Foods of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong-style

Chinese New YearThe Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.

Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.

Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).

[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]Chinese New YearI had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.

New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.

In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).
Chinese New Year
The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.

Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.

There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.

The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.
Chinese New Year
Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.

That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.

For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

Sydney’s Chinatown means cheap eats, Australian seafood, famous noodles

“NOOOOOOOO!”

That’s the sound of me, arriving at Chinese Noodle Restaurant (Shop 7, 8 Quay St.), in Sydney’s Chinatown/Haymarket district. Two years I’d waited, eight thousand miles I’d traveled, to feast upon my beloved #4 pork noodle combo. Instead I found the following handwritten sign:

“Dear Customers, We will be closed…for kitchen renovation. We apologize for any inconvienience” The restaurant was scheduled to re-open the day after I returned home. What the hell was I going to do?

The answer, it turned out, was drown my sorrows in roti and cendol (an addictive concoction of coconut milk, palm sugar, and rice flour jelly) at Mamak, a newish, affordable Malaysian restaurant down the street. And it was good. So good, I returned three times in as many days. As the song goes, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

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As for my #4 obsession, allow me to explain why a plate of spicy, saucy ground pork atop dense, chewy noodles keeps me awake nights (I have issues, I know). These aren’t just any noodles. Chinese Noodle Restaurant specializes in hand-pulled wheat noodles from the northwestern Xinjiang province. Owner/chef Cin (like Cher, he goes by one name) hails from the region, and each day, he can be observed in the tiny kitchen, working his magic with ropey lengths of dough.

I don’t know about post-remodel, but in the seven years that I’ve been eating at CNR, the small, dingy dining room didn’t have much else in the way of decor, aside from some plastic grapevines–the kind you see in cheap Italian joints–festooning the walls. Because that totally makes sense in a Chinese restaurant. Anyway, it didn’t matter, because it’s all about Cin’s food. It’s not just me: one friend, a business traveler, is manic about getting her pork dumplings en route to and from the airport, and another, a chef from Port Macquarie up north, also hits the dumplings whenever he’s in town.

While CNR obviously has a cult following, there is something to be said for an open relationship. I’ve often referred to Haymarket as the “Disneyland of Chinatowns,” because of its wide, clean streets, tidy shops, and orderly throngs of locals and tourists. Sussex St. is the main thoroughfare, but the compact district has dozens of great markets, food court stalls, and restaurants to choose from. I lived in the Bay Area for many years, and while San Francisco’s Chinatown is a must-visit tourist attraction, it’s not where you’ll get the best Asian food (that would be the Richmond district), and the heaving crowds are off-putting. Oakland’s Chinatown has some fantastic Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall, but it’s seriously lacking in atmosphere. And other Chinatowns across the planet–New York, Vancouver, Honolulu, Buenos Aires–all are fascinating in their own right, but to me, Sydney trumps them all.

It’s not just the close proximity to Sydney’s CBD, and many other city attractions like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (both a 15 minute walk away), because San Francisco can rival that. And it’s merely a bonus that Haymarket has a lot of hostels (“backpackers”), some of them excellent and geared toward a more diverse demographic than the college crowd. FYI, Haymarket really comes alive at night, so it’s nice to have digs nearby, even if you opt for one of the high-end hotels in the CBD.

Aside from how pleasant it is to just wander the streets without being trampled or skidding out on a giant phlegm glob or errant puddle of urine, it’s the seafood that makes Sydney’s Chinatown special. Australia is famed for its indigenous flora and fauna, and that applies to seafood, as well. Australians and visitors alike prize sweet, meaty, mud crabs from Queensland, blue swimmer and spanner crabs, Moreton and Balmain “bugs” (slipper lobsters), freshwater crayfish like yabbies and marron, mild Sydney Rock oysters, King George whiting from South Australia, wild and farmed barramundi, farmed abalone and Australian salmon.

As an aside, if you visit the Sydney Fish Market in nearby Pyrmont, browsing the stalls can be likened to a jewelry store (if, like me, you prefer crustaceans to carats). Rows of brilliant, gem-colored catch glitter under the lights: sapphire-hued crabs, tiny, emerald-striped pipis (mollusks), ruby Coral Trout dotted with neon blue, psychedelically-splotched parrot fish. Over 100 species and 50 tons of seafood are auctioned and sold every day at the world’s second largest seafood market (next to Tokyo’s Tsukiji). There’s also a cooking school and tours of the auction floor and sashimi pavilion–something I highly recommend.

Back in Chinatown, Golden Century (393-399 Sussex St.) is the place for excellent, Hong Kong-style seafood, like salt-and-pepper squid and braised abalone. You select your dinner from the many tanks lining the front windows. Be prepared for your waiter to bring still-wriggling sea creatures to the table for your approval before dispatching them to the kitchen (I hope PETA isn’t reading this). This is the place to indulge in some first-rate Australian seafood, if you can spare the cash. Golden Century is also open until 4am, and a popular late night chef’s hang, should you have a drunken craving for congee and some local color in the wee hours.

Speaking of local color, the infamous B.B.Q. King (18 Goulburn St.) is a post-shift tradition for many of Sydney’s chefs and cooks. It’s also the ultimate drunken, post-clubbing/bar-trawling restaurant (open until 1am-ish, which might mean 3am), where plates of fried rice and roasted and barbecued duck and pork are cheap and plentiful. It’s located next to a porn shop, and the irony of the hanging carcasses and sides of meat in the restaurant windows never fails to amuse me. It’s an utter pit, the waiters are beyond surly, and the food is mediocre. Yet, I adore it. It’s one of those places that should only be patronized whilst ripped to the gills, but it’s a great little slice of late-night Sydney.

For cheap, no-frills, snacking, there’s Mother Chu’s Taiwanese Gourmet (86/88 Dixon St.). This family-owned restaurant is at the lower end of the Dixon St. pedestrian mall. It’s all about the outrageously delicious, made-to-order scallion pancakes, which are about a buck fifty a pop. I’ve never had luck with the entrees, but it’s popular with noodle soup and congee-loving locals. The staff are wonderful; you can watch women rolling out dough and stuffing dumplings. They’re not above giving you a bit of sass, either, so take some time to chat with them.

For higher end yum cha (dim sum, but the term technically refers to the full experience of drinking tea while dining on it), I loved the Regal. In June, it merged with Marigold (883/689 George St.), which I’ve consistently heard is very good.

You’ll find an array of more spendy, touristy restaurants along the mall (as well as annoying hawkers trying to lure you with menus). Save your dollars and instead head to Dixon House Food Court (corner of Dixon and Little Hay Streets.) or the Sussex Centre Food Court (401 Sussex St.). You’ll find the usual suspects in both: greasy steam-table Chinese noodle and rice dishes, but also tasty street food items, hot pot, Korean, and Malaysian food. In Dixon, try the pressed-to-order sugar cane juice, and bubble tea/Asian dessert stall.

Thai Kee Supermarket (399 Sussex St.) is great for any Asian ingredient you might desire (think canned and dried goods for souvenirs), as well as snacks like delightfully squishy rice and mung-bean sweets. Paddy’s Market is of historic importance, in that it’s been a Haymarket landmark for 150 years. Unfortunately, its current incarnation is a jam-packed, cacophonous multi-story mall/produce/household goods/souvenir market. If you feel the urge to purchase a fake Akubra hat or tacky t-shirt, this is the spot.

Whatever your budget, Haymarket is a vibrant distillation of the many Asian immigrant cultures that have made Australia their home, and for that alone, it’s worth a visit. I’ll see you at the noodle joint.

Undiscovered New York: Top 5 breakfasts

To truly experience New York during your next visit, you need to start your day with a good breakfast. No meal better epitomizes the different attitudes and moods of the city’s residents then this first (and sometimes last) meal of the day. Whether we’re talking about the quintessential lazy weekend brunch, a bacon egg & cheese from a deli or a strong cup of joe from the street cart, New Yorkers’ breakfast choices are about as diverse as the city itself.

You’re probably already familiar with the old standbys – New York bagels are legendary the world over. And New York’s iconic paper coffee cup never seems to go out of style. But for everything you think you already know about what New York likes to eat for breakfast, there’s plenty of surprises. Breakfast here includes everything from your standard omelette to Chinese Dim Sum to Dominican Mangu and Italian breakfast panini.

With all these choices, where exactly does a breakfast-lover get started? Breakfast is, after all, the most important meal of the day, and who can stomach such an essential daily ritual becoming something bland or boring? This week Undiscovered New York is here to get your New York morning off on the right foot. We’ve compiled a list of our top five breakfasts from across the city. Step away from that yogurt and see what we picked…
Breakfast Five – Barney Greengrass
It would be downright sacrilegious to leave the classic lox and bagel off a New York breakfast list, and Barney Greengrass is arguably one of the best places to get it. Located well off the beaten path on New York’s Upper West Side, this delightfully old-school institution has been slinging some of the city’s best cream cheese, bagels, smoked salmon and whitefish since way back in 1908. Enjoy your bagel with some schmear and the Sunday New York Times in the restaurant’s old-school wood-panelled interior.

Breakfast Four – Joe Art of Coffee
New York could not function without caffeine. The self-proclaimed “city that never sleeps” seems to be mainlining a constant IV drip of the brown stuff. The problem is most of it sucks. The scalded, bitter excuse for caffeine you’ll find at most delis simply won’t do. Instead head to Joe the Art of Coffee, one of the city’s growing range of quality coffeeshops. In addition to a zealous dedication to a quality cup, Joe also offers in-store classes to help take your appreciation and coffee brewing skills to the next level.

Breakfast Three – Chinese Dim Sum
Consider this while you’re crunching that morning bowl of Special K – breakfast around the world is as different as the people that eat it. And in many countries, the typical yogurt, fruit and cereal is not on the menu. New York’s large population of Chinese residents happen to enjoy Dim Sum for their weekend breakfast, a leisurely meal that consists of many small plates chosen from constantly moving food carts. Though there’s no one typical dish served at Dim Sum, the meal usually includes staples like dumplings, spare ribs and sweets filled with bean paste. Try Chinatown spots like Jin Fong, the Golden Unicorn or Flushing’s Ocean Jewel.

Breakfast Two – Alpha Donuts
Way out in the Sunnyside section of Queens, they take their breakfast seriously. That is to say, they don’t mess around with fancy-pants breakfast food like brioche french toast or omelettes filled with goat cheese. What they are serious about is donuts – the ultimate sugary breakfast favorite. That’s why Alpha Donuts leads the pack. In a city filled with fancy breakfasts, Alpha Donuts stands out for its simplicity and commitment to this classic American staple, which they’ve been making since World War II.

Breakfast One – Shopsins
There’s no easy way to explain what to order at Shopsins, a hilariously quirky breakfast establishment located in Manhattan’s Essex Street Market. The correct answer is probably “What do you want to eat?” Not only does Shopsins serve all the classic breakfast favorites like skillets, sausage and cereal – they’ve also got plenty of one-of-a-kind morning meals prepared by the surly owner Kenny Shopsin. How about some “Slutty Cakes” made with pumpkin, pistachio and peanut butter? You also can’t go wrong with the “Jihadboy Sandwich” topped with beef, pomegranate, olives, sheep feta and tahini.

Dim Sum Dialogues: Chinese Tea

One of my only objectives this weekend was to write an article about traditional Chinese tea. I had been entertaining visions of myself walking down a dark side street in Central and discovering an old wooden tea house guarded by an ancient man with a long wispy beard. I would then bow with respect or give him a secret handshake that would allow me inside access to a tea that the man had just spent hours brewing – and I imagine that it would be the most fragrant and refreshing tea I’ve ever tasted.

So I asked some of my local friends where I could go to get some proper tea, and the most popular response was “well…there’s a tea museum in Central park”…but the recommendations for drinking tea in a traditional tea-house were few & far between. I ended up going to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware (which is now undergoing renovations) to find out more. Although they had a nice collection of 17th century utensils, the overall exhibit was more disappointing than the realization that my vision of ancient men brewing special recipes from long expired dynasties would not materialize.
And I suppose that this is the story of Hong Kong. The practices of conventional Chinese culture have in many ways been paved over by a hybrid east-meets-west society that bears a significant amount of influence from western nations. Sure, the streets of Kowloon and Sheung Wan are still home to the conventional wet markets and local men that sit in the vast recreational parks playing mahjong with their shirts off. It will be generations before this Hong Kong disappears. But simple things like food, fashion sense, and popular culture are a sort of mash-up, resulting in a product that is perhaps unique to Hong Kong.

The formalities of ancient tea preparation have been forgotten for the more relaxed and casual style found in dim-sum restaurants. The term Yum cha (飲茶), or “drinking tea” in Cantonese is primarily used as a verb to describe the act of going out to eat dim sum, showing just how closely tied the act of drinking tea has become to this style of food. In many of these restaurants it’s possible to be served teas like jasmine, chrysantheumum, and oolong – but the preparation is no special ritual. It would be uncommon for people in Hong Kong to only go out for tea, and instead most people would go out for “one bowl of tea – and two pieces of dim sum” (盅兩件) .

One of the most interesting traditions of tea that has evolved in Hong Kong is “milk-tea”. The British colonists that ruled Hong Kong for over 150 years brought with them the age-old habit of afternoon black tea, served with milk. If you’ve ever spent an extensive amount of time in England, then you know that a good cup of tea with milk is the lifeblood of the English. This tradition caught on, and evaporated milk began to replace the regular milk customarily mixed with several black teas at once, giving the tea a rich and creamy taste.

In modern Hong Kong, people drink milk tea with breakfast, lunch, or dinner – and take it hot when the weather favors it, or with ice cubes when the humidity of the summer is unbearable. The signs of a good cup of milk tea are found in how smooth and full-bodied it is, or if it leaves a white residue on the lip of the cup after a sip has been drunk. This is probably the most common type of tea that you’ll find across restaurants in Hong Kong, and definitely worth a try.

If I didn’t know the history behind things like milk-tea, it would be easy to assume that it grew out of a Chinese practice. But the more I try to dissect what makes Hong Kong special, I’m beginning to see just how many cultures have contributed to make this city a multi-cultural melting pot (or rice cooker) that’s slowly developing an identity of it’s own.

Dim Sum Dialogues : An Introduction

This post is the first installment in a twice-weekly feature column covering the culture, sights, sounds and current events of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

I think the best way that I can introduce myself is to explain how I ended up in Hong Kong.

A year ago I graduated from UCLA’s film school after studying interactive design & media for two years and documentary film for two years. With no firm job offers and an eager desire to travel, I accepted an invitation to chronicle the construction of an orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. Our original assignment got sidetracked when we stumbled upon a different orphanage that had essentially been abandoned by its staff and financiers. We sought to find out how this could happen, and what it could tell us about the larger picture of international aid in countries like Tanzania.

My partner on the project is a classmate from UCLA, and a native of Hong Kong. He invited me to return to Hong Kong to edit the material together. After six months of eating beans & rice, a bout of malaria, and once-a-week hot showers, the glittering skyline of Hong Kong sounded pretty appealing. Okay, very appealing.

It’s been nearly four months since I arrived on the Asian continent, and I’ve long forgotten chips mayai for tasty dai pai dong and the unpredictable dalla dallas for the ultra-efficient MTR. I’ve been lost in shopping malls that surpass the luxury and scale of any that I’ve found in America, and been engaged by the blend of modernity and ancient Chinese culture.The title of this series, Dim Sum Dialogues, stems from a famous type of Chinese cuisine. Dim sum literally means “a bit of heart” or “touch heart”, because it was originally only served as a light snack – not a main meal. It’s a practice traditionally served from early morning until noon, intended to be an occasion shared with family members or close friends with long conversations over many cups of tea. I like the idea of Dim Sum as a practice, and I want this series to be simply something that serves as a snack until you are curious enough to find out more about Asia by yourself. I want it to be something that engages you to debate, ask questions and participate with me, as if a friendly conversation over a long serving of steamed buns and rice noodle rolls. And occasionally, I hope the naiveté of a westerner’s first experience in Asia makes you laugh.

I’ll be covering my revelations about Chinese culture, the colorful history that has shaped Hong Kong, and applicable current events from all over Southeast Asia. Occasionally, I’ll be reflecting on my experiences from Africa as we continue to edit the project and make follow up trips to Tanzania. So whether you’re fluent in Cantonese or have never even considered making a trip to see the Great Wall, I hope that you’ll find something in this series that you enjoy – and that you’ll join in the dialogue too.

– Stephen