’s fish version, usually served as an appetizer or side dish, and mostly served at barbecue places that don’t even pretend to have anything to do with Zhejiang. So with two gengs down, it’s time to hit the closing gong and move onto our next province.

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