Archive | September, 2010

Melbourne, Portland of the Southern Hemisphere

29 Sep

I tagged along with Tom on his trip to Melbourne last week. This being my first time in Australia, I wasn’t sure what to expect; food-wise, I was looking forward to indulging in red meat, cheese, and wine, things that Malaysia doesn’t do so well. Especially wine. Asia still doesn’t have much of a wine culture (and really, who wants to be drinking red wine in 90-degree heat?), and with the high taxes in Malaysia, it’s both difficult and expensive to find a decent bottle. (Case in point: Yellowtail costs nearly $20 here.) Melbourne, on the other hand, is in the heart of Australia’s lesser-known wine country, the Yarra Valley, which is sort of the Oregon to the McLaren Valley’s Napa.


The bucolic hills of wine country in the Yarra Valey


I was surprised to find out that Melbourne is something of a food destination. The focus on local eating would put Alice Hoffman to shame. I mean, even the olive oil and salt they put on the house-made pasta are likely to be local. Also, much like the Pacific Northwest, Melburnians are obsessed with coffee. (There’s even an app for it.) There are literally hundreds of European-style coffee bars (though they don’t charge you for sitting) tucked into laneways and dotting the streets. As far as I could make out on my brief visit, the reason for all the cafés has its roots in 1) the Italian immigrants who came during the 19th century and after World War II, bringing café culture with them, and 2) the practice of closing pubs at 6 pm, from which coffee bars were exempt, even if they might be serving something a little stronger than espresso. (N.B.: the early closing was abolished in the late ’60s, but the coffee bars remained.)


Caffe latte, served authentically


Perhaps because coffee is part of Melbourne’s heritage, coffee shops are mostly independent (I only saw one Starbucks the entire week), and the drinks are served as they would be in Italy — even the McCafe lattes come in a glass.

I was also surprised by how acclimated I had gotten to living in Malaysia, even after a month. Literally — I was so cold in Melbourne (it’s spring there now, so temps were between 50 and 60 degrees) that I had to buy a new jacket. And portion sizes! Somewhere in the back of my mind I expected Australia to be quasi-British, and was unprepared for the massive, American-sized plates of food.

The shift in portion size, along with the sizable Chinese population in Melbourne, has produced this specialty: the dim sim.


Behold, the dim sim


When I first saw an ad for “dim sim,” I thought it was a typo, but then I saw other places advertising their “delicious South Melbourne market dim sims” and came to the conclusion that it must be A Thing. The dim sim is like a potsticker on HGH: a ball of seasoned pork the size of a child’s fist in a very large wonton wrapper, which you can get fried or, as a concession to health, steamed. I guess “gut bomb” wasn’t as marketable. (By the way, if you’re wondering “why dim sim?”, have an Australian try to say “dim sum.”) I got mine fried, of course, because when you’re eating a quarter-pound of minced pork, you might as well go for the gusto. It tasted kind of like a Chinese food version of another Aussie staple, the sausage roll. I imagine these would be very popular in Wrigleyville after a Cubs game.

Another Melbourne specialty, allegedly: cakes. Acland Street in the St. Kilda’s district is particularly known for their pastries.


Cake display on Acland Street


There are three or four of these cake shops lined up along the street. Which brings me to another Melburnian (or maybe it’s Australian?) specialty: incomprehensible terms for common things. A cake isn’t a cake, it’s a “slice,” which is actually a square. A pot of beer is smaller than a pint of beer. I still don’t know what a “milk bar” is. And it took me a while to figure out that when people ask you “How’re you going?”, they’re not interested in your transit plan.

The vanilla slice I had was delicious, though it was neither a slice nor a cake. (Definitely vanilla.) It was more like a mille-feuille, but with about two inches of cream filling. This thing was huge. (See above regarding Aussie portions.)

Melbourne is also famous for its food markets. These are like permanent farmers’ markets that have been around since the 19th century, and like a supermarket, you can get anything: meat, seafood, vegetables, deli items, uggs (this being Australia, after all). I couldn’t resist a trip to the seafood section:

The finest from Australian shores




As I bemoaned my lack of a kitchen to prepare these delicacies, I noticed that a couple of gentlemen were enjoying cold beers and oysters on the half-shell. The stall had set up an impromptu oyster bar, and was running a $1 oyster special!


Oysters, straight from the market


I love oysters. When I heard Shaw’s Crab House had a 25-cent oyster special (they still have it: 3-6pm on the last Monday of the month), I had two dozen of them. By myself. However, I restrained myself this time (I’d just eaten that dim sim, after all) and only got three.

My only regrets leaving Melbourne were that 1) I didn’t get to eat more, and 2) I couldn’t smuggle in cheese to go with my wine. Next time, I’m bringing a cooler.


Moons over Kuala Lumpur

27 Sep

Moon Cake

Last weekend, Chinese communities in Asia celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival, which they should re-name the Moon Cake Festival, because that seems to be the primary focus. The basic idea seems to be that on the night when the full moon is the brightest (the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar), families watch the full moon, kids get to stay up late and play with festive paper lanterns, and everyone eats elaborate pastries known as “moon cakes,” which bear no resemblance whatever to Moon Pies. And, because this is Asia, you spend the preceding month giving out said cakes to colleagues, neighbors, business associates, etc., preferably the most impressively packaged possible.

I was familiar with the moon cake itself (they call them geppei in Japan), but not with the festival, despite growing up in places with huge Chinese populations. In Malaysia, you’d have to be living under a rock to miss it, and even then, a nice Chinese Malaysian would probably lift your rock to present you with a box of moon cakes. (This actually happened. I was in the shower when the doorbell rang, and I ran out in a towel because I thought it was an emergency — who would be ringing my doorbell if it wasn’t? — only to find the nice lady from the management office, who was giving out moon cakes to all the condo residents. Awkward.) They’re so ubiquitous that even Häagen-Dazs and Mrs. Fields have them. (Yes, there’s a Mrs. Fields in Malaysia. And DuDo’s. It’s just like home, except with dragon fruit jelly donuts.)

Box for moon cakes: packaging as pretty as its contents.

Traditionally, moon cakes are filled with a dense lotus-and-bean paste, sometimes flavored with pandan (which gives the paste a bright green color and a subtle, nutty flavor), and a salted egg  yolk (or two, if it’s really decadent). “Paste” is really a key word here; imagine kindergarten paste (the kind kids used to eat), but less sweet. Another traditional filling is fruits, nuts, and…ham. I guess it’s not so far off from a b’stilla, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.

Pandan-lotus moon cake with a single yolk

There are also the nouveau moon cakes that try to one-up the competition with increasingly elaborate fillings. For example, one restaurant offered a “Yellow Moon” flavor with a violet-flavored pastry, brandy-flavored lotus paste, and a chocolate center, and a “Blue Moon” that involved a “blueberry cheese Feuillantine,” whatever that means.

Chic moon cakes

The trend this year seemed to be “snow skin,” which means that the moon cake has a mochi wrapping rather than the normal pastry.

That's real gold leaf on those moon cakes.

Tom brought a couple of these new-fangled flavors home from his office’s moon cake party, and I have to admit they were pretty good. I especially enjoyed the mocha and green tea flavors. It helped that the filling was smoother than the lotus type.

And look, so pretty!

That’s the green tea version. The color comes from the tea, not food coloring. The filling was just as green, and had a much stronger tea flavor than I expected, but in a good way.

Ironically, despite all the moon cake we ate, and the Mid-Autumn Festival advertising we were bombarded with, we were in Melbourne (a very moon cake-free city) for the actual festival. Oh well, Deepavali’s right around the corner, and I’m sure the malls will be setting those displays up shortly.

Hong Kong Street Food

26 Sep

Lest you think that all we did in Hong Kong was eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, we also dined at places like this:

Tom picked this place on the strength of the tasty-looking meats in the window. It turned out to be a noodle joint:

Clearly it was somewhere at least kind of well-known, because they had an English menu (sadly, nearly as unintelligible as the Chinese) and a guy toting a Lonely Planet. The noodles were thicker than usual ramen noodles, sort of like linguine, or an egg-and-flour version of pho, and very fresh-tasting: no dried noodles here. (By the way, if the only bowl of ramen you’ve had is Maruchan…I’m sorry. Please try to have a bowl of tonkotsu ramen at your nearest Japanese restaurant, or failing that, get some Chuka Zanmai and follow the directions on the back.)

Due to more restrictive hygiene regulations, Hong Kong does not have street vendors every three steps like KL (although there is a tasty-looking eatery). But we were able to score these:

These are basically waffles. They’re not filled with anything (the difference between Asia and the US, where these would totally have a kreme or jelly filling), but still pretty tasty as a snack. The middle is a bit underdone, so it’s kind of like eating a cross between waffles and pancakes.

Here’s an action shot:

Combine this with the aroma of fresh waffles wafting onto the sidewalk: how could you not stop? This is why street vendors always have big fans.

Duck, Duck, Goose

26 Sep

The fabulous decor at Yung Kee Restaurant

After Tim Ho Wan, we kept our Michelin streak going for dinner with a visit to Yung Kee, a Michelin one-star as grand as Tim Ho Wan is modest. Yung Kee is a venerable restaurant in the Central district of Hong Kong that’s been around since the ’40s and is famous for their roast goose (it’s goose, rather than duck, that’s revered in Hong Kong), which they raise themselves. (The original farm-to-table.) There are three floors of dining, and photographs of all the luminaries (political, theatrical, etc.) that have visited Yung Kee over its many years. The closest analog in Chicago would be somewhere like Rosebud, maybe, or Chicago Chop House; an institution where going is an event.

Surprisingly, we were able to get a table, even without reservations. (See the aforementioned three floors of dining.) We could tell that Yung Kee has not positioned itself as a romantic nook; we were seated at the smallest table, a 6-top round, where we sort of huddled in an…arc. (Since round tables don’t have corners.) Most of our fellow diners were multi-generational families, business colleagues, or tourist groups. We were then presented with the longest menu I’ve ever seen. So long that it took two books to corral all the items. To prevent my head from exploding, we got a set menu of Yung Kee’s greatest hits, as it were: roast goose with preserved trotter, shrimp with crab roe, whole abalone in soup, steamed grouper with vegetables and Chinese ham, some sort of noodles, and mango pudding. (You’ll notice this doesn’t include rice. Because rice fills you up, and then you can’t eat any more delicious goose.)

As with any classy joint, we got an amuse bouche to start our meal:

"Century" egg with pickled ginger

Century egg, or thousand-year-egg, is an egg (duck or hen) that’s been preserved in a mixture of salt, tea, ash, and lime. The eggs are cured for 60 days at most, not quite a century. I’ve had them before, but this version was revelatory: the white was like jelly, the yolk silken and smooth, and not at all salty or pungent. I’m afraid to have century eggs anywhere else now, because I’m afraid they won’t live up. (You say they don’t look like something you should be eating anyway? Well…maybe if you can’t have these, you shouldn’t.)

The art of the garnish

Onto the first course: battered shrimp with mini crab roe (it’s kind of wrapped into the shrimp with the batter). Note the garnish of a whole, fried crab. Because nothing whets the appetite like a reminder of what your food used to look like (or would grow up to be, in this case).

Roast beast!

And now for the star of Yung Kee: roasted goose. (If you’re really fancy, you can get this served to you as “flying goose,” where the goose is arranged as though it were in flight.) The pink stuff is, I think, the “preserved trotter”; it tasted like Chinese ham, which to me tastes like regular ham that’s gone a bit off.

The goose is justly famous. It’s seasoned much like Peking duck (soy sauce, five-spice powder, hopes, dreams), but because it’s goose, the meat is leaner. The skin was delicious, crisp and not fatty. For those of you who saw “Eat Drink Man Woman” (and those that haven’t, I encourage you to), remember the scene where the dad prepares the goose for dinner (3:55 mark of the clip)? This is that goose. (I’ll be honest, it’s been a very, very long time since I saw that movie, and that’s about all I remember from it.)

Oh, and here’s a new thing (for Tom):

Whole abalone in soup

I was a little conflicted eating this, not because I don’t love abalone, but because abalone has been overfished in many (most?) parts of the world. I’m hoping this one was from one of the commercial farms that are out there, but unfortunately places like this don’t include information on the sustainability of their ingredients.

The Most Affordable Fine Dining In the World: Tim Ho Wan’s, Hong Kong

15 Sep

Tom had another long weekend last week (Hari Raya), so we decided to splurge on a weekend in Hong Kong. (One of the perks of crazy business travel is spending your points on vacation.) Most of our time was spent on those deeply cultural pursuits, eating and shopping. I think Hong Kong rivals KL for number of tasty edibles per square meter, although in fairness it’s more compact. (Not to mention easier to navigate on foot. Sidewalks, how I’ve missed you.)

Asia, in recent years, has been trouncing Europe and the US in the Michelin-star wars. Tokyo alone has 150 Michelin stars. Hong Kong is no slouch, with 42 to its name, one of which has become famous as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world; it’s a hole-in-the-wall dim sum place called Tim Ho Wan, where the most expensive menu item tops out at US $3. It’s probably also gotten the most press. Hong Kong is widely known to have the best dim sum in the world anyway, so this was going to be either the most transcendent yum cha or biggest letdown ever. I had to find out. (Oh yeah, and it’s the first Michelin restaurant I’ve seen that I can afford.)

I was a bit intimidated by the stories of four-hour waits and the cranky Chinese hostess (is there such a thing as a winsome Chinese hostess? Discuss), but sucked it up in the name of the blog.

Perusing the menu in the queue at Tim Ho Wan

I was even more nervous about missing our number. The hostess shouts out your number in Cantonese, which I am not even remotely familiar with. (Mandarin at least kind of sounds like Japanese.) When I wasn’t trying to figure out what the (Chinese) menu items were by comparing the characters with the magazine photos plastered on the windows, I was obsessively checking the list to see where we were. (By the way, much thanks to the nice lady behind me who told me how to say “83” in Chinese, all 20 times I asked. No, I still don’t remember.)

The wait turned out to be much shorter than feared, only about 40 minutes. We got crammed into a corner so tiny we had to ask our neighbors to move their table when we needed to get out. The official capacity of Tim Ho Wan is 20 Asian people, or about five Americans, not counting the servers darting around with steaming pots of tea and baskets of food. They don’t do the traditional pushcart thing here, for the main reason that there’s not enough square footage to fit a cart, let alone push one around.

But enough about ambiance; that’s not why we’re here. Does the food live up to the hype?

The famous char siu bao

Tim Ho Wan’s specialty is their char siu bao; they sell up to 750 of these in a day. Bao (which in Chinese refers to any sort of bun) are usually steamed, but Tim Ho Wan bakes theirs with a light sugar coating, resulting in an airy bun with a bit of crunch. Oh, and this in the middle.

Sweet, sweet char siu.

That’s the char siu, barbecued pork in a sweet-and-savory glaze. The char siu was a little sweeter than what I’m used to. The whole thing sort of tasted like a porky dessert, like the “pig newtons” (some sort of pork-filled cookie) that I accidentally bought at a Vietnamese bakery in Chicago. I see why they sell so many of these; it’s the perfect marriage of delicate pastry and savory filling.

Steamed dumpling in Chiu Chow style

Dim sum involves a lot of dumplings, particularly of the sort wrapped in glutinous rice pastry. I think the above are called glass dumplings. You see the shrimp-stuffed version (called har gow, and of course we ordered those too) more commonly in the US. These were filled with a mixture of pork, chives, dried shrimp, peanuts, Chinese radish, and cilantro. Rich and savory, yet fresh-tasting, with each dumpling encompassing a world of flavors in a mouthful. The pastry wrapping was perfectly tender but strong enough to encase the fillings, and a testament to the kitchen’s skill. (If you’d ever like to engage in an exercise in frustration, try wrapping dumplings with wet, sticky glutinous rice wrappers.) “Chiu Chow” is a subset of Cantonese cooking developed in Hong Kong. I have no idea why these dumplings are considered Chiu Chow style.

Meatballs, and more dumplings

On the left we have steamed meatballs with bean curd skin (why is it that Asian food sounds so unappetizing in English?), on the right, deep-fried mochi pastries with a pork filling. The meatballs were remarkably tender and light, with the bean curd adding some chewiness and sopping up the sauce. Some day I will make meatballs this delicious.

On the right are deep-fried mochi (that’s glutinous rice again, this time pounded into a cake) with a filling of pork, mushrooms, and water chestnut in a soy gravy. This is the kind of thing that can easily become cloying or greasy (and often is), so again, kudos to the kitchen for pulling it off.

Rice steamed in lotus leaf with beef and chicken

We were getting full at this point, but it’s not dim sum for me without this dish: sticky rice with soy-braised meats, steamed in a lotus leaf. The rice soaks up the savory juices from the meat, and the lotus leaf lends its…lotus-y flavor. (You know, like grape leaves.) Often it includes things like mushrooms and lotus root, but this one just had meat (beef and chicken…I think). The beef was especially delicious, in that way that makes you keep eating even though you’re stuffed.

The world's best mango pudding

I don’t normally order desserts at dim sum (why waste the stomach capacity?), but Tim Ho Wan’s had gotten glowing reviews. Tom was initially skeptical (“Mango pudding? Really?”) but ate his words (and the pudding too), calling it the “platonic ideal of mango puddings.” It was pretty delicious; just on that fragile, quivering side of the line between a solid and a liquid, creamy, but full of mango flavor, like a mango panna cotta.

Jasmine-infused jelly with jasmine flowers

Our second dessert was less enthusiastically received. (Tom: “Are those flowers or bugs in the jelly?”) It was refreshing, but there’s something about floral-flavored desserts that makes me feel like I’m eating a particularly delicious soap.

Keep in mind that I’ve only posted the mind-blowingly good stuff here in the interest of space; we ordered other stuff that was also just outstanding (the aforementioned har gow, awesome turnip cakes, those “rice crepes” we always get at dim sum). It turns out that Tim Ho Wan has a ringer of sorts: the owner/chef, Mak Pui Gor, was formerly the dim sum chef at the three-starred restaurant in the Four Seasons. My only regret (okay, besides not ordering the chicken feet for Tom) is that now I think I’m ruined for dim sum elsewhere, and it’s too expensive to fly back to Hong Kong every time I have a dim sum craving.

More Hong Kong delights await!

Would You Cook This?

13 Sep

Before I dive into my eating adventures in Hong Kong (the city that makes me regret I have but one stomach), I thought I’d share this quickie with you all.

My first thoughts when I saw these at the supermarket were “What on earth are those? And what do you do with them?” Supermarkets are great because they have signs, unlike your regular markets where you have to ask the seller, and they rattle off something that you have no hope of remembering. These strange looking vegetables are kacang botol, or four-angle bean, so called for obvious reasons.

Despite looking a bit daunting (I thought they might be a cactus of some sort), they grow just like any other bean — slice the pods open and you can see the beans inside — and are mild enough to be eaten raw. I decided to make a traditional Malaysian dish, sambal kacang botol with shrimp, which is just the beans stir-fried with chili paste and shrimp.

If I was being authentic, I would have made my own chili paste, but I didn’t get started that early so I just used a pre-mixed sambal from the store. Cooking with sambal really makes me appreciate both the wet kitchen and its insanely high-powered range hood. If you’ve ever fried chilis in oil, you know what I’m talking about. It’s like misting your kitchen with pepper spray.

The cooked beans were nicely crisp, off-setting the spicy sambal. Even if you don’t have access to four-angle beans (and who knows, you might see it at your local Asian market any day now), you could make the same dish with string beans or green peppers. I think zucchini would be an interesting substitution as well, although it doesn’t have the same crunch factor. The link above is an easy recipe you can try.

Pasar Ramadan (Ramadan Bazaar)

9 Sep

Since Hari Raya (The Malaysian way of saying Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan) is tomorrow, I thought it would be a good time to do a post on the pasar Ramadan, or Ramadan bazaar.

It’s been very interesting living in a Muslim-but-secular country during Ramadan. Malaysia, especially KL, has a significant non-Muslim population, so things don’t come to a standstill during the day, like, say, Saudi Arabia or Morocco. On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore that Hari Raya is coming up, what with all the sales and the buka puasa (break fast) buffets. (Even McDonalds has a buka puasa meal, although I don’t know if I’d want my one meal of the day to be McDonald’s.)

You’d think that a month where you’re required to abstain from eating or drinking (even your own saliva, if you’re hard-core) for 12 hours every day would be greeted with more sobriety. (The emotional kind, obviously; we’re talking about a Muslim holiday here.) But it’s actually been quite festive. Sure, you can’t eat or drink during the day, but nighttime is when you gather with friends and families and eat lots of special dishes that are only served this time of year. It’s like every day is Yom Kippur, and every night is Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. Especially the Christmas part. All the marketing that we Westerners associate with Christmas — including cheesy songs — is put into effect for Hari Raya, at least in Malaysia.

The prohibition against cooking during the fasting period does present a conundrum. Obviously, by the time 7 pm rolls around, you’re going to be too hungry to cook. Enter the pasar Ramadan, where there is a whole market of people selling tasty curries, fried chicken, rice, etc.

Trays of food at the pasar Ramadan

There’s nothing that says you have to be Muslim to go to a pasar Ramadan; money doesn’t have a religion, as they say. I went to a pasar Ramadan just past our subdivision, in what turned out to be a very Malay enclave. I think I was the only non-Malay person there, which was the first time that’s happened since I’ve moved to KL. (There’s usually at least a few Indians or Chinese, if nobody else.) It was like stumbling onto a small town in the middle of the city, although it made me acutely aware of how badly I need to learn some bahasa melayu. At least fingers are universal.

The rice cake vendor. The cakes are filled with palm sugar, wrapped in cloth, and steamed.

Satay chicken grilling over hot coals

Baby chickens under the satay stand, unaware of their fates

No pasar Ramadan is complete without a selection of kuih. (I blogged about this in my first post.)

Assortment of kueh. The pink one tastes like pink.

Happy Hari Raya!