Of all the great advice that our super-agent Grace gave me when we moved here, perhaps the tip I’ve utilized most has been her recommendation to check out the phenomenally extensive food blog IeatIshootIpost. For anyone who likes local food (and how could you not?), it’s got the rundown on seemingly every Hawker Centre and food court on the island along with loving descriptions of Singapore’s myriad local dishes (ideal for those of us who have trouble telling our Bak Chor Mee apart from our Bak Kut Teh). Incredibly, blogger Leslie Tay isn’t a professional photographer, a journalist or chef. No, he’s one of those super-over-achiever Doctor types who just maintains one of the most popular food blogs in Asia for fun in his spare time. I know, right?!
Annnyway, a couple weeks ago Dr Tay came out with a new iPhone app, iEat Hawker. I swear this is a completely unsolicited plug, but it’s really great! You can search for nearby hawker markets based on your location, or search by your favorite dish to see which vendors have earned his top 5 all-time rankings. Last Thursday afternoon I found myself craving xiao long bao, ultra-delicious pork dumplings filled with soup that explode in your mouth in the most delightful way. They’re originally from Shanghai, but apparently as more northern Chinese have come to Singapore the cuisine has come to reflect those influences.
So when I consulted the app for Singapore’s best Xiao Long Bao, I found that the top-rated spot, Shanghai RenJia, was all the way out at Ang Mo Kio. But! The #2-rated spot, Hang-in-Hand Beijing, is on the edge of Little India and not a terribly long walk from my office. So I grabbed my Hong Konger office mate Rainbow and we headed out for a foodie adventure.
Being the food blog groupie that I am, not to mention a tofu junkie, I insisted that we order some of the things that IeatIshootIpost had highlighted, including seaweed tofu and salted egg bittergourd. And when I say “we order,” I mean Rainbow gave lengthy instructions in Mandarin to our friendly servers while I sat there smiling dumbly and drooling at the pictures of food on the walls.
We started out with cold pork belly – somewhat akin to bacon – with garlic and chili. The flavors were fantastic, and although I was a little bit apprehensive about the temperature the subtle hints of ginger and garlic were like a party in my mouth:
Next up was the salted egg bittergourd. I’d never had bittergourd (also known as bitter melon) before, but various sources tell me that it is extremely nutritious and is also valued across Asia for its medicinal qualities. In its natural state it looks like a cucumber with warts; cut up it sort of tastes like uncooked squash, maybe? I didn’t find the bitterness or texture too off-putting – and I loved the saltiness of the egg – but I wasn’t exactly licking the plate clean. There’s something very satisfying about eating something so green though:
As I was chewing tentatively on the bittergourd, the waitress dropped off the seaweed tofu, which was hands down the best tofu I’ve ever eaten. It had a creamy texture, but the seaweed top added a really nice earthy (aquatic?) flavor. It wasn’t overly fried and greasy like other tofu dishes I’ve had here, yet possessed a great richness that was really satisfying. Plus, the portion was huge for two people to share:
Next came the piece de resistance, the xiao long bao. I must have had soup dumplings at some point in the US, but I don’t have any specific recollections. I gained my true xiao long bao awareness during our time in Sydney, when I waited in longass lines at the Din Tai Fung stall at the recommendation of coworkers during the Night Noodle Markets, and found it was actually worth it. The fact that there’s a Din Tai Fung in the basement of our apartment building was a huge selling point, not to mention there are about 10 Din Tai Fung outlets located around Singapore.
But where Din Tai Fung is to xiao long bao as, say, the Cheesecake Factory is to Cheesecake – that is, they’ve got it down to a science and turn out a high-quality, if mass-produced, product – the xiao long bao at Beijing Hand in Hand felt a bit more soulful. They were plumper, with more soup, and the pork seemed a bit more tender and better cooked. As you can see from the photo above the dumplings weren’t all identical like the ones turned out by the teams of surgical mask-wearing technicians at DTF, but that’s probably because there was just one woman making them. We saw her working behind the counter on our way out and she gave us a big wave (I should have taken a photo, d’oh!). I don’t know really know what I’m talking about, but these xiao long bao seemed like they were made with love.
Rainbow insisted on ordering dessert (not that I needed my arm twisted), and proceeded to have another long conversation with the waitress that involved exaggerated hand gestures. When I asked what they were talking about she gave me a smile and said, “You’ll see!”
Shortly thereafter the waitress brought over a bowl of hot apple fritters and a bowl of ice water. We were told to dip the apples into the ice water, causing the liquid sugar coating to crystallize and add a satisfying crunchiness. Rainbow then explained that the exaggerated hand gestures had been a warning about the long, cobweblike threads of sugar that extended from the crystallized fritters. Whatever, they were delicious:
I’ve eaten a lot of tremendous food in Singapore, but this might have been my favorite meal so far. All of the food was delicious, the service was friendly, and the ambiance was cosy and relaxed. There was a family in the back celebrating a birthday – they sang “Happy Birthday” first in English, then in Chinese – and a few couples wandered in as we chowed down. There were some interesting knick knacks on the shelves, including Mao busts and various creatures sculpted out of seashells. The cute pig was of course my favorite (apologies for the grainy iphone quality):
Finally, and perhaps I’m imagining this, but there’s something about eating with someone who speaks the language that somehow makes the food taste more authentic. Rainbow had no qualms about snapping her fingers to get the servers over to our table when we sat down, because that’s how they do things in Hong Kong. Whereas I might have shyly pointed at various things on the menu, for all I know she gave them specific instructions on how our dishes should be prepared. Before we ordered she asked them to tell us exactly where the chefs came from, as this would help guide which dishes we should select from the extensive menu. The fact that she approved of the food (in contrast to a few meals that we’ve had at the Suntec Food court by work!) seemed like a really big deal.
So, if you like Xiao Long Bao and feel more like a restaurant than a food court, get thee to Hand in Hand Beijing posthaste. For all the food we ate the bill only came out to about $50 with tax, which certainly trumps Din Tai Fung.
Hand in Hand Beijing Restaurant is located at 141-143 Jalan Besar, about a 10 minute walk from Bugis, Lavender or Little India MRT stations