I still remembered my first taste of Henghua (興化) cuisine back in Singapore more than a decade back. It was at Hing Wa Restaurant on Beach Road, and the only reason I was there was because my boss at the time was a Henghua himself. The Henghua Chinese are a sub-dialect group of the Hokkiens from Fujian province in Southern China. The Henghua district in Fujian was given its own jurisdiction during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) and its inhabitants originated from Henan province in the Chinese central plains, practically the cradle of Chinese civilization, the Henan people had a history that went back 5,000 years.
Modern-day South-east Asia plays host to a large Henghua diaspora which came with Chinese emigration into the region, and in Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore, the Henghuas are welkl-known for dominating the bicycle-making & transportation trade since the early 20th century.
My first experience with Henghua cuisine at the time did not make much of an impression on me: it seemed too simple & rustic, and I didn’t quite like the bland “lor mee”: gluggy & soggy, strangely sprinkled with roasted groundnuts on top, and garnished with toasted seaweed.
But much later on, we went on to try the then newly-opened Putien restaurant on Kitchener Road (sometime in 2000). Putien restaurant is named after the city of Putien (莆田) in eastern Fujian, China, regarded as the historic homeland of the Henghua people. The restaurant at the time was also predictably simple & rustic, with flimsy plastic chairs & foldable tables. *But* - the Henghua-style fried “bee hoon” served there was an absolute revelation: made from the finest & tastiest “bee hoon” or rice vermicelli EVER, stir-fried with pork, lardons, clams, roasted groundnuts, seaweed, fresh mustard vegetables & shrimps, cooked with an intensely-flavored pork-chicken stock. Even till today, I’ve yet to find another “bee hoon” dish which can even hold a candle to Putien’s. Queues outside the restaurant seemed ever-present. It is THAT good. So good, in fact, that in the mid-2000s, there was even a copycat restaurant which also called itself Putien Seafood Restaurant or something, which opened barely 10 doors away from the original one on Kitchener Road. The intended deception even made front-page news on the local tabloid, The New Paper. The imitator did not last long.
Anyway, the original Putien restaurant just went from strength to strength: business was profitable, it grew into an island-wide chain and was re-branded, its restaurant interiors upgraded, its crockery & cutlery finer. But, at the end of the day, the standard of its signature fried “bee hoon” remained the same. It was still the best on the island!
Fast forward to Kuala Lumpur 2012, Putien opened its first Malaysian outlet at the upscale One Utama mall this January. Great, my fave “bee hoon” dish is now 10 minutes’ drive away from my apartment, as opposed to an hour’s flight back to Singapore. That was, until I encountered the eternal queues outside Putien here. Well, I finally got round to finally lunch at Putien today. What we had:
- What else, but the Henghua fried “bee hoon”. Taste-wise, it closely approximated the version served at the flagship Kitchener Road back in Singapore. Much of the flavors of this dish came from the pork-chicken broth added during the frying process and absorbed by the vermicelli. Delicious!!!
- Putien-style oyster omelette – very nicely made, crisp batter encasing small, moist local oysters much-loved by the Fujianese, whether they are from Fujian (China), Taipei (Taiwan) or Penang (Malaysia). The chili dip available in jars on every table complemented the omelette perfectly.
- Crisp-fried, battered aubergines topped with meat floss was a let-down: the much-too-thick batter hiding tiny sticks of aubergines was a travesty. Avoid!
- Fish with fermented Chinese red wine was similarly a huge let-down: the much-too-small fish fillets thickly-covered with batter and deep-fried before being cloaked by pretty bitter-ish, but otherwise pretty tasteless fermented “red wine” sauce. Avoid!!
- Shredded meat with sesame buns – pretty good: stir-fried pork strips with onions in a dark soy-based sauce, to be eaten sandwiched in deep-fried Chinese buns.
- Hot yam paste with ginko nuts was totally bland & not sweet at all. Eww!
- Lemongrass jelly, ordered by my lunch partner, but which I’d avoid – personal taste, I don’t fancy lemongrass in my desserts or drinks!
End of the day, I’d return for the Henghua fried bee hoon, if not anything else. That's the problem with franchises - poor quality control, tweaking with the original recipes, perhaps compromising the quality of the dishes served.
Putien Restaurant (莆田菜馆)
G-213A Ground FLoor, Promenade
1-Utama Shopping Centre (Old Wing)
Bandar Utama City Centre
47800 Petaling Jaya