Ever since I discovered this Mainland Chinese specialty store at Ang Mo Kio Central’s S-11 coffee shop this year, I’ve been visiting it very regularly. Once a week, in fact.
Why? I f…. love Northern Chinese cuisine. It all started when I decided to visit China in 2011, Shanghai and Hangzhou in the summer, followed by Beijing and Tianjin in the fall. Thanks to Din Tai Fung and its array of Shanghai la mian and dim sum, the food of the Yangtze River Delta region wasn’t completely alien. But the food of Beijing however, was a whole different story. It was surprisingly more wheat-based than I ever expected. The idea of having crepes and savory pancakes for breakfast in Beijing – something that I thought was exclusively European – was absolutely mind-blowing. And as you moved north, the buns’ skins are progressively fluffier, softer and silkier, and the fillings more generous, more appetizing. There are even breads, fried instead of baked. It’s absolutely fascinating.
One of my all-time faves of Northern Chinese cuisine is something called 凉拌菜 (liang ban cai), literally “cold stirred vegetables”. It’s known in the west as Chinese salad, but it’s a lot more complex than that, really. Instead, I’d invite you to think of it as a meal-sized Korean banchan. Heck, the beansprouts are seasoned and spiced the same as its Korean counterparts!
Varieties of vegetables served are usually defined by having some definitive form of texture, such as the softness of the black fungus, crunchiness of the cucumber and beansprouts. Meats here are often present in the form of innards, tripe, tongue although there are, on occasion, regular cuts. Last, but not least is the carbohydrates, which come in the form of glass noodles, rice cake noodles (rice cakes that are sliced very thinly). Every single dish is seasoned and spiced in various proportions of a combination of sesame oil, vinegar, smashed garlic, chili oil and peppercorns. If you’re feeling a little more peckish than usual, you can definitely have your salad with rice.
Today, I had a combination of black fungus, beansprouts and tripe, all for just SGD 3.
While placing my orders, I couldn’t help but notice an additional six staff inside the crammed kitchen diligently handmaking every bun. I’m a sucker for handmade stuff – so I decided to order a 麻花 (ma hua) for “dessert”. It’s really just the Chinese version of the plaited loaf, although unlike the English version, it’s fried in peanut oil instead of baked. It takes experience and technique to ensure that the Chinese dough twist is no oilier than its baked cousin, and maintains its shape while frying.
The taste was nothing fantastic, except that it was, in a way. It tasted like a less oily version of the fried buns that Singaporean seafood restaurants serve with chili crab. There was a pleasant sweetness, with a very discreet tone of savory coming from the peanut oil that it was fried from. Simple, but perfect.