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.

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