Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hong Kong

As I wrote in the previous post, I spent last weekend in Hong Kong and I've gotta say it was one damn good trip. The weather was not so awesome, between the disgustingly hot and humid afternoons, the rainy evenings, and the year's first typhoon which we got caught in on our first night. But you know what, even all that wasn't enough to put a damper on the weekend. First class stuff.

We stayed in the Intercontinental Hong Kong, which I am convinced has the best view of any hotel in the city. Don't believe me?

The view from our room in the morning and at night. That's the heart of Hong Kong you're looking at. Too sexy... Everything about the hotel was beautiful too. Hands down the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. It made for a great place to start and end each day.

We saw some really cool things and I took a bunch of good pictures, but food was a major part of the trip and this is supposed to be a food blog, so I'm going to focus on some of the eats. I didn't take a picture of everything we ate (though I certainly wanted to!) as I'm still not total comfortable whipping out my big DSLR in the middle of a restaurant and snapping away just yet. I also didn't get great pictures of several dishes as I tended to rush things so as to be able to put the camera away as quickly as possible. That being said, some of them turned out quite well and make my stomach happy just looking at them.

Food is ridiculously inexpensive in HK. We were hard pressed to break $60~70 on a meal for the two of us and often found that $30, the bare minimum price for an evening at an izakaya in Tokyo, was enough to stuff us both with quality food. It's probably a good thing that I don't have access to food like that here or I'd cook way less and almost certainly gain a good bit of weight.

I made a point to eat things that the area is known for. I can get Japanese food easily enough around here and it would probably be better, but there are a lot of Chinese dishes that are hard to find in Tokyo.

Char Siu Bao: Chinese BBQ pork buns. I could eat these every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of them

Shao Lung Bao: Soup dumpling. The filling is made with a type of gelatin (I think that's right). Anyway, the way it works is that the filling is solid when the dumplings are put together, then melts when they are steamed, giving it a soupy filling. I'm thinking of learning how to make these, so I suppose I'd better figure out how they actually do the filling...

Noodle soup with Black Pepper Beef Balls. The number of jokes that can be made about beef balls is pretty much endless, but that doesn't change the fact that they're delicious. One of the staple foods of eateries in HK is noodle soup, usually made up of a light broth, rice noodles, and whatever else you want put in there. Filling, delicious, light, and at ~US$4-5 a bowl super affordable.

Kiwi juice. One of the hands down worst things about Japan is how stupid expensive fruit is. It is borderline offensive what they charge for some things. But not in Hong Kong. Oh no, HK throws fruit at you left and right. This bottle of kiwi juice is just an example of the tons of kinds of 100% fruit juices available for US$1-2 at just about every convenience store. On top of that, there are tons of fresh juice shops scattered about Kowloon where they will cut the fruit in front of you, toss it in a juicer, and hand you the glass. That's about as pure as it gets and the perfect remedy for the oppressively hot summer days. Just some of the kinds we tried: Kiwi, Mango, Guava, and Dragonfruit. We were looking watermelon juice, but couldn't seem to find it anywhere.

African Chicken @ Henri's Galley. A Macau specialty, I'm still not sure what relationship it has to Africa or why it's in Macau, but it is freakin good and cost less than US$30 for half a chicken's worth!

Curry Crab @ Henri's Galley, another Macau specialty. When we ordered it they brought out a bucket with a live crab in it for our inspection and quoted a price. Less than US$40 for the whole crab! Crab is messy business as it is and even more so when it's coated in curry sauce, but man was it good. It had one of the biggest pincers I have ever seen on a crab, which made for one giant chunk of crab meat.

Egg Tart @ Cafe e Nata, the place that supposedly invented the Macanese style egg tart. Buttery crust, silky filling. Simple and pleasing, I ate two and that was probably my limit for one sitting. I imagine these would probably go really well with milk tea.

It had been almost a year since I had last been on a trip and this one was a great way to get back in the groove. It was such a good time that we have already settled on our next destination: Korea! I think the game plan will be to hit it up sometime in the fall, possibly over the long September break (unless the prices are ridiculous). I've got lots of countries left to visit in Asia and not nearly as many holidays, so I'll be trying to take my chances from here on out!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Weekend Vacation

There is a national holiday on a Monday in every month except for June and August here. As I understand, it was originally arranged this way by the government in order to stimulate consumer spending by creating more 3 day weekends and thus opportunities to go out or travel domestically. This coming Monday is the one for July (“Marine Day” for those who are wondering) and for the first time since moving to Tokyo, I’ve got big plans for it. Friday night at midnight I will be on a plane bound for Hong Kong, were I will eat and play (particular emphasis on the eating) to my heart’s content until I board the return flight at midnight on Monday. It’s an admittedly tough schedule as I’ll be arriving in Hong Kong at 4:30am on Saturday and touchdown back in Tokyo at 5:30 Tuesday morning.

Just in case that wasn’t challenge enough, I just found out last night that I will most likely have a conference call for work either Friday night or Tuesday morning. Since it’s with a customer based in New York, it will most likely be either very late Friday (problematic as I need to leave for the airport by 9pm) or early Tuesday (meaning I would likely have to go straight to the office from the airport). Normally it wouldn’t be a big deal for me to miss the meeting, but (1) it’s with a customer, rather than their Tokyo representative (2) it’s the most promising deal I’m on (3) it will be held in English, so my “skills” (read: being white) are particularly important for making sure our side has a proper understanding of what the customer conveys and (4) the outcome of this meeting will have a major impact on how the deal progresses going forward. I should find out tomorrow when the call will be and I’m really hoping for Tuesday. As brutal as coming straight to work from an overnight flight would be, I can’t imagine the meeting starting before 6:30am, meaning I should be able to sit in for the whole meeting. For Friday, on the other hand, 8pm would be an optimistic expectation for the start time, meaning I would have to rely on the call lasting no more than an hour if I don’t want to push my luck on getting to the airport.

I’ve also never been to a country where I didn’t speak the main language to at least a decent extent. I wasn’t particularly amazing at French when I went to Paris back in high school, nor was my Japanese all that stunning when I first came to Japan back in 2006, but I at least had something work with. Cantonese? I don’t even know how to say “Hello” or “Thank you” (and even if someone were to teach me, my intonation would probably be all wrong and I’d mess it up). I hear that English works at a lot of places, but not at all at others, so we’ll see how that goes. My kanji skills are pretty weak sauce too, so I’m hoping for either English menus or pictures to point at…

So as you can see, lots of challenges along the way, but behind that all is what I expect to be an absolutely awesome long weekend. We’ll be staying right on the water in glorious luxury at the Intercontinental Hotel, in a room with a view of the bay. From what I gather, Hong Kong is sort of like Tokyo in that it isn’t necessarily packed with your standard types of tourist attractions (monuments, historical places, etc.), but more a collection of neighborhoods, each with it’s own vibe and characteristics. There are a couple of places we’ve decided we want to check out, but I expect we’ll mostly just be cruising around Hong Kong, stopping here and there, doing some shopping, and grabbing delicious food all along the way. One weekend we spent a good hour or two in a bookstore looking through travel guides. About 20 min in to it, we basically were doing nothing but pointing at food pictures and talking about how much we wanted to try it all, so I’m pretty much ready for this trip to include grossly excessive consumption of food.

I’ve actually done a lot of research on restaurants in the area, thanks largely to the food boards at chowhound, and have come up with a list of places I’d like to go ranging from super cheap dim sum and noodles up to fancy shmancy high end stuff. I’m still getting used to looking at HK prices which continually give me a bit of a shock when I first look at them. Ironically, I have no problem at yen-based prices, where pretty much everything is in the thousands and tens of thousands, but that “$” in “HK$” keeps throwing me off. A bowl of noodles costs $40?!?! No, a bowl of noodles costs HK$40, which is more like US$5. I’ll get it under control eventually…

Though I’m obviously looking forward to dim sum, a Hong Kong specialty, I’m also really excited to try a proper stir fry with some genuine “wok hay” goodness. Growing up in Michigan, I was hardly at the hot-bed of Chinese dining. Likewise, Japanese food is understandably the star here in Tokyo. I’ve read plenty about stir frying technique and all that, but the general consensus is that you just can’t replicate the same thing on a home stove (all the more true considering I’m stuck using IH these days). Though just an imitation at best, roughly 80% of the meals I cook are stir fries, so the chance to go somewhere that does a proper stir fry is a thrilling proposition. I can’t wait to try to find some street vendor down a side street or at a night market and have him whip me up something glorious in a searing hot wok!

In the meantime, I’ll just keep throwing together my own at home. Lately I’ve actually made a relatively good number of vegetarian meals (*gasp* I know…) Though the thought of me NOT having some kind of meat in a meal may seem outlandish, it’s far less noticeable with stir fries. In an effort to balance my diet better (and partly in response to the higher cost of meat in Japan), I’ve been reducing the portions of meat and increasing the amount of veggies. Back in the US I’d often use a whole chicken breast for a meal, but these days I often find myself splitting a single breast into thirds or even quarters. I think it’s fairly uncommon for me to use more than 100g of meat in a dish anymore and sometimes I completely forget to defrost any, so just go without it or toss in some tofu. I recently read somewhere that the fact that Chinese cooking tends to use a relatively small amount of meat, whereas Western cooking is usually a chunk of meat plus a little veggies on the side, is one of the reasons why Chinese people tend to be thinner than Westerners, even though they eat at least as much food by quantity. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it keeps me skinny and well fed then I’m all for it.

Since I’ll be gone for 3 days over the weekend, I need to use up my fresh vegetables before I leave. That was basically the impetus behind this dish. A couple spears of asparagus? Slice ‘em up. Half a red pepper? Sure why not. A few too many little Japanese peppers? Toss one of those bad boys in too. Add to that half a block of tofu and it’s a meal. I seared the tofu in a mixture of chili oil and sesame oil (cuz tofu needs some help to make it interesting), added 2 cloves of minced garlic and a 1in chunk worth of minced ginger, then give the veggies a quick twirl in the wok too. I wanted to use hoisin sauce, so I threw together a stir fry sauce based on that. It ended up being a combination of 1 tbs hoisin sauce, 1.5 tbs shao xing, 1 tbs soy sauce, a few twists of pepper from the pepper grinder, a bit of kecap manis, and a slug of sriracha sauce (to give it a bit of character). It certainly isn’t a conventional recipe, but it was definitely good stuff…

This post is far too long for its own good (it just hit 3 pages in Word), but I really just don’t feel like going back and cutting it down. If you’ve read this far, you’re a champion and deserve another picture.

If you just skipped to the end hoping for a recipe or a sexy food picture, you’re a jerk. Go back and read the whole entry and I just might forgive you. Maybe.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Weekend Curry

I usually dedicate a good chunk of my Sunday to cooking something fairly time intensive. I often don't get to start cooking dinner until after 9pm on weekdays and usually go out for dinner and drinks with friends on Saturday, so Sundays are my only opportunity to have a go at any kind of real culinary undertaking.

Curry is a fairly common dish in Japan, though Japanese curry is far sweeter and nowhere near as spicy as Indian curry. Blocks of curry roux are easily available in grocery stores and are super cheap, not to mention one of the easiest things to cook. I am a big fan of Japanese curry and used to eat a good bit of it, but these days I'm big on knowing what goes into the food I eat and, by that standard, packaged curry just doesn't do it for me. So instead I decided to have a go at curry from scratch.

It started when I was talking about cooking with a girl and she challenged me to make curry without using the roux. There's no way I'd turn down a cooking challenge, not only because I wanted to impress said girl, but also because my reputation as a guy who can cook was on the line. My interest in her has since cooled, but I'm not giving up on the challenge. With that, I decided to take it one step further and do it not only without using curry roux, but without curry powder either.

In the basement of the Ameyokocho Center in Ueno there is a decent sized S.E. Asian market that I like to go to for Asian ingredients that are hard to find in Tokyo (you'd be surprised at how little variety of non-Japanese Asian food products are readily available here). One store in the market has a wide variety of bulk spices for far less than what a small amount of the same thing would cost in the supermarket. I checked a bunch of curry recipes (the number of kinds out there is mind-blowing) then headed over to pick up some cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, and garam masala to have a go with. There are dozens of spices that you can use to make a curry, but these ones seemed like the main must-have ones, so I thought I'd start there.

From what I've read, there are a couple of things that are key to making a good curry. First is that the whole spices should be added to the oil first in order to release their flavors. So I began with 1 tbs each of coriander and cumin seeds. The second thing is that it should be cooked slow; You simply can't rush a curry. So I dropped the heat and added a finely diced onion. The goal is to cook the onion long enough for it to start to turn brown, but at a low enough heat that it doesn't burn. Once the onion had changed color, I added about a 3/4 cup of tomato puree. Once that had heated back up to a simmer I added the ground spices in the form of 1 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp of ground coriander, 1/2 tsp chili powder, 2 1/2 tsp garam masala (waaaaay too much. more on that later), 1/2 stick's worth of ground cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp of black pepper. From there I tossed in some roughly cut chunks of carrot and potatoes and let it simmer for the better part of 4 hrs, adding water whenever it started getting dry. One of the luxuries of living in the company dorm is that I don't have to pay utilities, so I can get away with stuff like this. I find my moral balance in the fact that I'm offsetting this by going all of July without using the air conditioner.

I took a bit into work to have the new Indian guy taste it and give me some feedback. He agreed with me that it was too much garam masala, but thought it was good otherwise. I think next time I will just double the quantity of all the other spices to balance it out better and give it a bolder flavor. It's a ridiculously time consuming dish to make but it stores well so you can get away with making far too much. I also don't have a ton of recipes that call for most of those spices, so I've gotta use them some time! Curry is probably one of the least attractive foods I can think of (I swear it's the food, not my photography), but it's full of stuff that's good for you and tastes delicious, and that's worth something in my books.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tekito Shrimp Stir-fry

As both an island and the home of sushi, seafood is kind of a big deal here in Japan. Though the popularity of red meat has risen in recent years, seafood is still a major part of the Japanese diet. Back in Michigan, most types of seafood cost 2-3x what I spent on chicken, pork, and beef, pretty much a deal-breaker for a poor college student, so it rarely figured into my dinner plans. Here in Tokyo, however, there is an amazing variety of fresh fish available year-round and it is generally less expensive than in the US (though the price of the really high quality stuff is through the roof), so I’ve been trying to incorporate more of it into my diet.

The biggest problem I run into is not knowing what the hell anything is. Besides the fact that I have to learn the Japanese name for everything I know in English (though, admittedly, that’s not a lot), there are dozens of kinds of fish here that aren’t available in the US to begin with. I don’t know a terribly large amount about the characteristics of different fish to begin with so figuring out what to buy or how to cook it is a bit of a hurdle. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s available, but I’m hoping to be able to convince myself to be more adventurous with my future purchases. In the meantime, my local fishmonger almost always has shrimp available at a reasonable price so I can fall back on that even when the fresh fish is not looking so great or has sold out. It's also nice because peeling and deveining shrimp is a good bit easier than dealing with all the little bones in a piece of fish. In the US, fish is usually sold in steaks or filets with the bones removed, but here they tend to be sold whole or fileted, with all those pointy little bones lurking in them...

I bought 3/4 lb of shrimp earlier this week and split it between a lunch and two dinners. One of the toughest parts of cooking seafood is not overcooking it. Of my two dinners, I managed to get it right for the first one, with tender juicy shrimp that sort of burst with seafood goodness in your mouth. The second dinner was not nearly as successful, the shrimp turning out pretty firm (fortunately not to the point of rubbery though). It wasn't bad, it just wasn't great. Clearly some practice is needed.

This is a good example of one of my tekito stir-fries: I took a the protein and veggies I had available, gave them a quick whirl in the wok, and threw together a sauce from what was on hand and sounded good. I make a lot of meals like this. Marinading the shrimp didn't help much, but that's probably due more to the fact that I cooked them too long. I'd been hoping that the corn starch from the marinade would help make them fry up golden brown, but that didn't work out so well. However, I did give the tofu lots of time to drain, then powdered it with corn starch, which resulted in a nice crust on the tofu and helped keep it fall apart under the constant stirring. The sauce was really good and the veggies all turned out well; the only problem was the shrimp being cooked to long. I suppose you can't get it all right every time, so all I can do is take away the little lessons learned and hope to do better next time.

2 parts Shiao Xing rice wine
1 part Soy sauce
1 part Corn starch
1/2 part Chili oil

2 parts Soy sauce
1 part Shiao Xing rice wine
1 part Hoisin sauce
1 part ginger (finely minced)
1/2 part sugar
5 thai chilis (thinly sliced)