I’ve always thought that Singapore’s love affair with Northern Chinese fare began when the city-state ushered the arrival of the Michelin-starred Taipei-based Din Tai Fung and its legendary xiao long bao.
But in recent years, I’ve come to the realization that our relationship was sown many decades before. In fact, they’ve been around long enough to be considered endearing local institutions. Places like Swee Choon have been serving up these classics from Shanghai and Tianjin. One place I’ve recently discovered, is Jing Hua.
Homegrown, Jing Hua opened its shutters in a small watering hole in 1989 along Neil Road, at an area now regarded as Singapore’s gay district, or Korea Town, depending on who you ask. For several decades, it remained a local secret, known for its mouth-watering morsels of Tianjin dumplings (the closest in cooking technique and presentation to Japanese gyozas). Like many food businesses here, it remained a one-shop act playing host to ever-increasing snaking queues. And for a long time, that was that…until the early 2010s when the ownership of this beloved venue changed generations.
We began to see some feeble attempt at branding, and the ubiquitous expansion. First up, a store beside Keisuke’s Tonkatsu Four Seasons at Bugis Village, then an upscale diner at the exclusive Palais Renaissance. However, the touted benefits with expansion came with obstacles – a moving target seemingly within grasp, but always a step too far away. With the distribution of resources came the inevitable quality consistency challenge, and with the resultant criticisms came the slight dip in reputation. In my line of work as a branding consultant, it’s a story that I see repeated everywhere regardless of industry, but what can you do? The only way is to learn from today, and hopefully improve for tomorrow. Singaporeans aren’t the most forgiving of consumers, but if they like something, they will give you a second chance.
In my opinion, Jing Hua is quietly making amends. In all honesty, the food is not as authentic as some of the more recent Mainland Chinese eateries, but it’s close. What you might find here might lack some finesse, but there’s a certain perfect flaw to it that could only be found in home cooking. And I think that’s something to commend them on, not criticize and demand that they deliver factory precision 24/7.
Beside the surrealist world of Keisuke, the Maoist canteen decor of Jing Hua is easy to miss. Manning the restaurant are soft-spoken, smiley matriarchs whose welcome is akin to that of coming home, ready to share in their revelry, no matter how humble.
The menu is classic and concise, with a card displaying the visuals of pretty much the only eight dishes available. The order chit makes the repertoire look significantly substantial thanks to details, since it functions as a secondary menu, but it is also filled with fluff like “peanuts”, “towel”, “extra ginger” and the like. I have to say, to put all these as menu items, and then charging a service tariff, on retrospect at least, is slightly maddening.
I’m alone, as I am these days, so I begin with a bowl of carbs. The zha jiang mian, which is an Asian spaghetti Bolognese for which there’s no real standard recipe, was a hearty bowl of noodles. This heavy flavors and aroma of the minced meat sauce was balanced by the refreshing strips of cucumber and beansprouts and tossed with homemade pulled noodles. For 5 bucks, it’s quite a steal.
But what I thought knocked it out of the park was certainly the dumplings. They’re available fried or steamed, so I got the former. Visually impressive, I loved how it had an “open end” concept to it, revealing the generous filling of minced pork and chives. Served with vinegar and ginger as a dip, the sauce neutralizes the strong odor of the meat, and the result is thoroughly satisfying.
There are other items too, including xiao long bao, desserts and what they call a “Chinese pizza” (you might know it as the Chinese pancake), and seeing that the prices are quite reasonable, I’d love to come back.
In conclusion, do I think Jing Hua is amazing? Better than Din Tai Fung and Paradise Dynasty? I don’t think it’s better than Swee Choon. However, for its price point, I think it is what it is and more.