34 Province Project: Sichuan 四川

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 ), 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.

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 | Index

34 Province Project: Liaoning 辽宁

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Qinghai | Index | Sichuan >>>

34 Province Project: Qinghai 青海

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Ningxia | Index | Liaoning >>>

34 Province Project: Ningxia 宁夏

Ningxia (“Peaceful Xia”), formally the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, just might be the most obscure out of all 34 Chinese provinces. Carved out of Gansu only in 1958 to give China’s Hui Muslims a notional homeland, it’s small in size, small in population, and wedged up against the Gobi Desert and Inner Mongolia, firmly out of the way as far as the course of Chinese history is concerned. The Xia (夏) of the name means “summer”, and shares the character with the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty of 2500 BC, but it actually refers to the Western Xia (Tangut), a Tibeto-Burman people who ruled these parts from the late 800s to 1227. In that fateful year, Genghis Khan attacked for the sixth time and completed what may be the first recorded case of successful genocide, giving the Tanguts a choice between “peacefully” joining his horde (hence the name) or death, and consigning the Western Xia to historical oblivion.

Given this cheerful history, Ningxia is not exactly a culinary hotspot, its primary historical export being the recently trendy “superfood” of goji berries (枸杞 gǒuqǐ) and its best-known dish being hand-picked lamb (手抓羊肉 shǒuzhuā yángròu), although even this simple dish of boiled mutton eaten by hand is widely eaten in the entire Mongol-sphere. Even the Hui Muslims who the region is supposed to be for form only a small minority (30% or so), and the heart of their culture lies in cities like Shaanxi‘s Xi’an to the south.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that Ningxia is now best known in China for grape wine. Famously, in a blind taste test of 5 Ningxia wines against 5 top-flight Bordeauxs, the top four slots all went to Ningxia wines.

Once again ordering online from Ang Leong Huat, I picked up a $35 2019 Riesling from Kanaan Winery, with some trepidation: Chinese wines tend to be sweet, and Riesling can swing either way. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a crisp, lemony tipple, quite light in an almost NZ Sauvignon Blanc way. Definitely my favorite Chinese wine to date!

Drinks sorted, it was time to get my hands on some of that hand-picked lamb, and one of the few places in Singapore that offers this is Alijiang in Vivocity. Attentive readers will doubtless recall that this was one of the very first restaurants visited back in episode #1, Xinjiang, which also makes this the first restaurant to cover two provinces. With COVID measures mostly rolled back, it was busier than ever (reserve a table!) and we ordered up a feast. What the English menu calls Hand-Shred Mutton is Dōngxiāng shǒuzhuāròu (东乡手抓肉) in Chinese, a tip of the hat to the Muslim Dongxiang people who live in a corner of Gansu near Qinghai. $38 gets you a plate of 8 fatty lamb ribs, steamed until so soft that they do, indeed, fall off the bone if you so much as poke at them — delicious! The bean paste dip on the right was kinda meh, and raw onion was raw onion, but the chilli dip in the middle was great, far less spicy than it looks and a nice accompaniment to everything including the naan bread. Ningxia wine not featuring on the menu, we washed it down with Wusu Beer (乌苏啤酒) from Xinjiang, whose primary selling points are apparently that the bottle is large and the alcohol content is high; the taste, alas, was distinctly watery. Interestingly enough, Wusu is also fully owned by Carlsberg, meaning that the profits from both hipster Beijing brew Jing-A and this stuff flow back to Denmark.

Doubling down on lambtastic action, we also ordered Alijiang’s most heavily advertised specialty, “Grilled Lamb in Cage” (架子肉 jiàziròu, “shelf meat”), an actual Uyghur speciality from southern Xinjiang but popular mostly for the theatrics: true to the name, the lamb comes attached to a brass cage with a flame for show in the middle. It’s carved up at your table and served, incongruously enough, with a slice of not-so-Xinjiang roasted pineapple on the side. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, fatty but not excessively so, this was the top dish of the day and disappeared in a flash.

For dessert, we had a complimentary if equally inauthentic display of Uyghur dancing. The soft serve machine was broken, but at least the bill was accurate this time: $150 for 4. So can I now say been there, done that for Ningxia? Not quite, but hey, even this was a lot further than I thought I’d get in Singapore. Onward!

<<< Beijing | Index | Qinghai >>>

34 Province Project: Beijing 北京

Beijing, the “Northern Capital” of China, needs no introduction, but its food might. What we think of as “Chinese” food in the West tends to originate from southern Canton (Guangzhou) and Sichuan, not the north, where the cuisine of the capital (京菜 jīngcài) runs the gamut from the exquisite banquets of the Imperial Palace to humble street stalls. With influences from not just the surrounding regions but the entire country, it’s hard to generalize, but as elsewhere in northern China wheat predominates: not just noodles and dumplings, but a whole slew of pastries (餅 bǐng) and cakes (炸糕 zhàgāo).

I first encountered the one Beijing dish everybody’s heard of, Peking duck, when living in suburban New York as a child. One day, my father brought back a ready-to-eat platter from Chinatown, and I still remembered being surprised at how odd yet tasty and somehow decadent that the combination of savoury pancakes so thin you could see through them, slivers of fatty skin, slices of scallion and that mysterious brown sauce was. Much later in Singapore, an enterprising Beijinger set up shop near my apartment in the now long-gone Pearl Centre. He spoke no English, and his piratical r-laden Beijing dialect was vastly unlike Singapore Mandarin, but I became a regular patron of his signature zhajiangmian (炸醬麵), or “Chinese spaghetti bolognese”, a simple but delicious dish made of noodles created on the spot using nothing but his hands to tease the ball of dough apart into thin strands, topped with a minced pork and bean sauce and a spray of cucumber.

So when I spent a few days in Beijing back in 2018, my first order of business was to recalibrate my tastebuds against the gold standard: the obligatory but delicious Peking duck at the positively opulent Xiheyaju (羲和雅居), some zhajiangmian, the greasy goodness of fried ròubǐng (肉餅) meat pastries, a 5-yuan bottle of 59° Red Star brand erguotou sorghum gutrot… but to be honest, I was both short on time and a little maxed out on dumplings, noodles and deep-fried things after a week of Siberia & Mongolia, so I didn’t dig in quite as much as should have.

For this project, I generally prefer street food, but you can’t really say you’ve covered Beijing without Peking duck, so I rounded up some friends to try out Tung Lok Xihe (同樂羲和), Beijing Xiheyaju’s collab with the fancy Cantonese seafood empire. (Since my visit, they’ve rebranded as Tunglok Peking Duck.) I had my doubts about this combo, tucked away atop an Orchard shopping mall to boot, but the duck here is the real deal. Available only by pre-order, made from Irish ducks (apparently the wagyu of the duck world) and roasted on site in a brick oven, it’s sliced at your table and served with a platter of 8 condiments. In addition to the canonical cucumber/scallion/sweet bean sauce combo for your pancake wraps (“It’s like Mexican Chinese!”, commented my taco-loving offspring), you can also dip the super crispy skin into blueberry sauce and popping candy (!), getting a gimmicky but fun snap crackle pop experience. Often a crispy skin comes at the expense of dry and rubbery meat, but here the duck was juicier than a Cardi B music video, and we devoured it as is instead of opting for the $12 upgrade to get it made into a stir-fry. All in all, definitely the best Peking duck I’ve had in Singapore, and worth the indulgence even at $78++.

Just about the only other Beijing dish on the menu was pan-fried dumplings (锅贴 guōtiē), and the kids worked their ways through two plates so fast I didn’t even get a chance to sample them. Honorable mention goes to the Braised Spinach Beancurd with Monkey Head Mushroom (猴头菇扒翡翠豆腐), a Tung Lok invention with a less than appetizing English name, where homemade tofu is paired with crispy minced spinach and meaty pieces of Hericium erinaceus. Dare I suggest a rebrand to “Jade Tofu with Lion’s Mane”? For the eight of us with tea & desserts but no alcohol, total damage came to a surprisingly reasonable $40/head.

For a more proletarian Beijing experience, we dropped in for dinner at Hand in Hand Beijing Restaurant (手拉手京华小馆), which occupies a corner lot shophouse at Jalan Besar. It was packed on a Friday night, so book ahead!

Hand in Hand is famous for their handmade dumplings, made on the spot and never frozen, so of course we had to start off with some classic steamed Cabbage and Pork Dumplings (白菜猪肉水饺), a simple enough dish but done very well. More uniquely Beijing, though, were the Beijing Beef Pies. Called méndīng ròubǐng (门钉肉饼) in Chinese, literally “doornail meat pies”, these smallish, cute-as-a-button pies are stuffed with minced beef, shallow-fried on both sides and served hot, giving the dough wrapper a great texture and making them super juicy on the inside. These were really, really good — far better than any meat pie I had in Beijing, in fact — and we had to get more because a single service of 3 just wasn’t enough!

We followed up with some tofu skin cooked with milk cabbage (奶白菜 nǎibáicài), a simple but tasty stir-fry, and a bowl of Old Beijing Soup Pot Noodles (老北京炝锅面). This seems to be a Beijing take on Shandong’s qiàngguōmiàn (炝锅面), a dish whose exact definition appears to elude even Chinese sources. Hand in Hand’s take was a pot with soup, handmade noodles, more milk cabbage, sliced omelette, bits of pork and some clams, and it was rather good. The second hit of the day was our final dish, Shredded Pork with Soy Bean Paste and Popiah (京酱肉丝配薄饼). The soy bean paste here is the same stuff used for zhajiangmian, and with long shreds of pork it’s a classic dish called jīngjiàng ròusī (京酱肉丝, lit. “Capital sauce pork shreds”). In China, it’s typically served with thin sheets of tofu or thick bing bread, but here it was served Peking duck DIY style with the thin crepes and sticks of cucumber, a winning combination. Order extra crepes, you’ll need them!

The bill for 4 came to $110, including a beer to wash it all down. I must sadly note that Beijing’s own Yanjing Beer was not on the menu, forcing us to commit adultery with some Tsingtao from across the province line in Shandong, but rest assured they also have authentically Beijing Red Star rocket fuel/paint thinner on the menu if you’d prefer not to taste or remember your meal.

One more Beijing staple I was keen to try was cornbread, known as wōtóu (窝头) or tóu (窝窝头) in Chinese, literally “bird’s nest heads”. Originally peasant food, a highly dubious legend say that Cruella de Vil Empress Dowager Cixi was treated to some while fleeing the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and brought them back to the Forbidden City on her return two years later. Alas, a task of equally legendary difficulty is finding any staple grain other than rice or wheat in Singapore, and not a single restaurant in Singapore appears to offer cornbread on the regular menu. But once again Dough Magic came through with bags of frozen mini wotou for $9.80, in 5 different flavours to boot: yellow corn (玉米), brown sorghum (高粱), black rice (黑米), purple yam (紫薯) and green shepherd’s purse (荠菜). These conical little cups are hollow on the inside, so after steaming for around 5 minutes, we served them up with an Australianized san choy bau (生菜包) filling of minced pork and mushrooms. Tasty, pretty and fun! Although, to be honest, all five types tasted bland and near-identical, even the texture was ground smooth and not gritty like American cornbread.

Last but not least, I sampled a classic Beijing dessert at Kāng Jì Bīngtánghúlu (康记冰糖葫芦), a little stall down a narrow lorong (alley) in Singapore’s red-light district of Geylang, an area down at heel even before COVID hit and distinctly worse for the wear after two years of total nightlife shutdown. The shop has zero English signage or presence on the English-language internet, and I was rather astonished to find that it was still there. Tanghulu is the Chinese version of candied apples, traditionally made from Chinese hawthorn, but the day I popped in the hawthorn version wasn’t ready yet and the friendly shopkeeper suggested I try a freshly made strawberry one instead. Hot damn, this was a revelation: $5 gets you a skewer of 5 large strawberries, wrapped in an edible sheet of sugar (don’t peel it off!), coated with a slightly salty crunchy shell of rock sugar, and deliciously ripe, warm and juicy on the inside. This rocketed straight up my personal Chinese dessert chart for sure, and on that high note, we bid a farewall to the Chinese capital and plunge onward.

<<< Chongqing | Index | Ningxia >>>

34 Province Project: Chongqing 重庆

Chongqing (Chungking), named after the Double Celebration (双重喜庆 shuāngchóngqìng) of Prince Zhao Dun becoming King and Emperor of the Song Dynasty back in 1189, is China’s third largest city and would be Sichuan‘s capital if it hadn’t been peeled off to be its own municipality in 1997. Greater Chongqing is larger than Austria and covers a fair whack of the Yangtze both upstream and downstream, with “only” 10 million or so of its 30-odd million people living within the city proper.

Technically speaking, I have been to Chongqing, although only while once changing planes at Jiangbei Airport. Fortunately my layover was just long enough to hit the lounge, inhale a bowl of made-to-order Chongqing noodles (重庆小面 Chóngqìng xiǎomiàn) and wash it down with a local Shancheng (Mountain City) Beer. The Chinese name means “small noodles”, but they pack a punch even when you ask for yours bù tài là (不太辣, “not too spicy”): it’s wheat noodles in a beef stock with plenty of chilli oil and Sichuan pepper and a few token veggies to soak up the grease. I had discovered this dish earlier in Burwood, Sydney, where several Chongqing restaurants (one shown above) serve up more than respectable renditions of the stuff.

I’d dearly love to explore more of Chongqing in person, including the trippy monorail system soaring over the narrow gorges of this famously hilly city, but for now I’ll have to stick to exploring with my tastebuds. First cab off the rank was Unicuz, this little shop in Springleaf being neither a university cousin nor a herbal liquor for a Holy Roman emperor, but a chain of Chinese “Universe Cuisines” restaurants. Or that was the plan, anyway, the once expansive menu appears to have shrunk down to noodles and Sichuanese favorites and that’s fine by me. The dish above is called Chongqing grilled fish (重庆烤鱼 Chóngqìng kǎoyú), but the discerning eye may note that the seabass is in fact swimming in what looks a lot like hotpot. Correct! It’s prepared by separately grilling the fish while preparing the stock, then combining them at the last minute, so you get fish that’s still crispy but slowly soaking into the soup. Being wimps, we ordered the “little spicy” (小辣 xiǎo là) version and barely broke a sweat, since even the pile of chopped peppers on top were all dried and quite mild.

We liked the fish enough to go back for more, so the next stop on the Chungking Express was Chong Qing Grilled Fish (重庆烤鱼), an aptly named local chain often credited for introducing the dish to Singapore. Visiting on Valentine’s Day, their Serangoon Gardens outlet combined raw-concrete Melbourne warehouse hipster chic with the pomelos, pineapples and gong xi gong xi jingles of Chinese New Year in Singapore. Our main entree was Patin Fish (水果鱼, “Fruit Fish”), sold as a premium item but actually a sneaky rebranding of the lowly basa (Pangasius) catfish, in the classic Spicy Numbing (川味麻辣 Chuānwèi málà, “Sichuan Taste Mala”) sauce with a pain level of Medium Spicy (中辣 zhōng là) and some lotus roots, tofu skin, bean sprouts and wood ear mushrooms to soak up the pain. Our fish came served in a metal tray heated from under by a charcoal brazier, an effective and attractive set up as long as you managed to avoid toppling a literal cauldron of boiling oil into your lap, with some complimentary scallops on the shell, a spray of coriander, a few sprigs of fresh tengjiao peppercorns (see Yunnan episode), and a whole lotta mala sauce. The fish was really good: farmed basa is often mushy and muddy, but here the flesh tasted fresh, flaked nicely and was cooked just right, and while it was spicy, most of the pain was concentrated into the layer of oil atop the soup, and the predominant flavor was actually the of the Sichuan pepper, not the of the chillies.

Our solitary side dish was Sour & Spicy Bean Jelly Noodle (酸辣凉粉), the restaurant’s take on liángfěn (凉粉) cold noodles, but made with flat, ribbonlike glass noodles instead of the usual thick, squarish, white noodles. Simply dressed with vinegar and dried chilli, it was OK but not particularly exciting. Total damage with a bottle of Snow Beer came to $89, considerably pricier than Unicuz.

Cheaper Chongqing eats can be found at Da Shao Chongqing Noodle (大少重庆小面) at Upper Boon Keng Market, otherwise better known for its Malay eats like mutton soup. The stall’s eponymous “master” (大少 dàshào, see AsiaOne for the backstory) apprenticed in Chongqing and it shows: noodles are dished out in taels (两), a traditional Chinese unit of about 50g I’ve never seen before in Singapore. The basic Chongqing noodles come in small (一两) going for $3.50, a standard (二两) for $4 and large (三两) for $4.50, and are simplicity itself, with fresh, chewy noodles, some near-raw chopped Chinese vegetable and an optional fried egg ($0.50 extra). The key ingredient is, of course, the mala sauce, so I put on my big boy pants and ordered the medium spicy “dry” (soupless) version. This time the heat was legit with both chilli and Sichuan pepper cranked up to 11, and Singaporeans will know what I mean when I say there was some McSpicy-level lao sai action afterwards. I regret nothing. As an aside, the basic Chongqing noodles are completely vegetarian, I’m keen to come back and try out the peas & minced meat version next time.

Finally, it was time for Singapore’s second-favorite Chongqing dish, làzǐjī (辣子鸡). Not hugely common in its home town, where it’s more of a drinking snack, this dish variously translated as “chilli chicken”, “firecracker chicken” etc consists of marinated and deep-fried chicken bits, roasted peanuts, garlic, ginger, and a whole lotta dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. And when I say “a lot”, that means it’s perfectly normal for over half the volume to consist of chillies! The trick, though, is that you don’t actually eat them, meaning that while you wouldn’t call it “mild”, it’s also nowhere near as spicy as it looks.

My favorite Sichuanese vloggers Chengdu Family (聪生家) have a great episode comparing 5 of Singapore’s top làzǐjī shops, but I picked up mine from Chef China 华厨 Hua Chu, the Bugis outer space experience you may recall from the Jiangxi episode. The chicken here was… not great: deep fried a bit too long, the chicken bits were small, dried up and tough. Other than that, though, the flavors were good and I found myself rummaging at the bottom of the pack, hunting down those elusive last non-chilli bits.

But wait, there’s more: true to the city’s name, this is only the first half of a Double Celebration of Sichuanese food. Stay tuned for the second half, the monster episode covering the rest of the province.

<<< Jiangxi | Index | Beijing >>>

34 Province Project: Anhui 安徽

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Guizhou | Index | Jiangxi >>>

34 Province Project: Hebei 河北

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Jilin | Index | Guizhou >>>

34 Province Project: Jilin 吉林

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Shanghai | Index | Jilin >>>

34 Province Project: Shanghai 上海

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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