34 Province Project: Taiwan 台湾

Taiwan is an island about 180 kilometers off the coast of mainland China. And that’s really all I can say about the place without somebody snorting peas up their nose, since I’ve already gotten brickbats for including it in this series as a “province” of China. This, too, is a political statement: the People’s Republic of China insists this is the case, and while the Republic of China says so too in its constitution, in practice the island has been quietly backpedaling away from the concept for a while.

This kind of thing bedevils all things Taiwanese, since you can’t even write about Taiwanese things without picking sides. Traditional characters like 台灣 lean “Green” (pro-independence), while simplified ones like 台湾 lean “Blue” (status quo), and even the romanization is different, with the pan-Greens opting for indigenous tongyong pinyin, the pan-Blues preferring China’s hanyu pinyin, and a lot of place names still using the older Wade-Giles system. And that’s just for Mandarin: the local dialect and its speakers are called Hoklo locally, Hokkien to the Singaporeans, Minnan if you’re a linguist, Banlam if you’re saying “Minnan” in the dialect itself, and Fujianese from a mainland point of view. Wah lau! For consistency I’m going to stick with Mandarin, simplified and hanyu pinyin, and use dialect names only when used in Singapore as well.

I had the occasion to visit Taiwan for about a week way back in 2007, checking out both some of the top draws (Alishan, Taipei) as well as a few places off the beaten track (Chiayi, Guanziling). Since both have been quite successful in combating COVID-19, there has been talk of Singapore and Taiwan opening up a travel bubble, but in the meantime there’s plenty of Taiwanese eats right here.

Taiwanese food is hugely popular in Singapore, exemplified first and foremost by bubble tea, such that top outlets sported long queues before last year’s lockdown. You know a dish has hit prime time when this concoction of milky tea with chewy tapioca balls, 珍珠奶茶 zhēnzhū nǎichá “pearl tea” to the Taiwanese and 波霸 bōbà “busty lady” in the US, has acquired its own Singaporean acronym, “BBT”. Taiwanese snacks like fried chicken have also long been ubiquitous, with global Taiwanese chain Shihlin Street Snacks originally hailing from Singapore, and Taiwanese Michelin-star dumpling maestros Din Tai Fung now sport no less than 24 (!) outlets across the island.

I started my Taiwanese tour with lunch at 5 Little Bears (五只小熊), an unassuming little eatery in the basement of busy Paya Lebar Square. The Japanese-style red akachochin lanterns gave a good hint of what was to come, since the oyster mee sua (蚵仔面线 kèzái miànxiàn) was the most Japanese thing I’ve eaten outside Japan: there was a powerful dashi-style seafood funk to the soup, with a few token oysters, some strands of black fungus and uniquely Taiwanese caramelized brown wheat mee sua noodles. The starchy soup, though, was much closer to Fujianese geng than anything you’d find in Japan. It was quite good, but a little monotonous and salty.

Our other main was minced pork rice (卤肉饭 lǔròufàn), a Taiwanese family favorite we make at home sometimes using a recipe from a Taiwanese friend. It’s not a terribly photogenic dish, but the pork was soft and flavorful, the zhacai (榨菜) pickles on the side livened it up nicely, and a tea egg and few sprigs of bok choy rounded it out. The kids had a couple of generously portioned bento sets (便当 biàndang), both word and concept being another Japanese loan that stuck around, plus an obligatory plate of crispy chicken to share. Total damage $28, and two thumbs up.

Second stop on my little island tour was Feng Food (丰台湾味 Fēng Táiwān wèi) in the cavernous basement maze of another shopping mall, this time Northpoint City, where you may be lost forever if you don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs marking your way out. Done up like a country village with bamboo and straw decorations, they’ve expanded to cover the space of two regular restaurants and were doing a roaring trade for Sunday lunch. My son’s Marinated Pork Chop with Egg Fried Rice (豬排蛋炒飯) was exactly what it says on the tin, reminding me quite a bit of Din Tai Fung’s equally excellent version, only much more generously sized. I tested their “famous” Tainan Danzai Noodles (台南担仔面), but I’m sorry to say I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is about: the topping was a small pile of chopped pork belly with a single shrimp and a chewy tea egg, the soup was a mild variant of Singaporean prawn noodles, and the special imported guān miào (关庙) sun-dried chewy noodles I’d paid a buck extra for tasted very much like Shanxi’s “knife-shaved” daoshaomian. Taiwanese beef noodles still retain the noodle crown for me.

To wash it all down, the only option was bubble tea. Singapore is spoiled for choice, with half a dozen Taiwanese chains staking their claims on the island, but after extensive research consisting of reading this blog article, I ended up at the Paya Lebar PLQ outlet of Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千), hailing from bubble tea epicenter Taichung and now franchised across Asia. The name means “Eat Tea Three Thousand”, which for the record makes no sense in Chinese either. Every high-end BBT retailer has a schtick, and Chicha’s is that each cup of tea is made from actual tea leaves brewed to order, hence the chunky percolators at the register and the clinical lab-coated vibe. I went with a Dong Ding Oolong Fresh Milk Tea (冻顶乌龙鲜奶茶) with added Country King Pearls (国王珍珠), Dong Ding (Frozen Peak) being a Taiwanese variety of oolong tea, plus what the English menu insipidly calls Fruit Tea, which really doesn’t do justice to the majesty of the Chinese name, “Treasure Island Classic Fruit Tea” (宝岛经典水果茶). Were they worth $5 a cup? Somewhat to my surprise, probably. The Dong Ding oolong had a deep, roasted flavor my wife likened to Japanese hōjicha, with soft chewy pearls, while the Fruit Tea was indeed a Treasure Island of apple, lime, passionfruit and tiny pineapple slivers, marinated in surprisingly light Phoenix Eyebrow black tea (凤眉红茶) that as far as I can tell exists solely at Chicha.

Round 2, sponsored by ComfortDelgro Taxis in a bizarre campaign to encourage hailing cabs off the street, was their plain old Bubble Milk Tea (国王珍珠奶茶), basically the same as drink #1 but with regular black tea instead of oolong, and Osmanthus Oolong Tea with Mango (水仙桂花), where the marketing department probably correctly concluded that nobody would order a “Narcissus Osmanthus” in English. The Bubble Milk Tea was, indeed, classic and very tasty indeed, while the Mango-Oolong-Narcissus thing was a bit too much and lacked the excitement of any actual Fruit.

I ordered all four drinks with 0% added sugar, but the fruit and the milk respectively were sweet enough that this tasted just fine. All in all, probably the best BBT I’ve had to date, and fruit teas in particular warrant further exploration.

If Taiwanese food is your thing, there’s plenty more to explore in Singapore, with Taiwanese style breakfasts like pork floss omelettes at True Breakfast in Cuppage Plaza and three cups chicken at Lai Lai Taiwan Casual at City Square. But over twenty more provinces await, so my Long March continues.

<<< Jiangsu

34 Province Project: Jiangsu 江苏

Jiangsu is one of those provinces most people may have heard of, but know little about. Just north of Shanghai, it’s named after its two largest cities Jiangning, now better known as Nanjing, and Suzhou. Located on the Yellow Sea at the mouth of the Yangtze River, with a population of some 80 million people, it has been a powerhouse of commerce and industry since around 500 BC and is today second only to Guangdong in income per capita. Nanjing, the Southern Capital to Beijing’s Northern Capital, has been the seat of government for 10-odd dynasties and pretenders, was the world’s largest city for a spell in the 1400s, and to this day the Taiwanese government claims that it remains the de jure capital of the Republic of China.

With this pedigree, it’s hardly surprising that Jiangsu cuisine (苏菜 Sū cài) is one of the Eight Great Traditions, and its fancy subset Huaiyang cuisine (淮揚菜 Huáiyáng cài) is considered one of the Four Great, right up there with Cantonese and Sichuan. Yet with the arguable exception of Yangzhou fried rice (扬州炒饭 Yángzhōu chǎofàn), aka the eggy fried rice with ham bits served up in varying degrees of fidelity at every Chinese restaurant on the planet, I don’t think I’ve ever had Jiangsu food before. Clearly it was time to try it out.

There are really only two dedicated Jiangsu restaurants in Singapore, and since Yechun Teahouse in Marina Sq gets consistently appalling reviews, my choice was easy: Nanjing Impressions (南京大牌档 Nánjīng dàpáidàng), a Chinese chain whose sole local outlet takes up a large chunk of the 4th floor of the Plaza Singapura mall on Orchard Road. The English name is a bit unfortunate in that most Westerners’ Nanjing Impressions consist primarily of rape and murder during the Japanese occupation, but the Chinese name references the “big-plate stalls” that serve as the Chinese equivalent of Singapore’s hawkers. Indeed, the interior is done up to look like a Chinese tea house lit up by paper lanterns, complete with heavy wood paneling, stone eaves and staff in polyester versions of traditional outfits. The overall effect is rather cheesy, but hey, at least it makes a nice change from the average shopping mall food court blare and glare, and despite the cavernous size it was almost full during both our visits. There are no separate stalls as such, instead ordering is dim sum style: tick off what you want from a large paper menu, with most single portions in the $6-10 range, and within minutes tasty things will materialise at your table.

So how’s the food? In a nutshell, both unusual and good. Nanjing is best known for its duck, so we kicked off with their Signature Salted Duck (盐水鸭 yánshuǐ yā, “saltwater duck”), which was salty but melted in your mouth, fat, skin and all, with just a hint of Sichuan pepper and spices. (Apologies for the sad photo of leftovers, taken only after the kids ravaged it.) The Celestial Roast Duck Dumplings (天王烤鸭包 Tiānwáng kǎoyā bāo) are essentially xiao long bao with a duck meatball in sweet, dark broth inside, and by popular acclaim we had to order seconds. Jiangsu’s famous giant lion’s head meatballs (狮子头 shīzitóu) are traditionally served in brown sauce, but here it came alone steamed in broth, wonderfully fluffy and soft on the inside with crunchy bits of water chestnut. The winner for the best named dish goes to Madam Chiang’s Nutritious Beauty Porridge (民国美龄粥 Mínguó měilíng zhōu), a slightly sweet confection of soy milk and glutinous rice with edible lilies and chunks of wild yam, reputedly created for Chiang Kai-shek’s glamorous wife Soong Mei-ling and, to quote this travel guide, “recommended for weak and elder people”. The one dish we were collectively not super keen on was the extremely salty Nanjing Noodles in Light Soy Sauce Broth (老牌阳春面 lǎopái yángchūn miàn), where the broth tasted like it was at least 50% straight-up soy sauce.

Overall, we liked it enough to go back for a second visit later. ​​The Heritage Roast Duck Claypot with Beancurd Julienne (家传云斗煮干丝) showcases the Nanjing speciality of bean curd threads (煮干丝 zhǔgànsī), basically thin sheets of hard tofu shredded so they look very much like egg noodles, served here in a rich bone broth not unlike Japanese tonkotsu, with a few shreds of duck meat and skin. Tasty! Potstickers are usually a porky and garlicky northern dish eaten in bulk, but the Nanjing variety — here called “golden fried dumplings” (金牌煎饺 jīnpái jiānjiǎo), although the usual name is just “beef potstickers” (牛肉锅贴 niúròu guōtiē) — are much bigger than usual and come with a moist and aromatic beef filling leavened by more crunchy water chestnuts. Finally, the Huaiyang Sweet Strata Cake (淮扬千层油糕) is pretty much what it says on the tin, a simple sweet, steamed bun made by repeatedly folding thin dough on itself (the Chinese 千层 means “thousand layer”) and sprinkled with bits of oily, cinnamony Chinese sausage for flavor. Dessert or side dish? The Western palate may have a hard time deciding.

There’s one more Nanjing dish I was keen to try, namely duck blood vermicelli soup (鸭血粉丝汤), but Singapore’s absolute prohibition on blood products means they can only offer a bloodless, offal-less version, so I passed. Sigh.

On both occasions, total damage for 3, including a pot of rather light, delicate and (dare I say it?) almost Japanese-tasting Nanjing Yuhua (雨花 Yǔhuā, “Rain Flower”) green tea came to around $70. Recommended!

<<< Hubei

34 Province Project: Hubei 湖北

Hubei, “North of the Lake” — that’s Dongting Lake, on the Yangtze River — is the less well known twin of its southern cousin Hunan. You may, however, recently have heard a thing or two about its provincial capital Wuhan, and a hankering to try out the signature “hot dry noodles” (热干面 règānmiàn) that kept being mentioned in news reports was one source of inspiration for this project.

The Chu cuisine (楚菜 Chǔ cài) eaten in Hubei has a fairly low profile even in China though, without an obvious spice or cooking style to differentiate it. Chu food revolves around freshwater produce like fish and lotus roots from the many lakes, rivers and marshes, with soups and steamed dishes predominant. The one originally-Hubei dish you can easily find in Singapore is pork rib and lotus root soup (排骨莲藕汤 páigǔ lián’ǒu tāng), but here it’s always done in the slowly simmered, herbal Cantonese style, which is quite tasty but doesn’t cut the mustard for this blog.

Singapore used to have one dedicated Chu restaurant, named after Wuhan’s top attraction the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼), but alas, this kicked the bucket even before COVID-19 put a crimp in business. The closest thing now is Xie Lao Song (蟹老宋 “Old Song’s Crabs”), a chain hailing from Wuhan but coming to Singapore via Beijing. The extensive menu has a lot of reputedly mediocre local food like satay and chilli crab as well as Peking duck, but the dish everybody including us came for is their own invention xiānglà xiè (香辣蟹), drably called “spicy sauce crab” on the menu but perhaps better rendered as “fragrant spicy crab”. Ordering the $38 medium set gets you two smallish mud crabs, cracked and tossed in a wok with celery, sweet potato, peanuts and soft cylindrical rice cakes similar to Korean tteokbokki, all doused in a fragrant chilli & Sichuan peppercorn mala sauce. This is sufficiently hard to eat that you’re given disposable plastic gloves for the job, but it’s worth the effort: the sauce is zippy, but not excessively so, and we ended up eating every last bit of the generously sized pot.

The restaurant recently relocated from Smith St to Pagoda St, right next to Chinatown MRT Exit A, and the new digs manage to be both clinical and tacky at the same time, with aquaria, backlit signage and bright orange plush leather seating (perhaps a nod to the crabs?). Like many other shops in this district, virtually no English is spoken, but the menu is in English. Xie Lao Song is also the only restaurant in Singapore that claims to have Wuhan “hot dry noodles” on the menu, but the first time around our order disappeared into the ether, and the second time we waited around for 45 minutes only to be told meiyou (don’t have). Curses! But at $68 for two all in including Tsingtao beer, soup and sides, it was still pretty good value.

One minor Singaporean food trend that kind of fizzled out before it went mainstream was/is guokui (锅盔 guōkuī), reputedly hailing back over 1000 years to the Tang Dynasty when a hungry laborer fried up some simple flatbread inside his iron helmet — hence the name, “pot helmet”. A common street food eaten all over China, Chinese chains Xiao Yang and A Gan, both from Jingzhou, Hubei, landed in Singapore pretty much simultaneously in 2019, boasting some 8 outlets combined at their peak. At time of writing, though, all that’s left is a solitary outpost of A Gan Guo Kui (阿甘锅盔) in the basement of the flashy but struggling Funan mall, so that’s where I went to get my fix. They’re made to order, a little ball of dough with the stuffing already inside flattened into an oval shape and slapped onto a wall of a cylindrical oven very much like the Indian tandoor to cook: turns out this is basically Chinese naan! The Spicy Pork (香辣鲜肉, $3.60), eaten on the spot, was delicious, crispy, fragrant and meaty but not insanely spicy or oily. Alas, I saved the Brown Sugar Red Bean Paste (黑糖红豆, $3.20) for later and regretted it: what’s warm and crispy fresh turns chewy and bland in minutes when cold. Clearly delivery isn’t an option with these guys, so go out to eat one while you still can.

Hubei also makes a couple of interesting drinks. We already encountered retro hipster soda from Wuhan’s Hankow Factory Nr 2 (汉口二厂 Hànkǒu èrchǎng) back in the Xinjiang episode, and poking around baijiu options in Singapore, I stumbled on a tipple called Maopu Xiaoqiaojiu (毛铺小荞酒), made from Tartary buckwheat in Daye, Hubei. At $12.50 for a 42%, 125 mL flask, I was fully expecting this to be somewhere between rocket fuel and nail polish remover, so imagine my surprise when this was actually… rather nice!? It packs a complex punch, clearly in the same “strong aroma” class as Sichuan’s Wuliangye and Luzhou Laojiao, but to quote their own marketing, “compared to traditional Chinese baijiu, which has a stinging and fiery taste, the buckwheat spirits have a harmonious one”, with several changing layers of unexpectedly fruity notes. My favorite baijiu so far!

<<< Inner Mongolia | Jiangsu >>>

34 Province Project: Gansu 甘肃

Of all the provinces in China, the one I’d like to visit the most is Gansu. I suspect this is a rather rare sentiment, as in China the name was until recently is a byword for poverty, with peasants eking out a marginal existence at the drought-prone edge of the desert and dying in droves when the frequent earthquakes collapsed their yaodong cave homes, dug into the brittle loess of the plateau. In the fading days of the Qing dynasty, the area was wracked by rapacious warlords, while after the Revolution, Gansu became a base for heavy industry.

So why go? Gansu’s odd bone-like shape hints at its deep history. Sandwiched between the Qilian Mountains to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, the Gansu (Hexi) Corridor is the first stretch of the northern Silk Road, running from Xi’an in Shaanxi to the east via the oasis town of Dunhuang, home to the fabulous Mogao Caves, to Xinjiang and Central Asia to the west. The Great Wall of China runs along its length, protecting the northern flank from Mongol invasion and ending at Jiayuguan, where those exiled from the country were cast out into the wilderness and where, oddly, China’s space program is now based. At the eastern end, the Yellow River (Huang He) passes through capital Lanzhou, and if you’re looking for a rollicking account of life in these parts in the late 1930s I warmly recommend In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan by John DeFrancis. Back in kindergarten in Finland, we used to sing a catchy ditty about wanting to row on the Huang He river, and after crossing the Gobi by camel John did just that, sailing 1200 miles on a sheepskin raft from Lanzhou to Baotou in Inner Mongolia. You can still go rafting in on the Huang He today, but try not to sing the song, since it has recently been cancelled.

These days Gansu is famous for exactly one dish, hand-pulled Lanzhou beef noodles (蘭州牛肉拉面 Lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn), the self-proclaimed “First Noodles in China” now ubiquitous not just throughout the country, but arguably the entire world, since the Japanese ramen descends from this. A canonical bowl is described by the mantra “One Clear, Two White, Three Red, Four Green, Five Yellow” (一清二白三红四绿五黄; Yī qīng, èr bái, sān hóng, sì lǜ, wǔ huáng), meaning that it must have clear soup, white radish, red chilli oil, green leeks and yellow wheat noodles.

Lanzhou beef noodles are widely available in Singapore, and there are even a number of dedicated restaurants. My first stop was Western Mahua (西部马华 Xībù Mǎhuá), the sister restaurant of Alijiang from the Xinjiang post and in fact sharing the same premises in Vivocity, only more fast food than fine dining with a funky modern vibe, including a distinctly Chinese cover version of Despacito playing in the background. Musical atrocities aside, the noodles here are as good as it gets, and you don’t need to take my word for it, since the Deputy Secretary of the Gansu Party Committee has certified them as authentic. You can watch them made to order by hand, using that near-magical Chinese technique to tease apart a ball of dough into noodles using nothing but your fingers. The whole generously sized bowl is composed of one giant uncut noodle, made to any of 8 sizes, which even encode some social signalling: ladies and intellectuals are supposed to order thinner noodles down to sub-millimeter “hair width” (毛细 máoxì), while workers and peasants should go for wider ones, which range all the way up to the 50mm “big belt” (大宽 dà kuān). I tried the default size (普通细) of 2mm, while my wife sampled the waitress’s recommended 5mm, and they were both great, although the bigger sizes are definitely harder to eat. All five canonical ingredients were present, with a mild chilli-mala kick but nothing over the top, and the 6th (beef) was well-stewed and tasty as well. The kids chickened out with a chicken broth, but ended up preferring ours, although they lavished the most praise on what the English menu calls Braised Beef in Pita (精品煨牛肉夹馍 jīngpǐn wēiniú ròujiāmó), a Chinese “burger” I’ll talk more about when we get to Shaanxi. A regular bowl of noodles goes for $9.80, and total damage for 4 was just $44. Two thumbs up.

For balance, I went to test out the competition, Tongue Tip Lanzhou Beef Noodles (舌尖尖兰州牛肉面 Shéjiānjiān Lánzhōu niúròumiàn). A franchise of the Chinese chain of the same name, they have 4 outlets in Singapore, so I tried the one at Chinatown Point, which is also bedecked with the same certificates of authenticity as Western Mahua and has two behatted noodle masters doing their thing in a glass box.

This time, I tried the Sauerkraut Beef Noodles (酸菜牛肉面), but it was a sad disappointment in all respects. I have only myself to blame for ordering the suan cai variation with vinegary pickled cabbage, but there was also way too much chilli sauce, and the combo completely overpowered the broth. The “normal” sized noodles were thin and mushy, with none of the chewy bite I expected (were these really made to order?), and the beef slices were small, thin and mostly buried at the bottom of the bowl. I had paid an extra $4 for a set, which consisted of a cold braised egg whose yolk had long since turned green, a dish of rubbery “vegetarian chicken” (素鸡 sùjī, made from beancurd) straight from the fridge, and a can of soft drink. Neither the side dishes nor the noodles were worth it; not recommended.

<<< Xinjiang | Macau >>>

34 Province Project: Xinjiang 新疆

Xinjiang, literally “New Territory”, is the largest and westernmost of China’s provinces. A significant fraction of its inhabitants, primarily the Uyghurs who until recently made up the majority of its population, is rather unhappy with this state of affairs and would much prefer that it be called East Turkestan in recognition of its cultural and linguistic roots with fellow Turkic peoples further to the west. The Chinese Communist Party, in turn, is rather unhappy with this state of affairs and has spent the past half century trying to assimilate them by hook or crook.

I’ve dreamed of the markets of Kashgar, the oases of Turfan and the deserts of Taklamakan ever since I watched The Silk Road in the 1980s, but I’ve never actually been to Xinjiang. I first encountered their food in Australia, where some 5,000 Uyghur refugees have settled and not a few have opened restaurants, like the daggy but iconic, uncompromising and rather tasty Kiroran in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. Uyghur cuisine features many Central Asian staples like rice pilaf (polu, in Chinese 抓飯 zhuāfàn); mutton kebabs (羊肉串 yángròu chuàn); flat, wide handmade laghman noodles (手拉麵 shǒu lāmiàn); and nan (饢 náng) bread, the last of these not referring to the soft, pillowy nan of India, but crisp, perfectly round discs often studden with sesame seeds or spices.

Here in aggressively apolitical Singapore, no restaurant dares utter the U-word, but there are two restaurants that claim to feature Xinjiang cuisine — so of course I had to go visit both.

Aisyah (西北香 Xibeixiang “Northwest Fragrance”) is a surprisingly hip & happening pint-size joint on Telok Ayer St, right next to Thian Hock Keng temple. Figuring the CBD would be deserted on Sunday, we rocked up at lunchtime with no reservation and were lucky to snag the last table.

The menu is short, and the name of the game here is kebabs and hand-pulled noodles (laghman) served with a variety of toppings, ranging from braised mutton (黄焖羊 huángmènyáng) to the more-Sichuanese-than-Uyghur “saliva” chicken (口水鸡 kǒushuǐjī), so called because it makes your mouth water. Both kebabs and the stewed mutton were excellent, with the meat soft and falling off the bone/skewer, and you can choose to have your noodles with spicy soup, mild soup or “dry” with soup on the side.

An unexpected new acquaintance was Hankow Factory #2 (汉口二厂 Hànkǒu èrchǎng) soda, hailing from a city better known these days as Wuhan. Selling their fruity Mystery Factor X soda overseas may be a bit of branding challenge these days, so I tip my hat to their marketing team, but at least the product was good: it was probably the closest thing I’ve had to Pommac outside Finland!

Total damage for 4 people: $80. Recommended.

I had my doubts about Alijiang (阿里疆), the lavishly decorated local outpost of a Chinese chain that claims to offer “Silk Road cuisine”, perched atop Singapore’s largest shopping mall Vivocity to boot. Not only are technicolor camels outside a restaurant usually a bad sign, but the menu veers way the hell off the Silk Road and onto completely the wrong continent: lobster noodles or avocado salad with cherry tomatoes, anyone?

However, we struck to their self-proclaimed Xinjiang specialties and were pleasantly surprised. The mutton-laden polu cooked to order in a clay pot was oily and yummy, the nan was made fresh, the pickles were zingy and crunchy, and the kids devoured the kebabs and asked for more. All agreed the star of the show was the one Xinjiang dish the Uyghurs don’t usually get credit for, namely “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), a hearty stew of chicken, potatoes, and laghman noodles all slathered in oil and spicy-numbing mala sauce, reputedly invented by Sichuanese truckers to keep them going during that admittedly tedious 4,000-km drive from Beijing to Kashgar.

One dish we didn’t try was the roasted whole lamb, available for auspicious price of $888, but probably not selling that well in these COVID-constrained times of groups up to 8. I wonder if they actually dress it up with gold jewelry as shown in the brochure?

Two bonuses came at the end: the kids got free soft-serve ice cream, and I realized a bit too late that I got somebody else’s bill and consequently saved a fair chunk on what would otherwise have been a $120-ish tab. Oops: guess we’ll have to go back to atone, or check out the Gansu-style Lanzhou beef noodles at their sister outlet next door.

<<< Index | Gansu >>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Jennifer Windsor: the hoax that fooled Singapore for over 11 years

Many Singaporeans will have heard of the tragic story of Lady Jennifer Windsor, wife of Lord Windsor. One of many British residents in the colony, she and her wealthy family lived on a huge estate in Upper Thomson in the 1920s.

Yet this idyllic existence was shattered on one cruel day in 1923.  Lady Jennifer’s three young children, Harry, Paul and little Angela, were playing at a nearby bridge when out of nowhere, a flash flood suddenly swept them all away to her deaths. The bodies of the two little boys were found downriver, but Angela’s body was never found.

Soon people started to hear what sounded like the cries of a little girl near the bridge, and the desperate Lady Jennifer went there to comfort her lost child’s soul.  She ended up spending the rest of her life in mourning near the bridge, and that is how the Singaporean neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio, or Caucasian Bridge, got its name.


It’s a tragic tale, retold in many places like New York Times journalist Cheryl Tan’s book A Tiger in the Kitchen, a Singaporean TV documentary, the Wikipedia page for Ang Mo Kio and too many blogs and tourist guides to count. There’s only one tiny flaw in the story: it’s unadulterated horseshit.

The story seems off even on casual inspection. “Jenny from the block“, the Cornish version of Guinevere, seems an unlikely choice of name for an aristocrat born in the late 1800s. The Windsors are nothing less than the British royal family, so what happened to that estate, and why are there no other traces of them in Singapore? If they had lived here, would they really let their young children play on a road completely unsupervised? And even if they did, are flash floods large enough to wipe out bridges but not accompanied by massive storms really a thing in Singapore?

Once this thread of suspicion had been pulled, the entire fabric of the hoax unraveled within days. A Google Books search revealed both precisely zero hits for the fair Lady before 2009, and that there were historical references to the name Ang Mo Kio as early as 1855, decades before her supposed birth.  Soon a Wikipedia sleuth tracked down the apparent original source, namely this shitpost by a “Michaelzhang68” in the Chit Chat room of the late sgforums.com on November 21, 2008. Nobody bought it there either, as the improbable tale was promptly torn to shreds and one reply even lampooned it by suggesting that Ah Hood Road was named when Robin Hood decided to swap Nottinghamshire for Singapore.

Nevertheless, the original creator seems to have persisted, since mere hours later, a verbatim copy of the post was added to Wikipedia’s “Ang Mo Kio” page by a “Paulchen68”, and that’s all it took for the legend to sprout seed. For 11 long years and 8 months until July 2020, the story sat there, occasionally embellished or reformatted, but essentially unquestioned until this ang moh happened to move next to Ang Mo Kio and started wondering where that name came from.

So where did the name come from? I subscribe to the least sexy possible theory: a bridge (桥 kio in Hokkien) was built from concrete (红毛灰 ang mo he “Western ash”), which then became Ang Mo Kio. But maybe you shouldn’t trust the claims of a random stranger on the Internet on this point either…

Picture of a suitably skeptical-looking “Lady Jennifer” from the Mardi Gras Museum at Arnaud’s, an execrable tourist trap in New Orleans.

 

Staycation in the time of plague: a night at Capella Singapore

After months of lockdown, Singapore opened up some hotels to staycations by local visitors in early July. It had been 6 months since we’d gotten out of the house, the kids were on school holiday, and Capella Singapore of Trump-Kim summit fame had a pretty decent deal (20% off, free breakfast, late checkout and a $100 dining credit), so we decided to try it out. Make no mistake, this was still not a cheap stay, but we did also “save” on the cost of return flights for four people, or at least that’s how we justified it to ourselves!

This is not going to be a review of Capella: the place has been around for over ten years, so that’s been done to death. Instead, I’m going to focus on what staycations in Phase 2 Singapore are like when COVID-19 still stalks the streets.

Arrival

Luxury hotels put a lot of effort into making check-in as smooth as possible. COVID bureaucracy, unfortunately, does not. On arrival, every adult needs to do the SafeEntry QR scan before entering, get their temperature measured, fill out a lengthy health declaration form that requests everything from your reason of stay to your employer’s contact details, and only then to you get the to the normal hotel registration with NRICs, credit cards etc. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it did take a good 20 minutes and it’s always tedious to repeat the same info over and over — would it be hard to, say, extend SafeEntry to hotel stays?

In normal times, Capella serves its guests iced tea on arrival. These are not normal times, so we got sealed tetrapaks of “ecofriendly” water instead. The kids were less than impressed, and entertained themselves by watching a cockroach crawl up the wall.

Room

Our room was otherwise refreshingly normal, and the kids were relieved to hear you don’t even need to wear masks inside. However, all in-room snacks and alcohol had disappeared. The minibar was still stocked, but only with 4 cans of Coke and some fruit juice. I’m not sure if this is because of COVID, regular Capella policy, or just some reopening glitch. A welcome gift in the form of shrink-wrapped cookies was delivered, but there was no sign of the usual fruit basket.

Facilities

All pools were open, but with capacity controls: for example, 16 guests max in the family pool, with 2-hour stays. Enforcement appeared to be mostly on an honour basis, and in any case we only saw one other family using it during our stay. The gym was open, but access was gated via the (also open) spa. The business centre was unsurprisingly closed. Elevators, the front desk, and other places with even a remote possibility of crowding were annotated with big social distancing stickers on the floor.

Capella’s complimentary lounge, the Living Room, was open but again with capacity controls, so we had to call ahead to book. On arrival, heads were counted to make sure they were within limits (yes, barely), then we were guided to a table and presented with a fixed set of snacks, plus coffee/tea/soft drinks made to order.

Interestingly enough, while most guests were couples or families like us, there were a few Mandarin-speaking solo travellers in business wear. The Singapore-China Green Lane in action, perhaps?

Dining

Capella has two restaurants and a bar, all of which were open. However, since in-house dining charges like a wounded bull ($38++ for nasi goreng, anyone?), we opted to eat our meals on the Sentosa beachfront, which isn’t cheap either, but there are many 1-for-1 deals to dull the pain. (Pro tip: with the 1:1 pizzas at Trapizza Mon-Fri, you can feed a family of four for $22++.)

For the breakfast, we had to make an advance reservation for one of two time slots (7-8:30, 9-10:30 AM), which prevented table use and allowed a half-hour deep clean between guests. Instead of a regular buffet, which isn’t allowed under COVID rules, we had a choice of one of three set meals and/or a selection of “free flow” made to order items on the side, all brought to your table. The net effect was a bit like eating dim sum/yum cha, with trays of pastries and trolleys of juice floating past. At a fairly small and intimate place like Capella this worked very nicely, but I do wonder how large hotels with their massive champagne brunch spreads will convert to this new format. One more plus for Capella’s The Knolls: there’s plenty of spaced-out, airy and shady outdoor seating. Your average city hotel will struggle with this too.

Activities

Capella offers a wide-range of free “cultural” activities like Peranakan painting and brown sugar bubble tea making. These operated normally, except that everybody involved — including us — was masked up. Mmm, just look at that frothy mug of diabetes in a cup!

Crowding & staffing

We visited on a regular non-school-holiday weekday, and both the hotel and Sentosa were pretty quiet. Apparently this is set to change once the holidays start, and Capella is already booked full (!) on July 23rd, although I imagine they’re also operating at reduced capacity.

One thing which soon became clear is that the hotel appeared to be somewhat understaffed. The front desk promised to call regarding an activity booking but didn’t, it was 9 PM by the time turndown service was offered, a late night snack attack room service order never showed up, we were asked for our newspaper selection but it wasn’t delivered, etc — none of these big deals, but not what you’d expect at this price point. Did they underestimate the demand, or do they have staff stuck overseas? If it’s like this during a quiet weekday, next week is going to be a mess.

Overall verdict

Definitely worth it. Capella’s terraced pools are the closest you’re going to get to Bali in Singapore (just try to ignore the oil refinery flares in the background), and it’s closer to our home than Changi Airport. The COVID limits were reasonable and the adaptations well thought out. We also try to avoid busy indoor spaces (19x risk compared to the outdoors!), so Sentosa is definitely the place to be: it’s much nicer now without the usual crowds, and we really appreciated the chance to see some greenery, wide open beaches and lots of airy outdoor eating options.

It was not so nice to see some groups on the beach with way more than 5 people and not a mask in sight. There was enough space that we could steer clear, but here’s hoping these troglodytes don’t ruin it for everybody else again.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Jaan, Singapore

A friend of mine recently came into possession of a stack of CapitaLand vouchers, and while looking for a place to dispose of them, we realized that the entire Equinox complex perched atop the Swissotel Stamford — not long ago the world’s tallest hotel — accepts them.  What better excuse for a birthday splurge at my near-namesake, the newly renovated Jaan?

Making reservations at Jaan is hard, not because it’s so popular, but because you have to go through the Swissotel’s centralized system and they usually just refuse to answer the phone.  But reserve we did, and I asked if I could bring along a nice bottle of Lebanese wine…  to which I was told that yes, certainly, but a token corkage fee of S$100 (about 5x the cost of the bottle) would be charged.   Yowza!  Scratch that then.

We showed up at 7 PM, along with two other groups of customers, only to find the entrance to the restaurant closed.   After five minutes of drumming our fingers and collectively wondering if we were in the right place, somebody finally showed up and let us in; not, perhaps, the best way to treat your customers.  The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows on the 70th floor is impressive, although I was mildly disappointed to find us facing towards the endless housing block jumble of eastern Singapore, instead of the rather more dramatic Singapore River, banking district and Chinatown area.

Jaan offers 5/8 course tasting/degustation menus for $180/250 (plus around $100 extra for wine pairings), but we decided to go for a la carte.  The a la carte menu was fairly stripped down: half a dozen appetizers, three Poissons et crustaces, three Viandes, and half a dozen desserts, all listed in French and English.

Amuse-bouche

Prawn and mango ceviche with kaffir lime froth, served in a shot glass.  This was just terrible, a pretentious attempt at fusion that didn’t work on any level at all.

Super-skinny breadsticks (crostini?) with squid ink-parmesan puree and butter.  A work of art in appearance — if not for the waitress’s explanation, I would’ve thought what appeared like a bunch of twigs in a glass was a table decoration — and very tasty too, especially the subtle sea flavors of the squid ink dip.

Appetizer

His: Tartar of Hokkaido sea scallop with dabs of oscietra caviar and a spray of random vegetables ($68).  The one whole grilled scallop was mindblowingly tasty; the tartar paste was just generically fishy (and I usually love raw scallop).  The grudgingly dribbled caviar came atop halves of baby potatoes, and the veggie side dishes included artichoke, asparagus and peas, carefully boiled and laid out into a strip not unlike a Japanese garden.  A little uneven, but pretty good.

Hers: Foie gras ice cream (!) and a layeed foie gras pastry of sorts ($5x?).  This was really, really good, especially the pastry-thing: the pureed foie gras with a little crunch from the pastry with a little sweetness and spice from the sauce just hit all the right spots, and while the idea of mixing goose liver and ice cream sounds pretty disgusting, it worked quite nicely.  Best dish of the evening.

Main course

His: “Duo of Pigeon”, two halves grilled in red-wine-type sauce, plus a miniature salad with two pigeon legs served cold in a mild Chinese-style sauce and pats of apple-ginger(?) compote ($68).  The grilled pigeon was quite OK, if no match for the duck at Kafe Warisan; the teeny tiny little legs were very tasty, but, well, teeny tiny.  In all, competent but unextraordinary.

Hers: Pumpkin soup ravioli with popcorn and black cod a la plancha with bacon bits ($5x?).  Yes, bacon bits, and intensely salty ones at that, which pretty much obliterated any taste the cod (already plenty salty in itself) might have had.  I snagged one of the raviolis and kind of liked the intense sweet soup within, but she didn’t, at all.  Quite disappointing.

Dessert

I was somewhat intrigued by the offering of le bar “Snickers” with ice cream ($20), but in the end, we just shared some chocolate mousse with white chocolate vodka sorbet ($22).  The sorbet was quite good, although the vodka was hardly noticeable, but only a single spoonful was served and it melted pretty much immediately.  The mousse came wrapped in a unidentifiable and quite tasteless red jelly wrapper and was quite dense, so much so that it was hardly a mousse anymore, but hey, it was chocolatey.

And finally, the house plied us with little violet-colored lavender pastries (very sweet: I liked ’em, she didn’t), orange peel dipped in chocolate (usually a favorite of mine, but these were kind of blah), and a miniature Madeleine-type pastry flavored with almond (?), all served on a metal plate engraved with “Jaan by Andre”. Ooh.

Drinks

Jaan has an extensive wine menu, spanning the globe (albeit with an emphasis on French) and the gamut from $90 to $17,000 bottles (a Chateau Margaux), but they do not offer wine by the glass.  We (fine, she) opted for a Beni di Batasiolo Barbaresco 2003 ($160), which was a very good choice: a very light and drinkable red, which paired quite nicely with the fish dishes as well.

My eyeballs were set rolling, though, by their other drink menu: this is the first time I’ve seen a water menu in a restaurant, offering everything from artisanal Welsh well waters to bottles from Japanese mountain springs, all (needless to say) at ridiculous prices, some north of $20 for a 0.5L bottle.  Our pick of a very lightly carbonated Saint-Géron ($12.50/750mL) was OK — at least it’s better than Evian.

Overall

The damage done came to just over $500, easily my most expensive dinner in Singapore (or, on second thought, anywhere), and we didn’t even order from the expensive end of the menu, which had things like Kobe beef steak for $125.  The service was very good, the views were nice, the setting was OK, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at these prices, the food was a bit of a letdown.  I doubt I’ll be back.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Singapore to Doha

Changi Terminal 3 at 3 AM in the morning is positively comatose. Qatar had four desks open and a supervisor watching over it all, but I was the only passenger. My iPod having done a disappearing act earlier in the week, I’d been planning to pick up a new one at Changi, but hadn’t expected all electronics shops in all three terminals to be closed. Lacking a lounge, I picked up a few snacks at the convenience store and attempted to sink into one of the plush-looking seats at the closed Il Lido cafe, only to find that they were actually rock-hard. Next time, I’m not showing up two hours before my flight…

QR639 SIN-DOH Y A330 seat 17K
QR638 DOH-SIN Y A330 seat 18A

I had high expectations for these flights, and due to that very fact was ever so slightly let down. Based on the scuttlebutt on FlyerTalk, the A330 is considered the bee’s knees of the QR fleet, but apparently this applies mostly to the pointy end of the plane: in the back of the bus, the seat pitch is less than generous (32″, says SeatGuru) and window seats on both sides of the plane turned out to have half their foot space eaten up by the AVOD box. The configuration is a rather odd 4-2-4, and while on the way in I had a free seat next to me and could catch a few Z’s, on the way back the plane was packed to the max. Based on quietness of Changi, I’d assumed the plane would be half empty, but no; this flight continues onward to/from Jakarta, and the rear half of the plane — on both flights — was packed with Indonesian aunties in hijabs on their way to work in the Gulf, with virtually no men to be seen. Obviously a more profitable strategy than Etihad’s AUH-SIN-BNE flights.

But what the seat lacked in pitch, it almost made up in AVOD. QR’s “Waves” is one of the best I’ve tried, with 120 movies on demand, another stack of TV shows, an eclectic set of music (mmm, ghazals) and a zoomable in-flight map. The screen is large and the controls very responsive.

Both flights were red-eyes, so the service followed the same pattern: “refreshment” (read: sandwich) after departure, then hot breakfast before arrival. QR doesn’t do hot towels, instead passing out those dinky little disinfectant wipes (boo), but they do give a nice amenity pack with shades, earplugs and even a tiny toothbrush, and even the bathroom amenities are by Aigner. The thing I missed the most compared to SQ, though, was the total lack of water runs: you had to page the crew to top up on your H20, which isn’t really excusable on an 8-hour flight, and unlike Etihad they don’t hand out water bottles either.

Last but not least, QR gets some brownie points for crew: especially on the return flight, the cabin crew were absurdly attractive, with Japanese and south Indian ladies who should be strutting on a catwalk in Paris instead of dishing out omelettes on a plane.

All in all, I would probably have been delighted with QR if only I’d had a little more space for my legs. On any future flights, I’m definitely steering clear of the windows, or better yet, angling for a way to get myself into C.