Snapshots from Hong Kong

February 2nd, 2011 · 20 Comments · Personal, Photography, Sweet Spots, Travel

HKShangrila

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.

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Hong Kong Bakeries

April 9th, 2006 · 9 Comments · Sweet Spots, Travel

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(Note: the prices on the tags are Hong Kong dollars; HK$12 is about US$1.50!!)

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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!

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Dessert Before Dinner: Hui Lau Shan

March 20th, 2006 · 9 Comments · Sweet Spots, Travel

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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.

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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.

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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.
 

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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.

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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!

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HK Dim Sum, How I've Missed You

March 16th, 2006 · 6 Comments · Travel

Living in San Francisco, most people would think there is easy access to great Chinese food. I won’t say there isn’t good Chinese food to be found, just that it is not as prevalent as one would assume given the large Chinese population. The thing about Hong Kong is that not only is there great Chinese food, but is it everywhere.  You can get an elaborate meal with abalone, bird’s nest, and other delicacies at a beautiful rooftop restaurant, or you can get a fantastic bowl of wonton noodle soup in a streetside shop.  My first meal of choice upon arriving in Hong Kong? Dim sum.

My favorite place for dim sum is Sheung Wan Ho Choi Seafood Restaurant on the Hong Kong Island. Like many establishments in space-deprived and ever-more-vertical Hong Kong, it is located on the upper floors of a nondescript building and has a rather unassuming storefront. Once you exit the elevator into the restaurant proper,though, you are faced with tanks upon tanks of fish, crabs, clams, and all sorts of sea creatures – a good sign of the freshness of the food to come.

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A beautiful example of har gow or shrimp dumplings, a classic dim sum item. The wrapper is translucent, hinting at the shrimp goodness inside, firm enough to hold together when picked up but delicate enough to tear easily under a bite. The shrimp were huge, plump, and juicy, cooked perfectly.  They were mixed with bits of crunchy bamboo shoots that combined with the shrimp juices to form a heavenly mouthful.

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This is another favorite of mine, lo bak gao, or turnip cakes.  The turnips in question are Chinese white radishes, which are grated and combined with rice flour, scallion, black mushrooms, Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, and other goodies (many dim sum items seem to be made by combining as many ingredients as possible in a tiny mysterious package that smells and taste outrageously good.  When growing up I would often ask my mother what a particular item was, to which she would respond, "It doesn’t matter, just eat it, it’s good."  She was right.) The mixture is steamed, chilled to form a firm cake and then fried. Cut into slices, they are greasy, hot, and richly flavored – perfect dim sum.

As another side note, lo bak also refers to carrot – the pointy orange kind. As I was not very fond of carrots as a child, I refused to eat lo bak gao for quite a long time – until I discovered my tragic misunderstanding.

Other dishes we had included siu mai, dumplings made of ground pork and shrimp in a wonton wrapper (more trivia: the characters for siu mai literally mean "cook" and "sell" – perhaps an allusion to the fact that these items are so popular they sell as quickly as they are cooked); fung jau, chicken feet in black bean sauce; lo mei gai, sticky rice with chicken and Chinese sausage wrapped in a lotus leaf; and a twist on the popular cha siu bao (barbecued pork bun) that I adore, cha siu so, where the barbecued pork is put inside a pocket of puff pastry and baked. When you bite into one you get flaky, buttery pastry and then salty, juicy cha siu – it’s like dinner and dessert in one bite!  I have never found any cha siu so done well in the Bay Area, so the reason I have no pictures of this wonderful creation is that I ate them as soon as they arrived on the table!

Dim sum is a beloved tradition in Hong Kong – while the most common image of dim sum is of cavernous restaurants overflowing with families and waitresses pushing carts, with everyone screaming at the top of their lungs, it can also be a more sedate afternoon affair, or a leisurely morning event.  In smaller, quieter restaurants like Ho Choi, you will see many elderly people sitting at the tables reading the newspaper, with perhaps one or two dishes in front of them, drinking tea and relaxing. They will sit there for much of the morning and no one will shoo them away.

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Dim sum is also available on the streets from vendors.  Usually these take the form of several siu mai or other dumpling types on a stick, to be happily bitten off as you continue wandering the city. Some of the street dim sum can be just as good as the restaurant kind – and it’s pretty hard to resist the smells as you walk by!

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I had arrived in Hong Kong at 6 in the morning, and by the time I finished with dim sum it was 10 – just in time for most malls to open (while many places are open early, most big malls do not open until later – important to know in the summer when reaching an air-conditioned place is critical). While my fits of consumerism come and go, it’s impossible not to feel the itch in Hong Kong. The newest mall in Hong Kong (they never seem to tire of building more shopping meccas, either), the APM Mall in Kowloon, does not close until 12 AM has some shops that are open 24 hours.

I managed to make rounds in about two malls before jet lag started kicking in and I needed a break. Fortunately, one of these was close by:

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Perhaps you can tell from the picture that I could not make it that long without some dessert! 

To be continued with a dissertation on desserts in Hong Kong…

Sheung Wan Ho Choi Seafood Restaurant

287-291 Des Voeux Road Central, Hong Kong

Tel: 2850 6722

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Back from Beyond the Looking Glass

March 14th, 2006 · 6 Comments · Travel

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Traveling to foreign countries is always like stepping through the looking glass for me: some things are similar in strange ways, while other things are completely different in stranger ways.  When you land in Hong Kong after a 14 hour flight from San Francisco, the sun’s in the wrong place in the sky, the cars are on the other side of the street, the subway system actually works, even the air feels different, moister and scented with the perfume of far-off places (when we were younger, my sisters and I would refer to it simply as "the Hong Kong smell").

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But if my dozen trips to Hong Kong during my life have not actually made me a resident, it has afforded me the pleasure of memories.  I breathe in the air and I remember how, in my parents’ apartment, you have a water heater switch for each bathroom to turn on the hot water; how all public announcements are made in both Chinese and English (and, these days, in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English); how I can tell my parents in the morning that I want to eat lobster that night and we’ll find a place because if there’s one thing Hong Kong isn’t lacking, it’s restaurants, especially seafood restaurants; how I can see Hong Kong harbor from my apartment window – one of my favorite sights in the world.

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This trip was a wonderful re-visiting of old memories and creation of new ones.  Of course, any visit to Hong Kong can’t help but have a heavy concentration on food (unless you’re such a shopaholic you can’t tear yourself away from the stores to eat – shame on you!), and this time I took especial care to document my culinary journeys.  In my next few entries I’ll try to cover the wide range of my gastronomic and non-gastronomic experiences – of course dessert will be included!

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You can also visit my photo albums on Flickr:

Hong Kong

Macau

Singapore

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Away Message

March 1st, 2006 · 3 Comments · Travel

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Just a little note to say I’m off to Hong Kong and Singapore for a bit of vacation.  I’ll be back in about a week with hopefully many pictures and stories to share – how could I not when going to two food paradises!

à bientôt!

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