Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pig Island 2016

Happy 5th birthday to us!  Another year, another brilliant trip to Pig Island.  As always, we're very grateful to Jimmy Carbone and his team at Food Karma for organizing this event and being gracious hosts.  I would have loved for it to be about twenty degrees cooler and a bit more overcast; it was sweltering and I came home with a pretty gnarly tan!  But no matter, the plentiful food and drink were still enjoyable.

In past years, I've tried to pinpoint a recurring theme or motif that inspired the chefs: last year we saw a lot of chicharrones and pork rinds, whereas past years there were lots of tacos or sliders.  I think this year's theme was a little broader and more international: fusion pork dishes.

One of the standouts was a sandwich from Hudson & Charles of pickled pork shoulder in a banana calamansi BBQ sauce.  We spoke to the chefs, who told us calamansi is a citrus fruit like a cross between lime and orange, commonly used in Filipino cooking.  The pork was super tender and had a slightly tangy flavor, owing to the calamansi and a pickled papaya slaw.

Another memorable and very attractive dish was from Insa: a Korean-inspired braised pork wrapped in a thin sliver of pickled radish and sprinkled with green onion and sesame.  The pork was delicious, but the highlight of this delicate wrap was the stark contrast of black sesame seeds against the white wrapper, which I had originally assumed was a very pale tortilla.  It was very creative and felt fairly light and refreshing.

Of the most stunning displays, Gaseiro e Bom supermarket probably takes the cake.  They had a huge pig torso rotating on a spit over hot coals.  Their dish was Portuguese roast pork; although they didn't explain exactly what distinguished the Portuguese style, I thought I tasted some citrus and something tangy as well.

Other chefs and restaurants cooked up bahn mi sandwiches, souvlaki in pitas, pork with eggplant caponata, pig bone ramen broth, bratwursts, ground pork on a crisp black tortilla almost like a ultra-thin crust pizza, medianoche sandwiches...the international flavor was certainly everywhere, and undoubtedly delicious!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

China, Part 4: Hong Kong

After seeing more branches of my family tree in Jiangmen than I ever have in my life, we sojourned by bus to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is about a 4 hour bus ride away, considering you have to stop in Shenzhen to go through customs and immigration.  One of the most interesting things I saw here was the groups of commuter students.  And by students, I mean six year old schoolchildren.  While we lugged our suitcases off the bus, into the customs building, and waited on lines, we saw herds of kids dressed in matching school uniforms and bright bookbags and ID badges running through the building to get from the Shenzhen side to the Hong Kong side, and vice versa.  My dad said these were kids who lived on either the mainland China or the Hong Kong side and had to commute to and from school every day on the opposite side. Wild!  I thought it was bad just passing through once and waiting on lines and getting my passport stamped and all that, but these kids had to do it at least twice a day.

Anyway, we entered Hong Kong without any issue and dropped our things off at a tiny hotel.  We would soon learn that Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places in the world, particularly for real estate, so goodbye to the giant hotel rooms that we had in Guangzhou and Jiangmen, and hello to bargain hostel rooms.

We wandered fairly aimlessly, first stopping for a late lunch at a noodle joint across the street from the hotel.  Mom ordered fried fish skin, and while I blanched and gagged at the idea, I was actually the one hogging most of the skin bits.  If I closed my eyes while eating fried fish skin, I could be convinced that they were shrimp chips (those colorful styrofoam-like chips that come with whole roasted chicken at Chinese restaurants): some people think they're gross, but I could eat an entire barrel.  I regretted a little getting a meatball noodle soup dish because while it tasted fine, it was like 90 degrees and 100% humidity outside.  We had to quickly come to accept that sweating through your clothes was entirely the norm.

We walked down the very crowded and commercial Nathan Road that took us directly to the Tsim Sha Tsui ("sharp sand mouth") area right on Victoria Harbor.  Here was when I started acclimating myself to the geography of Hong Kong.  Hong Kong actually straddles both sides of Victoria Harbor: there's Hong Kong island and then half of Hong Kong (called Kowloon) that is actually attached to mainland China.  We spent most of our time on Kowloon.  The aimless wandering was perfect, because we got to hop inside some shops to take advantage of the air conditioning, look at how locals go about their day in HK, and count all the high end retail and jewelry stores that lined the street.

It was down at Victoria Harbor when we learned the irony of Hong Kong: the city's name translates to "fragrant harbor" but here by the water, "smelly swamp" might be more accurate.  Though Hong Kong Island across the way was a beautiful sight to behold - with huge skyscrapers and old fashioned ferries dotting the harbor - I couldn't stand there for much longer without my gag reflex kicking in.

My parents were tired from the heat and walking (though I found HK a pretty walkable city, I'm also like 30 years younger than my parents and love walking long distances in the name of sightseeing), so they retired to the hotel while my sister, Alex, and I went onward.  We found an awesome shopping mall called K11, where we had earl grey cheesecake tarts, spent a long time marveling at candy makers at Sticky (incredible craftsmanship!  These guys take big slabs of moldable candy, shape them into intricate designs from the inside out, and then hand-roll and hand-cut these candies that end up being the size of a fingernail), and eventually had dinner at Pizza Express.  After two straight weeks of Chinese food, we just wanted something different.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The next morning was the gastronomic highlight of the entire trip: TIM HO WAN.

A couple of my friends from Hong Kong had told us about Tim Ho Wan before we left.  Tim Ho Wan is one of the cheapest Michelin starred restaurants in the world, due largely to the fact that it is dim sum, and it is delicious.  (Recently I saw that a Singapore street vendor had won a Michelin star, so that might even earn the title, and that might necessitate a trip to Singapore.)  The restaurant is sparse and clean, not as grungy or sketchy as some dim sum restaurants at home.  It was packed for a weekday morning.  We were very lucky to not have to wait too long for a table of five.  Eventually, they even sat a local Hong Kong fellow at our table (again, space is a premium) and we wound up chatting.

My dad ordered a few dishes: fried spring rolls, cheung fun, roast pork bun, chicken feet, dumplings, and shu mai.  I was simply in heaven.  I don't even know if it was the auspiciousness of the Michelin star, but everything just tasted so darn good!  The cheung fun was, again, the same kind of thin, fresh noodle that we had elsewhere in Guangdong province.  My favorites were the deep fried spring rolls and another kind of fried roll with a gravy-laden chopped meat inside.  They weren't greasy or overly oily, but rather they were crisp and airy and richly flavorful.  In fact, everything was very fresh and obviously carefully crafted and considered.  Their most famous dish, though, is probably the roast pork buns.  As I probably mentioned in previous posts, I'm not the biggest roast pork bun fan, but mmm these were something otherworldly.  The buns are smaller than the ones you can get for 90 cents at a Chinese bakery, and have a golden brown crisp crust that gives way into a gooey interior filled with savory barbecue pork bits: not too sweet, not too gristly, just right.  Tim Ho Wan might have converted me into a roast pork bun fan, if only I could have theirs over and over.  I wasn't even hungry by the end of brunch but I wanted to order every single item again.

That afternoon, we explored Hong Kong Island and the glamorous shopping malls filled with high end retail: Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier everywhere you turn.  We then took the tram up to Victoria Peak, nature's observation deck overlooking Hong Kong.  It was a steep and slightly nauseating ride up the side of the mountain, and the view from the top was pretty cool.

The next day, our last in Hong Kong, was dedicated to all the myriad of outdoor market streets.  First, we went to the Flower Market district, with stalls after stalls of all sorts of beautiful flowers, at pretty good prices too!  If I were a local, I would not hesitate to decorate my tiny HK apartment with flowers from here every week!  A little bit down the road was the Bird Market...which was actually one of the most frightening things this whole trip.  When you walk into the main market area, you hear a cacophony of bird chirps, cries, and squawks.  The smell is...extremely unpleasant.  Like a million bits of bird poop marinating in the humidity.  Undoubtedly there were beautiful creatures in the cages, like the rainbow-colored lovebirds, little brown sparrows, and parrots.  What was really sad was a couple of very elegant old birds like a grey parrot and a large cockatoo that were chained at the neck and these birds clearly couldn't stand it anymore because they started plucking the feathers out around their necks and were trying to make a great escape.  What was even worse was the back stalls, which sold bird, wicker baskets overflowing with wriggling maggots and plastic baggies full of the largest grasshoppers and crickets I've ever seen never wanted to see in my life.  Alex and my sister thought it would be sooo funny to call me over to look, but I ran out of there screaming!

Last, we found the Goldfish Market down the road, which also had house pets like cats and dogs.  First, the goldfish part of the Goldfish Market was like those carnival booths where you throw ping pong balls into fish bowls and can win a little goldfish or betta fish.  Entire walls were covered in neat rows of baggies filled with water and various sea creatures. There were goldfish, betta fish, tiny koi fish, and even little crabs and lobsters and scorpions.  How the crustaceans didn't poke their way out of the bags was a mystery to me.  There were also creatures sold as, I guess, food for other sea a plastic basin full of tiny albino frogs.  One shop sold large box turtles that were stubbornly and sadly trying to ram their way out of their plastic enclosures.

A little down the road were the cuddlier creatures like puppies and cats and rabbits and hamsters.  My sister was falling in love with every single thing and was probably formulating a plan to bring home a floppy-earred bunny.

After a quick lunch at a food court within a mall (where I discovered and fell in love with curry omurice (a Japanese dish of rice wrapped in a thin omlette and, in this case, drizzled in curry sauce, i.e. omelette rice), we were back on a bus headed to Jiangmen for the last leg of our epic vacation.

If China wasn't enough of a culture shock, Hong Kong added an element of sensory overload: every nerve in my body was constantly firing, whether it was "geez, it's hot, I'm going to sweat bullets" or "that dim sum was mouthwateringly delicious" or "is that what the harbor smells like?!" accompanied by a crinkled nose.  It was a lot of fun and I think I've only just scratched the surface.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

China, Part 3: Jiangmen

Chinese geography is still fairly confusing to me, even after I've been to these places.  The next stop on our trip was Jiangmen, which is still part of the Guangdong province about an hour and a half away from Guangzhou by car.  My dad's older brother picked us up in a car to take us to Jiangmen.  It turns out my uncle is kind of a big deal: he is a history professor at Wuyi University, the major university in Jiangmen.  He's been involved with getting UNESCO World Heritage status for several historic villages nearby and sometimes the local TV stations interview him about local history and culture (my dad gets Chinese TV on satellite and he'll sometimes holler at me to come over to see my uncle on TV).

A lot of people from Jiangmen eventually wound up in San Francisco and New York City during the main waves of immigration in the late 1800s and 1990s.

We arrived at the Palace International Hotel in Jiangmen, which conveniently had several restaurants in the same building.  Many locals come here for dim sum or big banquets.  It was here where we had our first real dim sum meal in China, and where we met our paternal grandmother and our two baby cousins who subsequently stole all our hearts.  My grandma is 99 and she's one of the main reasons for this vacation: my sister and I had last seen her 22 years ago during our previous trip to China.  Can you imagine not having seen your own grandma for 22 years?  The geographic separation made me a little sad, especially once I finally met her again as an adult and gained an appreciation for my family tree.  My first cousin has twins, one boy and one girl, who are two and a half.  Towards the end of our trip, my cousin said he wanted us to give them English nicknames, and he was thinking of Olivia for his daughter.  I blurted out "Elliot" immediately for his son, but probably only Law & Order: SVU fans would have appreciated it.

We played with the babies while having a very typical dim sum lunch: various baos, cheung fun, chicken feet, congee, taro cakes.  Although the spread was just like what we'd eat back in New York, there was something more delicious and magical about eating dim sum in China.

The next day we visited Kaiping, the village that my uncle helped to earn UNESCO World Heritage status.  In the mid 1800s, very poor Jiangmen folks fled China when they could to build the American Dream in the gold-paved streets of the US.  First, the big draw was mining during the Gold Rush.  Then, a lot of labor was needed to build the Transcontinental Railroad.  For those lucky Chinese who were able to strike it rich in the States, they would often move back to China and build villages like Kaiping: there are many fortress-like homes with lots of Western influence (imported marble, phonographs, big travelers' trunks) and various methods of protecting their newly-earned American treasures (murder holes, nearly impenetrable doors).  Not only was it awesome to see this little slice of Chinese-American history, but it was the best experience to be led by one of the most knowledgeable tour guides, my own uncle!

For lunch, we went to a nearby restaurant, nothing too fancy but pretty authentic and probably considered fancy considering the rest of the neighborhood was very rural.  Another marvelous dish we had in China was at this restaurant: a platter of roast pork, but not like char siew at all.  Instead of the cloying barbecue glaze on char siew, this pork had a light coat of a more savory sauce.  It was a heavenly blend of lean meat with fat interspersed so evenly that even though the pork didn't feel greasy or blood-vessel-clogging, it melted on my tongue effortlessly.  I begged my parents to find out the name of the dish or at the very least whether we could replicate it back in New York, but to no avail - we'll just continue dreaming about it fondly.

That afternoon, we headed to Taishan, which is also considered part of Jiangmen (Chinese geography is like one of those Russian nesting dolls).  Taishan (in Cantonese, it sounds more like Toisan) is one of the biggest sources of overseas Chinese, which is one reason why you used to hear so much Taishanese in New York City.  Nowadays, there are more influxes of immigration from other regions of China, but back during my formative years of visiting Chinatown I thought everyone was Taishanese.  My family certainly has its fair share: everyone speaks the Taishanese dialect as fluidly as they do Cantonese, and one of my uncles speaks in such deep Taishanese that even I have trouble understanding him.

Taishan's main city was probably the grittiest and least modern of all the urban cities we visited.  When I asked my parents why there are so many Taishanese overseas, they said it was because Taishan was traditionally a very poor region.  It's certainly still urban, but not what I'd call "fancy" modern.  We walked up a very crowded, dirty, noisy street in the middle of town.  There were tons of department stores, all selling knock off or low-quality clothes with hilariously mis-translated slogans.  Why a pair of overalls would be bedazzled with "DRY CLEAN ONLY" in rhinestones is beyond me. Right amidst the bustle of this shopping strip was one oasis of quiet and calm: the church where my mom's dad preached way back when.  It's also a protected site, so that's probably how all the shops cropped up around but this church is that one hold-over from the old days.  It broke my heart a little bit, because my grandpa passed away about three years ago, but it was amazing to step back in time in my family's history.

That night, we had sushi at a popular Japanese restaurant in Taishan.  The meal wasn't as complex as the sushi we had in Guangzhou, but it was more diverse and hearty.  Besides sashimi and nigiri, we also had beef, tofu, and chicken wings.  It was much more cozy and relaxed, so all in all a fun dinner.

The next day was grandma's illustrious birthday party/family reunion.  Okay, so grandma's birthday was a little bit later, but we thought we'd celebrate everything all at once.  We had nearly 120 people in the hotel restaurant for this party!  I barely remember what we even ate, because as the prodigal visiting family members we had to schmooze; bounce around from table to table, toasting literally everyone in the room; and both pose for photographs with groups and take photographs for my parents.  It was a pretty hectic to meet tons of relatives and family friends that I'd never met, with my parents introducing us rapidly and calling us over to meet so many new people.  My cheeks hurt from smiling, but it was genuine: I'd never been in such a big room full of love, and all these people turned up to see the New York branch of the family (and grandma for her birthday, of course).

We spent the afternoon hanging out with my cousin and his twin babies (Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, perhaps?).  For dinner, we drove up to the mountains for a very special dinner: the Chinese version of...a funny hybrid between Medieval Times and Costco rotisserie chicken.  There is literally a big mountain with a creek running through the valley below, and this maze-like restaurant specializes in personal-sized roasted chickens.  The rest of our family thought it was hilarious to feed us an entire chicken each, but we did have to admit these chickens are way smaller than something you'd get at Costco.  We each got a pair of plastic gloves to grab our chickens, which were salty and juicy.  It was fun to tear right into a hot roast chicken and bite the meat off until there was just a sad carcass left!

The American delegation of the family was headed to Hong Kong for two days, before returning back to Jiangmen again. So we bid farewell to our family for a bit and jumped on a bus the next day headed to Hong Kong!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

China, Part 2: Guangzhou

There's an old Chinese adage that says a person should live in Hangzhou, marry in Suzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Luzhou.  I think Suzhou girls are supposed to be pretty, and Luzhou has got forests full of trees perfect for building coffins apparently.  The rest of our trip was spent in Guangdong province, which encompasses Guangzhou, Jiangmen, and Hong Kong.  Guangdong's anglicized name is Canton: hence, Cantonese dialect and food and people - represent!

We flew from Beijing down to the city of Guangzhou.  We were picked up at the airport by another of my mom's friends, who was also a classmate and current employee of the illustrious Mr. C.  We were also given a chauffeur, the company driver of Mr. C's company.  Wild!

Our first dinner in Guangzhou was in a fancy restaurant near the Pearl River.  We had a lot of tasty food, which were much more familiar to us.  Whole boiled shrimp, fatty pork belly, steamed fish, roast goose, and tons more.  One of the most memorable (and cute) dishes was the pineapple bao.  What we got looked like a plate of chubby brown toadstools, but what we ate was sweet bread with that iconic crisp crust on top and a very gooey pineapple jam-like filling.

One strange thing about eating in China is the lack of napkins.  I heard from my family and locals there that apparently restaurants think it's not cost-effective to provide napkins for diners!  Some of the nicer restaurants provided a couple of tissue packets, but how are you supposed to clean up splattered shrimp juice from your shirt and hair with just a thin tissue?!  We found quickly that not only do you have to carry a roll of toilet paper around in your purse, but you also need to carry tons of Wet Wipes and napkins.

The next day, we planned to go on a day trip out to a suburb of Guangzhou called Panyu.  For breakfast, we went to a food stand near the hotel.  Outside, they made fresh dumplings, cheung fun, congee, bao, and other typical breakfast foods. Adults on their way to work and students on their way to school stood in clusters ordering food and jostling with takeaway plastic baggies of food.  Oddly, we opted to eat in...which meant we sat in a dark room where the lights were literally off (imagine my surprise when a few other locals were actually there too, eating their breakfast in the dark).  I was a little skeptical at first, not to mention sweating bullets, but breakfast was fantastic.  We had some xiao long bao (soup dumplings), but not like the Shanghai versions that are so popular here: instead of the soup dumpling style, I'd actually call these tiny soup baos (meat and soup contained in a bready bun).  My favorite dish, though, was the cheung fun rice noodles.  We had beef and plain noodles drenched in light soy sauce.  These were beyond any cheung fun I've had in America.  Here, I actually do not like cheung fun that much: there's something weird about eating a tube of mushed beef, which is then wrapped in another tube of chewy rice noodle.  In Guangzhou, the cheung fun was thin and delicate.  The meat was ground, not pureed beyond recognition. The best part?  Breakfast for the five of us probably cost about $4.  Actually, that's false: the best part for me was watching the cooks outside make cheung fun.  Here's how it goes down: they have a hot plate/griddle where they ladle the rice noodle batter, almost like a square crepe.  Then, they sprinkle toppings like ground beef or crack an egg on top, and then jostle the griddle back and forth so the noodle folds in on itself repeatedly.  Et voila, cheung fun!

In the morning, we visited a beautiful serene park.  For lunch, we met with Mr. C's brother in law in a very modern, stylish Panyu restaurant.  The first dish we had was a little shocking: sea cucumber in a wild rice stew.  This was a common trend during most meals: one of the adults would say in Chinese what the dish was, and my sister and I would pick up a word here or there and feel the immediate surprise and sometimes disgust.  Sea cucumber, frog, pigeon/squab, you name it.  We did have some delicious dishes at lunch, though.  There was a beef dish with large cubes of mushroom (what kind of mushroom has stems this big??) and sesame candied walnuts.  We also had noodles sprinkled with chives, and what our host informed us was a Chinese type of truffle.

There were two fun desserts for lunch: a tray of glazed baos (filled with a paste of peanut butter, chocolate, coconut, and...pork fat!  It was a very Western take on sweet-savory, especially with the bacon craze that has swept America in the last couple of years...pork fat on everything!)  and an elaborate display of...birds' nest soup!  In beautiful gold plated bowls, we each got a pretty tasteless soup of what seemed like little bits of plastic.  I'd had birds' nest soup before in very sweet broth, but this was intentionally bland so you could add your own mix-ins from dispensers of simple syrup, hot almond milk, ginger syrup, or coconut milk.  It was pretty fun to eat; I drizzled a little bit of each syrup on each spoonful.  When we left, my parents remarked that the final course of birds' nest soup probably cost $60.  Per bowl.

That night, we met my dad's friends for dinner in a rather hole-in-the-wall near the hotel.  We had more of the dreamy cheung fun (this time, one was topped with char siew, mmm!), congee, beef tendon, wonton soup, and some rice bowls topped with various meats and veggies.  It was a nice change in pace from the other meals we'd had so far: certainly authentic, with more of a traditional feel.  Ironically, a lot of the restaurants we visited in Guangzhou were palatial and instead of eating in one dining area, we were sequestered in private rooms.  This hole-in-the-wall reminded me of the basement restaurants on St. Mark's Place: dark, a little dingy, but clearly beloved by locals.

The next morning, Alex and I popped out for a breakfast stroll around the neighborhood.  We loved seeing the local way of life in the streets.  Incidentally, our hotel was located on a major street with many hotels, department stores, and high-rise apartments, but just a few blocks over were the more rugged, gritty working class neighborhoods.  Our first stop was for a large pineapple bao at a cute bakery.  The crust on top was very crisp and sweet, and the filling inside was very warm and gooey. 

We continued along a street lined with small markets where people purchased their groceries every morning.  There are fewer major supermarkets here, and the stores are more specialized (butcher, produce, fish market, etc.).  Sandwiched between a few of these markets was a food stall with giant scallion pancakes in a greasy display case.  Looked sketchy...but I had a good feeling about it.  The sales lady only spoke Mandarin, so I thought I heard her say 10 RMB ($1.50) and I was ready to fork over the bill when she shook her head and held up five fingers instead.  Ok cool, 75 cents, even better for me.  She grabbed a big slice and chopped it into smaller pieces with a larger-than-necessary cleaver, then gave them to me in a little paper bag.  Turns out I would have paid 10 US dollars for that same scallion pancake (I'm sure people at Smorgasburg would not only pay $10 but also wait in a long-ass line for this scallion pancake).  This was one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten anywhere.  The pancake was crispy and flaky and just the right amount of greasy, but the thing that differentiated it from others I've had was a sweet chili glaze on top.  I think when I took my first bite, my eyes bugged out and I nearly swooned.  It was basically all of my favorite things in one compact food: crunchy, oniony, a little spicy, pretty salty, and just enough grease to make you feel guilty about eating it...but not that guilty.  We ate while we wandered, so as we got farther from the stand, I was wondering if I could find my way back and stuff my suitcase full of pancakes to bring home.

Mr. C invited us to his company for a brief tour, and then we went to lunch with him and his partners, who were also classmates of my mom's.  We went to an elegant Japanese restaurant for sushi.  The first course was three delicate tiny bowls with mustardy octopus, a lightly cooked cube of salmon, and shredded kani.  Next, we had a beautifully presented dish of assorted sashimi.  The whole meal was a feast for all the senses, but this dish was particularly beautiful: orange salmon, pink tuna, red surf clam, set atop a striking green bowl.

Sashimi was followed by a tempura shrimp and veggie, which turned into an amazing foie gras on toast and a garlicky scallop.  The main entree was three pieces of nigiri.

Finally, dessert was a cube of coconut pudding coated in toasted sesame seeds.  Wow, what a stellar meal!  The food was amazing - fresh, sophisticated, and certainly expensive - and I felt like royalty.

The next day, we were headed for the heart of the motherland, Jiangmen, where most of my family actually live. Guangzhou was good to our bellies, as promised.  It was really eye-opening and fun to see both the modern global influence, but also get a taste of the local life of a middle-class Chinese person.