The “old guard” of Chinese restaurants in Singapore, run by the second or third generation of immigrants from southern China, are rapidly fading away as both the chefs and their clientele age. Those dishes that have been adopted into the Singaporean pantheon, like “Hainanese” chicken rice, “Hakka” yong tau foo and many Hokkien dishes, have often been mutated beyond recognition but still live on in our hawker centres and food courts. The rest are, sadly, doomed to extinction.
The “new guard” of Chinese restaurants, run by more recent migrants, is undergoing changes of its own. Independent shops are struggling, and many places that I went looking for had already closed for good before COVID came and killed off many more. They’re being replaced by chains from the mainland like Haidilao (海底捞), Tan Yu (探鱼), Yun Nans (云海肴), Juewei (绝味) and more, which have the multi-million dollar budgets needed to rent prime spots in shopping malls, franchise widely and plaster the MRT with advertisements, but also need to tweak their offerings to cater to Singaporean tastes. This phenomenon is by no means limited to mainland China — exactly the same is happening with Japanese and Taiwanese chains — but it is a little sad, particularly as the price points in these fancy places are, by necessity, far higher than the more barebones places they replace. There has also been surprisingly little spillover of the “new guard” into hawker centres, with some notable exceptions of the now-ubiquitous mala xiangguo joints, the heavily-Sichuanized People’s Park, and the odd brave entrepreneur like Da Shao bringing the tastes of Chongqing to Upper Boon Keng.
On a more meta level, I was surprised in both good and bad ways by the Internet’s reaction to the project. Most /r/sg redditors who reached out by DM and/or joined the 34 Province Project Telegram were incredibly helpful and supportive, the readers’ dinners were a blast and as the meme goes, the real treasure was the friends I made along the way. Sadly, there was also a small but loud contingent of keyboard warriors responding to every update with “herp derp CCP wumao shill”, and while I’d like to say it’s because food is intertwined with history, nope, not once did I get a meaningful criticism of any of the snarky oversimplifications I wrote. (On second thought, perhaps this doesn’t surprise me at all.)
Enough meta! Here’s the listicle clickbait you’ve all been waiting for.
Just the stats, man!
Restaurants visited: 112
Restaurants I tried to visit, but couldn’t because they were closed or gone: 5
Packaged snacks and drinks sampled: 13
Meals with random people from the Internet: 6
Meals at somebody’s home: 1
In no particular order, here are the most memorable restaurants I visited.
Alijiang (阿里疆), from the Xinjiang and Ningxia episodes. You’d think the food from a flashy Chinese chain with turquoise plastic camels outside and avocado-lobster salad on the menu would be terrible, but you won’t be disappointed if you stick to the Xinjiang side of the menu: these guys really know how to cook lamb.
BBQ City (东北菜馆), from the Heilongjiang episode. Of all the places I went to, this is the one you’d never find by accident, since it’s lurking on the upper floors of an industrial warehouse in Bukit Batok. Catering squarely to northeastern Chinese, the food is great, and the great company and expert guidance made it even better!
Plum Village(梅村酒家), from the Guangdong episode. Astonishingly, this appears to be the only Hakka restaurant remaining in all Singapore. Everything about the place is a time warp to days long gone, down to the prices and the home-style cooking: family food, made with love.
Chengdu-style mala hotpot at Shuguo Yinxiang Hotpot (蜀国印象-火锅) in Johor Bahru, literally just across the Causeway. Really, really good (having a pro do the ordering helped!), and you can sample forbidden-in-Singapore delicacies like duck intestines and blood tofu.
Beijing food at Hand in Hand Beijing Restaurant (手拉手京华小馆), Jalan Besar. There’s nothing fancy about this place or the food they serve, but the dumplings and meat pies I had here were better than anything I had in Beijing itself.
Guizhou home cooking with @appropriateamount. Amazing dishes and tasty new flavours like fish mint (鱼腥草) and tree ginger oil (木姜子), here’s hoping that private dining idea takes off!
Best new flavours
This quest was all about finding tasty new food, and here are some of my favorites.
Tofu brain (豆腐脑 dòufunǎo) from Guangjuren Xiaochu (广聚仁小厨), in the Tianjin episode. “When I dipped in my spoon and ate my first bite, the heavens parted and an angelic choir sang. This is what my crazy quest is all about! The tofu was still warm, bathed in a mildly salty, mildly sweet broth, with coriander, pickled radish, a mysterious but zingy green sauce and a central dab of dark black mala sauce, with that Sichuan pepper crunch and just the right amount of chilli kick.”
Lanzhou beef noodles (蘭州牛肉拉面 Lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn) from Western Mahua (西部马华), in the Gansu episode. I had dozens of bowls of various noodles along the way, and I’ve had lamian before, but this was just on an entirely new level, made to order, simple and perfect.
Rattan Pepper Chicken Rice Noodle (藤椒鸡米线 téngjiāo jī mǐxiàn) from Mademoiselle Tang Noodle (唐大小姐), in the Yunnan episode. The noodles here were ordinary, what blew away my tastebuds was téngjiāo (藤椒), the fresh pods of the green Sichuan pepper, crunchy and intensely ma-flavored (more on what that means in Sichuan). Paired up with equally fresh red chilli padi, this was the kind of intense real-Thai-level flavour you can feel heating your stomach for hours afterwards.
Best value: the enormous $1.50 “big bao” (大包) from Thousand Tastes Shan Dong Da Bao (千味山東大包), from the Shandong episode.
Yunnan: Yun Nans (meal at restaurant after takeout earlier)
And that, dear reader, is all: as I write this, there are less than ten days to go before my ten years in Singapore come to an end and I bugger off back to Australia. Here’s hoping this series leads you to some culinary discoveries of your own.
In Singapore, “vegetarian Chinese” tends to be pretty much synonymous with Buddhist cuisine (斋菜 zhāi cài), which focuses heavily on replicating mainstream Chinese dishes using all sorts of inventive gluten or soy-based substitutes for meat. Many hawker centres have a stall or two specialising in this, and it’s often also the cheapest option around, but I’ve rarely found the meals particularly satisfying: like eating a tofu-lentil burger, it’s hard not to compare it to the “real” (meaty) thing and not be at least slightly disappointed. There are a couple of chains like Elemen that offer quite tasty upmarket versions of this, but they’re also priced to match.
On my culinary journey through the 34 provinces, I was thus pleasantly surprised to run into quite a few regional Chinese dishes that have been vegetarian since day one and really deserve more recognition. Here’s a quick summary of dishes and places in no particular order.
Obligatory but important disclaimer: very few if any of these places are purely vegetarian or even advertise these dishes as vegetarian, so broths and sauces may contain trace amounts of meat or seafood from cross-contamination or even ingredients like chicken powder (鸡精). Diner beware.
“Chinese crepes” aka jiānbing guǒzi (煎饼馃子) at Wenjiabao (温家饱), People’s Park, Chinatown. If you pick shredded potato as your filling, it’s egg-etarian and quite tasty.
“Tofu brain” (豆腐脑 doufunao) at Guang Ju Ren Kitchen, Yong Kang Food Court, Defu. Warm tofu in savoury broth with preserved veg, chilli etc is vegetarian and tasty, and so are quite a few of the other dishes here: leek & egg pancakes, shredded potato, wood ear fungus, etc. (Plenty of meaty choices too, though, so pick carefully.)
Shaanxi’s most famous dishes may be meaty paomo soup and greasy rougamo burgers, but Shaanxi classic liángpí (涼皮) is always vegetarian, and so are biang biang noodles if you choose the basic yóupōmiàn (油泼面) “oil-splashed” style. You can even complete the Xian Triangle with a vegetarian rougamo at Qin Ji Rougamo, ARC.
I always thought the cuisine this far north would be super meaty, but there’s actually lots of veggie dishes to be found! “Three Earths” (地三鲜 dìsānxiān) of capsicum, eggplant and potato, “dry pot” cauliflower (干锅有机菜花), fried tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋), and even Chinese barbeque has surprisingly many vegetarian options like beancurd rolls (烧干豆腐巻), mantou buns, shiitake mushrooms, etc. Many options in Chinatown, but I like Dong Bei Cai Guan in Bukit Batok.
The Yun Nans chain has lots of interesting mushroom, tofu and vegetable dishes. Porcini is always a tasty umami bomb, but try the Sauteed Asparagus with Golden Fungus and Mushrooms (金耳花菇炒芦笋) for something a bit more unusual. Olive fried rice is also tasty.
Hunanese cuisine has many unusual flavors, some of them vegetarian: century eggs with pickled chilli, green beans with Chinese olive, stir-fried cucumber with perilla, Changsha cold noodles, and more. Check out Hunan Traditional at Chinatown or Xiang’s Signature in Bugis.
Hunan, “South of [Dongting] Lake”, is a large province in central China, the mirror twin of north-of-lake Hubei. It is perhaps best known in the West as the birthplace and initial power base of Chairman Mao, and not surprisingly a disproportionate number of the Communist old guard hail from the area.
Hunanese cuisine, known in Chinese as Qiang cuisine (湘菜 Xiāng cài) after the Xiang river that runs through Hunan and drains in the Yangtze, is one of the Eight Great Traditions and is well known for being “dry and spicy” (干辣 gān là). Unlike nearby Sichuan, the numbing Sichuan pepper is rarely used; instead, the Hunanese like their chillis straight up, and employ smoking and pickling to add flavour.
I must admit that before this episode, I had never eaten Hunanese food, a particularly shameful admission since one of our good friends in Sydney hailed from the province. Alas, our meals together always stuck to the laowai-friendly staples like chilli-free hotpot, perhaps understandably so since kids on both sides were only toddlers at the time. In any case, it was long past time to fill in this gap in my education.
My first lesson was a takeaway meal from Xiang Signature (湘香厨房 Xiāngxiāng chúfáng, “Xiang Fragrance Kitchen”), which sprawls across several shophouses on Liang Seah St, another small Mainland-Chinatown in Bugis, and came well recommended by several Redditors. The interior is simply but stylishly decorated, an effect only slightly spoiled by their choice of soundtrack, a rousing kindergarten-friendly rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”.
Following the guidance of /u/PickleShaman, I started off with Hunan Style Fried Pork (农家小炒肉), top left. You’d be excused for thinking there’s a mix of veggies there, but nope, it’s all sliced green chillies, with crispy bits of pork reminiscent of huiguorou, all tied together with a touch of black bean sauce. Spicy, but not overpoweringly so.
Up next was Olive Vegetable with Green Bean (橄榄四季豆). A vegetarian riff on Sichuan classic green beans with minced pork, this has nothing to do with the Mediterranean diet: the “olive” here is Canarium album (橄榄 gǎnlǎn) aka “Chinese olive”, thus named because the fruit grow in trees, are the size and shape of large olives, and can be mixed with mustard greens and fermented into a tapenade-like dark, salty, black paste simply called “olive vegetable” (橄榄菜 gǎnlǎn cài). This paste is most commonly used for porridge and fried rice, the latter a common dish particularly in Thailand, and while it doesn’t really taste like olives, it adds a nice earthy, umami kick to any dish. This was probably my favorite.
I ordered the Purple Perilla Cucumber (紫苏黄瓜) expecting a cold, raw cucumber dish, but was rather surprised to get a box of what looked an awful lot like sautéed zucchini instead. Yes, this was stir-fried cucumber in a starchy soy-based sauce, with some sliced chilli and the perilla, perhaps better known these days by its Japanese name shiso. A sushi condiment with a strong, distinct, vaguely minty taste that resists description, it’s commonly used Korean and Vietnamese cooking but I had never seen it used for Chinese food before. All in all, a rather unusual combo of tastes and textures.
Finally, a bowl of Tea Tree Mushroom with Chicken (茶树菇鸡汤). Tea tree mushroom (茶树菇 cháshùgū), apparently very common in Hunanese cuisine, is a rather large mushroom typically dried and reconstituted for use in soups, where the long stems in particular retains a chewy texture, but not much in the way of taste. Mushrooms aside, though, this was a pretty standard bowl of herbal chicken soup complete with a couple of very bony chunks of chicken.
For round two we headed to Hunan Traditional Cuisine in Chinatown. The apparently-nonsensical Chinese name, “Dense Whereas Hunan Food” (密斯湘菜 Mìsī Xiāngcài), comes from the phonetic Chinese reading of its original location on Smith St (史密斯街 Shǐmìsī jiē), only with the first syllable dropped for unclear reasons — and for bonus points, the restaurant is now a few blocks away on Mosque St, making the connection even more obscure.
On entry, you’re greeted by a chipper bronze bust of Hunan’s iconic mass murderer, which leaves you a bit of a bad taste in your mouth even before you sit down on the otherwise rather nice leather seats. On a random Wednesday evening the place was packed and the boisterous table of Koreans in front of us was already several beer bottles deep into their evening.
We started with an unusual appetizer of roasted and pickled chillis with century eggs (烧辣椒皮蛋), sounding similar to the Sichuan version I sampled in JB, but here they were mashed together in a mortar and pestle at your table. You’d be excused for not finding the end result very appetizing, but it was actually delicious: chilli heat, vinegar sourness, cool egg white jelly, all tied together with creamy egg yolk and fragrant sesame oil. Yum!
Appetizer out of the way, it was time for Steamed Fish Head with Preserved Chilli (剁椒蒸鱼头), the speciality here and one of Hunan’s best known dishes. Here they kick it up another notch by using not one, but two kinds of chillis to make it a Twin-Color Fish Head (双色鱼头): the actual head is coated in fresh red chilli intended mostly as decoration, while the meaty collar is covered with a mash of pickled green chilli, all floating in an oily broth laden with more chilli. The restaurant uses bighead carp (松鱼 sōngyú), a large, slightly muddy freshwater fish that’s quite popular in Singapore, and given the appearance the taste is, if not exactly mild, at least less brutal than you might think. Don’t forget to dig out the cheeks, which are the best bit!
On the side we had some cauliflower with cured pork (腊肉 làròu). This is often translated “bacon”, but it’s leaner, drier, sliced thin and intensely smoky, more resembling air-cured meat. It was served up in a heated mini wok that cooked the cauliflower as we are, and was tasty if salty. And the last fish was Changsha cold noodles (长沙凉面), which reminded me of what they call “cold Chinese” (hiyashi-chuka 冷やし中華) in Japanese: cold wheat noodles similar to those in ramen, doused in a vinegar-sesame oil broth, shredded cucumber and chopped peanuts. Tasty but oily. With a bottle of beer and some rice on the side, the total for 2 came to just about exactly $100.
All in all, Hunanese food was quite a positive surprise, much more varied than I had expected with all sorts of flavours I would not normally associate with China like smoky dried meat, shiso leaves and olive vegetable. It was also much less spicy than I had expected, although I suspect this may be partly a local adaptation. I’m definitely looking forward to sampling more of this.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it: after 33 varying awkward segues, we’ve run out of provinces to cover. (I toyed briefly with the idea of making Singapore the 35th, but that would probably get my work permit cancelled for treason, and in any case I’ve already covered quite a few invented-in-Singapore dishes under Hainan and Fujian.) But stay tuned: there’s a wrap-up coming, as well as a special highlights edition for our vegetarian readers.
Shandong (山东, “East of the Mountains”) is a coastal province in northern China known primarily – to uncultured foreign devils like me, at any rate – for its peanuts. And if I really wracked my brains, I might also have recalled that it’s home to Qingdao (Tsingtao), a former German concession famous for its eponymous Tsingtao beer, that staple of overseas Chinese restaurants everywhere.
Delectable as the combination may be, there’s more to Shandong than peanuts and beer. The local cuisine (鲁菜 Lǔ cài) is considered the forebear of all northern Chinese cooking, so much so that Beijing and Tianjin cuisine are considered mere offshoots of it and trying to differentiate the three is an exercise in drawing lines in sand. The positive spin on that is that now I have the opportunity to sample three times as many things, so let’s get to work!
Somewhat to my surprise, there are a number of dedicated Shandong restaurants in Singapore, albeit of varying degrees of authenticity. The most visible brand is Thousand Tastes Shan Dong Da Bao (千味山東大包 Qiānwèi Shāndōng dàbāo), a chain of little hole-in-the-wall shops in MRT stations dishing out Chinese pastries for under $2 a pop. Stuffed, steamed bao (包) buns are eaten across the entire country, but Qingdao has a respectable claim to inventing the “big” (大包 dàbāo) variant stuffed with multiple ingredients. At the giant tent just outside Chinatown MRT Exit C (People’s Park), which offers four different varieties of dabao, I tried out the Chinese Cabbage and Pork Bun (白菜粉条肉大包 báicài fěntiáo ròu dàbāo), which is quite possibly the most filling meal you can get in Singapore for $1.50: a huge, chewy, savoury bun generously stuffed with juicy pork, cabbage and vermicelli. I much prefer this northern style over the sickly sweet, often mushy Cantonese versions, so this was perfect.
At the Woodlands outlet, I tried out the Pancake with Leek & Egg (韭菜鸡蛋盒子 jiǔcài jīdàn hézi, $1.50), which was also grrreat: lots of leek and bits of egg in a thin half-moon wrapper just able to contain the juices inside. My accomplice splurged $2 on the somewhat misnamed Biscuit with Meat & Veg (菜肉火烧 càiròu huǒshāo) and was equally impressed by a chewy, pillowy bun not entirely unlike an English muffin, stuffed generously with pork stewed with five spice and just a hint of chilli. This being an unscheduled stop, I only found out later that huoshao are considered a specifically Shandong delicacy, and the donkey burgers in Hebei are supposed to be made with these. Score! Northern Chinese snacking doesn’t get much better than this.
Shandong is also the home of the Chinese grape wine (葡萄酒 pútáojiǔ) industry. While grape-based liquors have been known in China for millennia, Western-style methods were only introduced in 1892 when Zhang Bishi founded the Changyu (张裕) Pioneer vineyard in Yantai, Shandong. Aimed squarely at the local market, for a long time Chinese wines were sickly sweet and a Taiwanese red I tested around 2007 retains a special place in my memories as the second worst wine I’ve ever tried. (The worst was a 14 pence bottle with a hand-stenciled label picked up from a Maltese farmer.) Have Chinese tastes shifted since? It was time to find out.
Chinese wines aren’t all that easy to find in Singapore, so I placed an order with specialist retailers Ang Leong Huat, kicking off with a $26 bottle of Changyu Zenithwirl Cabernet Sauvignon. The rather awesome English name has no obvious connection to the Chinese name Zuìshīxiān (醉诗仙) or “Drunk Poetry Fairy”, which I’m sure you’ll agree is even better, and the camel on the label hints that this actually hails from Xinjiang, long famous for grapes and thus an obvious place for wineries too. So how was it? Surprisingly decent. It’s definitely a little on the sweet side, but by no means overpoweringly so, and went quite nicely with some not-so-Chinese Brie and Manchego cheeses.
The next stop on the Shandong bus was a visit to the original Kitchener Rd coffee shop of Putien, the Michelin-starred brand famed for its Xinghua cooking and previously covered in the Fujian episode. The location is, frankly, bizarre: Kitchener Rd is in Little India, near Singapore’s dingiest red-light district Desker Rd, and the neighboring shops are mostly dodgy karaoke bars (exhibit A at left). But the shop inside looks just like you’d expect an upscale Chinese restaurant to be, although the artificially colored live fish — I didn’t even know this was a thing now — tip the hat at its colourful surroundings.
So why am I in a Fujianese restaurant again? Because it’s the only place in Singapore I could find that has Nine-Layer Intestine (九转粉肠), one of Shandong’s best-known dishes. The Shandong version is served in brown sauce, while the Fujianese version is braised in clear sauce and bears a disturbing resemblance to belly buttons. It tastes quite alright, though, a bit chewy but much less than you’d think, and there’s only a hint of intestine funk. Up next was another Shandong ingredient, prickly Japanese sea cucumber (刺参), served here in Chinese soup. Sea cucumbers are much esteemed in China, where they’re known as “sea ginseng” (海参 hǎishēn), but as the Qing-era poet Yuan Mei concluded, they have “little to no taste, are full of sand, and are fishy in smell”. To give credit where credit is due, there was neither sand not fishy smell in Putien’s version, but the end result was crumbly, gelatinous rubber, edible enough but thoroughly tasteless. (The chicken stock was good though!)
Our third starter was the pièce de résistance, which the menu called Chilled Jello Worms (土笋凍 tǔsǔndòng), made from braising and chilling Sipunculus nudus, a species of marine worm, delicately called “earth bamboo” (土笋 tǔsǔn). These are a speciality of Xiamen, Fujian and aren’t really eaten in Shandong, but hey, who’s counting? No cap, these looked pretty gnarly, especially since the worms are kind of curled up in the jellies and stretch out to a solid 5-8 cm if you make the mistake of trying to take a small bite first, but once again the worms have little taste and they’re slathered in enough garlic, chilli and soy to hide any that remains.
With the Fear Factor qualification round complete it was time to move onto the mains. Putian heavily promotes their 100-Second Stewed Yellow Croaker (百秒黄花鱼), but it was disappointing, quite bony and very bland. The Ca Fen “rubbed noodles” (擦粉) was very close to the one at Xinghua, earthy and porridge-y, while the Fermented Red Rice Wine Prawns (红糟虾) tasted like red rice wine chicken, only harder to eat because the prawns were in their shells. We had some reasonable tea to go with it, complete with an hourglass for timing your steeping, and on the side some deep-fried seaweed and zha cai pickles. Overall, though, the food was a bit of a disappointment.
For my final Shandong experience, I took the family to lunch at Hand in Hand Shandong (手拉手山东菜馆), the sister restaurant of the most delectable Hand in Hand Beijing. Continuing the theme of oddly located Chinese restaurants, it’s located in banker/tourist central Boat Quay, where locals rarely venture, and I’m actually pretty surprised they made it through COVID. They have air-conditioned seating upstairs, but we made the most of the location by sitting al fresco by the riverside and cracked open an obligatory bottle of Tsingtao.
This time I had done my homework by consulting my Qingdao-born ex-colleague Jiang, who wasn’t able to join, but was kind enough to go through the menu in advance and recommend his favourites. We kicked off with Shredded Chinese Cabbage with Jellyfish (白菜丝拌海蜇), which is just what the name says: raw Chinese cabbage (a vegetable I’ve never seen eaten raw in China before!) with chewy, crunchy strips of jellyfish in a garlic-vinegar sauce, and this was my wife’s favourite today. You can never go wrong with red-braised pork (红烧肉), Chairman Mao’s favorite dish and described as such in previous editions of the menu, but now listed as the blander “Shandong Home Braise”. Wrap it up in a mantou bun and feel the glorious fat trickle everywhere!
I also rather enjoyed the Stir Fry Pig Kidney (爆炒腰花) with mild chillies, wood ear fungus and bamboo shoots, cooked with the Shandong technique of “explosive stir-frying” (爆炒 bàochǎo), meaning very quickly with constant motion in a red hot wok, with the kidneys thinly sliced into “flowers” (花) that curl up prettily. This technique, incidentally, is also the source of that infamous menu translating 干爆鸭子 as “Fuck the duck until exploded”: it’s supposed to be duck explosive-cooked until dry (干 gàn), but simplified Chinese unwisely collapsed “dry” (乾) and “stem/do/fuck” (幹) into the single character 干, leading to aisles labeled “干品 / Fuck Goods” in Chinese supermarkets ever since. Oops!
It wouldn’t be Shandong without some dumplings, so on Jiang’s recommendation we tried out the fresh fish dumplings (鲜墨鱼水饺), quite an uncommon filling. The dumplings were, indeed, very fishy, rather resembling the canned fiskebullar that sustained me on a teenage backpacking romp through Norway. Not bad as such, just, well, fishy. The leek and pork “potsticker” dumplings (鲜虾韭菜猪肉锅贴) were competent, if not hugely exciting, and that was pretty much that. I’d been warned in advance that much of the menu was now permanently “Sold Out” and alas, two of Jiang’s favorites, Qingdao Cold Noodles (青岛海菜凉粉) and Cucumber with Snail Meat (黄瓜拌螺肉) were indeed not available.
The good news is, they did still have dessert. Sweet Potatoes in Hot Toffee (拔絲地瓜) is made by deep-frying sweet potatoes and dunking them in a molten sugar solution, not unlike Beijing bingtanghulu (and quite unlike Western toffee, there’s no butter involved). The show happens at your table: the waitress teased the pieces apart, creating the “threads” (絲) of the Chinese name, and then dipped the pieces in ice water to harden the candy shell. Looks simple, but the contrast of textures and flavours worked really nicely, and despite being pretty stuffed we worked out way through almost the entire pile. Definitely a high point to end the meal. Interestingly, the dish is known in Japan as well, where it goes by the odd moniker “university potatoes” (大学芋 daigakuimo) after the dish cropped up in the bookish Tokyo district of Kanda, likely thanks to an enterprising hawker from Shandong.
Total damage was $146 for 4, not as high a markup as you might expect for the area. But there’s no rest for this potato: it’s time to explode the duck and move onto our very last province.
Sichuan (Four Rivers), sometimes spelled Szechwan, is in southwestern China and probably second only to Cantonese as the most recognizable style of Chinese cooking in the West. From the US to Japan and India, it’s shorthand for “spicy”, and even the exceedingly localized pseudo-Chinese joint in my home suburb in Helsinki offered a vaguely ketchupy concoction called “Szechwan beef” on its menu, next to the rye bread, buttermilk and salad bar of chopped raw Chinese cabbage with canned mandarin slices.
Hardcore amounts of chilli peppers are indeed a definite characteristic of Sichuan cuisine, known in China as as River Cuisine (川菜 chuān cài) after the Four Rivers of Sichuan’s name, but in my opinion the true differentiator to the other merely spicy cuisines of the world is the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒 huājiāo). When I was a kid, my mother had a rarely used little glass jar of shriveled up reddish-brown Sichuan pepper husks in her kitchen cupboard, tasting of nothing in particular, and it wasn’t until I chanced upon the fresh stuff in Singapore around 2005 that I realized why it’s so central to real Sichuanese food. The Chinese call the taste of Sichuan peppercorn (麻 má), usually unhelpfully translated as “numbing” because the same character is also used for anesthesia, but if you ask me they should pick “drugging” instead, because those two spiky bits under the roof (广) are actually hemp leaves! In a similar way that the capsaicin of chilli goes beyond the classic five tastes by hitting your pain receptors, trigging that sweet masochistic endorphin rush, the sanshool of fresh Sichuan pepper is a hallucinogen for the tastebuds, altering their reactions sideways in weird, wonderful and ideosyncratic ways. For me, after eating the pepper, even a glass of plain cold water suddenly tastes sour, salty and thick.
When you mix together chillies and Sichuan pepper, you get the killer spicy-numbing combo called málà (麻辣), which took Singapore by storm while I was away — as I write this even McDonalds is now hawking mala fries. However, I’ll leave exploring my pain tolerance for the Chongqing episode, since Sichuan’s largest city is administratively its own province and famed even in Sichuan itself for completely ridiculous levels of spice.
To kick things off, I strapped on my training wheels and invited the family and some friends to Shisen Hanten (四川飯店), the Singapore outpost of what just might be the world’s most famous Sichuanese restaurant. Founder Chen Kenmin (Jianmin) opened the original in Tokyo in 1958 and it’s often credited with introducing Japan to Chinese food, although this also meant that the spice levels were toned down considerably for the Japanese palate. My grandfather-in-law, OG hipster poet that he was, used to hold his tanka poetry clubs at the Osaka branch even before it became cool, because the restaurant really took off in the 1990s when the founder’s son Chen Ken’ichi became the original Iron Chef Chinese and a fixture on TV screens across the entire world.
Grandson Chen Kentaro’s name is plastered on the Singapore branch, which is high up on the 35rd floor of the new Hilton (former Mandarin Orchard), looking every inch like the hotel ballroom it is with the classic round tables with white tablecloths and lazy Susans in the middle. On this quiet Tuesday night the majority of clientele was Japanese, attesting partly to the restaurant’s fame in Japan, and partly to the fact that the restaurant has scored two Michelin stars every year since 2016 and is priced to match. How would the food hold up?
We kicked off with a selection of Sino-Japanese classics, starting with the famed Kung Pao chicken (宮保雞丁 gōngbǎo jīdīng). Order this in the West and you’ll get a mess of orange juice and corn starch, but Shisen’s rendition was dry, not too spicy, generously provisioned with cashews and had a few token Sichuan peppers thrown in. The kids loved the twice-cooked pork (回锅肉 huíguōròu), a simple dish of crispy pork, cabbage and mild Japanese piman peppers with just a hint of chilli. Stir-fried green beans (干煸四季豆 gānbiān sìjìdòu) are a Sichuanese favorite that’s really tasty when done right, but Shisen’s version was curiously denatured, with not much going on and the beans limp, not crisp. Shredded Wagyu Beef with Japanese Green Pepper (青椒牛肉丝) is apparently a Sichuanese dish as well, but I’ve never seen this outside Japan, and Shisen’s version tasted exactly like cheap Chinese food in Japan: gluggy and curiously tasteless.
The standout for me was, though, was Shisen’s second-most famous dish, their take on chilli shrimp (干烧明虾 gānshāo míngxiā). In Japan, ordering ebi-chiri (エビチリ) gets you a plate of gloopy, sickly sweet prawns, but here the complex, multilayered sauce was reminiscent of chilli crab gravy, yet somehow more fresh and zingy, and the prawns were huge and bursting with flavour. As a bonus, they came with a side of deep-fried mantou buns perfect for sopping up the gravy, and so good we had to order more. (Factoid: Iron Chef’s Chairman Kaga said that this was the best dish he ate in the entire series!)
Yet Shisen’s top dish is mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐), “pockmarked grandma’s beancurd”, a seemingly simple dish of soft beancurd in a sauce of minced meat and plenty of mala chilli and Sichuan pepper. The version here pulls no punches: it was oily and both la (spicy) and ma (numbing), a little too much so for the kids, who are more used to the slightly-la, non-ma Japanese version.
Our final dish of the day was also perhaps the most authentic Sichuan dish of the day: “water-boiled” (水煮 shuǐzhǔ) marble goby, prepared by poaching the fish for 20-30 seconds and then finished off by pouring boiling oil on top. The English menu warns that this is “super-spicy”, and it was indeed the spiciest thing we ate today, but despite the intimidating pile of chilli on top and plenty of Sichuan peppercorns popping in my mouth, the sweetness of the very fresh fish still came through. Very nice!
For dessert, we had the Trio of Desserts: Sino-Japanese staple “almond” tofu (杏仁豆腐 xìngrén dòufu, or annin dōfu in Japan), which is actually made from ground apricot kernels and tastes a bit like almond liquor; mango pudding; and a little cube of doughy sponge cake cautiously flavored with dark sugar. The kids tried the aloe vera and lemongrass jelly, which had a touch of Chinese herbal flavor, with palate-cleansing yuzu sorbet. The final Japanese touch awaited in the toilets, where the seats are equipped with high-end Toto washlets that let you choose between Oscillating, Pulsating, or even both.
Speaking of butt-puckering things, it was time for the bill, which came to $479 for the eight of us — the priciest meal by a long way of the entire project, and that’s with zero alcohol and half the table being kids who subsisted primarily on fried rice. There are two ways to look at that figure: by Singapore Michelin star dining standards, where a meal for two at Odette goes well north of $1000, it’s actually a reasonably good deal; but by any other standard, it’s a ridiculous price to pay for food that would cost a quarter or less a few blocks away in Chinatown’s Little Sichuan. To be honest, the most disappointing thing was that Shisen can’t quite seem to make up its mind about whether it’s Sichuanese or Sino-Japanese, down to details like the background music alternating between Chinese traditional and twangy Japanese shamisen plucking, and this makes the menu a bit of a crapshoot as well.
And psst: if you’d like to check out that mapo doufu yourself without breaking the bank, they’ve now franchised out Chen’s Mapo Tofu to shopping malls islandwide, with a basic bowl starting from $12.80.
Next, I atoned for my culinary sins by eating perhaps the most iconic Sichuanese dish, hotpot (火锅 huǒguō), and what better place to eat it than China’s most famous hotpot chain, Haidilao (海底捞, “Deep Sea Dredging”). Founded in suburban Chengdu in 1994, the chain’s founder Zhang Yong is now the richest man in Singapore, with a net worth of some $15 billion. His recipe for success? Reasonable food, fairly high prices, and famously obsessive service: for example, ladies waiting in line may get treated to a free manicure.
There are a dozen Haidilaos in Singapore, but wait times are still often measured in hours, so we booked a table at their comparatively quiet Clarke Quay outlet. Order of the day was a double pot split between the Sichuan original, generously mala-flavored of course, and Bai Yu (白玉, “white jade”), a complex but non-spicy fish-chicken-pork broth in the same family as Japanese tonkotsu of ramen fame. Into the pot went sliced lamb shoulder, “hairy belly” beef tripe (毛肚 máodù), pork kidney, black pork slices, pork balls, tofu skin, black fungus, winter melon, lotus root, crown daisy (茼蒿 tónghāo, or shungiku in Japanese), lettuce leaf and instant noodles. Whew! We also ordered the famous homemade “kung fu noodles”, usually prepared at your table, but in these COVID times brought on a plate.
In Japanese hotpots, it’s all about the ingredients, the broths are simple and any condiments are strictly optional. In Sichuan hotpot, though, most items are cooked for mere seconds, so the broth has to be overloaded with ingredients so the flavor can infuse quickly. What’s more, there’s a near-absurd array of condiments to mix and match, with their signature “Haidilao sauce” (middle pic) stretching the definition of “sauce”: not only is it quite dry, but it contains things like roasted soy beans, minced beef, coriander and a ton of raw garlic. The condiment bar also serves up unlimited snacks, fruits and ice cream.
So how was it? Not quite as spicy as I expected: the chilli oil was largely concentrated on the top of the pot, and the dipping sauces helped numb the pain. My favorites were the kidney, sliced thin and cooked in seconds; the tofu skin, silky smooth yet absorbent; and the lamb. The house sesame sauce was also quite tasty and, being liquid, much more effective at cooling. Total damage for 4 came to $147 without drinks, which is definitely on the pricy side for hotpot, but it was tasty and fun, so odds are we’ll be back.
I thought that was that for Sichuan hotpot, but Mr Wang of Heilongjiang episode fame came back with an offer I couldn’t resist: the chance to sample a Chengdu-style hotpot across the border in Johor Bahru, featuring various ingredients banned in Singapore, like blood tofu and duck intestines. Sign me up! And that’s how Mr & Mrs Wang & I ended up at Shuguo Yinxiang Hotpot (蜀国印象-火锅) at the Opera House of R&F Marina Place, the shiny new/still under construction skyscraper complex just east of the Causeway, so close that from a window seat you can keep a nervous eye on the jam situation of this famously congested border crossing while you eat. Incidentally, Shuguo is an ancient kingdom that once existed in Sichuan, and I do mean ancient: they were conquered by the Qin in 316 BC!
Shuguo’s present concept here is quite close to Haidilao: pick two soups or three, choose your ingredients, then DIY your own sauce and dig in. Starting with a zhongla (medium spicy) beef oil and suancai pickled cabbage duck double set, we ordered (deep breath) beef “hairy belly” (毛肚, aka omasum), beef meatballs, tender beef (with an egg on top!), beef cubes, spiced pork intestine, pork kidney, duck tongue, old tofu, crown daisy, green bamboo shoots (青笋 qīngsǔn), “Chinese asparagus” (龙须笋 lóngxūsǔn “dragon beard shoots”, actually a type of dried and shredded bamboo shoot) and a mushroom platter. Phew! If that sounds like way too much for three people, it was, but it was all very good quality and we pretty much finished the lot.
But my excuse to be here was the two forbidden fruits meats. Fresh pork blood (鲜猪血 xiān zhūxiě) is simply coagulated pig blood with a dash of salt. Sliced thin and cooked in the hotpot, it’s smooth like firm tofu and has a mild, pleasant, iron-y taste that brought me back to Thailand, where it’s a common ingredient in soups. Chilled duck intestines (冰镇鸭肠 bīngzhèn yācháng) came piled on ice, wide, flat and long like fettuccini, but curled and shriveled up as soon as they hit the pot, making them half-chewy, half-crunchy. Meh. On the side, we had some “Shuguo Strings” (上上签 shàngshàngqiān), a pot containing thinly sliced skewers of beef, lotus, kelp (kombu) and potato, already cooked in a light broth of fresh chilli and Sichuan peppers. Since the pot was large enough to hide the contents, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolate you never knew what you were going to get when you picked a skewer — hence the name, which invokes pulling divining rods — but they were all tasty. We also had some really nice century eggs with a roasted green chilli sauce (双椒皮蛋 shuāngjiāo pídàn) that I neglected to photograph, looking vaguely like this but better.
On the side, I hit the sauce bar and followed the instructions for their Shuguo Not Spicy sauce, consisting mostly of sesame in various forms with some fresh spring onion and coriander, and it was so tasty I came back for more. To wash it all down, some jugs of watermelon juice (!), and complimentary fruits and green tea & chocolate ice cream for dessert. The bill came to MYR 452, about S$140, so quite pricy by Malaysian standards, but it was also the best hotpot I’ve ever had, bar none, everything down to the spice level was juuuuust right. Strongly recommended! Shuguo has 6 outlets in Malaysia and is expanding fast, so here’s hoping they cross the border soon.
The final dish of this little tour was hot and sour noodles (酸辣粉 suānlàfěn). My new favorite vloggers 聪生家SG Chengdu Family did a great “PK” episode (literally Player Killer, but meaning any kind of winner-takes-all competition) sampling 5 bowls across Singapore, so when I found myself in Jurong on a Sunday, I made a beeline for their top pick, Divine Chicken Pot (好滋味鸡公煲) tucked away in the Food Republic food court in the basement of the Westgate shopping mall. They really don’t make it easy for you to order it though: not only does the English menu dub it the thoroughly misleading “Sausage Rice Noodle” (!?), but even the Chinese name is “Fat Intestine Noodles” (肥肠粉 féichángfěn) instead. All was forgiven once I tasted it though, as despite the intimidating appearance, it was only mildly spicy (微辣 wēilà) as promised and the mala, the vinegar and the earthy funk of intestines sang in harmony. I’m generally not a huge fan of intestines, but these were really well done, soft and only slightly chewy with a moreish meaty taste. The glass noodles were thick, chewy and the peanuts on top added a nice bit of crunch. I’m getting hungry again just typing this. Two thumbs up, and only $7 too!
In addition to food, Sichuan is also famed as the home of one of the four signature styles of baijiu white liquor, namely “strong aroma” (浓香 nóngxiāng). If you’ve ever recoiled in horror after being punched in the nostrils by a “clear aroma” baijiu like Beijing’s Red Star, you may find the concept of something even stronger to be rather intimidating, but for the betterment of mankind I invested the princely sum of $9.50 in a 125 mL bottle of Luzhou Laojiao Er Qu (泸州老窖二曲). Distilled since 1573 by China’s oldest baijiu makers Luzhou Laojiao, the “Second Song” is the third and cheapest grade they have, and consequently has the sobriquet “the People’s Baijiu”.
So how was it? It’s strong alright (45°) and clear like vodka, but surprisingly drinkable, like an amped-up version of Hubei’s Maopu with a similar layered, complex taste that’s incongruously fruity and floral at times. And on that incongruously fruity note, we’ve sung our song to Sichuan.
Liaoning, “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, “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.
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!
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 huǒshāobun, 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, 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 Gansulamian 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.