My Leafy Green Vegetable of Choice

Ever since I was young, whenever my mother asked me what vegetable I'd like for dinner, my answer 99% of the time was "chao ong choy", the idiomatic Cantonese term for stir-fried water spinach. (In non-idiomatic Mandarin it's 炒空心菜 cǎo kòng xīn cài.) I don't know what made me love it from an early age on, but it always tasted meatier than other stir-fried greens. Maybe because the hollowness of the stalks - hence the "kòng xīn", which means "empty center" - cradled whatever seasonings or sauce it was cooked with. Many many years later I still love water spinach, although I now dabble in other greens from time to time.

Chinese water spinach is usually in season during the summer, but here in Zhongshan, where warm whether stretches well into October, I can enjoy my leafy green for a bit longer.

My mother's recipe for stir-fried water spinach is simple and hasn't changed much since my days of single-veggie-fanaticism. Most Cantonese restaurants and other people's mothers will make a very similar version of this dish, which is why, apart from using old stalks or over-cooking, it's hard to make a bad plate of water spinach.

Recipe after the jump.

Stir-fried Water Spinach

1 bunch of fresh water spinach, washed
15 mL (1 tablespoon) peanut oil
3-5 cloves smashed garlic
120 mL (1/2 cup) of water
1 dash chicken essence
1 dash chili sesame oil*
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat peanut oil in a wok or large skillet over high head. Toss in smashed garlic. When you smell the first hints of garlic, or when the garlic begins to brown, throw in water spinach. Watch as the large bunch wilts and shrinks more, more, more. Pour in water and cover with lid for 1 minute for stalks to steam through. Add chicken essence, chili sesame oil, salt and pepper. Toss with a spatula or a flick of the wrist. Take water spinach off stove, serve hot with your other mains and sides.

*Soy sauce or hoisin sauce can also be used instead

Boba Drinks and Swings

Last night Jacob and I escaped our work desks and had a quintessential night out for being young in a small Chinese city: dinner at a sushi-go-round, an hour of games at a local arcades, and drinks at a boba tea café.

Boba tea , also known as pearl milk tea or bubble tea, is a Taiwanese creation that gained popularity in East Asia in the 1990s, and later spread to US, Canadian, and European cities with large Asian communities. In China's coastal cities, it seems that every other block boasts a café serving boba tea. Not a bad thing considering other places to sit down and have drinks can be either too raucus (tea parlors) or overpriced (Starbucks and imitation Starbucks chains.)

In Beijing we had gone to an rbt for not only boba tea but because some tables had dangling bench-like swings as seats. Zhongshan's rbt also had swings, which was why we chose it over the 20 or so other cafés in the vicinity. Now, the swings may be novelty, even a bit childish, but tell me the idea of sitting on a swing sipping a drink with bubble-like pearls doesn't put a smile on your face.

The most common version of boba tea is black or green tea mixed with condensed milk and black tapioca pearl. (Tapioca pearls, made from tapioca starch, are boiled until they have a firm chewiness, not unlike gummy candy.) Nowadays boba tea café menus list a slew of flavors: mango, apple, lychee, taro, red bean, etc. Flavored jellies can also take the place of tapioca pearls.

Last night Jacob ordered a mango sorbet shake with aloe jelly that was good enough to give him repeated brain freezes, because of his inability to slow down. Being more of a purist, I got a jasmine milk tea with tapioca pearls, and slowly savored it.

Swinging like a kid on a warm fall night with an ice-cold drink in hand...not a bad reward after an intense week of language study.

Numerous locations around China

Northern Snacks in Zhongshan

Zhongshan is over 2,000 kilometers from Beijing, farther than Miami is from New York City. Twenty years ago, it was hard to find northern-style foods in this Cantonese-speaking and Cantonese-food-eating city. How times have changed. At our local hypermarket Da Run Fa 大润发, the prepared foods section is dominated by northern style foods, including every type of noodle and dumpling and pancake you can hope to find in Beijing.

Today for lunch I picked up a few items from the snack section: (from left to right) pumpkin pancakes 南瓜饼, flat bread pockets with Chinese chives 东北大馅饼, and taro cakes 芋头饼. All were good, after a little salt added to the latter two, and were a nice change from the Cantonese fried rice I've been having for lunch almost every day. (Not that fried rice isn't tasty, but change does your tastebuds good.)

I could go to the hypermarket every day and not get bored; it would take me at least a month or two to cover all the meat, baked goods, and prepared foods they have. Maybe I'll post a video next.

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