Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Shanghainese Sides in Singapore

Ovidia--every other Tuesday
Thanks to another visiting friend (one into maths rather than murder mysteries) we were hunting down Shanghainese restaurants this last week.
Born in China and living in the States since she was sixteen, when I asked what she missed most in America, she said 'Shanghainese food'! Okay--

We went to Impreial Treasures, a restaurant in Takashimaya, because you don't get more Shanghainese than that.

It was a change for me--I usually eat in hawker centres or food courts (which have pretty much the same food as hawker centres, with air conditioning and slightly higher prices).

But most of the Chinese food in hawker centres tends to be Southern Chinese--Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka or Peranakan.

What's the difference? Shanghainese cuisine, due to the cooler weather up North, tends to use more stewing, slow braising and deep frying compared to the stir fried, quick braised and steamed dishes of the South.

My late mother was Shanghainese, so Shanghainese food shouldn't be unfamiliar to me. But she was proud of being an educated, professional women who wasn't very into in cooking...
I remember the instructions I got when, in my teens, I attempted to prepare Lion's Head Soup for a family gathering. 'Make a big meatball and cook it in the double boiler over cabbage'.

That sounds simple enough, right? But when I went to the market I made the mistake of asking 'what kind of cabbage should I use to make lion's head soup?'

It seemed that every 'Aunty' within earshot rushed over to express a different opinion on that-- 'bok choy of course!'
'Nah lah--you want taste you must use siao baicai, cannot use da baicai!'
'Use baby bok choy, that's the best!'
'Napa cabbage and mushrooms, that's what the real cooks use!'
'My Ah Ma always used baby bok choy and ginger. Are you saying she wasn't a real cook?'
'Goondu lah you! Who cares what veggie you use as long as got water chestnuts in the pork,'
'You don't know what you talking about! Whoever puts water chestnut in lion's head?'

Given all this was carried on in three dialects with some English and Malay thrown in, they might well have been talking about the same vegetables!
I don't remember how that dish turned out. But I've never forgotten the passion those women brought to discussing their family recipes!

This is the lion's head soup we got for lunch--and yes, it looks like napa cabbage (or da bai cai)!
And it was very very good.
The rest of our meal was good too--
Shanghainese fried rice, spinach with garlic and broad beans and crispy red bean pancakes.

I could definitely get used to eating like this all the time!

But we also wanted to take a look at the 'old' Singapore.

So we took a ferry to Pulau Ubin ($4 for the ride across). Pulau (meaning 'island') Ubin (meaning 'granite') is located off the North-East coast of Singapore. It's one of the few places where you can still see what Singapore was like in the old days.

A few thousand people lived on the island before the granite quarries closed.

Now most visitors to the island come to get away from the city buildings that this island's granite helped build!

Granite from this island also helped build the Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia. But here, the jetty, buildings and the boardwalk that runs through the mangrove are all made of wood.

It was high tide when we were there, but during low tide you can get passes to walk on the tidal flats to see life in the tidal pools close up.

I was also interested in the 'spice' trees on the tree trail!

The cinnamon tree

The Nutmeg Tree

The Tamarind Tree,

There were plans to develop the island a few years ago, but after protests (polite, legal protests, given this is Singapore) with experts giving opinions and volunteers conducting biodiversity studies into resident and migratory birds as well as plant, insect and marine life, the authorities announced that the master plan has been updated and there are currently no plans to develop Pulau Ubin.

For now at least, it remains a last witness to the 'kampung' days of Singapore.


  1. Ah! I see the title for the next Tree Mystery developing!

  2. I doubt I can find Lion's Head soup in Bern's few restaurants that call themselves Chinese. Maybe I should try making some myself. I could do a cabbage mix to please all the Aunties.

    1. A cabbage mix would definitely please them! (though they might find a nit to pick to your face, they'd then tell everyone else how delicious it was!)

  3. Ah, I am glad you enjoyed going on another food adventure with a visitor to Singapore!! Yes, I imagine so many different types of cabbage could be used to make Lion's Head soup. I would also choose napa cabbage since it is more pliable, has larger leaves and easier to roll. I make Jewish cabbage rolls at home with regular green cabbage or napa cabbage.

    Going to Palau Ubin was on my list of things to do but I did not manage to do so. Next time!

  4. AA: I would have gone for the Napa cabbage just on general principles, Ovidia. I think your friend who lives in the United States does not live in New York City. Here when does not say we are going out for Chinese food. We say Shanghaiede or Cantonese, etc. Sad sad me. Thanks to my soy allergy, discovered around day four of a 2 1/2 week trip to Japan, I can’t eat Asian food at all. Boo-hoo.

    1. No, she's in what she (not me) calls 'boondocks' and no Chinese restaurants near enough for a week night dinner (and that with a non-Chinese vegan husband). I'll experiment with non- soy asian cuisine and one day--hopefully--will have something for you!

  5. Thank you for this gorgeous tour, of the food and the trees! x

  6. As ever, my heart yearns to be the fly on your shoulder, walking, seeing, smelling and eating Singapore. Your elegant, tender descriptions are so telling and rewarding. The vivid speaking of all the aunties,,,,this will stay with me!
    Struggling w my sight the Mushroom Tree with my beloved Chen SuLin!

    1. Sorry about your poor eyes--please take care of them and of yourself too! Thanks for reading this!