Dim sum has a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone

I realize that Chinese New Year ended on February 6th, but in an effort to establish that there’s no bad time to visit Hong Kong or eat Cantonese food, I decided that now would be a good time to write about dim sum (also, I’m a terrible procrastinator. Is it really almost St. Paddy’s Day?).

Hong Kong means different things to different people. Some go for the bargains on everything from cameras to couture, others for the booming nightlife and easy access to other parts of Asia. Others just…really like Jackie Chan movies. Whatever your reason, this former British colony is faring well since it’s 1997 return to China (technically the city and environs are considered a Special Administrative Region–SAR–of the mainland). While not as cheap as other Asian cities or destinations, Hong Kong offers plenty of attractions, food and travel options to suit all budgets.

To a little piglet such as myself, Hong Kong means dim sum. In a city positively obsessed with eating, dim sum is perhaps Hong Kong’s most beloved culinary ritual. Dim sum, which is variously translated as “touching or pointing to the heart,” refers to a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, rice flour rolls, and other small savory or sweet snacks. While Westerners have openly embraced dim sum where dumplings are concerned, some traditional dishes such as braised chicken feet (foong jow) and steamed beef tripe with black bean and chili sauce (ngow pahk yeep) aren’t quite the hits they are in China.

Although dim sum is Cantonese (regionally now referred to as Gaungzhou) in origin, today it reflects the multi-regional influences of Hunan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other provinces in various ingredients and styles, such as the inclusion of Hunan ham in a pan-fried root vegetable dish such as taro cake. There are over 2,000 types of dim sum; in addition to the aforementioned dumplings and rice flour rolls, there are spring rolls, pan-fried cakes, baked or steamed buns, crepes, steamed rice dishes wrapped in lotus leaves, bite-size meat dishes such as spare ribs or duck feet, soups, or sweet puddings of tofu with sauces ranging from black sesame to mango.

[Photo credit: Flickr user LifeSupercharger]Standard dim sum ingredients include dried Chinese mushrooms; sweet lotus seed or bean paste; water chestnuts; bamboo shoots; rice or wheat flour; glutinous rice; Chinese sausage (lop cheong); preserved pork belly; dried shrimp; chives; ginger; garlic; seafood; poultry; beef, and pork, although the Cantonese are widely known for eating “everything under the sun,” so few bits and pieces are off limits.

Dim sum is thought to have originated during the Sun Dynasty of 960-1280 AD, when drinking tea at teahouses became a popular custom after a day of labor in the fields. The term yum cha, or “to drink tea,” came to be synonymous with the supplementation of small snacks, or dim sum. Today, teahouses still abound throughout China, and Hong Kong has it’s fair share. These are gathering places where locals can gossip, drink, eat, and relax, although some teahouses–often in five-star hotels– cater to a more upscale clientele, or tourists.

Dim sum is meant to be consumed communally; diners pick what interests them from passing waiters who push carts loaded with bamboo steamers or domed platters- the serving dish will then be placed upon the table, and waiters will tally up the bill according to how many you accumulate. It’s not considered bad form to pick morsels communally from the central plate, although you should place your individual choices into your own bowl or plate to catch any drips, or break apart large items using your chopsticks. Dipping bowls of sweet soy sauce, hot mustard (guy lath) and chili sauce (lath ju yow) are used communally as well, although it’s also common to spoon some condiments onto your plate for personal use.

For an authentic teahouse experience in Hong Kong, although perhaps not the best dim sum, 79-year-old Luk Yu Teahouse in the city’s Central District is a historic landmark. Fiercely crotchety, white-smocked old woman bustle about the small, marble-floored teahouse, carrying battered aluminum trays filled with assorted buns and dumplings around their necks. Over the din of dining Cantonese businessmen and families, ceiling fans lazily circulate and hazy sunlight filters through stained glass windows. Don’t expect to know what you’re eating, however. During my visit, I was the only Westerner there, and as is the way with most dim sum restaurants, selection of dishes comes down to point and choose. My winning pick was a giant, fluffy cha sui bao, or steamed bun, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork.

The dim sum from the immensely popular Super Star Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon, known for it’s whimsical, animal-shaped dumplings is generally excellent. Super Star also offers hands-on dim sum cooking classes by arrangement, and it was there that I (in theory) learned how to pleat my har gow and sek tau yu (rockfish) dumplings. The shaping of dim sum dumplings is an art form that requires skill and dexterity, and the number and style of pleats or shape are specific to each type of dumpling; in the case of har gow, the “shark fin” pleat is said to replicate the shape of a gold ingot. Although my sek tau yu resembled malignant tumors rather than the goldfish they were meant to represent, the instructor was kind, and they tasted wonderful; the airy filling redolent of ginger and garlic, the dough tender and whisper-thin.

My favorite dim sum came from a much-loved Cantonese restaurant chain in Hong Kong called Tai Woo. At the Tsim Sha Tsui location, my meal began with several dim sum-style dishes, including a sweet, moist, steamed turnip cake (loh baak gao) studded with lop cheong and cheung fun, delicate, chewy rice noodle sheets rolled around pungent dried shrimp and chives, both accompanied by both peanut and hoisin sauces for dipping. Cheung fun can also be stuffed with whole shrimp, beef, or barbecued pork, and is often favored as a breakfast treat.

For the adventurous eater, Hong Kong has no shortage of culinary treasures to enjoy, be they in back alley eateries, near street markets, or in high-end restaurants. Explore them all, or enjoy the experience right here at home: every major North American city has its fair share of dim sum restaurants. Most notable for the quality of their dim sum are Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Check out this site; I can’t vouch for every restaurant on it, but I’ll stand by the Bay Area selections.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Letter from Hanoi: Vietnam old, new and ever

When I was a boy growing up in Canada, Hanoi was the enemy. In those days most foreign visitors to Hanoi were American pilots who had taken a wrong turn over the Bay of Tonkin. Travelling on one-way tickets, they were accommodated at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, a notorious prison where room service consisted of a propaganda lecture and a bowl of maggoty rice. Sometimes they appeared on television, rather grim-faced, to say how much they liked the place.

Twenty years on and I was never sure if I should mention the war. It may be the great inescapable fact of the last fifty years of Vietnamese history but it seems to have sidled away with barely a trace. Doi moi, the Vietnamese perestroika, has made honored guests of the former enemy, and Vietnam has become one of Asia’s most fashionable destinations.

Peace becomes a country as beautiful as Vietnam. I came to Hanoi through a landscape of flooded paddies where buffaloes waded fetlock-deep through unimaginable greens, and young women in white silks cycled along the raised causeways in a pewter twilight.

The two old capitals — Saigon and Hanoi — are a country apart. The former is a city of the tropics, mercurial and corrupt. Few people bother with the post-war name, Ho Chi Minh City, too much of a mouthful even for the politically correct. Saigon may have lost the war but it is winning the peace. A former den of capitalists, it had something of a head start when it comes to market forces and is now busy rediscovering its old commercial hustle. Less brash, more conservative, Hanoi seems to belong to an older world. While Saigon is a city Americans would recognize, Hanoi retains strong echoes of its French colonial past.My guides in the two cities captured something of these differences. In Saigon I was escorted round the city by a young man in Nike trainers with a colloquial American drawl. In Hanoi my guide, a serious bespectacled sort, sounded like he had learned his English from a Russian correspondence course. Truc had an existentialist haircut, and the kind of clothes that might have been hand-me-downs from Jean-Paul Sartre. Over tea in the Metropole he discussed Confucianism, the poetry of Tu Duc, and girls. I liked him immediately.

War and communism have preserved Hanoi from fifty years of progress. There are moments when it seems like the lost city of Asia, the one you can never quite find, the great teeming, squalid, fascinating metropolis of Marlene Dietrich films and 1930’s novellas. The modern age has transformed Shanghai. Hong Kong and Bangkok are jammed with traffic and skyscrapers. The lanes of Old Peking have given way to boulevards wide enough for tanks. Hanoi alone has retained its street urchins, curbside gamblers, sing-song girls, street barbers, bicycle rickshaws and air of neglect.

The French quarter is a city of lakes and shaded boulevards, of colonial mansions and Beaux Arts villas set behind iron railings. Shoals of cyclists pass beneath the leafy arches of the city’s magnificent trees — teak, banyan, cassia, milkwood, and flame trees. On the shores of Hoam Kiem Lake, waiters, rude as Parisians, serve coffee at sidewalk cafes. In Nha Tho street the sound of Mass drifts out through the open doors of the Cathedral. The Metropole, where Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene used to stay, has the air of a colonial club with its reassuring doorman, its ceiling fans and its cocktail hour. Round the corner is the city’s architectural jewel, the Opera House modelled on the Paris Opera. Its program was rudely interrupted in 1945 by the Viet Minh who used its imposing balcony to declare that the revolution had begun. Now, in tune with the rapidly changing face of Vietnam, the Opera House has been renovated and Tosca is back in fashion.

The spacious character of the colonial city is the French answer to the congested lanes of the native quarter. In the medieval heart of Hanoi, an area known as 36 lanes, commercial life spills out of the shops to engulf you like a rising tide. For centuries this has been the district of serious shopping. Each lane is named after the trade in which it specialized — Hang Bang, cotton; Hang Bo, baskets, Hang Ca, fish; Hang Dieu, smoking pipes; Hang Quat, fans; Hang Khoai, sweet potatoes. In Silver Street, ancient grannies were buying earrings for tiny infants while round the corner in Undertaker Street stone masons were chiselling the names and dates of the newly dead on gravestones. Many of the lanes have retained their original identities though others have changed with the times. Lamp Oil Street is now Sunglass Alley while Drum Skin Street has moved upmarket into upholstery.

You seem to be able to do anything in these lanes. Open-air supermarkets operate from the panniers of trusty Flying Pigeon bicycles. There is everything from quail’s eggs to topside of beef to a dozen roses wrapped in a banana leaf. The chicken is so fresh it’s not dead yet, and customers are obliged to hold its wings while its throat is slit.

Old ladies have set up soup kitchens on the curbside ladling out bowls of pho, watery noodles, to eager punters perched on miniature stools. You can eat escargot the size of small dogs, and dogs the size of escargot. Boys materialise out of the crowds to shine your shoes and girls arrive with lottery tickets, tea towels and bunches of spring onions. After lunch you can settle down for a hand of cards, have your palm read, your feet massaged or your hair cut by chaps with sheep shears and a scrap of mirror. Should you want to pick up something for the weekend, drop by the corner condom stall.

The narrow streets of the old quarter are lined with traditional ‘tube houses’ which evolved originally from street stalls. Keen to avoid a tax on street frontages, the houses can be as little as two yards wide. They run back from the street like long corridors, slender rooms for slender people, interspersed with courtyards to admit air and light. You peer into their depths through layers of domestic existence — a kitchen where a girl in white silk was squatting over a cooking pot, a bedroom where a man snored on a rattan mat, a courtyard where a woman was flailing the life out of the family laundry.

On the edge of the old city I passed the offices of Cuu The, practitioner of traditional Vietnamese medicine. Installed in a tiny shop front, across the road from the Hoan Kiem Lake, Cuu looked like the lost twin of Confucius. His sign announced him as a specialist in ‘Maladies du poumon’, Illnesses of the lungs. I could believe this. Cuu’s long white beard was yellowed with nicotine, and his desk was empty save for an overflowing ash tray. He looked up from the cheering headlines about increased tractor production and gazed at me through a haze of blue smoke.

‘I have a bronchial condition, doctor,’ I lied, hoping for a prescription of snake wine or dried sea horse. ‘Shortness of breath.’ I panted at him encouragingly. Cuu was phlegmatic. A lifetime of listening to people’s pulses had made him a shrewd observer. ‘Don’t walk so fast,’ he shrugged, lighting another cigarette from the stub of the last one.

In need of tea and sympathy, I stopped off for a cuppa at a neat little establishment run by two ancient grannies. Their teahouse was a hole in the wall. A shutter folded down to create a shelf where the patrons, sitting on tiny stools on the pavement, took their tea. There were a variety of blends; the most exotic cost two cents. Granny Number One prepared a water pipe to go with my cup of Halong Green Dragon. The pipe was a formidable object, a three-foot section of bamboo that could have passed for a piece of Oriental scaffolding. Five puffs and I was reeling. I don’t know what the Grannys put in their bamboo but a little of it goes a long way. Truc helped me into a passing cyclo before I collapsed, and we set off to visit Ho Chi Minh.

The pipe was formidable, a three-foot section of bamboo that could have passed for a piece of Oriental scaffolding. Five puffs and I was reeling. I don’t know what they put in their bamboo but a little of it goes a long way.

Despite being dead for thirty years, Ho still receives hundreds of visitors a month. They file into the great marble mausoleum, modelled on Lenin’s, with their hats in their hands. The great man lies embalmed in the glass coffin, dressed in white. Despite a waxy pallor, he looks younger than he ever did in life.

For keeping up appearances in the hereafter, the Vietnamese leader was fortunate in his Russian alliances. Mao Zedong was foolish enough to die at a low point in Sino-Soviet relations, and the Chinese had to prepare his mummification without the aid of the Russian experts. The Great Helmsmen apparently is not the man he was, and those who know say his ears are falling off. Uncle Ho, however, benefited from a first-class Russian service available only to the closest of allies. He enjoys a state of preservation that many living people would envy. Every year the Russian embalmer still comes to Hanoi for Ho’s annual check-up.

Such survival couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Demonized by the West during the height of the Vietnam War, he was always a hero to his own people, and history will record him as one of the great figures of modern Indochinese history. He was a politician with a hinterland — poet, painter, sculptor, linguist, and a very fine pastry chef. During his years as a penniless globetrotter in the 1920’s, he worked for a time as the sous-chef at the Carlton House Hotel in London where his mince pies were fondly remembered.

I stopped by to visit his former home, an elegant two-roomed house perched on stilts above a fish pond, which he preferred to the grand chateau that had been the residence of the French governor. Visitors can peer in at his few possessions — his helmet, his telephone, some books, his typewriter — preserved like the great man himself in glass cases. Next door was the underground shelter where he took refuge when the American bombers arrived.

One of Truc’s earliest memories was of the 11-day Christmas bombing campaign in 1972. I commiserated. He shrugged. He was five, and thought it was all very exciting. He remembered the underground shelter with a child’s innocence as having the atmosphere of picnic outing. It was only later that he told me his father had died in one of the battles for Hue.

Vietnam was a war for so long, it was easy to forget it was a country as well. Its peace now seems so complete that it is just as easy to forget the wounds lingering in people’s hearts.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | Rosino; Rosino; Jorge Lascar; chacrebleu]

Trekking to Everest Base Camp

When it comes to high altitude treks, the hike up to Everest Base Camp is amongst the most popular, and for good reason. It combines fantastic views of the Himalaya with cultural immersion in Nepal’s remote Khumbu Valley, along with a healthy dose of physical challenges.

If you’ve ever wondered what such a trek would be like, than look no further than this story from the Australian newspaper The Age. In the article, travel writer Carol Nader makes the journey and returns to tell the tale of long days hiking Himalayan trails and nights in Nepali villages and sleeping in tea houses.

All told, the trek takes eight days up to base camp, which sits at 17,585 feet, and another four back down. Arrival at BC was a bit anti-climactic in Carol’s case however, as the rocky and nondescript campsite offered little in the way of fanfare. On top of that, heavy snow clouds hung low over the mountains, blocking the the summit of Everest, and the surrounding peaks, from sight. But the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the snow capped mountains came into view at last, and the entire journey all seemed worthwhile.

Clearly, the trek isn’t for everyone. It is challenging and difficult and the altitude can humble even the most fit. On top of that, there are no showers in sight, and the overnight accommodations are far from luxurious. But there is a strong sense of accomplishment upon reaching your destination and, as the author discovered, a serene sense of peace at escaping the hectic pace of modern life. How far would you walk to achieve that?

Turkish smoking ban? Your survival plan

I never thought I’d have to write about a smoking ban in Turkey. It just struck me as one of a handful of locations that would never extinguish the flame. But, on July 19, the impossible will come to pass.

In part, it exists already. Since May of last year, smoking has not been permitted in Turkish taxes, malls, offices and ferries. Of course, the prohibition does not seem to have been taken literally. Cabbies, for example, pass ashtrays back to passengers, so they can duck down, smoke … and not get caught.

The rules become much tougher this July. Lighting up will not be permitted in any enclosed establishment. Unless you’re sitting outside, you won’t be smoking in Istanbul. Fines of $2,800 suggest serious consequences.

This is expected to cause financial woes for roughly 15,000 teahouses in Istanbul, according to The Atlantic. Hundreds have shut down already, and the absence of smoking in these men’s havens, at a minimum, provides additional pressure.

Other signs of the apocalypse were not reported in the article, but you have to imagine they’re coming soon.

Classic Trek: The Annapurna Circuit

Climbers and high altitude mountaineers aren’t the only ones having fun in the Himalaya this spring. Plenty of backpackers will pour into Nepal too, setting their sites on one of the greatest treks in the world, the legendary Annapurna Circuit. Unfortunately, this may be the last great year to take this hike, as the completion of a new road could spell the end of the things that have made this one so special for so long.

The Annapurna Circuit gets underway near Pokhara, located in western Nepal, and has a completely different feel than trekking in the Khumbu Valley, the country’s other major backpacking hub. For one thing, it tends to not be as crowded, and it can provide a more authentic cultural experience.

Those planning to make the trek should expect to devote between 18 and 20 days to the journey. Over the course of that time, you’ll cover approximately 185 miles, and go as high as 17,770 feet in the Thorung La pass. The Circuit wanders completely around the Annapurna Massif, which is made up of a series of massive Himalayan peaks, of which, the central summit known as Annapurna I reaches 26,545 feet in height. It is the 10th highest mountain in the world, and considered one of the most challenging to scale. Trekkers will also journey in the shadow of Dhaulagiri, the 7th tallest mountain on Earth, which falls just to the west.

One of the unique elements to trekking in Nepal is that it allows travelers to stay in comfortable tea houses at the end of each day. These traditional inns are found in villages, located every few hours along the trail, and offer up warm, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive places to stay throughout the length of the trek. It also means that food and drink are plentiful, which allows for the backpacker to carry less gear and go at their own pace. The easy access to these Himalayan hostels means that you can spend all morning on the trail, and if you feel like taking it easy, stop early in the afternoon for a rest, or push on to the next village, not too far down the line.

As if the luxury of the tea houses wasn’t enough, the trail also has a number of Buddhist temples and other impressive displays of the traditional architecture of the region en route. Couple these attractions with the stunning beauty of the mountains, and travelers get a unique experience unlike nearly any other trek in the world.

The character of the Annapurna Circuit is changing however, and some fear that it will soon lose its charm. As I mentioned, a new road has been built in the area, and now increased traffic has turned a once remote, and tranquil hike into a dusty, noisy experience for trekkers. Many who have hiked the Circuit say that if you really want to experience it in its truest form, this is the year to go, as once the road is completed sometime in 2010, it’ll never be the same again.

The lasting impact of that road has yet to be seen, and for now the Annapurna Circuit remains one of the great clssic treks. It is easy to find a guide service to show you the route, either before you go to Nepal or after you arrive, but one of the other great elements of the Annapurna Circuit is that it can easily be done without a guide, making it one of the most accessible of the world’s classic treks.