August in China: Inside the Tulou

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The inside of the tulou weren’t exactly the most luxurious. Inside the packed earth walls were struts and floors made of timber planks. Each room into the circular courtyard and all rooms in use were open to let in the light. Above each door hung a lantern now for purely decorative purposes as the tulou had electricity at night.


I especially liked the contrast of dark wood and red lantern but didn’t like it enough to stay the night in one. I opted for a modern guesthouse nearby instead as it had running water and airconditioning. Paying a small amount extra was worth it considering water was gotten from a well and there was no toilet inside!


Things were very much back to basics here. Some areas had to be accessed by ladder instead of wooden steps because of lack of space.


In the side alleys along the walls lay mud and starch bricks in stacks ready for repair work.


And along the walls inside the tulou, the baskets and pots of everyday life seemed unchanged from a hundred years ago.


Only the gas cylinder and the modern Chinese characters told of modern times…


… as did new electric gadgets and the Mao poster.


[Next up: Life in the Tulou]


August in China: Hakka Tulou

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One of the highlights of my trip in South China were the tulou (literally: earth apartments) in the Hakka region of southern Fujian. Here the Hakka tribes migrating down from the north some hundreds of years ago sought shelter in these tall structures made from mud and corn starch. These characteristic circular structures dotted the verdant terraced valleys, making very unique scenery.


One rumour goes that during the Cold War, US recon planes reported these structures as missile silos!


Getting in a little closer, it’s hard to imagine how these charming structure could have any remotely military functions.


Some of these tulou have rather impressive front doors which are kept open all day to let the breeze in.


On a fine day like the one I was there, the unique curved roof makes a lovely juxtaposition against white cloud and blue sky.


Some tulou have a double circle structure. The smaller building inside is used as a temple for ancestral worship.


Next instalment I’ll tell you more about what happens inside the tulou. Now I leave you with what happens when visitors enter: they get served local green tea and chat with the locals.


August in China: Xiamen’s Gulangyu

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I flew from Xian in the central north to Xiamen at the southern coast. The weather immediately became much more humid like at home. Even the people on the streets looked a lot more like Chinese Singaporeans, not surprising seeing as a majority of Chinese Singaporeans are from the Fujian area.

My first stop was at Gulangyu, an islet famous for its pretty colonial architecture. I crossed over in the evening by ferry. Not sure why, but it was free in the evenings. A local guy told me not to bother paying so I paid by admiring the view.


The dusk view was rather pretty as there was a nice contrast between the colonial houses on Gulangyu…


… and the bright neon lights of the office buildings opposite in Xiamen itself.


I had a bit of a problem getting a bed initially as the most popular place on the island was fully booked. There was a bit of a red herring moment when a “friendly local” showed me a dingy room and wanted to charge way over my budget for it. Thankfully I found another less popular but still clean and decent place that fit my budget nicely. Lesson learned: always google accommodation beforehand and get the phone number of the place, it’s not always easy to find a place from its address alone. The locals aren’t always the most informative and building numbers can be jumbled.

The next morning I had a little wander around the island. There was lots of pretty though not particularly memorable architecture…


… and a glimpse of the most famous site on the island.


Domestic tourists like to trek up to the top of the rock where on a clear day one can see Taiwan, or more accurately, the Jinmen Islands. It had been especially popular in the past when no one at all from the mainland could set foot on Taiwan. Having lived in Taipei for two years, of course I didn’t want to crowd with the rest of the people and was content to watch from afar.


After a little sojourn around the islet, I headed for the famous Gulangyu fishballs stuffed with minced pork. It was a little anti-climactic though, the fishball wasn’t bouncy and the meat not very flavourful. I much preferred the Singaporean version. I think us immigrants did far better at improving on the recipe. Oh well.


The Best Barbecued Chicken Wings I’ve Had in a While

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I’m surprised Shinta didn’t take me to this place earlier. His aunt runs a barbecued chicken stall in Marine Parade and it’s the best I’ve had in a long while.

We dropped by unannounced and she immediately bustled to grill us some fresh. It took a while but was well worth it. The skin was crisp and bursty, almost exploding on contact to let out the juicy meat. It was smoky and well marinated, tasting quite different from the usual soy sauce-infused one at other stalls. I was too busy wolfing down my share so Shinta wouldn’t take mine to really take note of the flavours. One word suffices: GOOD.


I also hadn’t had freshly grilled satay in a while. Most stalls pre-grill them so they don’t come piping hot like these. Here with the peanut sauce, it was perfect. I’m definitely coming back.


Sorry, not very helpful with the name and address. I was too engrossed to take note. It’s at the coffee shop along the road leading to the NTUC, the only stall selling chicken wings.

August in China: The Mountain of Swordfighting Fame

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It’s Father’s Day today and I’m going to tell you how Dad and I climbed Huashan. Enjoy!

No trip to Xian is complete without an excursion to Huashan. We signed up for a local day tour and ended up packed on a tour bus with lots of domestic tourists. We had a mandatory rest stop where we endured a lecture extolling the virtues of traditional Chinese medicine. I couldn’t help being an utter tourist by taking pictures of the lecturer telling us that we absolutely had to buy their herbs grown in the foothills of Huashan.


Thankfully, the tour bus deposited us at the cable car station and our guide told us to return at the alloted time. The view had already started to be amazing before we got on the cable car. I’d never seen such sheer, stark rock formations  before.


Looking down from the cable car, we were incredibly glad that we didn’t do the mad Western backpacker thing of legging it up ourselves. The stairs seemed not just steep…


… but also never-ending!


There was a lot more climbing to be done after we got off the cable car. True to Chinese form, mountain climbing was as usual stair-climbing. Here we clambered up behind ancient porters carrying up supplies the age-old way. Everything at the top was very expensive simply because it was pure human power that brought them up the last leg. I was put to shame how fast these porters overtook me on the way up.


There were lots of routes up to the various peaks, some shorter but steeper than others. This one was so steep it was almost vertical!


The main route up was yet another incredibly steep and unbelievably unending stairway. There were signs all along the way exhorting people to either stop and take pictures or concentrate on moving up, not both. A lot of people gave up around this area. Mum got up that flight of stairs, became really tired and then headed back down to wait for us.


Dad and I soldiered on. I ran on ahead and waited for him just at the peak because I wanted a bit of a workout. Dad had to take it easy because of his heart. It’s just as well that we warmed up from the exercise as the temperature dropped quite drastically as we reached the top. I had to put on the spare top I had in my bag.


Towards the top, the mist started rolling in and the stairs stopped. It felt a lot more like I was climbing the mountain rather than stairs at this point.


Dad was really sporting as he posed at the last push to the top. Look, no hands!


And here we are at the West Peak, we made it!


We enjoyed the view on the much easier way down and took many photos of each other.


After a while I got a little grumpy at having to smile and pose for the photos, my bad. Dad was very happy to take loads of them though! Here’s me looking slightly more cheerful.


We then headed to the much easier North Peak before calling it a day. This was a cake walk and we covered it in 45 minutes compared to about three hours or so for the West Peak.


This peak was also the one that shot to fa me in Louis Cha’s swordfighting novels. There were too many people waiting their turn to take a piece with this contrived piece of rock so I didn’t do the classic swordfighting pose. Such a pity!


After that we headed back down and collected Mum before heading back to the cable cars. Here they are, Dad’s doing his victory hands and Mum’s amused as usual.


Happy Father’s Day all!

Roland’s Pomfret

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We had a work treat and the bosses took us to Roland’s. There was a good spread of food, but what was especially memorable was the pomfret. I’m used to pomfret being either steamed Teochew-style (one of my favourites) or deep-fried and sprinkled with crispy ginger strips.

This version is especially unique. They filleted most of the fish, sliced it, and stir-fried it with broccoli and pine nuts. In the mean time, they coated the intact fins and head in flour and deep-fried it. Then it was all assembled into this glorious dish below.


I liked how I got the best of both worlds: succulent bouncy fish stir-fried just-so and fins deep-fried so crisp the bones were easily crunched through. The tender broccoli and fragrant pine nuts rounded off the dish. It was so good we asked the other table for their pomfret skeleton and wiped it out in no time.

Roland Restaurant
89 Marine Parade Central
Tel: 6440 8205

A Note to My Loyal Readers

Dear loyal readers,

I’m awfully sorry that I can’t do daily updates any more. You know how life is: it gets in the way. I wish I could just eat and drink and cook and travel and do nothing else, but other things call. I’ll still be updating, just not that often. Hopefully it’ll be something like every other day and if I’m lucky I could put up the odd bonus post so it’s almost like a daily blog again.

In the mean time, hang in there and don’t worry, I’m still here on this space! 🙂

Eat well, be well,

Wai San x

August in China: Terracotta Warriors Overexposed

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We’d come this far just to see the terracotta warriors, just as people go all the way to the Louvre just for the Mona Lisa. We started off in the Xian Museum where there was a pretty comprehensive exhibit full of the warriors and their paraphernalia: horses, carriages, sedans. Outside of their burial pits, these sculptures somehow seemed slightly out of context and while I understood in my brain how awe-inspiring this was, I just didn’t feel any of it.


We soldiered on the next day to the actual site some distance out of Xian. The burial complex consisted of  hangar-like shelters covering each of the three pits. Inside the biggest one was a museum section similar to the one in Xian. Here was the most famous warrior: the kneeling general.


We then proceeded on to the huge pits where many statues were left standing as is. I tried hard to peer at the faces, trying to see if it was true: that each face was unique and no two were alike. It was pretty cool trying to imagine how they’d look like to the first grave robbers and to the excavators who first dug through.


It was also pretty amazing the amount of work that went into creating all this before the time of mass production. Each one appeared to be painstakingly handmade.


I wondered if the horses were also based on real beasts of war. Peering as close as I could get, their faces seemed all the same to me. They were still cute nonetheless!


While still fairly impressive, I felt that the terracotta warriors were simply overexposed. I fell a sense of anticlimax finally seeing them, somewhat like seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and realising how small and difficult to view she was under all that glass. It didn’t help that the museum had all sorts of touristy gimmicks, from taking a picture standing with some replicas to having your face reproduced on a mini-terracotta warrior statue to having it etched in laser in a glass cube. Sigh.

August in China: Xian the Grey

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The overnight train journey to Xian was rather uneventful. I took a middle bunk in a hard sleeper carriage and went to sleep after slurping up the pot of instant noodles I bought at the train station. When I awoke, Xian greeted me in an embrace of grey smog.

I met up with my parents who’d flown in from Shanghai. We started out viewing the few sights in the drab city. The first was the Big Goose Pagoda, apparently built by Journey to the West’s Xuan Zhang for the precious sutras he brought back.


Next, we cabbed it to the Small Goose Pagoda where we climbed up an endless flight of stairs to reach the top. The 15 storeys seemed like they would never end as we circled up and up. Unfortunately, the view was so awful and underwhelming that I didn’t even bother snapping a photo.


The rest of the grounds made up for it. There was a lovely garden with ivy-covered archways and a rather impressive museum too. It made a pleasant diversion for the parents in the afternoon and a good break from my usual frenetic pace.


One thing that perked up the greyness of Xian was how domestic tourists loved to play dress up in the squares. At first I thought there was lots of bridal photography happening that day, but it turned out to be Victorian damsels and Tang dynasty maidens on a fun day out in Xian.


The main thing that made up for the drabness of the city was its food. Xian, being at the beginning of the ancient Silk Route, has lots of Muslim and Central Asian influence in its food. Here, the cuisine is dominated more by wheat and bread than rice and noodles. There is a large Muslim population and pork is far less common in this area.

I apologise for the poor quality pictures as I was too taken by the food to take any shots of the really good stuff. Below you’ll see the stall selling what looked like pulled pork burgers. The filling is made of waxed beef, wind-dried in lots of fat and similar to how Cantonese lup cheong (sausage) and lup ngap (waxed duck) are made. It’s then stewed and pulled, then slapped into white disks of dense wheat bread. It’s greasy and salty and I’m sure it’ll hit the spot just right as a late night snack.


There were also some misses of course. Something I just couldn’t understand was the ma hua porridge locals seemed to love for breakfast. Now I really dig the ma hua in Tianjin and Chongqing: the curls of sweet deep-fried sesame dough are so addictive because they are so crunchy and moreish. When they soak it in water and boil it into a kind of salty porridge with starch, I really don’t understand. Note that the picture below shows me before I tried it.


I just didn’t get the lumps of soggy greasy dough sitting in a starchy goo topped with crispy fried bits and lots of pepper. It seemed like an exercise in incorporating as many types of wheat as possible into the dish without resorting to bread or noodles. Bizarre. Even more bizarre is how they save on washing up by wrapping the bowls in plastic bags first, then slopping the brew into it.


If you’re at the Muslim Quarter, do try out the fabulous barbecue restaurants. You can either order from the menu of pick from the spread outside. I loved the perfectly charred bits of anise-flavoured lamb skewers and the same done with whole fish.


I loved the various types of rose-flavoured desserts. There was one called jing zi gao (mirror cake) made of steamed rice flour with rose and red bean filling. It’s a bit like kueh tutu, except miles better. Another one is like a cross between a tangyuan and a donut: glutinous rice dough filled with rose-flavoured red bean paste and then deep-fried. Amazing stuff. No pictures because I gobbled it all up before remembering I had a camera. Next trip maybe.

A Very Decadent Breakfast Omelette

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I was a little tired of having the usual cheese or peanut butter in my breakfast sandwich. Inspiration hit when I looked at eggs and cheese sitting around in my fridge.  I wasn’t happy with just a plain cheese omelette. There was some aging  garlic and shallots in a corner of my kitchen, so that went into my recipe, as did some defrosted chopped spinach. I went slightly overboard with the butter for my omelette but that made it extra special and flavourful to perk up my breakfast. I suppose it also helped keep the omelette from sticking to the pan. DC insists that I add this line: he thinks it was very nice.



big knob butter
1 clove garlic, chopped finely
3 shallots, sliced thinly
4 nuggets of thawed frozen spinach (about a small handful)
1 small handful grated mature cheddar cheese
4 eggs
generous splash of milk


  1. Melt the butter in a frying pan on medium heat, then add the garlic and shallots. Fry till the shallots are soft and start smelling wonderful.
  2. Fish the garlicky shallots out into a large bowl and mix in the spinach and cheese. Season with sea salt and a generous grinding of black pepper. Stir till well combined.
  3. Put the still-buttery pan back on medium, then briskly beat the eggs and milk together. Pour into pan and let set. If bubbles form, burst them with a wooden spatula to help it cook faster. When the omelette has just about set, smear the spinach and cheese mixture gently onto one half.
  4. Carefully fold the omelette over and wait for the cheese to melt. Serve as soon as you can, though it tastes gorgeous cold too.

Makes 2 giant portions or 4 regular ones