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Old Fashioned Tofu at Kung Woo Beancurd

Tofu pudding, silken tofu, firm tofu, golden tofu puffs, folded tofu skins, spindly white soy bean sprouts, hot sweet soy milk,  red fermented tofu, tofu knots.  
Kung Woo Beancurd in Sham Shui Po illustrated the soy bean in all its manifest expressions. 
After I learned to make soy milk in the traditional way with a grindstone, and then learned (often disastrously) what was involved in making tofu at home, I was fascinated to search out places in China still making old fashioned tofu. You know, the kind that’s made for taste; not for shelf life or low cost, using beans, water, a grindstone, and wooden molds that impart the faintest flavour to the curd.
What I have discovered is there aren’t many of them left – traditional tofu makers are a threatened species and the last are disappearing fast.
So when I heard about Kung Woo Beancurd from Hong Kong food writer e_ting I knew I had to visit on my recent trip to Hong Kong.

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Nanchang Lu Abroad in Hong Kong: An Eating Tour of Sheung Wan

Nanchang Lu is abroad, and my first stop is Hong Kong! (en route to Paris, London, Scotland and then Champagne)
I love Hong Kong. I love the noise, the vibrant colours, the smells, the heat and humidity. And above all – the food. Oh, the glorious, abundant food!
Thanks to the handy timing of a medical conference, my friend Doctor S. and I spent a whole week in Hong Kong staying in Sheung Wan District on Hong Kong Island, eating our way around the area each morning and evening.
Sheung Wan is just one stop west of Central on the MTR, but it feels like a regular Hong Kong neighbourhood with its local wet market and dried seafood purveyors lining Des Voeux Street West. The eats are much more local too, with fewer fancy restaurants and lots of small wonton noodle shops and old style Hong Kong eateries.
Here’s a whistle stop tour of my five favourite spots:

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Ming Court Hong Kong: Worth Two Michelin Stars?

What equates to a Michelin star? What’s it worth? These are the questions I thought about after eating a memorable meal in Hong Kong at the two Michelin-starred Ming Court restaurant, inside the Langham Place Hotel Mongkok. At the time, I enjoyed the meal tremendously, and it was surprisingly inexpensive – about $60 a head including wine. We ate until ready to burst, and didn’t skimp one bit on the ordering. 

In the days afterwards though, I wondered how worthy of two stars the restaurant had really been – after all, the last two-starred meal I’d eaten was at Les Crayères in Champagne, which easily surpassed the meal at Ming Court in every single regard, from the waitstaff to the taste and presentation of the food, the wine list and the table setting. And there’s the difficulty. Les Crayères is a French restaurant, in France, where the Michelin Guide first began in 1900. After one hunderd and eleven years of judging French restaurant quality, those Michelin inspectors know exactly what they’re looking for and I suspect they rarely get it wrong. Les Crayeres will remain one of the most memorable meals of my life because it was, simply, extraordinary.

For those not familiar with Michelin Guides, they list restaurants of good quality in a given location (Paris, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo), and will award one to three stars to a smaller subset of these restaurants exhibiting outstanding quality. One star indicates “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-stars “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. 

But exactly how do you judge a great Chinese restaurant? The Michelin Guide has only very recently made a foray into Asia, with the first Tokyo Guide released in 2007, and guides now available for Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong/Macau. The real question is whether the Michelin inspectors have sufficient knowledge of the length and breadth of Chinese cuisine to make informed choices. As China Daily journalist Pauline Loh remarks:

“True connoisseurs of the Eight Major Cuisines…are more likely to be scrutinizing the credentials of the Michelin inspectors more than their recommendations.
In a country that has four thousand years of culinary heritage, the Little Red Book from a tire manufacturer may find it hard to make an impact beyond a superficial circle of foreigners and novices.”

From Michelin’s Chinese Dilemma, by Pauline Loh. China Daily Feb 13, 2011

Is it possible for a European inspector to develop a sufficiently experienced and sophisticated palate for Chinese cuisine (in all its magnificent forms) in just three short years? Michelin says they can, ensuring global consistency in their judging because:

the anonymous inspectors adhere to the standard five criteria for awarding stars in all areas and countries: product quality, preparation and flavours, the cuisine’s personality, value for money, and consistency over time and across the entire menu. These criteria are appropriate for all types of cooking, including Chinese.”

It seems, from the slowly dwindling firestorm surrounding Michelin’s choices in the original 2009 Hong Kong Guide that their judging is becoming more informed and consistent with time, and that the porportion of Chinese restaurants in the guide is increasing (70% in 2011).

So back to Ming Court. Chef Tsang Chiu King has designed a menu that sounds incredible on paper, and some of the dishes deliver the kind of elegance and sophistication you would expect from a restaurant sufficiently good you would ‘make a detour’.

We began with chilled bean curd, cut into delicate flowers and layered with black truffles, topped with gold leaf. Exquisite, and for me the best example of innovation and surprise on the night.

We followed with prawns, with Chinese figs macerated in Shaoxing wine. Not wanting to waste a single delicious morsel I ate all the heads too.
The best vegetable dish was a crunchy diced concoction of stir-fried lotus root with preserved olive leaves, served with crisp lettuce for wrapping.

This was followed by pan-fried chicken filled with minced chicken and black truffles on squares of slow-cooked pumpkin, a great combination of textures and flavours.

Lastly came sticky, gingery lightly-spiced jumbo shrimps curled up and sitting on crisped and crunchy cakes of puffed rice. We also ate, with relish and gusto, an enormous platter of roasted suckling pig and barbecued meat combination, with roasted goose in chiu-chow style; and baby pea sprouts with bean curd skin and crabmeat.

It was all very good, but just not excellent. The waiters were a little haphazard and plates remained unchanged between courses, and when they eventually were waiters reached awkwardly in front of us to collect them.  Our pot of good quality oolong tea remained empty of hot water for most of the meal despite refill requests. The desert menu looked so uninspiring we left it out altogether and ate icecream in the nearby night market instead. All small things, but they did add up to a decidedly less than two star experience for our group.

What will be interesting is to see whther Michelin will brave a China Guide at some point in the future. Pauline Loh has probably hit the nail right on the head when she concludes:

“Hong Kong is a baby step into China, an easy entry because it is a small and manageable territory. The real challenge will come when the Michelin inspectors work to hunt down the best restaurants in every alley and every hutong when they are confident enough to go into the mainland.”
For as every Chinese knows, the best cooking has nothing to do with the size or decor of the restaurant, nor the fame of its chef.”

The Stilt Houses of Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O fishing village, on the far, far side of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, is a tiny settlement as famous for its pungent shrimp paste as it is for its stilt houses perched on the edge of the sea. They’re funny little dwellings, like miniature wartime Nissen huts on rickety wooden stilts, painted all over with silver rust-proofing paint. They look like the homes of sea-faring hobbits, everything being just a bit more miniature than usual – 8/10 normal height doorways, 3/5 normal size windows, 1/2 strength satellite dishes on the roofs, and 1/3 sized letterboxes. Tai O’s residents aren’t really that much smaller than any other Chinese people I’ve met, but they must enjoy the snugness of cramped living quarters and constantly banging their heads on the door lintel.
Pint-sized house, normal sized human.
The village can only be reached by a long and winding road up and over the tropical green hills of Lantau, and while it was once an important port for salt production and fishing, now it relies heavily on tourism and dried seafood for income. The main street is festively lined with garlands made from unidentified dried and flattened marine creatures, strung on long strings from the shop awnings. They look quite lovely but I have no clue what they actually used to be before they were dried and flattened. Squid? Sea cucumbers?

I pass by the stalls selling the local specialty and I’m all but handing over the money for a jar of really fragrantly stinky shrimp paste when common sense finally gets the better of me. My freezer is full of unused shrimp pastes, usually bought for the cool colourful labels, and stored in the deep freeze to mask the smell. I do not need another cutely labelled jar of stinky stuff. 
I like Tai O because it’s unlike any other place I’ve ever visited, with its quaint pint-sized architecture and dried seafood. I also like it because the tourism side of things is extremely half-hearted, with tatty old boats offering to take us for rides to see Hong Kong’s famed and endangered pink dolphins (it seems unlikely we will spot any), and occasionally someone asking us in to their restaurant for a feed. It’s as though the locals don’t really believe an entire village of houses on stilts could be of interest to tourists, so they’ve given up on tourism and are all waiting for the day when they can move to the modern side of Lantau Island and get a real job in finance or IT, like everyone else in Hong Kong.

Adding to the sense of quaintness I walk past a house with a very strange and surreal-looking tree in the garden, bearing enormous prickled green fruit hanging directly from the trunk and branches. Durians! Growing wild! And in the background a giant blue tub of….shrimp paste. Bet that house smells nice on a hot day……

It’s an intriguing little place and I highly recommend a day trip next time you’re in Hong Kong just for the sheer…oddness…of it all. 
Getting to Tai O
Tai O can be reached by taking the MTR to Tung Chung Station. Exit the station and walk towards the cable car where you will find the terminus for Bus 11, running every twenty minutes to Tai O (approximately 35 minutes).
Alternately, take a ferry from Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo on Lantau Island, then catch Bus 1 to Tai O.

Blue and White, Big and Heavy

Why is blue and white porcelain so irresistable? Walking down Standon Street in Central during a heavy summer rainstorm, umbrella pulled down close to my head, I spotted a glimpse of blue and white plates out of the corner of my eye, and immediately backtracked. Lifting the umbrella, I could see a cubby-hole sized shop stacked from ceiling to floor with shelf after shelf of blue and white – teapots, cups, big pots, small pots, vases and ginger jars. 
I had to go in, of course, partly to shelter from the downpour, and partly to see if there was anything I couldn’t resist buying. I am well known for purchasing large, heavy impractical items on holiday, often very breakable, and carting them halfway across a country or even halfway round the globe to get them home. A mint green teaset bought for a fiver in a charity shop in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, carried as hand luggage all the way back to Australia. A set of three red and white enamel washbowls, carted by train from Yunnan to Shanghai. A leg of heavily-smoked ham, carried on my lap on the flight from Guiyang, with a fragile silver Miao head-dress perched on top. I like to think I have never let inconvenience get in the way of a truly great purchase, anywhere in the world.   
So as I walked around the tiny shop, seeing all the wonderful heavy and breakable things at absolutely bargain prices (and after living in China, hardly anything in Hong Kong is a bargain anymore), and I started to justify one or two purchases to myself. While I was flying from Hong Kong to Australia two days later, my husband was travelling back to work in Shanghai with a practically empty suitcase, wasn’t he? Surely he could be convinced to take just one or two small things carefully wrapped, and leave them in the kitchen until I got back?

Luckily I didn’t call him to ask first, because an hour later the final purchase included four blue and white condiment bottles (perfect for soy sauce, oil, and vinegar, plus a spare in case of breakage), a porcelain tea jar, a sugar pot, a salt pot with a tiny blue and white porcelain spoon, and two Chinese tea sets for gifts. Then, at the last minute, I added an oval wicker basket with a beautiful silver clasp, designed as a teapot warmer – lined with red cotton printed with peonies and dragons, and padded snugly. Pure folly, because I had been seduced by an identical one brought into our hotel room on arrival, filled with fragrant jasmine tea. I don’t even know if my own Chinese teapot will fit into it. 
Back at the hotel, my very patient and long suffering husband just asked – “suitcase or hand luggage?” as I presented him later two bulky bags filled with mysterious newspaper-wrapped packages. What a fellow. I guess after all these years he’s just come to expect it, but I’m ever so grateful to him all the same. What has been your most impractical holiday purchase?

Hing Chewng Fu Kee
17 Standon Street, Central
Hong Kong
Open 7 days from 10am

Lin Heung Tea House, with Dumplings

I stand patiently behind a bald gentleman as he spits the last bones of his steamed chicken on the filthy table. Next to the bones there are puddles of tea, puddles of juice from the chicken, piles of gristle, and dirty balls of tissue. Despite this, I’m making involuntary happy little food noises at the sight of the stainless steel hospital style dimsum trolleys, piled high with steamer baskets, being pushed between the crowded tables by the aged waitresses. Dressed in blue with crisp white aprons, they remind me of nurses doing their pill rounds, but today their charges are dozens of hungry diners at the Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong.
There are no spare tables of course. It’s only 11am and lunch service has barely begun but the long high-ceilinged room, up a few stairs from the street, is packed to capacity and then some. I’ve given up on getting a whole table for our group of five, and now I’m concentrating on just snaring a single spare seat, from which seated vantage point I can angle for a couple more. This is why I’m hovering directly behind the man with the pile of chicken bones, hoping he won’t refill his tea pot and start reading the South China Morning Post.
A waiter in a grubby white coat walks past with a grey-coloured cloth in his hand. In one efficient sweep he gathers the bones, gristle, and various liquids into the cloth, leaving greasy streaks on the tabletop and the tissues fall to the floor. At this sign, the bald man stands, appears to notice our small group for the first time, smiles, and offers his seat.
At Lin Heung, make no mistake, the dim sum is good. We start with a steamer basket full of frilled dumplings in a translucent yellow skin. They look like a set of four chrysanthemums sitting daintily in the basket. Inside are pork, and shrimp, and ginger. Delightful.  The next basket I open contains what turns out to be a lotus-leaf wrapped parcel of sticky rice flavoured with small cubes of pork belly and dried fruits. The waiter circles again, this time with our pot of Long Jin tea. The first pour goes into a floral dish in the centre of our table so we can rinse our tea cups and chopsticks in the boiling water.

When a new trolley leaves the kitchen, the hungriest diners leap from their seats and follow the waitress around the restaurant until she comes to her designated stop, frequently right next to our table. This is very convenient because I can leap up too, point to the ones I want, and have her stamp a tiny red stamp on one of the squares on my dim sum card as she hands the baskets over. There is fierce competition for the best dishes, so I figure I’ll try those too while I’ve got the chance. 

This method uncovers some amazing discoveries, like these ‘eggs’ made of rice flour dough, filled with a savoury mixture of pork and vegetables in a glossy sauce, and then deep fried briefly to give a crisp shell. They are superb and very clever. Then there are the ‘other’ discoveries, like a plate of chicken gristle sitting on a layer of spongy pig skin, and a pair of webbed duck’s feet, slow braised and wrapped in bean curd skin, nestled on a bed of glutinous rice. Thankfully the duck’s toenails have been clipped, and they taste of soy and five spice, surprisingly good. I spit the bones on the table where they join a growing pile of detritus.

It’s a great meal, with many other dumpling courses – translucent gelatinous shrimp-filled parcels, slabs of steamed ginger sponge cake, sheets of folded rice noodles. Like good Chinese restaurants everywhere Lin Heung feeds an extraordinary number of people each and every day, many of whom look like they spend every morning there drinking tea, eating dim sum and reading the newsapaper. It certainly has a convivial neighbourhood feel as you share a table with three old men and a local family of four. 
And still the trolleys come trundling out of the kitchen, with very little sign that the lunch rush is abating even two hours after we arrive. When dim sum is this good there is no time when it isn’t a perfect time to eat it. As we stand to leave a group of six, who have been standing behind us for some time now, swoop into our seats. On the way out I visit the ladies, doubling as the staff locker-room and restaurant laundry. There are various bits of kitchen equipment piled in corners, and slumped between two stacks of spare seamer baskets is the aged washroom attendant, approximately ninety years young, fast asleep. 

Lin Heung Tea House
160-164 Wellington St
Open daily for breakfast and lunch from 6am
+852 2544 4556

Yum Cha at Maxim’s Palace

One of the other Hong Kong pilgrimages is to Maxim’s Palace, City Hall. It’s in all the guide books,  and has had a recent re-fit with new chandeliers, but is it any good? Actually, yes, very good. And it has all the elements of a top-class yum-cha experience – hordes of well-heeled local Chinese families enjoying their meal alongside the few tourists, fabulous harbour views, surly waitstaff (come on – it wouldn’t be authentic if they weren’t surly) and trolley after trolley of the best dumplings, rice rolls, steamed buns, seafood and custard tarts you ever saw. But be warned – I’ve never waited less than an hour to get in, so if you’re starving when you arrive you will have gnawed off one of your arms by the time you get seated. 

Afternoon Tea Hong Kong Style

High tea at the Peninsula Hotel is a Hong Kong institution, but after seeing the grumpy faces in the long, long queue we decided to head over the road to the Intercontinental Hotel and see what they had to offer.
What a pleasant surprise it was – no queues, fabulous Hong Kong harbour views from floor-to-ceiling windows, and high tea in an art-deco inspired server with a choice of coffee or Mariage Freres teas. Delights such as rose scented raspberry cheesecake, green tea delice, scones with earl grey jelly and clotted cream, and miniature individual balck forest gateaux had me in high tea heaven. And guess what? You pay a lot more at the Peninsula to stand in a queue for an hour then sit in a dark lobby with no view.

Lamma Island

Lamma Island is about 30 minutes in a ferry from Central Pier No 4 on Hong Kong Island, but about a thousand years away in terms of its vibe. There’s nothing frenetic, noisy or crowded about it, and it has great beaches. There are no cars, just lots of fishing boats and waterfront restaurants. And space – a surprising amount of untouched space.
After a bracing walk up and over the middle of the island we walked along the main pier of Sok Kwu Wan village, looking at all the fascinating seafood in the restaurant tanks – fresh garoupa, huge squid, prawns and giant razor clams. We settled in to the Peach Garden Restaurant and ordered a whole steamed snapper, with a ginger, coriander, soy and sesame oil sauce.

And as enticing as that eyeball looks, I didn’t eat it.