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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Travel Itinerary: Lijiang Old Town - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In July 2016, two sites in China (Hubei Shennongjia, the largest primary forest containing rare species like the elusive Asian Black Bear; and Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape - 38 rock paintings that depict the life of the bygone Luoyue people) were named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.  With this attribution, China is now ranked third in the world with 50 World Heritage Sites, ranging in diversity from the Great Wall and the Summer Palace in Beijing, to the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing, to the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan.

Although attaining this World Heritage status at the UNESCO level may mean clamping down on the wholesale destruction of natural and cultural areas in the place of, say, concrete mega malls, multi-lane freeways, expanded subway lines, office towers and high-rise condos, it doesn't automatically mean these areas are not exploited either.  In principle, these sites are to preserve and showcase the nation's historic and natural heritage; in practice, it's a free-for-all gold rush carnival largely spurred on by tour operators, vendors peddling kitsch, karaoke bars, fast food franchisees, and of course the tourists that lap up this whole kit and caboodle.

However, at the risk of sounding overly harsh (#NoJudgement,) these World Heritage Sites do provide visitors - local and from further afar - the opportunity to view and immerse themselves in these cultural and natural legacies.  Recently, whilst on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-la, we stopped by a couple of days at the Old Town of Lijiang (which also includes Dayan Old Town and two neighbouring ancient villages: Baisha 白沙 and Shuhe 束河.) 
Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office
As we were there during the shoulder season in July, the number of visitors were not as high and the crowds less fearsome than we'd anticipated.  There were sporadic rain showers which made the 1000-year old cobblestones a bit slick to walk on, but they were also a nice respite from the humid summer heat.

Lijiang's culture combines traditional Naxi culture and incongruous elements learned from Ming dynasty Han Chinese traders who settled in the region centuries ago. Nakhi people have kept alive a timber and mud brick housing style which they learned from Nanjing traders. Local carpenters still build elaborately constructed timber house frames from memory without blueprints or other diagrams. These houses are often enhanced by detailed flower and bird carvings on the windows. The carvings are now made by ethnic Bai artisans, but attention is given to depicting the flora and fauna of the four seasons in the traditional Han Chinese manner.

Stores renting traditional bridal costumes make a roaring trade in the Old Town.

This is Sinabro Inn where we stayed; it had very pleasant and relatively quiet rooms, not surprising as it's a couple of streets away from the main tourist thoroughfare.  An open air courtyard was framed by the inn, which featured comfortable seating areas for both guests and resident pets.

Lobby of Sinabro Inn

Reading area of Sinabro Inn

This is the second of the two floors of Sinabro Inn.  Many of the independent hotels in Lijiang look like this, at various levels of refurbishment of course.  Basically, these double-storeyed, tile-roofed, timber-framed houses combining elements of Han and Zang architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are disposed in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements - pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.

We ventured down Wuyi Street (Wensheng Alley) in search for dinner.  With no fixed plan in mind, we stopped by the first restaurant that had a bit of a line at the front (heh) and got a table after a five-minute wait.  In that time, we looked on at the chefs preparing bowls of jidou liangfen (a jelly-like noodle made from chick pea) which we were informed was a favourite of locals, so of course, that's what we ordered, along with (mildly) spicy stew of pork innards and vegetables.

The open air courtyard of Maxi Snacks Restaurant.
Food courts in Lijiang Old Town
Pulling ginger candy the traditional way.

Back at Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office at twilight.

On our second day, we decided to head to Shuhe Ancient City, 4 kilometers away the main tourist hub of Lijiang Old Town.  It's about a 10-minute taxi ride but we decided to take a local bus which cost next to nothing and let us see the more "real" aspect of Lijiang away from oversaturated colours and kitsch of its Old Town.  The only downside is that the bus stops about a kilometer away from the main entrance, but hey, it's not like we had theatre tickets or anything.

Shuhe is the much calmer, relaxed cousin to Lijiang.  UNESCO cites it as an important component of Lijiang as it is a well-preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route and one of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people.  The locals call Shuhe "Longquan" (which literally means dragon spring due to the waterways threading through the town.)

Renowned as the "Village of Leather" (among its many monikers,) the Old Town of Shuhe has a prosperous market in the central square covering an area of 250 square meters which used to be the fur and leather trading center in Lijiang.  Ancient shops still line the square with dark red painted wood doors opened to show the old town's residents sitting, chatting and basically exemplifying the leisurely characteristic of Shuhe.  Don't get me wrong: there are still plenty of touristy knick-knacks to be found at every cobblestoned street but the commercial vibe is a smidge less frantic than at Lijiang.

Adding to the relatively peaceful vibe of Shuhe is the Long (Dragon) Pool which winds through the village and partially canopied by verdant willows.


Monday, May 16, 2016

My Blueberry Cream Cheese Scones Recipe - With A Twist

Of my nearly three years living in the magical Hawaiian island of Oahu, certain local culinary wonders were introduced to me.  Some were downright amazing (love me some Kalua pig and ahi/tako poke any day, any time,) others were too cloying for my liking (I'm looking at you, poi,) a couple were baffling (spam musubi, anyone?) and then there were those that were stratospherically awesome.

Case in point: The blueberry cream cheese scones baked fresh daily at Diamond Head Market and Grill in Honolulu.

These addictive mounds of goodness simply and literally explode with whole blueberries and chunks of cream cheese.  In fact, if done right, there should barely be enough of the scone to hold them together - that's how good each bite is.

Now since any travel back to Honolulu is unfortunately not in my foreseeable future due to my work schedule, I resorted to doing the next best thing, which is to try to replicate these scones in my own home.  For those who don't know me, I'm going to pause here to reiterate just how much I'm not a baker.  Honestly, I've baked less than five times in my entire life and none of those have ended in anything that's close to being edible; that should give you a helluva indication how much I love these special scones.  Seriously, for me to take some time to actually do all that prep work and then, you know, bake, it's a huge friggin' deal.

So as I understand it, the owner of Diamond Head Market and Grill is keeping mum about the recipe. Can't quite blame him as they're hot sellers and don't come cheap at USD3.95 a pop.  However, his reticence hasn't stopped intrepid bakers and foodies from trying to deconstruct those scones and come up with their own directives.  Amateur bakers on the internet swear by the recipe from Honolulu Star Bulletin's Betty Shimabukuro so that's exactly what I went with.  The photos below documented my process.

(Full disclosure: I didn't follow her recipe word-for-word as I'd taken the shortcut of using the fine specialty scone mix from Laucke but the rest is pretty much on the nose.) 

No matter what, you gotta have good cream cheese.  What I love about using a Japanese brand is that not only the cheese's texture and consistency is excellent, but that their baking-friendly packaging allows for easy portioning.
I used fresh blueberries even though the recipe called for the frozen kind.  Raisins were also added to the dough.  Just because.  Here's where I mixed the flour, cream cheese and a whole lot of butter for about three minutes in medium speed.
The dough was then stretched flat and thin to a rectangular shape.  I love how Betty tells us to "gently push blueberries and cream cheese pieces into the dough" which was my favourite part of the entire baking process.
Once the blueberries, cream cheese and raisins were placed, the dough was rolled and then cut into eight equal pieces.  Had to pinch bits of the dough to keep the blueberries and cream cheese inside or they'd spill out whilst baking.  In hindsight, I may have pinched too much and covered them too well as a wee bit of spillage is also quite acceptable (and, at least to me, more visually appealing.)
Eight mounds of dough going into the oven that's already pre-heated at 200 degrees Celsius.
Ta-da!  15 minutes later, I have my own batch of blueberry cream cheese (and raisin) scones.  Instead of glazing with a blend of sugar and hot water, I infused a bit of Canadiana by using maple syrup instead.
The verdict?  Pretty good for my first attempt.  The crust was flaky but firm, and the blueberries and raisins were a nice complement to the slight tartness of the cream cheese. My two takeaways for future bake-offs would be that I need to inject double the portion of cream cheese (it wasn't enough for my personal taste,) and then flatten the scones so that they rise wider and become less dense after coming out of the oven.  Well, at least I know what I'll be doing next weekend......

Blueberry Cream Cheese Scones

by Betty Shimabukuro

1/3 cup (76 grams) butter, cut in pieces
2 cups (250 grams) flour
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (75 ml) milk
3 ounces (85 grams) cream cheese, softened
1 egg, beaten
1/2 (53 grams) cup frozen blueberries, thawed, rinsed and drained, sprinkled with sugar

50 raisins (my addition: totally optional, of course.)
2 ounces (57 grams) cream cheese, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Combine butter, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl and cut with a pastry blender or two butter knives until crumbly.
Stir milk into softened cream cheese, then stir in egg until well-combined. Stir cream cheese mixture into flour mixture until dough forms a ball.
Gently push blueberries and cream cheese pieces into the dough to incorporate evenly. Be careful not to crush the berries or mash the cream cheese pieces.
Spoon mounds of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet to make 8 scones. Tuck berries and cream cheese pieces into the dough as much as possible. (Or, for traditional scones, gently pat the dough into a 9-inch circle on the cookie sheet. Sprinkle with sugar. Cut into 8 wedges, but do not separate.)
Bake for 18 to 20 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, until golden. Makes 8 scones.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bite-Size Review: Home-Cooking Goodness in Ho Chi Minh City

When I visited Vietnam, specifically Ho Chi Minh City, for the very first time last year, I totally binged on phở (rice noodles in broth,) bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls,) and gỏi cuốn (spring rolls.)  I couldn't help myself; they were ubiquitous throughout the city - in restaurants, street stalls, food carts and markets, each one tastier than the last.

But as I was trawling the online food sites for ever more recommendations, I came across one that extolled the virtues of eating with a local, honest to goodness, Vietnamese family, and my curiosity got the better of me.  I mean, in a city bursting with over 8 million people, I figured there must be a plethora of fresh, made-to-order, authentic family fare to which visiting foodies may rarely have access beyond the usual dining haunts.

Enter Eating Saigon.

Jointly run by local chef Hai (who has his own restaurant Dong Hua Xuan) and his partner Joe, the Eating Saigon website is full of information on the best eating spots in the capital, along with a helpful glossary of the most popular types of Vietnamese dishes.  One section titled Eat With A Local Saigon Family! features three hosts who welcome guests into their home to eat their traditional dishes, generally with their own family members.  Once a host is selected, reservations may be made online, and you're well on your way to some home-cooked goodness.

Enroute to our dinner and battling through this traffic madness which everyone seems to take as par for the course of living in downtown HCMC.

The first host I picked had to bow out due to medical reasons, so Joe quickly and apologetically arranged for replacement host Dng Thi Nhật Minh (pictured below) to cook and dine with us.  Her home is set within a warren of streets in the Bình Tân district which was a bit of a challenge to find, even with Google map directions, a helpful hotel concierge and an eager taxi driver.  As the crow flies, it's less than a 10 minute cab ride from the main downtown core of Saigon, but taking the traffic into account, we got there in about 20 minutes.

Dng Thi Nhật Minh in her kitchen
We arrived to find Minh making the last preparations in her large open kitchen. She shooed away our offers to help and we were left to be entertained by her multiple and extended family members, some of whom were only too eager to practice their spoken English with us.  In particular, Minh's son Thành (or James, as he preferred to be called) took the mantle of being the family spokesperson, introducing us to the rest of his family, chatting about his current school courses and asking about our impressions of his city.

Minh taking a brief break from the kitchen to share a laugh with her two sons, nephew and husband.  James is the one in the purple checked shirt.

Eating Saigon provided us with an English translator, who in turn, brought a young apprentice in tow. The dinner turned out to be a giggly, good natured feast with Minh, her husband Thanh Binh, sons James and Quân, as well as her sister Thang Long and her family.  All 11 of us sat comfortably around the dining table which had a direct view of the open kitchen and the parade of dishes that just kept coming throughout the evening.

Tucking into the first course - making our own spring rolls garnished with fresh basil, pork, bean sprouts, romaine lettuce, mint leaves and cooked shrimp.  The food was plentiful, the beer and soda were flowing, and the hospitality was heartfelt and exceedingly warm

Dessert came in the delicious form of pan-fried banana fritters, with gratuitous dollops of coconut milk and tapioca pearls (sago) and topped with fine sesame seeds.
Sliced pork belly and shrimp as fillers for the DIY spring rolls

Cold appetizer of braised aubergine / eggplant drizzled with oil and garnished with scallion.

One of Minh's signature dishes: Claypot fish steaks in a spicy caramelized sauce
Braised bittergourd stuffed with minced pork in a clear broth with spring onions.
The gang's all here.  By the way, both Minh and her sister Thang Long are cooking lecturers at the Ly Tu Trong Technical College which meant that we totally lucked out in these home-cooked stakes by having two pros feed us so well.  

 My banana fritter being doused with generous helpings of coconut milk.

My verdict is that this event was an adventure that nicely complemented our desire to experience, and eat, locally, as much as we could in the short time we were in HCMC.  Relatively speaking, the cost per person at USD24 is on the high side (the same amount would net a nice dinner at a swanky restaurant in the city,) but honestly, it's a small price to pay to be accepted into someone's home and family, and partaking in their local home-cooked dishes deftly made with equal measures of care and warmth. 

Eat With A Local Saigon Family
Available Days/Hours:  
Weekdays:  5:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Saturdays:   Noon – 2:00 pm
Sundays:     1:00 – 3:00 pm
Number of Guests: 2 – 10
Seating:  Table seating
Cost: US$24/guest
Advance booking required.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Bite-Size Review: Lau Sum Kee Noodle at Sham Shui Po, Kowloon

One of the benefits of living in Hong Kong is that there is no end to good noodle outlets here. I'm the envy of friends and family who wax lyrical about the springiness of the Hong Kong egg noodles and the juicy freshness of the shrimps in the dumplings. But amongst the tens of thousands of noodle restaurants from which to choose, this one - Lau Sum Kee - in the bustling, grungy, chaotic neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po north of Mongkok, is by far and away, my reigning favourite.

This tiny restaurant (there's a sister outlet nearby) specializes in ha zi lo mein/xiā zǐ lāo miàn (shrimp roe dry noodles 蝦子撈 麵.)   I can't even begin to tell you of the incredibly long lines during the lunch and dinner periods that snake outside this restaurant and its semi-conjoined sibling that's literally just around the corner.  Locals and in-the-know foodie tourists swarm this place daily, waiting to sit, squished elbow-to-elbow, at the small communal tables already over laden with containers of chopsticks, bottles of chili sauce, and jars of pickled radish in vinegar.  I get around this invasion of my private space by getting my noodle fix at off-peak hours - it wreaks havoc on my eating schedule but I find that 4.22 pm on a Saturday will pretty much guarantee me a seat in mere seconds.    

Well worth the wait: This is what all those long lines of noodle hunters are there for: the famed  蝦子撈 麵 or shrimp roe dried noodles.  One of the best things about Lau Sum Kee is that you can order your noodles in all sort of combos: plain, or with wontons, beef brisket/tendons, pork knuckles, fish cake, beef tripe.......really whatever rocks your boat. 

Freshly made suey gao/shuǐjiǎo (水餃) or steamed dumplings with shrimp and chives.
The suey gao 水餃 dumplings are made right on the spot throughout the day in the main dining area.
Another perennial favourite amongst diners at Lau Sum Kee: egg noodles with braised pork knuckles.
One of my go-to, must-order side dishes: boiled beef tripe garnished simply with spring onions, ginger and soy sauce.
I love that they serve the flat mee pok/miàn báo (麵薄) egg noodles too, in dry and soup form.  Not many diners order these as they can choose from so many other types of noodles - I'm quite partial to the hor fun/hé fěn (河粉,)   and mai fun/mí fěn  米粉 myself. 
I also come for my fishball and fishcake fix.  They're much better here than most noodle joints in Hong Kong (or even Singapore, come to think of it.)  These come with or without noodles, depending on your preference.
Non-stop action from the chefs and the serving team.
A typical meal for two.....extremely hungry diners.

Lau Sum Kee Noodle
Map: G/F, 80 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong

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