Oysters for Breakfast

Even in a small city like Zhongshan (small by Chinese standards, anyway), there is a huge variety of dim sum restaurants, ranging from tiny mom-and-pop's to large elegant banquet halls. Prince Restaurant, a 10-minute walk from my parent's home, fits the latter description. We forgoed our usual bakery breakfast for dim sum with my parents and a big group of their childhood friends.

Hargao, shaomai,* spring rolls, oh my. Plates and baskets streamed steadily to our table: crispy squid, pork buns, fried dough, lotus leaf rice, coconut pudding. Along with the standard Cantonese dim sum I've had countless times, there was something new, a flaky delicate fan-shaped pastry. The filling? Oysters.

Oysters that are served at dim sum are usually stir-fried or fried, hardly ever in the form of a pastry. The layers here reminded me of phyllo or mille-feuille, though the technique is different. To make this pastry the baker or pastry chef first divides the dough in half, kneeds one part with water, the other part with oil. With the filling in the middle, he then folds the two parts into each other multiple times, then turns the dough inside out before baking so the tiny folds are visible.

Oysters for breakfast may not kickstart another appetite, contrary to legend. But the taste of the flaky shell melting with the oysters further confirmed my opinion that savory pastries can be eaten at any time of the day.

*Shrimp dumplings in translucent wrappers, pork and crab dumplings.

Prince Restaurant 王子饭店
Zhongshan MaiGuangFan
5th floor, Daxin Xinduhui Building, No. 2
South of Daxin Road, Shiqi District, Zhongshan
(+86) 760-8722238

Where Hikers and Beach Bums Meet and Eat

High temperatures and little breeze did not stop us from hiking the Dragon's Back trail on eastern Hong Kong island on Sunday. Nevertheless, by the time we finished the 2-hour long hike, we were in need food and ice-cold drinks.

Big Wave Bay (Tai Long Wan), a scenic little beach where the trail ended, had a few restaurants scattered between surf shops. Tong Kee, a noodle shop that also rents surf and boogie boards, had a no-frills outdoor eating area that was filling up with beach-goers. Always a good sign. We struck up a conversation with the family that owns the eatery, who told us that Tong Kee has been opened off-and-on for 40 years, long before the other restaurants on the strip moved from town.

You wouldn't think a hot bowl of noodle soup would be good after a long hike in the scorcing sun. But sitting in the shade under a fan and sipping lemon iced tea has a remarkable cooling effect. (AC, you were not missed.) We ordered a plate of stir-fried choi sum (Chinese flowering cabbage) and big bowls of pork and beef tendon soup. What's in the broth, we asked one of the owners, that makes it so flavorful? She brought out the magic spices: bay leaf, star anise, and nutmeg. Also, she added, we cook the beef - lean cuts, fatty cuts, and offal alike) - in it for at least 4 hours.

After lunch, we were rested enough to endure the 3 minute walk to dip our feet in the ocean.

Tong Kee Restaurant and Store
Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay), two km north of Shek-O Village on Hong Kong Island.
MTR to Shau Kei Wan, then No. 9 bus or one of the smaller private buses to Tai Long Wan

Fast Food, Hong Kong-style

In the US, I make a habit of avoiding fast food chains.* Eating horrible food, wasting mounds of plastic and styrofoam, and sitting somewhere with less charm than a high school cafeteria is not my idea of dining out.

In Hong Kong, fast food is a different story. Famished after an afternoon of shopping on Kowloon island, Jacob and I almost ran to the nearest Café de Coral outlet. Café de Coral has over 100 branches in Hong Kong and dozens more on Mainland China, but still manages to produce consistently good and fresh food. The menu changes regularly and is full of food a person would normally eat, instead of artery-clogging mounds of preservatives. The entrees, both Chinese mainstays like roast duck over rice and Western pasta plates, come with veggie sides. If Morgan Spurlock spent a month eating here, he may even lose weight.

The food does come out fast...nicelhy presented on reusable dishes. As for atmosphere, I've seen a Guangzhou branch packed on a Friday night with young couples and groups dressed for a night out. America may have popularized fast food (some may even say "invent"), but other countries understand that fast food doesn't mean sacrificing the eating experience.

*In 'n Out Burger is the exception.

Café de Coral
Numerous locations around Hong Kong and Mainland China


Pantyhose Milk Tea and Hong Kong "Fusion"

While sipping a Thai ice tea this afternoon, I was reminded of another tea using condensed milk that hasn't quite made it to the US. On my last visit to Hong Kong, my uncle, a self-professed connossieur of Hong Kong-style cuisine, brought me to a tiny restaurant in Central to see how "silk stocking milk tea" is made.

To call this restaurant a "hole-in-the-wall" would be enhancing it. It was pretty much a corrugated metal shack in the middle of a busy market. To enter the restaurant we walked through plastic flaps. There were about 5 or 6 fold-out tables in the entire place, with backless stools as seats. The food, simple macaroni soups in light Chinese broths, were typical of the fusion that naturally developed because of Western influence. (My uncle explained that over the past hundred years or so, Hong Kongers incorporated the nonperishable staples of Western settlers, like condensed milk and canned ham, into Cantonese cuisine. I've found upscale restaurants specializing in steak smothered in a sauce reminiscent of Cantonese beef with tomato.)

The restaurant's main draw, however, is the "silk stocking milk tea" (also called Hong Kong-style milk tea). In a corner of the small shack, a man was holding up a pantyhose-like sack full of black tea over a teapot. The pantyhose is used to filter the tea leaves, and supposedly produces a darker color due to lengthy steeping and a creamier consistency. Condensed milk is then added.

The end result does seem creamier than tea that hadn't been pulled through the ringer (pun fully intended.) The macaroni-and-ham soup also tastes better than it sounds. More evidence that "fusion" cuisine usually works when it develops naturally over time, rather than when it chases a trend.

Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園)
2 Gage Street, Central (also a newer branch down the street)
2544 3895/ 2854 0731

Chinese Road Trip Literature

The 50th anniversary of On the Road this week has inspired a flurry of Kerouac- and road-trip-related articles. Apparently Kerouac has quite a few fans in China as well. Eric Abrahamsen writes in the Chinese lit blog Paper Republic that "there are readers who wouldn’t know Hemingway’s beard if it turned up in their soup, but by god they could point out Vesuvio Café on a SF street map."

In an article last week in the WSJ on driving along the Silk Road, Gordon Fairclough writes about China's growing hunger for road trip literature. He mentions Liu Yilin's '"Go the Distance Now," a book chronicling five years spent traveling around China by car." Abrahamsen in Paper Republic adds:

Journey to the West aside, Ma Jian’s Red Dust is probably the closest thing there is to a road-side portrait of China. But it’s an awfully political book, and I wonder how many people actually read it inside the country. Xu Xing’s You Can Have Whatever’s Left, a picaresque about a couple of rogues wandering the country, definitely qualifies. I suppose even Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain counts, although that struck me less as road literature and more as one man’s tiresome journey through his own angst-ridden impotence (ahem).

I have no doubt that growing car ownership and domestic road travel in China will fuel a demand for road trip lit. But in the West, Chinese authors may have trouble finding an audience unless they are blantantly political (as in, critical of the government). Most travel lit we have on China have been written by Westerners, and however wonderful the writers may be, only give an outsider's perspective.

What is it like to journey far from home in a culture so grounded in the concept of home? Or to meet fellow countrymen who share a common written language, but have different dialects, ideals, and levels of prosperity? As the Chinese travel more on the open road, one hopes that some of those voices reach an international audience.