Category: Childhood


Dai pai dong.  Big license plate stall of goodness and cheap eats.  Where it used to be a ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong and Kowloon, these culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong is slowly and surely dying or moving indoors.  When I think of these food stalls, I think of my childhood where we would love to get the yau tieu’s [fried Chinese donuts, although they look nothing like it and they’re savory, not sweet] and congee.  Wonton noodles, rice noodles were other items we would get.

The rich history of these food stalls cannot go unnoticed.  After World War II, the Hong Kong government gave out ad hoc food licenses to injured civil servants so they can make a living.  These licenses had to be visible in public, and since they were food stalls, they were big.  Thus, the big license stalls.  Dai pai dong.  From there, the popularity and the quality of of food just took off.  But because of the amount of dai pai dongs sprouting, it was causing pedestrian and traffic congestion.  Additionally, because owners of these stalls started to “lease” their space out in the black market, the HK government no longer issued these licenses after 1956.  The licenses could no longer be inherited so if the owner passed away, it could only be transferred to their spouses.  If they didn’t have a spouse, the license would expire at the time of death of the owner.  Since 1983, the HK government, in order to promote healthier hygiene, began to buy back these licenses and push these stalls in doors in what could only be described as food courts.  Since the licenses could not be passed down, the owners were glad to be compensated in this way.  The number of dai pai dongs have drastically decreased over the years, much to the chagrin of people like myself.  Were they the safest place to eat food?  Probably not, but they certainly cranked out some of the best the city of Hong Kong had to offer.

It’s a rich food heritage that has come to a slow death in Hong Kong.  It wasn’t just a place to eat for millions of people.  It was a place where one might make their early morning stop to get a milk tea, a place where impoverished families could still go and get a decent meal for cheap.  A place where lower income couples could have their dates while whispering their sweet nothings to each other over a bowl of rice noodles.  But as most things in life, we learn to move on and change.  And while it lasted, the dai pai dong was good to the people of Hong Kong.  It became integrated in their every day lives as they provided meals for hungry souls in the city of fragrant harbor.

Food of the Java Islands

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Indonesia.  I think the last time I was there was when I was 7 years old and we went to the Island of Bali.  I know a lot has changed since then and even my old co-worker, who is a Chinese immigrant from Indonesia told me, “Your version of Bali doesn’t exist anymore.  It’s more built out now and the rural areas where you used to visit as a little kid is gone.”  It’s sad, although understandable, the landscape of beautiful islands around the world changes.  Due to high demand of tourism and money to be made, it’s understandable for these areas to be built out with fancy hotels and shopping malls.  As these areas get built out, it’s only natural for the cuisines to change and for new chefs to introduce new ingredients to what was already a brilliant way of cooking in Indonesia.  While I remember, from my childhood, dishes like gado-gado, spicy fried chicken, and petai [Indonesian broad beans], I know that these “national” dishes have had their share of evolution.  But for me, it will always be dishes like beef rendeng, gado-gado, nasi goreng, and chicken curry, that will be most Indonesian.

Here in LA, it’s really, really difficult to find Indonesian food.  And the Indonesian food we do find are lumped in with Singaporean or Malay food because of their similarities.  When we recently went to 3rd Street Farmer’s Market and saw a stand called “Singapore’s Banana Leaf” and the word underneath the name “Indonesian”, nothing else mattered.  I didn’t care that there was a Tapas place next door or that behind me was what seemed like quite an authentic Mexican joint.  I was focused and centered on getting some Indonesian food.  It’s so hard for me to choose which basic Indonesian food to get.  It’s one of those times when you haven’t seen a food for so long you just want to eat what you love most instead of trying new fusion or versions of it.  For those who haven’t had the chance to try Indonesian food, I am sure many of already had it without knowing it.  The world famous [literally] satay originated from Indonesian and to this day, there is nothing like a true Indonesian chicken or beef satay.  I’ve had my fair share of Thai chicken and satay, and while good, it doesn’t compare to the Indonesian version.

Of course it brings back some childhood memories.  It also brings back an Indonesian restaurant our family loves in Hong Kong whenever we go back.  The Indonesian Restaurant on Granville Road on the Kowloon side may not be the best Indonesian restaurant in Hong Kong, but it holds a special place in our hearts.  We went back there in 2009 when we visited Hong Kong.  I know as long as it is open, we will continue to have at least one meal there when we visit.  Always looking for Indonesian food.  Always hoping that the Indonesian food I find will be half way decent.  Singapore’s Banana Leaf is decent – it doesn’t have the same exact flavors I remember, but to find it in LA is a treat in itself.

Reinterpretation

I’ve never been to the French Laundry.  I’ve never been to Per Se.  The closest to those restaurants I’ve been to is Providence here in Los Angeles, where the food is both playful [a dessert offering paying homage to a Seinfeld episode called “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty”] and exquisite.  I am not at all trying to compare Providence to either of Thomas Keller‘s restaurant, but I think it is important to take comfort foods to a new level where we can experience something new.  Something so American, such as macaroni and cheese, can be reinterpreted to a higher level as Thomas Keller does at Per Se.  The picture above is his interpretation of macaroni and cheese.  A butter poached Nova Scotia lobster tail served over creamy lobster broth and mascarpone enriched orzo topped with a parmesan crisp.

I know a lot of people take offense when people like me say cooking can be considered an art form.  People might say, “It’s food for crying out loud!!!”  But like many art forms, you can reinterpret something that is so familiar to you that it creates a new experience.  To me, that’s part of art.  It’s part of what artists go through to interpret, and at times, reinterpret their surroundings and even their own experiences.  And it’s this reinterpretation of a classic American dish that allows someone like Thomas Keller to be inspired by something of the past to take the diner to a new place.  As he says during an interview with Charlie Rose:

People often ask, what inspires you?  Well, you can’t really say what’s going to inspire you in the future, but you can talk about stories of what inspires you in the past.

We don’t want to live in the past, where mac and cheese is done a certain way and there’s no changing it.  But there’s importance and artfulness in trying to transcend a dish that is so basic to something quite extraordinary.  While these new interpretations won’t evoke childhood memories perhaps, it is the same childhood memories that allow chefs like Thomas Keller to reach for the stars as we ride happily along with him.  We don’t all have to cook like Thomas Keller to imagine the possibilities of creating a new dish from an old dish.  It takes iterations to get the flavors right and balanced.  We don’t have to have lobster tail or mascarpone enriched orzo, but we do need some imagination and some adventure in our way of eating.  As Eric Ripert said during an interview for PlumTV.com, a dish normally take about 4 weeks from conception to bringing it on the menu.  We don’t have to go to French Laundry or Per Se to experience food in a new way.  We just have to be open to new experiences.  Sometimes they work out beautifully, and sometimes we wonder why we tried at all.  But life is not about going to Red Lobster every Friday night because that’s what you’ve done for the last 20-30 years.  Life is full of experiences and one can start by venturing out to something new.  It will be worth it in the end.  We may never look at macaroni and cheese the same ever again.

Old Hong Kong

Aberdeen is an area on the southern side of the Hong Kong Island.  According to Wikipedia, present day Aberdeen Village was originally known as “Hong Kong” since the Ming Dynasty.  Travelers who came to the “Hong Kong” port mistook the name Hong Kong as the name for the whole island.  When the foreigners realized their mistake, the name Hong Kong had “stuck” as the name of the the whole island.  So, in 1845, it was renamed “Aberdeen”, after the British Secretary of State of War and Colonies, George Hamilton-Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen.

What was the entry point for foreigners had given a way to hundreds of families that had lived on these “floating” villages for generations where people used to fish for a living.  Now, it is clearly a figment of an era gone by.  Stanley Ho, the Asian casino counter-part of Steve Wynn, has famously created “Jumbo”, a floating restaurant known for its seafood.  The real reason for the restaurant, as some suggest, is so Stanley Ho can legalize gambling in Hong Kong without having a casino on the the actual land.  Whatever the reason, the floating villages of generations past has slowly been dying out.  When we went to visit Aberdeen last year, we met this wonderfully cordial woman who grew up living on these junks and still does, if we were to believe her, today.  As she drove her little junk around the harbor, she told us stories of years gone by.  High rises, land reclamation, and changing commercialism has changed Aberdeen from a once thriving area to a tourist stop.  She said the only way to make a living now is to drive these junks around for tourists who want to see how they used to live or those who only want to eat at the Jumbo restaurant.  Junks are less and less visible now, giving its way to the highly extravagant yachts that are parked at the harbor.  She is one of the last in her generation to still live there, because as she so aptly puts it, “I don’t know how else to live except on these boats and in Aberdeen”.

As she waves goodbye to us, she knows that change is inevitable.  Especially in a place like Hong Kong, where a fad seem to come and go in as quick as a day.  But for some, it’s the only life they have ever known.  I wonder if this women feels as though she has already changed enough for one life time.  Growing up in a fishing village to now driving around people like us in a junk like a tour guide.  And yet, she didn’t sound angry or bitter.  She only reminisced a world she had once known that no longer exists except in her mind.  And yet, you can tell that memory was as sweet as honey for her.  She had a smile telling us stories of “what it used to be” like it was yesterday.  And yet, it’s all too clear that Aberdeen, the original Hong Kong, is just another tourist spot.  Another place in Old Hong Kong that is fading fast into the memory of the generation past.  What else will disappear I wonder.  It will be all too clear next time we visit again, I am sure.

East Meets West

It hasn’t always been the case.  There was a time when I didn’t really enjoy going back to Hong Kong, where I was born.  Most of it is because after a few days, I get really bored.  Now that I’m older and definitely more to be nostalgic about, I really enjoy going back.  Of course one of the things that I enjoy about Hong Kong now, are the reasons I never really thought was all that unique.  Hong Kong, at its core, is as Chinese as any city in China.  But what makes it so unique is not that it is a thriving metropolitan financial behemoth, which in itself would have been enough to visit and write about.  It’s that it was a British colony for over 100 years.  Trade wars, opium wars, and being subjects to Britain’s monarchy has made this singular city an intersection where Occidental collided with Oriental.  And none of that comes through as well as the food.  With its foundation set on Chinese cuisines, Hong Kong has embraced the European expats in the way they have infused its own spin in its foods.  And let’s not forget Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc. on top of about 20 other provincial Chinese cuisines.  And what you have is not just a monotonic way of cooking and eating food here in the Big Lychee.

Places like Cafe de Coral are what people in Hong Kong live on.  It’s good, cheap, and the menu is always changing, if only a bit.  At any given point during the day, it will be packed with people from tourists who want a break or Hong Kong lifers who want the same.  It’s a typical cafeteria where you walk in and look at the menu on the wall, walk up to the cashier, order, and at the end of the line, pick up your food and try you hardest to find an empty table.  If you’re queasy about sharing a table with a complete stranger, this probably isn’t the place for you.  But there’s something comforting for me, to go in to a place like Cafe de Coral and order something very Chinese, like sausage and rice in a clay pot, and then order a Hong Kong style milk tea.   Or baked Portuguese pork chop rice and a lemon ice tea.  It’s the East meets West all in one meal.

There’s nothing like that here.  At least not an East meets West kind of food experience.  Here, we have more a South meets North, like a Baja Fresh or Rubios, where Mexican street food meets an American twist.  We do have some Hong Kong style western restaurants here, but it’s not very Cafe de Coral like.  I keep wondering if they will open one here, because it would be crazier than a Kogi truck.  I can’t wait to visit Singapore again one day, where food has become so integrated between the different Asian cultures that it has created is very own Singaporean cuisine.  I can’t wait to go back to Hong Kong again, where I get to try all different kinds of East meets West foods again.

Egg waffles.  I don’t know how many people on this side of the Pacific has had it, but when you have, it’s tough to forget.  The picture here was taken from the CNNGo Hong Kong website, and it brings back the smell, the taste, the texture, and memories of yore for me.  I can’t remember the first time I had egg waffles, but I know we were still living in Hong Kong.  I must have been less than 8 years old when I had my first and these beauties, known locally as “雞蛋仔”, or “little eggs” were just heaven in a brown paper bag.  Whenever we go back to Hong Kong, I always get one.  Depending on my mood, I’ll get plain, chocolate, taro, coconut, etc.  The egg waffles are light, airy, crispy, and fragrant.  I’ve eaten the ones they have at Tasty Garden in LA and even those don’t compare.  The ones at Tasty Garden are dense and although the taste is similar, it can’t touch these in Hong Kong.  So, I was surprised and happy to see that CNNGo Hong Kong had a post dedicated to these egg waffles.  And little did I know, there is a local rivalry and competition for the claim to be the “best egg waffles” in Hong Kong.

I know they’re just egg waffles.  But then again, they’re not.  When you read the CNNGo post, you realize that these egg waffles are the source of people’s income.  They wake up early, stay out late for those who love a midnight snack, and do it all over again the next day.  For a few HK dollars, you can do the math how many they have to sell to not only break even, but to get a profit to live off of.  Their equipment is old, duct taped together, and seasoned after many years of use.  They’re like the weapons of old time warriors, now aged, reflecting back when times were more violent.  They take out their rusty swords and remember bloodier times.  Like these old warriors, these egg waffle vendors go out there every day.  Probably 7 days a week and never been on vacation.  They continue to seek the perfect recipe.  The perfect combination of ingredients so they can say they have the best “egg waffles” in Hong Kong.  As one of them says:

“It’s all in the secret recipe, which I’ve been perfecting for eight years,” says proprietor Mr Lai. “No one can come close to my flavor. I’m sure of it. That’s why I’m the only guy who will confidently let you try before you buy.”

I can’t wait to go back to Hong Kong to try one, or two, or maybe all of them to rank my own egg waffle battle.  I love being reminded of my childhood in Hong Kong by the taste and smell of food.  And these beauties are right up there that really bring me back.  Why?  Because I haven’t been able to find them here in LA like those in Hong Kong.  But then again, maybe that’s a good thing.  It’ll keep bringing me back.

If having afternoon tea at the Grosvenor House in Hyde Park, London makes me snobby or uppity, my response would be to quote the once beloved but later maligned Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake [brioche]!” Which is to say, “I don’t care what you think.”

No matter how you feel about afternoon tea, you must overcome this colonial travesty of the upper crust drinking tea and eating scones with clotted cream while the oppressed locals work in the fields. That is a separate issue than the dining experience itself. When done well, like the Grosvenor House Park Room in London, it is one of the quintessential experiences of what the British has brought forth to its colonies – India, Hong Kong, just to name a couple. However, if legends be told is true, it originated in Portugal, only to be brought to England when Catherine of Braganca married Charles II in 1661. It wasn’t until Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, transformed afternoon tea into more of a meal in the afternoon than a refreshment. Of course, many Brits don’t normally take in the afternoon tea ritual anymore, but nonetheless, it is a tradition that’s been well kept, even if the people who partake in the tea now are tourists.

History lessons aside, when the tower of morsels come to the table, one can only imagine what it must have been like to be a Duke or a Duchess back in the 17th or 18th century. The main attraction, of course, is the tea itself. To me, there’s nothing finer than eating a scone/finger sandwich/pastry and washing that down with an English Breakfast blend with the right amount of milk and sugar. That is, I’m told, the proper way of taking tea. And to be even more proper English, to drink and eat from fine china is the penultimate of enjoying afternoon tea.

We definitely got all that and more at the Park Room in the Grosvenor House. For about 2 hours, we embrace that dining experience as much as anything else on our trip. To me, it’s not just that it’s English afternoon tea, but that it has to be properly done. You can’t just throw in any type of tea. You can’t serve it with a Starbucks scone and say you’ve had English afternoon tea, although I am sure many do that nowadays. It’s got to be with fine china, loose leaf teas, finger sandwiches comprised of cucumber, salmon, and egg salad, and an assortment of scones and pastries. That’s the way a duke or duchess would have it. Anything else would be, well, uncivilized.