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.

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34 Province Project: Jilin 吉林

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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34 Province Project: 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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34 Province Project: Heilongjiang 黑龙江

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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34 Province Project: Guangdong 广东

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

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

Cantonese (Guangdong) 广东

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

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

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

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

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

Teochew (Chaozhou) 潮州

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hakka (Kejia) 客家

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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34 Province Project: Hainan 海南

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

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

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

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

Hainan-Hainanese food

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

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

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

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

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

Singaporean-Hainanese food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hainanese Western

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

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

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

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

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

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34 Province Project: Zhejiang 浙江

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Hong Kong | Index | Hainan >>>

34 Province Project: Hong Kong 香港

Hong Kong! Former British colony and financial powerhouse, the “Fragrant Harbour” (Heunggong in Cantonese, Xiānggǎng in Mandarin) of the South China Sea is one Chinese province Special Administrative Region that needs little introduction.

Language nerd alert: Hong Kong uses traditional characters and Cantonese, but many of these dishes are common in Singapore too and thus have local names. If you see tone marks, it’s Mandarin/simplified, if you don’t, it’s Cantonese/traditional. This, too, is unfair since Cantonese is actually even more tonal than Mandarin, people just can’t seem to agree on how to write all 9. 對唔住。

I’ve been to Hong Kong more times than I can count, including at the tail end of the Siberia to Lhasa trip, and have had the chance to explore a fair bit of the city, the mountains and the islands. In terms of classical Chinese cuisine, Hong Kong falls squarely in the Cantonese corner (粤菜 Yuè cài), but what makes eating there so interesting is the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Not only can you get excellent food from every corner of the globe, from French to Indian to Japanese, but 150 years of British colonisation left a deep mark on the city, resulting in its own unique Hong Kong cuisine. So for this episode, I’m going to try to find the essence of Hong Kong in Singapore, and leave “standard” Cantonese cuisine for the Guangdong episode.

Finding food that claims to be from Hong Kong in Singapore is easy, but weeding out the pale imitations and choosing the most representative options is harder. But you can’t cover Hong Kong without dim sum (点心), that justly renowned Cantonese tradition of stuffing your face with an endless series of small bites washed down with tea, so the first pick was easy: Tim Ho Wan (添好運), the “world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant”, and now a multinational dim sum franchise owned by the Philippines’ answer to McDonalds, Jollibee. I’ve been to Tim Ho Wan once before in Sydney, and I remember being distinctly disappointed, apparently a widely shared feeling since the Australian operation went bankrupt shortly afterwards. But the Singapore operation had a better rep, so we queued up for lunch one day at Marina Bay Sands to check it out.

First cab off the rank was their famous Baked Bun with BBQ Pork (酥皮焗叉烧包), a Tim Ho Wan only invention which takes dim sum staple char siew bau (BBQ pork buns) and gives it a sweet, crunchy crust not unlike a Japanese melon pan (which contains no actual melon, it’s named for the appearance). The kids liked it, but both adults found it just too sugary.

The other three dishes in Tim Ho Wan’s pantheon of Four Heavenly Kings of Dim Sum (四大天王点心) are Pan Fried Carrot Cake (香煎萝卜糕), Steamed Egg Cake (香滑马来糕) and Vermicelli Roll with Pig’s Liver (黄沙猪润肠). This carrot cake has nothing to do with the Western dish: it’s a Singaporean mistranslation of white radish (daikon) cake, since carrots are called “red radish” (红萝卜) in Hokkien. This can be gloopy and greasy, but the ones here were quite nice, freshly made with bits of bacon and just enough radish taste. The Steamed Egg Cake, literally a “Malay cake” in Chinese, was a new acquaintance akin to a moist sponge cake, very light and airy with a distinct but not overpowering cane sugar kick. Pig’s liver was, regrettably, off the menu so we got the char siew version instead, which was OK, but not really different to the chee cheong fun at any Singaporean hawker center. We rounded things off with a few siew mai dumplings (OK), tofu skin wraps both fried (excellent) and steamed (mediocre), a lor mai kai glutinous chicken rice (good), and finally some osmanthus jelly with goji berries for dessert. Total damage: $90 for 4.

Now my expectations for ambience and service are usually pretty low, but we couldn’t help but compare this to our usual Michelin-starred chain standby Din Tai Fung, whose prices are in the same ballpark but which manages to feel like a restaurant instead of a food court. At DTF, tea is served in a pot instead of plastic cups, portions are more generous, and everything just tastes fresher and better. Alternatively, at our local hawker, Tai Heng Handmade Dim Sum does dim sum of an (IMHO) equal if not superior quality for less than half the price. I don’t think we’ll be back.

After that Michelin star disappointment, it was time to visit a distinctly non-famous Hong Kong joint, namely Wong Chiew (皇潮, “Imperial Teochew”) off Sembawang Rd near Springleaf. Neh’mind the atas name, this casual eating house is so ulu it always has red junglefowl, Singapore’s wild ancestral chickens, running through it, and I suspect army boys from the nearby bases come here more for the $8.50-for-3 Tigers beer promos than the food: as you can see, even the letters on their signboard are drunk. They used to open 24 hours until COVID spiked that, but they’re still open 6 AM to 1 AM, perfect for the tail end of my long Mandai Rd bike runs past the zoo.

The menu is enormous and has Hakka yong tau foo, rice porridge (congee/juk), roast meats, lots of seafood, zi char (family-style eating) favorites and much more. My default breakfast, though, is the dry wonton mee (雲吞麵, “swallowing clouds noodles”), served here with plump house-made wonton dumplings, delicious fatty chunks of char siu (叉烧) barbecued pork cooked in the big oven in the back, and a bowl of chicken stock with a big ol’ chunk of daikon radish. It’s hard to cook the thin, eggy yòumiàn (幼面) noodles just right, al dente but not too chewy, and in Singapore the noodles tend to get overpowered by chilli to boot, but here the sauce is mild and generous and instead of sambal belacan you get sweet, vinegary green pickled chillies served on the side like God intended. The handmade dim sum here is also on point, and I have a particular soft spot for their siu mai (燒賣), made from coarsely chopped pork, a generous whole shrimp in each dumpling, and a sprinkling of fish roe on top. If you want something even more substantial, get the Char Siew Roast Meat Rice, which pairs up the char siu with siu yuk (燒肉) pork belly that reminds me of proper Finnish Christmas salted ham, with a crispy skin and salt soaked into the fatty meat. Add in a drink and you’ll still escape for less than $10, under half the price of Tim Ho Wan, and it even feels like Hong Kong because the service is borderline-rude brusque yet efficient. Authentically HK? Eh, probably not. Delicious? Oh yes. Oi Michelin, give that star to someone who deserves it!

The second uniquely Hong Kong institution I wanted to explore is the cha chaan teng (茶餐厅), serving a uniquely Hong Kong mishmash of Western and Chinese food that would have frou-frou fusion places recoil in horror. Typical dishes include macaroni soup with Spam, Coca-Cola boiled with ginger, and unusual riffs on toast.

Now back in Hong Kong, these are essentially greasy-spoon diners that open late and serve food that’s fast, easy and cheap like your mom, but a few have grown famous enough to branch overseas. One of these, Tsui Wah (翠華, “Emerald Brilliance”), now has four branches across Singapore, so on a random Saturday I dropped into their rather swish riverfront Clarke Quay outlet for a midmorning snack. Eight minutes after opening at 10:30 AM, there was already a queue — how were they going to tiptoe the awkward line of going upmarket without losing what made them famous in the first place?

The canonical drink at a cha chaan teng is milk tea (奶茶), brewed to teeth-shattering strength (3 teaspoons per cup, brewed for 6 minutes is not uncommon), topped off with evaporated milk, and served with sugar on the side. (Add tapioca balls and ice, and you get Taiwanese bubble tea.) The end result is essentially the same as my standard Singaporean coffeeshop order of teh C kosong, meaning tasty enough, but $3.50++ instead of the usual $1 and change. To go with it I tried their famous Crispy Bun With Condensed Milk ($4), which is pretty much just that: a baked bun slathered with butter and sweet condensed milk, perfectly designed to shred and burn the roof of your mouth if you’re a greedy pig like me who attempts to eat it without letting it cool down a bit first.

Appetite whetted, I returned with reinforcements for a more substantial meal at their Orchard branch, somewhat bizarrely hidden inside the multistory Courts household appliance emporium at Heeren, and ordered a random selection off their Signature Dishes menu. Borscht (羅宋湯) Hong Kong style mutates this pan-Slavic beetfest into a cabbage and tomato soup with a touch of chilli, served with a thick slice of buttered toast, both of which got the thumbs up from the jury. Tsui Wah’s Jumbo Hot Dogs come with a big old wiener, ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato in an un-American crusty bun. Somewhat disturbingly, unlike (say) the Japanese hotto doggu, hot dogs are rendered literally into Chinese as 熱狗, which is doubly incongruous since 狗 (gǒu) is commonly used as an insult, as in the “running dogs” (走狗 zǒugǒu) of imperialism etc. 资本主义的热狗万岁! May the hot dogs of capitalism live ten thousand years!

More food arrived. I expected the Signature Pork Chop Bun (豬扒包) to be breaded and fried schnitzel-style, but no, we got a pretty dry slab of lean grilled pork with lettuce and pickles in another crusty-dry bun, sauced with what to me tasted exactly like American-style Thousand Island salad dressing: “weird”, was the judgement of culinary youth panel. Last and least, the Swiss Chicken Wings (瑞士鸡翼), an iconic HK dish slathered in sweet soy and of no known connection to Switzerland — if anything, they were the only identifiably Chinese-tasting in my entire order today — were cold and kinda chewy.

The most interesting new acquaintance, though, was yuenyeung (鸳鸯), an only-in-HK mix of milky coffee and tea which I must shamefully confess to never trying before. I’d also always thought this was the Cantonese reading of yin-yang (阴阳), but no, the name actually means “mandarin ducks”, famed in Chinese legend because the multicolored, flashy males look so different from the drab grey females, but the two go so well together that they mate for life. Now I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but this was downright delish, a complex interplay of notes of both that tasted better than the sum of its parts. I’m a convert. They may have taken heed of the random review complaining about the brew being too weak, though, since the cuppa I had was brewed so strong my hands were still shaking hours later, which also reminded me why I’m not a coffee drinker.

Last but not least, I wanted to sample some Hong Kong street food. Singapore has no real street food, since all hawkers were corralled into centres years ago, but the franchise behind Tim Ho Wan has also decided to concoct a new brand, Joy Luck Teahouse (歡樂冰室), to bring HK street food into the air-conditioned basements of Singaporean shopping malls. “Teahouse” here is bing sutt (冰室), literally “ice room”, which are supposed to be the now largely extinct small cafes that were direct predecessors to cha chaan tengs, but Joy Lucks don’t even have seating, it’s takeaway only. One outlet lurks in the psychedelic food pit four levels under ground at Ion Orchard, so in the mood for a snack, I dialed up some curry fishballs (咖哩魚蛋) franchised from Kowloon brand Tak Hing (德興). $4.80 gets you a coffee cup with 6 fishballs slathered with a mild, Japanese-curry-ish sauce, and while I was kinda skeptical these were actually pretty nice, especially when eaten while piping hot. Singaporeans love fishballs and they love curry, so why isn’t this sold everywhere yet?

Other offerings include milk tea, egg tarts (see Macau for more on that topic), and pineapple buns, the last of these being Hong Kong’s twist on the Japanese melon pan, both named after the appearance of the crust and neither actually containing any fruit. If that’s not enough, you can literally turn around and walk into the flagships of Hong Kong cookie makers Kee Wah or lao po bing masters Hang Heung, offering crusty pastries stuffed with winter melon paste. And then there’s the fabulously cheesy fake HK-by-night neon show of Legendary Hong Kong (Mongkok Street) at Jurong Point, various purveyors of baked cheese rice (pour one out for Malaysian chain Hong Kong Kim Gary), egg waffles that looks like delicious giant bubble wrap and more. Crikey! At this point, all I can do is channel Chris Patten and admit defeat, send this telegram, and sail off into the sunset. God save the Queen.

<<< Guangxi | Index | Zhejiang >>>

34 Province Project: Guangxi 广西

Guangxi (West Guang), formally the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, lies at the west end of the same plain as its much better known sibling Guangdong (East Guang, aka Canton). Rubbing up against Vietnam, the mountainous western parts are considered the wild and woolly end of China and it has the highest percentage of minorities in China, including the eponymous if rather obscure Zhuang people, who in fact are China’s largest minority group, 18 million strong. The Zhuangs have their own religion, delightfully named Mo; their own language, which is much closer to Thai than Chinese; their own writing system, which riffs off Chinese characters but is still quite different; and their own delightfully off-the-wall romanization system that takes a leaf from the late, unlamented Gwoyeu Romatzyh to encode tones with bonus letters, so that the UN Declaration of Human Rights starts off like this: Boux boux ma daengz lajmbwn couh miz cwyouz, cinhyenz caeuq genzli bouxboux bingzdaengj.

On the culinary front, Guangxi cuisine is a bit of an ill-defined mix. Spicy, but less spicy than Sichuan; sour, but less sour than Hunan; light, but less light than Guangdong, says one verdict. Rice noodles feature heavily, as do fish and snails from the Li River, and bordering Yunnan and South-East Asia, it’s not too hard to pick up similarities to both. More infamously, Guangxi is the site of the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, controversial even within China, and formerly the stage of the worst ritual cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.

Here in Singapore, Bukit Batok has a Little Guilin Park, thus named for the craggy limestone cliffs left over from an old quarry, and a Gui Lin Food Stall, serving up not-so-Guangxi dishes like the Malay coconut rice nasi lemak. The one dedicated Guangxi restaurant chain in Singapore, Number 1 Guilin Rice Noodle (壹号桂林米粉), threw in the towel a couple of years ago, and it turns out the (parenthetically named) Wulin Shan Zhuang (Feng Bo Zhuang) 武林山庄 (风波庄) is the wrong zhuang (庄 “village”, not 壮 “strong”), the sole outpost of a chain from Sichuan, and gave up the ghost some time in early 2021.

That leaves, as far as I can tell, exactly one place in Singapore that claims to serve up any Guangxi dishes at all, namely Guilin rice noodles (桂林米粉 Guìlín mǐfěn) at Sichuan Restaurant (四川饭店) in Chinatown. It’s buried way at the back of the menu, and it took a couple of round trips to the kitchen to confirm that they actually had it. “Chilli?” “Can.” A few minutes passed, and the kitchen must have had its doubts because the waitress came back to confirm. “Very spicy!” “OK.” A few more minutes, and another doleful warning arrived: “Not only spicy. Mala.” Surely Sichuan’s signature spicy-numbing sensation is too much for the laowai? I doubled down: “Mala is OK.”

What eventually appeared was a bowl of slippery rice noodles, much closer to what Singaporeans would call “laksa noodles” than the usual thin bee hoon, with some minced meat, a couple of token veggies, swimming in a broth dominated by Sichuan-style mala flavor. The worried waitress came by once more: “Is OK?” “OK!” I mean, sure, it was spicy, but nowhere near Yunnan’s rattan pepper noodles. What disappointed me more was that, as far as I could tell, this was identical to Chongqing xiaomian, only with the wheat noodles swapped out for rice noodles. Oh well, serves me right for ordering this in a place that’s literally called Sichuan Restaurant.

Hands down the most famous Guangxi dish, though, is river snail noodles (螺螄粉 luósīfěn), hailing from the city of Liuzhou and recently massively trendy throughout China despite smelling famously funky. Failing to find any fresh providers of the stuff, I hopped on the internets and ordered a deluxe instant version, specifically the one branded by Chinese video personality Li Ziqi (李子柒), who built a following of millions by filming idyllic depictions of life in rural China without mod cons like electricity, and whom you can see photogenically squelching barefoot through the mud to collect river snails just for you her grandma. The enormous pouch (Singapore dollar coin for scale) comes with no less than 8 baggies of ingredients inside: noodles, soup stock, fermented bamboo shoots, pickled vegetables, vinegar, chilli oil, peanuts and tofu skin, and this video with English subtitles will take you through how to make it. One key point: you need to first boil the noodles starting from cold water, strain, then mix the rest of the wet ingredients and bring to a boil again.

So how was it? In a word, meh. Internet hyperbole often compares those bamboo shoots to durian, but I know durian, durian is a friend of mine, and fermented bamboo shoot, you’re no durian. They’re a bit funky, a bit sour, but not objectionably so and I’ve had curries etc made with them in Thailand and Laos as well; in fact, the menma pickled bamboo shoots commonly used as a Japanese ramen topping are essentially the same thing. Most of the other flavors, snail and otherwise, were obliterated by the combo of chilli oil and vinegar, and the end result bore a considerable resemblance to that old Chinese standby, hot and sour soup. Edible, sure, but hardly worth the hassle of preparation or the $5 it cost.

Overall, the Guangxi experience in Singapore was distinctly unsatisfying, I’m pretty sure neither of these could hold up a candle to the real thing. But until the day comes when Guilin and Yangshuo are back on the tourist map, it’s time to say Boux boux ma daengz (I think I need to make this my new email signoff) and move on to our next province.

<<< Yunnan | Hong Kong >>>

34 Province Project: Yunnan 云南

Yunnan, “South of the Clouds”, is the closest China gets to Southeast Asia in both culture and cuisine. 25 of China’s official 58 minority groups can be found here, many of them merrily straddling the border, with groups like the Miao (Hmong), Hani (Akha), Lisu and Tai also found in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

I’ve never had to chance to visit Yunnan proper, but I have been just on the other side of the border a couple of times, sampling Tai Dam cuisine in Luang Namtha, Laos and trekking with Lisu hill tribes in Chiang Dao National Park, Thailand. The most interesting almost-Yunnan trip, though, was a visit to Mae Salong, founded in northern Thailand by Yunnanese remnants of the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) Army fleeing across the border to escape the Communists in the 1950s. Being in the notorious Golden Triangle, for decades they made a living in the opium trade working with equally notorious Burmese warlord Khun Sa, but in the eighties they laid down their poppies and AK-47s and switched to cultivating oolong tea and backpackers, with a sideline in Yunnanese noodles.

Given the variety of people living there, Yunnanese cuisine (滇菜 Diān cài) defies easy categorization, but the province is best known for slippery mĭxiàn (米线) rice noodles, the liberal use of chillies, a vast array of mushrooms, and pǔ’ěr (普洱) tea, a type of fermented, aged tea with a funky, earthy scent and taste.

I kicked off my exploration of Yunnan at the eponymous Yun Nans (云海肴 Yúnhǎiyáo, “Sea of Clouds Dishes”), a large Chinese chain with three Singapore outlets. The chain was actually founded by a bunch of Beijing hipsters in 2009, who in 2017 moved their HQ to Yunnan’s capital Kunming and opened a couple of outlets there to maximise their street cred. Only when writing this entry did I connect the dots, since it turns out the Yunnanese meal I’d eaten at a hip eatery in Beijing’s tarted up hutong district of Shichahai back in 2018 was an outlet of the same chain!

I actually visited twice: once during COVID, when we ordered a Signature Set (云南精选) for delivery, and once in person at the Westgate outlet for a large conference dinner. The conference food was preordered, but the starter Lychee Prawn Balls (荔枝虾球) were perhaps the most striking-looking Chinese dish I’ve seen, looking exactly like giant raspberries complete with a sprig of mint for camouflage — although on the inside it was just a large, slightly sweet deep-fried prawn. The Braised Wild Porcini Mushrooms (包烧牛肝菌) were also delicious, this could have been straight out of a Finnish forest!

For the delivery set, First up was Poached Pork Collar with Pickled Chillies (腌菜松板肉), easily the most unusual dish of the lot: somewhere between a soup, a curry and a bowl of noodles, the flavour of the striking orange broth was complex but primarily sour thanks to the pickles, with a sharp chilli note and a few Sichuan peppers for that extra zing. Under the soft sliced pork lurked a few crinkle-cut potatoes, slices of an unidentifiable gourd and some slippery glass noodles. Everybody’s favorite, though, was the Crispy Duck with Dried Chillies (香酥鸭), Yunnan’s take on the Sichuan classic dried chilli chicken laziji, which looks murderously spicy but actually isn’t, with battered and deep-fried slivers of duck jostling with shredded dry chillies, some onions and a whole lotta garlic.

The most unusual ingredient of the day was in the Sauteed Asparagus with Golden Fungus and Mushrooms (金耳花菇炒芦笋), where the “Golden Fungus” is Tremella aurantialba, a jelly fungus so obscure it doesn’t even have a picture on Wikipedia. Called golden ear (金耳 jīn’ěr) in Chinese, it’s a relative of the much more common snow fungus aka silver ear (银耳 yín’ěr). But whereas the snow fungus is thin, crunchy and ethereal, this looks disturbingly brain-like, has a spongy texture and tastes like nothing much. The still crispy asparagus was nice though. To wash it all down we had a bowl of Steampot Chicken Soup (汽锅鸡), apparently the chain’s signature dish and a Yunnanese classic but, I’m sorry to say, quite indistinguishable from the herbal chicken soup sold at your neighbourhood hawker centre, a few bony chunks of chicken in nondescript sweetish soup with a token wolfberry for colour. For dessert we had some Corn Cakes (玉米粑粑 yùmǐ bābā), supposedly a type of Naxi baba bread, which looked and tasted like sweet pancakes with corn chowder added to the batter. All in all, even making allowances for delivery, it was a pretty mixed bag at best.

The most famous Yunnanese dish, though, is crossing the bridge noodles (过桥米线 guòqiáo mĭxiàn), which come with a lovely if implausible story of a wife making soup for her husband studying on a little island. She brought the ingredients across separately to keep them warm, mixed the ingredients on arrival, and ta-dah, the soup was born, despite the anguished cries of physics students noting that maximising surface area will increase heat loss, not decrease it. Honguo (红锅 Hóngguō, “Red Pot”) is one of several small chains specialising in this in Singapore, and I tried out the Signature 12-Item Soup ($10.20) at their Bugis Junction outlet. The presentation is striking, and the Pot is indeed Red, but the taste was a little anticlimactic, the ingredients a frankly odd mishmash of pork, fish, shrimp etc and the chicken soup rather nondescript, salty and, fatally, only lukewarm. Not very impressed.

Undeterred, I crossed the bridge again at the wonderfully named Mademoiselle Tang Noodle (唐大小姐 Táng dàxiǎojiě), a hip little joint in Novena, packed at lunchtime on a random Friday. Here the menu also promises a DIY bento-box experience for the soup, but it actually came premixed. What you lose in the presentation is more than made up for in taste though, this was much tastier and $12.90 gets you a couple of generously sized prawns as well. Two thumbs up from my wife.

There are a couple of other interesting Yunnanese dishes on the menu, and after some deliberation I landed on the Rattan Pepper Chicken Rice Noodle (藤椒鸡米线 téngjiāo jī mǐxiàn), despite being warned no less than three times that “It’s spicy! Very spicy!” Rattan pepper here refers to Zanthoxylum armatum, known as green Sichuan pepper (麻椒 májiāo) in its typical dried spice form, but in Yunnan the fresh pods, téngjiāo (藤椒), are eaten as is. The pods look like tiny capers and have very little taste, but they crack open with a crunch and release a pop of the numbing má (麻) sensation Sichuan cuisine is famous for. And you’ll need all the numbing you can get, since those innocuous reddish-orange bits in the soup are fresh bird’s eye chillis aka chilli padi, the tiny little torpedoes of pain that spice up authentic Thai food. The spice was not completely overwhelming though, and the chicken, garlic chives, bean sprouts and other bits in the soup stood up to the pounding. Afterwards, I could still feel the slow burn in my stomach and a nice endorphin high kicked in, the way it used to when eating Thai food in Bangkok with my Thai colleagues. Ah, nostalgia. A final Middle Eastern exclamation mark was added by the Flower Cake (鲜花饼 xiānhuā bǐng), crumbly biscuits flavoured with a sweet, fragrant paste of glutinous rice and dark purple rose syrup, reminiscent of Turkish delight (lokum).

All in all, Mademoiselle Tang was easily my favourite of the three places we sampled, and I’m looking forward to visiting again. The Specialty Chicken Rice (瓦香鸡饭 Wǎxiāng jīfàn), apparently a classic Naxi dish, looks particularly intriguing — but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

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