Fancy some sandworm jello? Xiamen's surprising cuisine and architectural wonders are tourist draws

In the heartland of China's Hokkien-speaking people, the city is a trove of culinary curios and historical architectural wonders.

One of the largest soy sauce manufacturers in Asia, Gulong Cultural Garden still uses the traditional method of processing its once-a-year harvest of soya sauce.
One of the largest soy sauce manufacturers in Asia, Gulong Cultural Garden still uses the traditional method of processing its once-a-year harvest of soya sauce. PHOTO: DAVID YIP
The International Settlement which lasted until World War II on Gulangyu Island, a mere five-minute ride from Xiamen, sub provincial city in Fujian province, China.
The International Settlement which lasted until World War II on Gulangyu Island, a mere five-minute ride from Xiamen, sub provincial city in Fujian province, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Those who know little about Hokkien cuisine, or hold stereotyped impressions of it, will be in for a rude surprise should they ever set foot in Xiamen, because they will encounter Hokkien cooking that is very different from what they have known.

Xiamen is a sub-provincial city in Fujian province, the traditional heartland of the Hokkien-speaking people in China. In the city's kitchens, the visitor will find a repertoire that goes far beyond the "typical" Hokkien dishes and foodstuffs of fried prawn noodle, kong bak bao, and hae chou. The inhabitants of the region place great importance on food, whether in grand restaurants or humble homes, and draw the most amazing flavours from their soil and sea.

"Xiamen is a seaport and we have access to the abundance of the sea. In fact, almost 80 per cent of our dishes are seafood," chef Zhang Cong Ming, a well-known native chef of Xiamen who owns the restaurant Ronghui Zhuangyuan Lou, points out. Even the everyday popiah in Xiamen puts all other versions in the shade - its stuffing consists of eight or more condiments. Against this yardstick, "missing" condiments from the popiah we eat in Singapore include dried seaweed, mustard paste and peanut sugar. "We use thinly julienned cabbage instead of turnips too," reveals chef Zhang.

Xiamen, along with Zhangzhou and Quanzhou, is among the key ancestral homes of large communities of overseas Chinese in South-east Asia. Hence, the city was selected as one of the four original Special Economic Zones during China's economic reforms, and received tremendous support from the Chinese diaspora. The other three selected cities are Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou. The people of Xiamen also pride themselves on being different from their provincial "cousins", being exposed to foreign cultures through their international seaport.

The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, immediately establishing Xiamen as one of the major hubs of Chinese tea-exporting as early as the 16th century.

Such European influences are particularly evident on Gulangyu Island. Only a five-minute ferry ride from Xiamen, the island was one of two settlements ceded to Western powers following China's defeat and the Treaty of Nanking in 1852. Thirteen foreign countries, including Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Japan, built imposing architecture - predominantly in the Victorian style - throughout the island. Their ornately decorated facades can still be seen today. The island, which has strict vehicle control policies that restrict cars on its streets, has become a popular domestic tourist destination, with all the usual trappings. Beware the tourist-trap seafood restaurants; however, the street-food culture of the island is definitely worth exploring.

Back on mainland Xiamen, make a trip to Bashi, or the Eighth market, the city's largest and oldest wet market housing hundreds of street vendors and their makeshift stalls. Be there early in the morning to catch the haggling and frenzied transactions of the merchants and buyers. The fruit of the region's rich larder is on display: tonnes of fresh seafood and meat, and all manner of wet and dried goods. If you are not into cooking, just arrive with an empty stomach - there are enough hawkers selling local and provincial goodies to keep you eating through the entire morning.

For those who dare, check out the local delicacy, tu sun dong - cold jello made of sandworms freshly dug up from the nearby beaches and boiled with gelatin. This snack is particularly popular during summer as it is reckoned to buffer the eater against the scorching weather. Even the lor mee served in Xiamen is far more elaborate than what Singaporeans are familiar with, with its additional orders of pig's offal and braised shark meat.

If you are more into hip coffee culture, the 500-metre stretch of Yundang Lu has become the hottest place to be seen at in the city. Once a run-down assemblage of homes and warehouses along the Yundang river, the neighbourhood has become the equivalent of Singapore's Boat Quay in the 1980s. Bookshops, handicraft and antique shops, restaurants and cafes, add colour and variety, and generate the buzz the place is famous for. However, because of high rentals and stiff competition, there is a high turnover of tenants at the moment, especially among the many coffee joints.

Another interesting visit would be to the city's oldest Chinese temple. Nanputuo, or South Putuo Temple, was founded during the Tang Dynasty and is highly regarded for its sacredness among Buddhists. Located at the foot of Wulaofeng and facing the sea, this 30,000-square-metre temple was rebuilt on numerous occasions under the Tang, Ming, and Qing dynasties. There is also a Buddhist Academy within the temple itself. Even though you may not be Buddhist, the vegetarian restaurant, which is part of the temple complex, is definitely worth checking out too.

You'll be eating food prepared by the same kitchen that serves the monks, so you can be assured of a standard good enough to please these holy men. To work off the calories after the meal, make the 60-minute hike to the sprawling, landscaped gardens of Xiamen University nearby.

About two hours' drive from Xiamen lie the tulous, or "Fujian earthern castles", of Yongding and Nanjing counties. Constructed largely by the Hakkas, these architectural wonders are unique in south-eastern Fujian. Their iconic round shapes are familiar the world over from TV documentaries and postcard photographs; however, these earth forts were also built in square form. The tulous are typically constructed from compacted earth that is mixed with stone, bamboo and other readily available materials, and supported by wooden structures. They both defended against attackers and housed people. The inhabitants were mostly Hakkas, though some tulous belonged to the Hokkiens. A total of 46 tulous, occupying a vast valley, have been designated as Unesco World Heritage Sites; a number of these have been turned into tourist day-tripping attractions, complete with tiny stalls within the walls selling kitschy souvenirs.

The majority of the tulous are still occupied by its residents and therefore closed to visitors. A visit to one that is open to the public would show each family occupying the units directly above the ground floor. Each level of the building has a specific function: the kitchen is usually on the ground level, the second floor would be for storage purposes, and the unit above that is for sleeping.

While it is often thought that the whole "fort" belongs to a single family or clan, some were actually the result of several small families combining their resources to build protection for themselves. Come festival time, the various families would contribute to a communal feast, each bringing to the table food as well as their serving crockery. To indicate ownership of the tableware, each plate or bowl would be "tattooed" with the family's distinctive name or mark.

From the tulous of Yongding county, one could make a detour to Wuyishan Mountain, about 30 minutes' bus ride away. This is the specific site where the best-quality oolong teas are produced. On the side of the mountain, you can see several tulous built by the tea farmers. Most of the tea-growing families also run teahouses beside their plantations, selling their own harvests and brews. Sit down and have a chat with the plantation owner over a cup of Chinese tea - if the owner is in a good mood, you might even be offered sample sips from his own private collection of teas.

For the food enthusiast, a trip to Gulong Cultural Garden is definitely an eye-opener. This is one of the largest soya sauce manufacturers in China with a farm and factory occupying a giant 44,000 square metres. The visitor can still witness the age-old method of fermenting soya beans; this manufacturer's output is contained in 55,559 earthen urns laid out under the scorching sun. Since the harvest takes place only once a year, each crop is in high demand. The factory is open for visits and there is also a rock garden and a herbal maze specially "manicured" for the visitor's pleasure.

  • Ronghui Zhuangyuan Lou Dongdu Lu, Haotou Zhan Niutou Shan Garden Hu Li Qu, Xiamen
  • Gulong Cultural Garden No 1666 Tongji Middle Road, Tong'an Xiamen, Fujian, China