It’s almost New Year again – Chinese New Year! The Year of the Dragon starts on Monday, Jan 23. Just in time for me to share some (mostly food-related) snapshots of my trip to Hong Kong.
January 20th, 2012 · 19 Comments · Pastry, Recipes, Tarts, Travel
December 19th, 2011 · 5 Comments · Travel
Hello from Hong Kong! If it seems like I was just here…it’s kind of true. I usually make a trip here every other year, but family events mean that I’ll have made two trips here in 2011. I’m certainly not going to complain about twice the opportunities to eat egg custard tarts, xiao long bao, dim sum, and, well, just about everything else. The eating never really stops here.
I’m also making a short jaunt to Vietnam for the next few days, so the posting schedule will unfortunately be delayed. If you want to keep abreast of what I’m doing, I’ll be updating my Twitter and Instagram feeds when I can. And I’ll check in when I return to HK on Christmas, so hopefully they’ll still be a Christmas post on Dessert First this year!
Hope all of your holidays are going well and your kitchens are full of the scents of baking and the sounds of laughter!
My first trip to Hong Kong that I remember happened when I was in fourth grade. (My very first time to Hong Kong, I was only a few months old, and therefore have no memories of that trip – a shame, as my maternal grandmother passed away shortly afterwards). When I went again as a fourth-grader, my mother took my sister and I down to the twisty streets of Yau Ma Tei and stopped at a streetside cart where a elderly man was spooning batter into what looked like a handheld waffle maker held over a charcoal grill. In a few seconds he turned out a golden, bubbly sheet into a paper cone and handed it to me.
This was my introduction to eggettes, a classic Hong Kong street food. Like most street food, they taste best seconds after they’ve been handed to you by the vendor. Crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, it’s like bubble wrap made of cake, and pulling off the individual “eggs” affords a satisfaction akin to popping the little bubbles on bubble wrap. The Chinese name, daan jai or gai daan jai, literally translates to “little eggs”, which is what the treat resembles, although somewhere along the way someone came up with the much catchier name “eggettes.” Eggettes became one of my and my sisters’ favorite things to eat in Hong Kong, and every time we’ve returned, we keep one eye open for a eggette stall every time we step outside.
February 2nd, 2011 · 20 Comments · Personal, Photography, Sweet Spots, Travel
Hello dear readers! Apologies for the long absence – and thank you for all of your kind notes! My trip to Hong Kong was very cold – record cold temperatures, I believe, and filled with family and lots of food. Hot food, preferably, to keep warm. It was difficult not to make this a 100 photo-long post, but I hope the following ones give you a taste of my visit overseas.
April 9th, 2006 · 9 Comments · Sweet Spots, Travel
Just as there seem to be an infinite number of cuisines you can taste in Hong Kong, so there is a myriad of sweets and desserts to choose from. Both traditional-style Chinese desserts and western/European style pastries seem to be increasingly in vogue, with dessert places popping up on every street. Whether you want traditional English tea or an egg custard tart, they are easily found.
Some of my favorite places to go are the Chinese bakeries, which offer a dazzling array of Chinese-style breads and buns and western-style cream cakes. Hong Kong people seem to prefer a very soft and fluffy white-flour bun (think barbecued pork buns), and they come with every imaginable filling, from sweet coconut to meat and cheese. Some of the combinations like "sausage mayonnaise" or "corn and tuna" seem rather dubious, but there are also wonderful ones like red bean or curry. And they are ridiculously cheap: usually less than a dollar a bun. So it’s easy to stock up on a variety and see which you like best. You will see many people in the these bakeries picking up some buns for an afternoon snack or for breakfast the next morning.
I have to shamefully admit that I am not much of a bread baker, and I have not attempted to reproduce any of these buns. However, if you are so inclined, there are some very detailed recipes on A La Cuisine and Tigers and Strawberries.
Those same people might also pick up a cake in the bakery for dessert in the evening. The Chinese have adapted the Western ideal of layered cream cakes and interpreted it to satisfy their own tastes. Chinese generally have a less intense sweet tooth, so you will rarely see buttercream or "death by chocolate cakes" – instead, there is a marked preference for fresh fruit, light fruit-flavored mousse fillings, and whipped cream frosting. I am also amazed at how these bakeries produce so many of these elegantly constructed cakes and sell them for so little! Particular flavor favorites in Hong Kong are mango, mixed fruit, and chestnut. Note: even the tiramisu has a light, fluffy texture, and the Japanese-style cheesecake, which is airier and more delicate, is also very popular.
(Note: the prices on the tags are Hong Kong dollars; HK$12 is about US$1.50!!)
Of course, these bakeries will also carry the famous egg custard tart or dan tat. Just like how Parisians will pride themselves on which pâtisserie they purchase their macarons from, so Hong Kong people also have their favored dan tat places. In keeping with Hong Kong’s never-ending appetite for things new and exciting, there are now multiple versions of the dan tat to suit all tastes. My favorite is still the classic egg custard filling in a puff pastry-like crust: the crust is traditionally made with lard, making it extraordinarily light and crisp, and wonderful contrast to the creamy rich custard. Others prefer the more pâte sucrée-like shortcrust. The fillings, too, vary from classic to vanilla to corn-filled, as shown above in center. The version to the right is the Portuguese version, which comes from Macau, a former Portuguese colony. The custard top is sprinkled with sugar and it is broiled, giving it a crème brûlée-like flavor. Eating a fresh, still warm, dan tat is certainly near the top of my list of best experiences in Hong Kong.
I’m woefully behind in chronicling my Hong Kong experiences, I know. Hopefully I’ll get them wrapped up soon!
March 20th, 2006 · 9 Comments · Sweet Spots, Travel
If you would like a refreshing break from walking around the streets of Hong Kong, there are few places more well known or more appealing than the Hui Lau Shan dessert restaurant chain. Why don’t they have more of these types of places in the US instead of opening more Starbucks? (Actually, I just found out Hui Lau Shan has opened in California under the name Creations Desserts- take a look at the menu to see some of Hui Lau Shan’s typical offerings. I will have to check out the local branch soon!)
Imagine after a long day of shopping and sightseeing, you are dusty, tired, and all those shopping bags are getting way too heavy on your arms. Just then, you spot the distinctive red-and-gold exterior of one of these restaurants, the juice machines running merrily on the front counters, the servers calling out the dessert specials of the day. A bowl of fresh fruit over ice cream or a cold fruit sago drink sounds quite delicious right now…
Hui Lau Shan was opened over 50 years ago as an herbal tea shop, specializing in Chinese-style desserts featuring traditional remedies like tortoise jellies – apparently the original Hui Lau Shan store still has a 60-year old old tortoise on the premises. Along the way they started offering fresh fruit drinks and desserts, and evolved into the hugely popular chain they are today.
The house signature dish consists of fresh fruit, like watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, and mangoes, sliced and arranged over a base of sweet ice cream. The dish I had, which you can see on the red banner in the picture below, has a scoop of mango ice cream in a soup of thickened chilled mango juice, with pieces of mango and sago(similar to tapioca pearls). Mango is a very popular dessert flavor in Hong Kong, as you can see from the Mango Mania section of the menu, and Hui Lau San does an excellent job with this tasty fruit.
Hui Lau San’s tortoise jelly, or kwai ling go, is still on the menu! Kwai ling go is made from the bottom shell, or plastron, of a turtle, plus several Chinese herbs to make a black jello-like substance. It is supposed to have many health benefits, including reducing fevers and improving the skin. I’m personally not that fond of it – it has a rather bitter taste – but combined with some ice cream and fruit, it might not be so bad. Other traditional Chinese health items also included on Hui Lau Shan’s menu are bird’s nest and harsmar, which has been euphemistically renamed "crystal snow" on the US menu – but which really just refers to snow frog fat! Both items are reputed to improve the body’s functions and give you a glowing complexion – think of these as the Chinese version of those "nutrition boosts" those health cafes put in your smoothies!
The dessert break at Hui Lau San kept me going until we got to dinner in Causeway Bay as the neon lights started to come on in the city. A necessary disclaimer: my facility in Chinese is far from fluent – while I know enough to ask for my favorite dishes or to get directions to the subway, I can’t navigate the quickly-scrawled, constantly-changing handwritten menus in restaurants. So the burden fell to my wonderful parents, Hong Kong natives who took me to the local places I wouldn’t have found on my own and ordered the dishes I wouldn’t have known about.
Dinner that night was a perfect example – we went to a little restaurant on a small side street with no visible address or name (I believe the Chinese name translates roughly to "Home Cooking Restaurant") but was already filling up quickly at a quarter to six.
True to its name, Home Cooking Restaurant offers simple Cantonese fare like you might find from a home kitchen, well executed and at reasonable prices. One of our dishes was a version of sweet and sour fish, with a sea bass lightly fried and then covered in a tangy tomato sauce with pine nuts.
We also had the "Grandma’s Chicken", where pieces of chicken are marinated in a "secret sauce"(Grandma’s?) – the resulting dish is moist,tender, and savory – a bit like soy sauce chicken but without such heavy soy sauce overtones.
We also had a classic Chinese home dish – steamed egg custard. It is very similar to an omelet except it is cooked in a steamer instead of pan, giving it the tender, velvety texture of custard. Bits of pork, mushrooms, scallions, and soy sauce are also mixed in, making a wonderfully filling comfort food.
After a traditional dessert of red bean soup, we had plenty of time to stroll the streets thronging with nighttime crowds before we finally took a taxi back to the apartment, the glittering lights following us all the way home.
Next: Bakeries in Hong Kong!