Cantonese Roast Chicken and Other HK Eats

Hong Kong may not be under snow and ice like Hunan province, but it has its fair share of winter weather. After seeing some wild monkeys at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, we trekked back to North Point to meet up with my relatives for dinner. Even incessant rain couldn't dampen my spirits, because I knew my relatives always pick out the best places for Cantonese specialties.

Fung Shing Restaurant at the South China Hotel is one of those clean, brightly lit banquet halls where Hong Kongers go for both special occasions and no-special-occasions. And of course, we ordered a bunch of dishes to serve family-style.

I've had Cantonese roast chicken more times than I can count, and tonight's was one of the best I've ever tasted. The skin was amazingly crisp, the meat amazingly juicy. Usually you get skin and meat of this caliber only on a duck, but this chicken was prepared almost the same way. By repeatedly spooning the sugary sauce over chicken as it roasts, you can get a glistening, perfectly crisp skin.

Another noteworthy dish was the pan-fried and stuffed fish. Instead of just serving a whole fish, the kitchen took out the flesh, preserved the skin, and restuffed the fish into its skin like ground meat into sausage casing. The chefs/cooks then sliced the meat and fanned it out, and reassembled the head and tail so the finished entree resemble a whole fish, just boneless. Clever, eh? It was accompanied with a tasty, thick sauce made out of oyster sauce, garlic, and scallion.

My third favorite dish of the evening was the roast goose wrap. Diced roast goose is mixed with sautéed Cantonese sausage, bamboo, onions, and sprouts; then served with raw lettuce so you can make your own wraps. The savoriness and juiciness of the sautéed mixture matches well with the crisp lettuce; when the lettuce ran out, I spooned the rest over rice and ate very, very happily.

Fung Shing Restaurant
1st floor, South China Hotel
67-75 Java Road
North Point, Hong Kong

Eating Fried Balloons

The first thing we saw in front of Shiqi Lao were two cooks frying what appeared to be big balloons of dough. They repeatedly turned the giant puffs in their woks so that they would be evenly fried and crispy. In front of the cooks were finished fried puffs, waiting to be brought to expectant diners.

The fried puffs are one of the many local dishes served at Shiqi Lao, which specializes in food from Zhongshan's surrounding villages. The restaurant's rather gaudy exterior, with a 10-foot cartoon pigeon, disguises the fact that it is a foodie haven. Hong Kongers flood the dining room on weekends, taking a 3-hour bus ride just for great inexpensive eating. My family and friends in Zhongshan know to go on weekdays, when they can eat with slightly smaller crowds.

As eyesore-ish the outside was, I was impressed by what the restaurant did with the interior. From the tin panels on the ceiling, I guessed the space used to be a factory or warehouse. Overhead lights were woven like elaborate wicker baskets. You could choose between regular tables or booths in boat-like structures.

We walked through the live seafood tanks and filmed a bit, including when a fish flopped out of a pail, in an ill-fated attempt to escape its fate. (See video.)

The fried balloon that came to our table was still warm, fresh from the wok. Some sticky rice, puffed up like popcorn, weighs down the bottom from the inside so the ball doesn't roll off the plate. We poked through with chopsticks, then ripped it down the middle. Then we pulled it apart like naan and savored every sweetened, fried bite.

Zhongshan's most famous dish is roast squab (pigeon.) Most restaurants here have it on the menu, but Shiqi Lao's was the juiciest I've tasted, with the skin being perfectly crisp, not too dry. Other dishes included seafood fried rice, tofu with minced pork, and stir-fried noodles with veggies. The pineapple buns, which got their names from the top's resemblance to the fruit but usually doesn't contain any, were actually filled with fresh pineapple. (Jacob: "They remind me of the mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers.") For dessert, we had white bun-shaped puffs called Snowballs, which had the texture of Peeps and were filled with sweetened red bean paste. They were pretty sugary compared with most Chinese pastries, and I could manage only one after a delicious but mostly fried meal.

As we were leaving I noticed there were almost double the number of people as when we first arrived. Gotta love a place that is still packed at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Shiqi Lao
66 Shiqi Kanghuo Road
Phone: 0760-8707708

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

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