"Bun Mountains" at Hong Kong's Annual Bun Festival

I had first heard about Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Bun Festival by watching My Life as McDull, an existential cartoon about a Hong Kongese pig who trains to climb a mountain of Chinese steamed buns. A mountain of Chinese steamed buns!?! At first I thought such a thing was made up, until I saw real black & white footage of climbers interspersed with the animation. How odd, I thought.

Coincidentally, my boyfriend and I were in Hong Kong for Buddha's Birthday, the holiday on which the annual Bun Festival takes place on the island of Cheung Chau. There was supposed to be a parade, some other festivities, and the climbing competition at midnight. As a foodie who revels in weird food festivals, I had to go, mostly to see how they construct a mountain of buns.

We hopped on a ferry from Central along with 95% of Hong Kong island, and an hour later arrived on the banks of the small fishing village. The first thing we saw outside the ferry terminal were crowds of people waiting for the parade.

Unfortunately, there were so many people that new arrivals had no where to stand. The police were directing everyone toward the temple. We slowly inched our way out of the throngs of people, and headed toward the food and trinket vendors. People were selling bun keychains, bun t-shirts, and big fluffy bun cushions. The longest line was, obviously, for actual steamed sweet buns with fillings like red bean and lotus seed. After waiting for about 20 minutes we walked away with 2 big sesame buns emblazoned with the characters for "peace."

There was no possibility of seeing any of the parade, which crowds 4 or 5 deep at every point. (I'm a tiny person, so even in Hong Kong this means not seeing much unless I'm up front.) Finally we reach a point where I can see lion dancers. But by then I was already mezmerized by the towers of buns looming in the background. To give you an indication of how high they are, the yellow tip on the right edge of the photo is the top of a pagoda.

From About.com's Chinese Food site:

"The buns, which have been blessed, are handed out to the people on the final day of the festival. Traditionally, men competed in a race to climb up the towers and grab as many buns as possible. In 1978, one of the towers collapsed, injuring several people. The tragic accident forced authorities to cancel the competition. However, organizers revived the competition in 2005. To ensure the safety of participants and spectators, the towers are now made of steel, covered with a bamboo scaffolding to look more authentic."

This is my favorite part:

"Prospective bun-climbers must take a training course to learn basic mountaineering skills."

Because of dinner plans on Hong Kong island, we had to miss the night time bun climbing competition. In case you want to know what grown men (and women) climbing a mountain of buns looks like, I snapped a photo of the poster.

Near the temple there were more bun trees off all different sizes, maybe for sale or to be given as prizes. (I had thought the buns were fake, until I saw some birds nibling at them.) These minature bun towers would make awesome living room ormamentation.

If anyone else knows of other odd food festivals around China, drop a comment!

Victory Garden and Unfulfilled Hong Kong Cravings

My original plan for Hong Kong was fitting in as much amazing Cantonese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian food as possible in a 3-day period. I solicited recommendations on Chowhound and did research on Openrice. I had dreams about sitting in a cha chaan teng with Hong Kong milk tea, French toast with condensed milk, and the odd-sounding but comforting macaroni with Spam. Then I got sick.*

I did get my milk tea, some congee, and a nice Cantonese dinner with relatives. But I was in no mood to hunt down new restaurants on streets and alleys I had never been to. Sneezing, wheezing, headaches, and a sore throat can dampen the spirits of any seasoned foodie. The best meal I had in Hong Kong was on the day I arrived, before the bad stuff started.

Jake and I got into Kowloon's train station at 1:30pm. By 3pm, after dropping off luggage, we were sitting in plastic chairs at Victory Kitchen in Northpoint. We were with my uncle, a HK foodie, who had never been to the restaurant but has always seen lines of people outside the door. That's a good enough sign for me.

The tiny restaurant, operated by a Thai chef (according to the uncle), serves a mix of Southeast Asian and Cantonese dishes. I ordered a noodle soup with huge chunks of lemongrass fried pork. I had not eaten anything with pungent lemongrass flavors in many months, and savored every bite. (That the pork was deep-fried probably contributed to my sore throat later on, but I would gladly eat it again.)

Jacob's Hainan chicken noodle soup was every bit as flavorful as I remembered Hainan chicken to be. The best part was the immaculate house-made chili sauce that came with the chicken, somewhat light but with a nice vinegar tinge to the spiciness. As we left I saw the cooks in the front kitchen quickly and expertly slice a Hainan chicken in preparation for the dinner rush, placing the slices onto neat mountains. This is why I love the south.

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Victory Kitchen 124 Wharf Road, North Point Hong Kong

北角和富道124號地下

2566 9938

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*I'm in Zhongshan now, still very sick, but sucking down as much Tylenol, Fisherman's Friends, ginseng tea, and random Chinese medicine as possible. Of course, this common cold or flu or whatever it is absolutely pales in comparison to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people right now in Sichuan province after the worst earthquake to hit China in 30 years. Too many people lost their lives, too many of them are young children. You can't be in China at this time and not feel the weight of this disaster, when the images of the dead and the barely alive are on TV 24-7, and when so many people wonder if this disaster was partly man-made. My heart goes out to all the victims and their families.

Macarons from...Mister Donut?

Over the weekend, Jacob and I stayed at a friend's lane house in Shanghai's French Concession. It's a live-work space that is occupied by a web company, and all the techies is get their caffeine and sugar fixes from Paul, a French bakery that opened in the city last year. (I'm sure in Paris Paul is considered average, but in Shanghai a Western bakery can't be found on every corner.) Every morning we were in Shanghai one of us would make a Paul run, and come back with croissants, rolls, etc.

On Saturday, just as I was about to step out to meet my cousin for a soup dumpling lunch, J came through the door with two enormous bags. One was from Paul and was filled with Danishes, doughnuts, olive rolls, and a ham sandwich on baguette. The other was from Mr. Donut; it had a selection of large and mini doughnuts, and a little cardboard caddy of macarons.

"I didn't know Mister Donut made macarons," I said.

J shrugged. "They were 7 kuai. It's worth a try."

Since I was about to go out for lunch, I decided not to stuff myself. I mean, half the baguette sandwich, a pain au chocolat, a Danish, and two mini doughnuts are just appetizers. Then I tried two of the macarons, a green tea and a vanilla. For macarons that costs 25 US cents each, they weren't horrible. There was definitely a meringue taste, but also some artificial preservative aftertaste. But appearance-wise, they at least look less plastic than the ones I saw in Beijing's branch of Fauchon. While in China, I guess I'll just stick with my Comptoirs de France macarons.

The doughnuts, on the other hand, were very good and less oily than ones from Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts. I can probably eat 3 or 4 without feeling like I will die from a heart attack. But for pure cheap guilty pleasure, nothing beats a Krispy Kreme Original Glazed fresh off the conveyer belt. (And now transfat-free!)

Mister Donut 1008 Huaihai Zhonglu, near Shanxi Nan Lu Shanghai

Jia Jia Tang Bao - How do their soup dumplings compare?

I just got back from a long weekend in Shanghai, where I fit in as much good eating as I could in 4 days. One place that had been on my must-visit list for a looooong time was Jia Jia Tang Bao, reportedly one of the best places for xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) in Shanghai. And since Shanghai claims xiaolongbao as a native food (others would argue that it orginated from surrounded towns), some afficionados think Jia Jia Tang Bao has some of the best in the world.

The ideal xiaolongbao, for the uninitiated, should have very thin, almost translucent skin, and equal parts soup and filling inside. I dream about these dumplings, and have tried so many poor versions that I want to cry every time. Often the skin is too think, sometimes there's not enough soup. When you are eating a perfect xiaolongbao, you should be worried about your clothes getting soup stains from a squirty dumpling.

The best xiaolongbaos I've had are from Din Tai Fung (sometimes spelled Ding Tai Feng), a rather upscale Taiwanese chain that has outlets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, California, and some other places i don't remember. Foodies, including almost everyone on Chowhound who writes about Shanghai, constantly rate Jia Jia Tang Bao as equal to or almost-equal to Din Tai Fung.

So what's the main appeal over Din Tai Fung? Cost. JJTB is a grubby hole-in-the-wall where pork dumplings are 7.5 RMB for 15 and crab and pork dumplings are 19.5 RMB for 15. Din Tai Fung charges 4 to 5 times as much, for 5 extra dumplings per serving. A night out at the reigning xiaolongbao palace is not cheap, after factoring in appetizers and overpriced drinks.

So just how good are the xiaolongbao at JJTB? I went to find out on Saturday with my cousin Leona, who is working temporarily in Shanghai. True to the Chowhound warnings, the line was long, even at 2pm. We waited about 25 minutes for a table, and had to share it with the two women behind us in line who gave us ugly glares for no reason.

To my disappointment, JJTB was out of pork xiaolongbao. In fact, out of the 8 soup dumpling choices on the menu, only 2 were available: the crab and pork, and an 81 RMB serving with crab roe. As tempting as crab roe is, and as snobbish as this sounds, I am not one who goes to hole-in-the-walls to order 81 RMB items. We got two baskets of the crab and pork and two bowls of seaweed and egg soup. I waited for enlightenment as I took my first bite of xiaolongbao.

My first thought was, Hmm...Crunchy! My second thought was, Wait a minute, soup dumplings aren't supposed to be crunchy. Turns out, the crab wasn't picked through too carefully, so a tiny bit of shell went into maybe 1/3 of the dumplings. Granted, it wasn't much, but enough to ruin the transcendental experience. Otherwise, the filling was indeed very tasty, and there was enough soup. The wrapper wasn't as thin as I'd like, but good enough.

Din Tai Fung, with its impeccable dumplings and service, remains my favorite. (Their crab version is crunch-free, and intensely flavorful.) But Jia Jia Tang Bao is good enough for a nice lunch around People's Square, or when you don't want to plop down 250 rmb for a soup dumpling fix. (And maybe their pork-only dumplings are better.) Rasa Malaysia has also suggested I try Shanghai Uncle and Shanghai Moon, though I didn't get a chance to on this trip. But no worries...I'm already planning my next trip down.

Jia Jia Tang Bao 90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu Shanghai 021-63276878