When you're hungry and need filling up in a hurry, you can't go wrong with a big plate of Chinese dumplings, or jiaozi.
My love affair with jiaozis started as a kid. We have a Sam Ee Por (or Third Grandaunt, for the non-Cantonese out there) who lives in London and used to spend a month or so each year in Singapore visiting my grandma. Their catch-up sessions would inevitably take place over the backyard kitchen table, their hands busy kneading, stuffing and sealing wotip after wotip (again, for the non-Cantonese, wotip is Cantonese for guotie, the fried version of jiaozi that I grew up eating) while they chatted.
All tears over Sam Ee Por's eventual return to London's muggy shores would thus be softened with the knowledge that my grandma's freezer was packed with sufficient wotip to ensure the entire extended family would be kept well stocked till her next visit.
And whenever one of the family happened to be in London, a call to Sam Ee Por informing her of our visit would hear her voice perking up over the phone to make the declaration we were all hoping to hear: "Sam Ee Por will make you some wotip!"
And trust me, there is nothing better during a cold London winter than Sam Ee Por's wotip. Except maybe her yau mei fan (a recipe for another day).
So while wotip remains for me, a warm and fuzzy flagbearer of all things good and Cantonese, to Philippe, it's one of the ultimate Beijing dishes.
Jiaozi, the steamed Northern Chinese equivalent, was likewise a godsend during equally harsh Beijing winters. Cheap, warm and filling, it also offered the advantage of being one of the rare dishes in a Chinese university canteen that did not come blanketed in a layer of oil and MSG.
Later, when we both began working in Beijing, jiaozi was the convenient meal-in-a-bag that you could stock up for months at a go at your nearest supermarket, and have ready to eat in under 5 minutes after a late night of work.
So you can imagine we were pretty thrilled when my dad introduced us to Tian Jin Fong Kee when we moved back to Singapore. Formerly (and they're back now) occupying a couple of stalls at the People's Park Complex Hawker Centre, Fong Kee moved into a ground floor unit in the main building when the hawker centre underwent renovation. The new unit got jazzed up with mod Chinese lanterns, airconditioning, and an expanded menu featuring Northern Chinese dishes and coffeeshop favourites such as yangzhou fried rice and beef hor fun.
Their signature jiaozi, however, remain as good as before. Compared to other jiaozi stores, I'd say what distinguishes Fong Kee's jiaozi are the generous amount of chopped chives, which are awful for one's breath but gives the meat a sharp, onion-like edge. The meat contains a fair bit of fat, fast approaching the border of xiaolongbao soupy. The guotie version also carries the charred, smoky imprint of hot frying oil which is especially addictive when contrasted with the vinegar and ginger dipping sauce, while the boiled jiaozi benefit from a skin that is firm but not thick and overly starchy.
It's hard to even consider ordering other dishes when the jiaozi are so addictive, but we usually make an exception for the zhajiang mian. As you can see from the picture, it's not a pretty dish, nor are the ingredients terribly refined. But the zhajiang boasts a strong splash of vinegar that's very kai wei ("appetite opening") and the noodles are smooth.
One thing I never understood about Fong Kee was the high number of burly, tattoo-hewn Caucasians who, together with their rows of beer bottles, usually occupy the outdoor seats alongside Chinatown regulars. I discovered recently, courtesy of Fong Kee's website, that when grandfather Fong Chee Yen arrived from Tianjin in 1948 and set up the dumpling business, most of his customers were sailors who had developed a taste for jiaozi through their round-the-world travels, as opposed to Singaporeans who were initially unfamiliar with the dish. Perhaps there's a big book of sailor lore that lists Fong Kee as a must-visit destination for sailors even today.
Today, Fong Kee has two outlets, both at People's Park (they've moved back to the hawker centre as well now that renovations have finished), a restaurant at Murray Street and a home delivery and catering service. Let me know if you've tried them and what you think!
Tian Jin Fong Kee
#01-100 People's Park Complex
Tel: 6532-3319; and
#01-1448 People's Park Centre
Fong Kee Restaurant
6 Murray Street (next to Maxwell House)
Labels: Chinese, Singapore, Tian Jin Fong Kee