Category Archives: Chinese

Eating dim sum in HK

Ever wonder how to eat dim sum? Uh, no? You just put it in your mouth and chew? You don’t say …

In any case, here are @SpecialKRB and me — aided by our friends Ronnie and Mollie — at Prince Restaurant in Kowloon, doing just that: eating dim sum.

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Filed under Asia, Chinese, dim sum, food, Hong Kong, restaurant

Glutton Abroad: HK if you’re hungry

Yes, it happens. There are times when you just don’t wanna. So in an attempt to get back that elusive mojo, that ever-flickering desire to inflict myself onto the blogosphere again, to throw myself once again into that fathomless void of nothing — I went away. Specifically, to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong seems full of mojo. While Europe flounders and the U.S. seethes, Hong Kong appears to be soaring, buzzing, full of brio and activity. Sidewalks are teeming, hotels are fully booked, and, yes, restaurants are full. So, while I’ve seen my Hong Kong and my HK friends’ Hong Kong, I thought it was time to see the HK that my friends Cha and Nat (of the wildly popular website catandnat.com) like to see.

Of course, that involved a good helping of Cantonese food. Let me tell you about Cantonese food. I don’t know so much about it. All I know about it I gleaned from dozens of faceless Cantonese restaurants scattered across the American Midwest, at countless lacquered wooden tables where I cursed the gods and my fate and the people who invented this food. I know that’s a funny thing to think for a person who likes to go to Hong Kong so much. But HK is full of all types of great cuisines. Until now, it was something that was easy to avoid and dismiss as something that I just didn’t get. Just like I don’t get classical music. Or the Stone Roses. When some (inevitably British) person starts to wax nostalgic about the genius of the Stone Roses, and we actually have to listen to something by them, it’s like my brain goes “Okay, let’s find something interesting about thi-aw drat got me againzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. You know it’s supposed to be good, you know you should appreciate it, but damned if you can get through a couple of minutes of it. It’s like the musical equivalent of reading The Economist.

A lot of Cantonese food is also like The Economist. It’s full of finesse, and subtlety. Fresh ingredients are paramount, because there is nothing to hide bad stuff behind. It’s one of those cuisines that, like French food, require great technique. Except that French cuisine has butter. Cantonese food is a rich person’s food, where only the best will do. It doesn’t have to hide its protein behind a layer of chilies or coat it in a sauce mounted with a stick of butter or stuff it into sausages to carry it long distances. Cantonese food just is.

Green beans coated in egg yolks at Xia Mian Guan

Although I had only one night in Hong Kong (devoted mainly to a wine-soaked 11-course dinner at Caprice), we managed to snatch up some time to explore some great Cantonese dishes. Such as these fresh green beans sauteed with egg yolk, giving them a rich, hefty savor perfectly complemented by a bean-y crunch. Or this:

Crab congee at Chee Kei

A smooth, unctuous rice porridge dotted with crab meat, crab claws and — best of all — globs of crab roe, punctuated with bits of ginger and green onion and just the slightest hint of saltiness. I really, really wanted to add stuff to it — chili oil and black vinegar and whatever else I could get my hands on, the way a Thai would add condiments to his jok — but it ended up changing the flavor, obscuring what had been rich and even slightly sweet. Consider that a lesson learned. Next time, Hong Kong. I’ll be back.

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Filed under Asia, Chinese, food, Hong Kong, restaurant, rice porridge

Mysterious alchemy

This is a story that has absolutely nothing to do with me. It, uh, happened to a friend. Let’s call her Shmangkok Shmutton*.

Anyway, she was at a party last night. She doesn’t get invited to many parties. So her default behavior at parties is either abject terror or overzealous socializing, with much European-style kissy-kissy and blithe misreading of obvious body language.  She was in the latter mode.

About halfway into the evening, it gradually dawned on me, I mean her: no one was coming up to me to talk. All my conversations were because of me coming up to other people, and with the exception of a couple of extremely heroic people, almost all conversations ended with pleas to go get beer/wine/noodles/haircut/lobotomy within the span of a few minutes. I was that person at the party. I was That Person At The Party! Oh, I mean She. Shmangkok Shmutton.

You know that person. Who goes up to talk to a group of people, and one person politely obliges, taking the flack for the benefit of the herd, who form their own self-protective little circle, leaving their friend out in the cold until the threat passes. You know what I’m talking about.

It takes a while, but she gradually gets it. They’re just not that into you. And when I say “you”, I mean “me”. And when I say “me”, I mean “she”. Things change, people change, and that mysterious alchemy that dictates alliances and connections: work, money, fat, success or lack of it — all of these things tinker with the balance of things, rearranging the world by degrees as the years press inexorably on. Some people will like you (I mean her. Is this tiresome yet?) Some people will not. It is supposed to be a natural thing, this liking and disliking, this shift that dictates one person is awesome while another is The Worst. Why fight it?

So I’ll come clean. Even though I like to think of myself as a “food person”, I thought I hated Chinese food. It was hard, because it is a big country and my parents are both the most gigantimongous fans of this food ever. Like most Thais, they see it as the epitome of cuisine, particularly Cantonese, the abalone and the shark’s fin, edible Louis Vuitton. But I was just not that into it, remembering the countless 2-hour journeys to Cleveland to a Cantonese restaurant called Bo Loong, sitting with my forehead to the table with dry rice on my plate as my parents ate their fill.

But that mysterious alchemy has since worked its magic. Now, I cannot get enough of it. I’m not talking gloopy canned asparagus and evil shark’s fin. I’m talking the Sichuan security blanket that is mabo tofu, garlicky long beans, the long list of dumplings that come in every possible variation.

Potstickers at Dalian

Because there is a blossoming of northern Chinese-style restaurants in Bangkok that shun the usual trappings — Cantonese prestige dishes, Peking duck (there must always be Peking duck), lobster sashimi. They are the anti-status restaurants: dingy, hole-in-the-wall places with no-nonsense service still redolent of the mainland, staff who barely speak Thai, and a menu brimming with dumplings, green beans, sweet lacquered eggplant “fries”, and, of course, tofu slathered in a black bean sauce studded with pork.

Boiled dumplings at Sun Moon Dumpling Restaurant

They all have basically the same menu. They are either off of Sukhumvit (Dalian behind Villa supermarket on Sukhumvit 33, or the suspiciously slick one off of Sukhumvit 39); on Rama IV (Longcheu near the entrance to Sukhumvit 22, or Sun Moon on Ngam Dumplee Road); or in the business district (Ran Nam Toahu Yung Her near Chong Nonsi BTS stop). And although those dishes are executed with varying degrees of skill and enjoy varying degrees of popularity, these restaurants are all delicious. In short: I am into them.

*Names are changed in this story.

Dalian’s green beans

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinese, food, pork, restaurant, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

A very Phuket breakfast

Dim sum in Phuket

There are times when “research” means stuffing yourself with lots and lots and lots of food in a very short period of time. God help me, it was the kind of research I was doing today — namely, three promising stalls, all for breakfast.

Lured by the promise of “beef bamee”, I was excited by the prospect of Guaythiew Rab Arun, a small noodlery in the shadow of Bangkok Phuket Hospital. Alas, they were not as excited by our appearance, and, double-damn, a beefy variation of the popular egg noodles with barbecued pork was also not on the cards. No, this was your run-of-the-mill beef noodle shop: choice of rice vermicelli (sen mee), thin noodles (sen lek) and thick ones (sen yai), with broth that did or did not include cow blood (nam tok). The broth was as good beef broths are, cinnamon-y and sweet; the bowl an unashamed showcase for all sorts of innards — lungs, liver and tripe.

Beef noodles without broth

All very nice — except for the bizarre delay in letting us settle the bill — but nothing I wouldn’t find in Bangkok. On the other hand, I haven’t seen anything quite like the dim sum shop we visited next. When asked the name of the place, a two-room shophouse on Sam Gong Road serving kanom jeeb (Chinese-style steamed dumplings) and a wide variety of little bits, our waitress acts like I have just asked her ATM pin code. “Just ask, everyone knows the Dim Sum Place Down The Road From The Hospital,” she said (TDSPDTRFTH for short). A trayful of plates is deposited onto your table as you sit; you pick what you want, and you are charged, conveyor belt sushi-style, for whatever you choose. Small plates are 10 baht, “big” plates (which are almost the exact same size as the small plates) cost 15.

The tray of goodies at TDSPDTRFTH

Is it the best dim sum ever? Of course not. Is it crazy cheap? Well, that depends on you, but for the most part, why, yes it is. It is indeed cheap. And that is sometimes what I am looking for.

So, a question mark on the first stall, a possible “yes” on the second. The third? A resounding I WILL BE BACK. Pa Mai (at three-way intersection of Sagul and Dibuk roads near Wittaya School, 076-258-037) specializes in curry — curry, and the Mon fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen, what some people mistakenly translate into “Chinese candy”. A plate of the stuff is handed to you at the front by this nice lady:

Dispenser of kanom jeen

Once you receive your blank canvas, an array of curries awaits your artistry: a trio of nam ya, crab, fish and “jungle” (without coconut milk); chicken green curry, made the old-fashioned way with globs of congealed pork blood; nam prik, a speckled chili-coconut milk concoction that, unlike its terrifying name, is actually quite sweet; gaeng tri pla, or the famous — and fierce — southern fish entrail curry; and because this is the south, nam prik kapi, or shrimp paste chili dip, made to go with the innumerable garnishes that greet you at every table:

A table at Pa Mai

Is there any sight more gladdening than this one? A platter bristling with greenery: tart mango leaves, chewy cashew ones, boiled jackfruit, cubed pineapple, bitter, spice-defying baby eggplants. Soft-boiled eggs for 7 baht. Dried fish. An ajad of thinly-sliced cucumber in a tart-sweet syrup. And a happy variety of pickles (I just love pickles): cabbage, bean sprouts, lotus stems, baby garlic.

My choice (at first): crab nam ya

Best of all, you are only charged 30 baht for the kanom jeen, meaning those curries can be added, mixed, or replenished as you see fit. Really. So I first took some fish nam ya, then some crab. Some green curry. Some nam prik. And then a little left for the fiery tri pla. Don’t judge me.

We have found kanom jeen nirvana, and it is open from 7 to noon.

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, noodles, Southern Thailand, Thailand

Hustling, HK-style

A trio of cold appetizers at Da Ping Huo

Our mission, if we were to accept it, seemed simple enough: in 48 hours in Hong Kong, stuff our faces with as much interesting food as we could. Full of hope and empty of stomach, James and I boarded a plane at daybreak, me slightly the worse for wear after an anniversary dinner at a roadside Isaan stall. The places we were to try were all new, completely blank slates; the food, a staggeringly large amount. If there ever was a time for James to decide he couldn’t stand me and try to drown me in the nearest vat of leftover congee, that time would be now.

A hurried dash through the airport, a quick hop on the train and a confused cab ride later, we wandered along Ship Street with luggage in tow, stopping only once (or maybe twice) to ask for directions. Our destination: Bo Innovation, which, like pickled field crabs, or fermented anchovy, seems to inspire strong feelings in all but the un-foodiest of diners. Labelling itself as “X-treme Chinese cuisine”, BI is helmed by chef Alvin Leung Jr., who “does to Chinese food what Picasso did to art” — impressive indeed. It’s also the kind of outrageous claim that drives diners of a certain unpleasant temperament (me) to find nitpicky fault with everything to emerge from the kitchen.

Trompe de l'oeil "shrimp head" at Bo Innovation

There is no need to be nitpicky here: it is not hard to find fault with the food at Bo Innovation. It’s like Chef Alvin is a “Top Chef” contestant, it’s the Quickfire Challenge, and he whipped up a few dishes that “tell you something about who he is and where he comes from” in 2 hours’ time. A sliver of steak with soy-truffle sauce, predictably yummy save for the addition of “rolled” noodles which add nothing to the dish; “molecular” xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumpling, a spherified jelly that manages to mimic the real thing, but with much less flavor; the pretentiously-named “Dead Garden”, a green savory mousse topped with “soil” and dried enoki mushrooms (is it safe to say we should cool it with the neo-naturalist interpretations of Asian cuisine? They never work). Finally, a a chocolate dessert that James says resembles the Halloween chocolate you find at the back of your closet in April, stale and crumbly; the best thing I can say is that it was not served on a bed of dry ice.

This is the thing about “extreme cuisine”. Except in very rare cases, a lot of it begs the question: Why? Why’d you do it? Only a few chefs are able to answer that question. That’s not to say I hated it; actually, I had a very nice time complaining about stuff. I liked the handmade “lo mein”, part of a dish which mimicked (that again) the flavor and aroma of dried shrimp; the timings were excellent, with hardly any wait between courses; and, coming from a country where the vaunted service often means “smile and run away when someone asks you a question”, the service was smooth and efficient. Needless to say, it is an extremely well-run restaurant, and a fun way to pass the day, once, if you are willing to spend a whole lot of money while passing it.

A place I’d have no problem going to again is just as touristy, but more upfront about it. Da Ping Huo (L/G, Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Road) is a private kitchen that mixes some pretty tasty Sichuan cooking with an ambiance that veers between “homey” and “down-at-heel” and genuine hospitality from the husband-and-wife team. Despite being completely useless with my chopsticks and splashing my Golden Girls-in-Boca-Raton ensemble with glass noodles, I was charmed by a whole litany of things: the mouth-numbing ma bo tofu, the unctuous stewed “chili beef”, the, er, unusual wall paintings, which resemble what Han Solo and Princess Leia might have had made to commemorate their wedding, and of course, the chef’s opera singing at the end of the evening (what range!).

Da Ping Huo's chili beef

There are things we didn’t get. A soup of what appeared to be purely lettuce looked like “something out of the Moosewood cookbook,” said James. There was also a duo of steamed pork and taro that resembled something the Pennsylvania Amish might have served up on barn-raising days. But these are small quibbles, and so not that much fun to complain about. It was worth every minute it took to find the place, wandering the streets in high heels and praying to God I don’t fall on my face onto Lord-knows-what smeared onto the sidewalk.

Finally, there is The Chairman, for which we prepared by WORKING OUT IN THE FITNESS ROOM (don’t say we didn’t try our best). This was the only place we didn’t find Japanese executives, or tourists of any kind, really. Perhaps this is why they appeared extremely reluctant to let us through the door. After making a reservation for noon, a server came out to tell us that the restaurant was open at 12:15, blatantly disregarding the sign in front listing the opening time as “12:00”. After planting ourselves in the doorway and refusing to budge until they relented (hey, we were hungry), we were ushered in a few minutes later, and kindly shown a menu from which our server pointed out his recommendations. What he advised: a delicious passel of clams in chili jam, accented with Thai basil and red chili a la hoy pad cha; roasted lamb belly, thick and slightly smoky; deep-fried pork spareribs coated in a sauce James likened to “what you’d find in a pu pu platter”; a soup that “tastes like something you’d eat during a famine”, said James, who was not turning out to be a great fan of Chinese soups.  The waiter also relented and allowed us to order a cold Sichuan-style salad of julienned pig’s ear and tripe, paired with slivered Chinese pear, which ended up being underwhelming despite the textural diversity (moral of the story: listen to your waiter!)

Clams at the Chairman

I am ashamed to say this was the last big meal we could manage in HK. For dinner that night, after an uncomfortable few hours toddling through a mall and a dyspeptic spell in a movie theater, we settled down at the nearest place we could roll ourselves over to — an Irish pub — and consoled ourselves with salads.

Later that night, I was so hungry, I ate my complimentary fruit plate.

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, food, Hong Kong, restaurant, seafood

The Thanksgiving Post

Because I can't not use this photo

Somehow, the sacrifice of many turkeys puts people in the sort of mood to count their blessings. I am one of them (albeit a day later than everyone else). Of course, there is being thankful for my family, and friends, and people who are willing to put up with me for a few hours during the day in general. I can understand your pain, kind people. Thank you for that.

I am also thankful for the many great experiences I have had over the past year — especially the food-based kind. How lucky I’ve been! So here is, pretty much, a slide show of some snippets of my year, which has passed by far too quickly for my liking. Just imagine sitting in a rec room somewhere, wanting desperately to escape while I drone on and on about boring stuff. Ah, Thanksgiving!

1. While in France in the autumn, we escaped from our tour long enough to score a dinner at Alain Chapel for my birthday. It was a great birthday! My choice was simple: a roasted veal kidney, sliced at the table and served with a thick ‘n glossy red wine sauce.

 

 

2. Delicious China. Need I say more? Like many many other people, my favorite dish is the ultimate in Sichuan comfort food: mapo tofu, cubes of jiggly blank goodness coated in chilies and beans and good ol’ oil, one of the more bewitching combinations known to man.

 

3. Berlin is one of my favorite cities in the world. I look forward to going almost every year, when my husband attends a travel fair and I end up having the entire city to myself. I love that Berlin’s possibilities are endless. There is always something new to discover, and always something I end up missing out on. On my next visit, a trip to the pirate-themed restaurant will be an absolute must!

Here, the beef goulash with spaetzle at the Reinhard’s on Kurfurstendamm, otherwise known as Thai Tourist Central.

 

4. When my family go on holiday together, my dad always ends up being the cook. This might suck for my dad, but it’s a real treat for us, a throwback to when we were kids and dad had to cook dinner after he came home from work.

Quite sensibly, dad tries to shy away from cooking duties now, but sometimes, in a foreign country and surrounded by hungry family members demanding perfectly fried rice or a well-seasoned larb, he cannot say no. Here is his yum nuea, a spicy beef salad made with the local Limousin beef of the Perigord region.

 

5.  Obvious alert: street food. I can’t say I love it in all its permutations and varieties — you may not have guessed, but I’m not the biggest jok (Chinese-style rice porridge) fan in the world, and I actually dislike Thai-style som tum (pounded spicy salad) — but I am truly thankful for the vast range of street food out there right now.

And the variety keeps growing! We are getting Japanese-style okonomiyaki (savory crepes) and pasta sauced with different curries and even, I hear, stabs at Western food. Thai food is at an incredible moment in time when it is figuring out, again, what it really is, expanding and changing its parameters, to the delight or dismay of many. What’s next? I don’t know, but it’s definitely something to be thankful for.

Dry thin noodles (sen lek) with pork, "yum"-style, at Baan Jik in Udon Thani

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chinese, food, food stalls, France, French food, noodles, restaurant, Thailand

When it’s time to break up

roasted duck

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

This is the duck we never had. But I should start from the beginning.

Relationships with restaurants are like relationships with people. There is the flicker of interest, the sideways glance, the feeling that maybe you should check that out sometime. There is the lust. And then there is falling in love.

Like anyone who lives a lot in the past, I remember the details: 1997. Paris. Le Grand Vefour. Plaques marking where past patrons once sat — I sat at Colette’s place, but I also remember a Napoleon. A platter of velvety, almost candied pigeon. A wine like leather and mushrooms. And a Swiss financier who sent over a bottle of dessert wine, simply because we “looked happy”. I remember a vista had spread out before me of previously unexplored things, at least for a culinary student living on hard-boiled eggs in a 5th-floor walk-up on the edge of the Greek Quarter. I do not go back to Le Grand Vefour very often, but I will always love that restaurant because of that feeling.

At least, I think I will always love that restaurant. Because, like for any relationship, the threat of a break-up always looms. They can be clean and clinical; a bad meal, bad service, and you simply never go back. They can be contentious: he said, she said sort of stuff, requiring the intervention of a manager. And they can be ugly.

When you have driven for hours from Rouffillac to Paris, enduring Opera-area traffic, drunken throngs in the Greek Quarter, and a winding queue down the sidewalk, and it’s already 9:30 and you’re bone-tired, you want some TLC. You’ve seen the guys at Mirama before; you lived just around the corner, for Chrissake, you remember being a loyal customer even though you never really counted Hong Kong-style duck and egg noodles as one of your favorite dishes.

It’s kind of jarring when they start picking and choosing from the line in front of you. But it’s okay; they said two tables of five, and that’s fine, it’s understandable. It has now been an hour, you’re next, and the group behind you that has just sidled up is big as well — eight carefully-coiffed blondes in the kind of scarves that suggest they are “slumming it” for the evening on the Left Bank.

So it feels like a punch in the gut when the group behind you gets called, and you’ve been waiting for over an hour. The celebratory whoops are salt in the wound. You are being taken for granted. The wise thing to do is to walk away. But you can’t help it. You march into the restaurant and confront the 60-year-old, balding, stressed-out Chinese man, who explains they don’t seat tables of 10. He is now telling lies. The Chinese man is now like all those other guys who tell tales when confronted: she was just a friend, he was alone that night, she meant nothing.

Walk away, walk away. So you do — for two seconds. You double back again. He needs to know it’s wrong. You need closure. You tell him. He doesn’t seem to register what you are saying. It feels like talking to a brick wall. So then, you walk away. But because you just can’t help it, you walk back again. You need to know. “Is it because she’s blonde?” you say. “No, no,” he says, and you think he’s lying, yet again.

You walk away for the last time, only to hear your name after you’ve crossed the street. “He can seat four!” someone calls out, and it’s the final straw, the last insult — he couldn’t seat 8 of you, but now 4 is okay? “He can kiss my ass!” you scream across the rushing traffic on Rue St. Jacques, convinced you will never, ever return. You turn around and seek out the next best thing, Roger Le Grenouille, and he is kind and welcoming, and the frog legs are great, and things are okay. But you will always remember Mirama’s rejection, and how that stung, a little bit.

Mirama

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Chinese, duck, food, France, Hong Kong, noodles, restaurant