A sneak peek at 岭南 Circa 1912 (Singapore) by David Yip

You are most definitely familiar with Cantonese food but what about Lingnan cuisine?

According to Wikipedia, Lingnan refers to the “Cantonese culture, the historically dominant cultural force in Guangdong and the eastern half of Guangxi” but geographically, it “also includes the cultures of minority groups such as the Hakkas and Teochews within the Lingnan region.”

To put it succinctly, Lingnan cuisine predates Cantonese cuisine and it encompasses the genesis of the cuisines of the Teochews and Hokkiens.

Whilst unheard-of in Singapore, this style of cuisine is making an appearance courtesy of restaurateur, David Yip. Formerly a publisher and an owner of two restaurants in Hong Kong, Yip is a prolific cook, a passionate food historian and a bilingual food writer with a strong interest in heritage Chinese cuisine and forgotten Chinese ingredients.

“I want to introduce Singaporeans to the Lingnan cuisine that I grew up with,” says Yip, who comes from a family of Indonesian and British-Chinese descent. “The Cantonese fare in Singapore has incorporated many Malaysian influences over the years and the flavours tend to lean towards stronger wok-fried flavours.”

True to his intentions, Yip’s new restaurant at Shaw Centre,岭南 Circa 1912 (the year Cantonese cuisine peaked), will be a celebration of rarely seen regional Cantonese dishes, some seasonal and many of which are an exercise in refinement, crafted with the help of Xu Jingye and Jimmy Yip, chef and restaurant manager of 102 House, a private diner in Foshan, China, that is reviving traditional regional Cantonese recipes based on old cookbooks.

Roasted trio of candid fat, chicken liver and pork

A standout is 金钱鸡 (roasted trio of candied fat, chicken liver and pork). Here, pork lard is sliced, marinated with Chinese rose wine and buried in sugar for at least a week (so that the sugar will draw out the excess moisture while the remaining fat becomes “candied”). This, plus the pork shoulder butt, chicken liver and candied lard, are marinated in a specially concocted sauce, skewered and roasted so that the lard moisturises the liver and the meat.

“After the fall of the Qing dynasty, many restaurants sprouted in Guangzhou but life was hard and meat was expensive,” says Yip, “So the restaurateurs and chefs would try to make use of unwanted ingredients, such as pork innards and fat, to create other dishes.” Yip says chicken was scarce so the restaurateurs decided to incorporate the word “chicken” to raise the perceived value of this dish.

Another dish you will not find in Singapore is the minced chicken in red toon sprouts broth. Available for a short period in spring before they turn green, the sprouts are blitzed with spinach and served with chicken minced using a traditional Szechuan technique (chopped with the back of a cleaver on pig’s skin so that it retains the chicken fibre and is not tainted by the fibre of the wooden chopping board). Its refreshing, almost floral, flavour arrives in a light consomme of chicken essence perfumed with chicken fat.

Patriotic soup – red toon sprouts in chicken essence

“This is a 護國菜, Patriotic Soup, that was served to the last emperor, Zhao Bing, of the Song dynasty,” says Yip as he explains how a bowl of this vegetarian broth was served by monks when the last Song emperor sought shelter at a monastery in Chaozhou during the final year of the Song dynasty. So named because the emperor loved the dish, its main ingredients were vegetarian – leafy vegetable, edible mushrooms – but the recipe, now part of the Teochew cuisine, has evolved over time to incorporate other elements including a broth prepared with chicken.

Sweet and sour iberico pork belly

Sweet and sour pork is common fare in restaurants ranging from tze char stalls to upscale Chinese but Yip’s jaw-droppingly delicious rendition will leave you gawking. Instead of flavouring the dish with tomatoes or, worse still tomato ketchup, Yip uses hawthorne and strawberries. But what sets this sweet and sour pork apart from the rest is the pork itself. Here, iberico pork belly is lightly dusted with potato flour and deep-fried so that the pork imparts a light crunch on the palate without coming across as starchy. The mouthfeel of the pork belly is completely different to what you will taste anywhere else in Singapore. For a masterclass in sweet and sour pork, Yip’s rendition is truly gold standard even if it appears garden variety at first glance.

“Sweet and sour pork is a relatively new Cantonese dish, given that it’s just about 100 years old,” says Yip, who is set on introducing this dish to showcase his style of cooking a tried-and-tested dish and bringing it to a whole new level. True enough, the pork completely melts in the mouth. In Yip’s words, “入口即化”.

Steamed crab roe on egg white custard

Fans of the rarely-seen tiny mangrove crab roe will rejoice. Typically a Teochew delicacy cured with soy sauce, wine and aromatics and eaten with porridge, Yips serves it Cantonese style, extracting the golden roe of this critter and blanketing it in a bowl of steamed egg custard.

“Out of 5 kg of crab roe harvested, only 50 g could be used. Since the crab lives in a muddy environment, the harvested roe has to be “washed” to remove the mud and dirt. So the wastage is very high.,” Yip says, referring to the painful and laborious process of serving this rare and pricey delicacy. According to him, these mangrove crabs were a common sight in Singapore many years ago but sightings are rare now, hence the need to order from overseas.

For his maiden debut in Singapore, Yip has talent spotted a 20-year Cantonese cuisine veteran and former head chef of Dragon Pheonix restaurant, who will bring his kitchen chops to the new restaurant with an all-new embrace of Yip’s Lingnan philosophy.

This means that your meal here will commence with a welcome tea soup, in this case perhaps a consomme of coconut water in duck soup infused with 25 year-old tangerine peel. Or that the congee that arrives with your poached chicken would be an unusually creamy bowl of 老火鸡粥, congee cooked at high heat for a long period of time (about two hours) infused with the essence of chicken.

Tangerine bean curd with orange broth

To Yip, it is important to remember our heritage, but in his own words, “the cuisine has to evolve”. To this end, don’t be surprised if he serves you a whole tangerine dessert that will not look out of place in a French restaurant. Incorporating almond curd beneath, the edible peel of the tangerine sits in an orange broth, showcasing a sweet that is refined as it is compellingly Chinoise.

Baked red bean paste puff

To finish, Yip serves a warm baked red bean paste puff that, in our opinion, epitomizes his cuisine. It may not taste like the red bean puff that you know or that you expect, but its refinement will disarm you and take your breath away when you least expect.

#03-07/11 , 1 Scotts Road, Shaw Centre, Singapore 228 208; +65-9242 9046

© Evelyn Chen 2013
Please note that the reviews published on this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.
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