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.

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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!

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