Writing food reviews

Although there are quite a lot of people who like to eat, and quite a lot of people who like to write, not many people like both. Eating is a rather sensual and worldly affair, distinct from the interests of literary folk who are often more concerned with deeper, more profound, metaphysical issues. So outstanding food bloggers are rare, and you find that when browsing through the food blogosphere, the same ubiquitous names pop up everywhere (101 Cookbooks is an example: iGoogle has even set it as the default for the recipes tab, and nearly every food blog has placed it on their blog list, puzzling me at first since it was always listed prominently at the very top, then I realised it was because of its numerical beginning!).

I never knew it takes so long to write up restaurant reviews… I say, on average, it takes about 40 minutes to write up a review for one restaurant… it’s probably because I’m trying to remember back to such a long time ago (well, in part due to my procrastinating tendencies..), googling for their online menu, looking through photos in an attempt to treat food as an artwork (and translating that into words!), fumbling over the adjectives to use to describe something as subjective as taste, searching the thesaurus to avoid repetitive and lacklustre descriptions, researching the restaurant/food to get some inspiration for story-telling and finding diplomatic ways to express any criticisms. I guess, particularly for the first point, that’s why it’s smart for people to write down little comments/notes when they’re actually in the scene of the restaurant? But the downside to that is that while I’m there, I want to concentrate on the food and have fun with it, rather than getting bogged down with having to write down things. I guess that also explains why I enjoy writing restaurant/food reviews: because I can recount the pleasurable encounters I have had with food glorious food!, rather than finding ways to critique it, and also because it’s a creative outlet for me.

Well… now I know I’ll never want to become a professional restaurant critic! Yet I find it strange that, as someone who is a proud aficionado of art, I did not start up an art blog.

It’s not that I enjoy food more than art; it is hard to compare things that way. But with art, it invokes such emotional, subjective responses, and in such intangible ways that it is hard, nay, almost impossible, to express with words. I also have many many more encounters with food than with art, and that is also true for the rest of the population, so it gives a lot more room for connection. Food is, I admit, much easier to talk about than art, which requires lengthy investigation into the context, motives, symbolism, etc. of the artwork, rather than the simplicity of food. Lastly, there isn’t much out there about restaurants or particular food types (aside from the occasional magazine/food blog articles), but when you type in the name of an artwork into any search engine, you are inundated with a flood of reviews/critiques; so food gives me a little niche to write about, something that has not been explored as much, something that is flexible and subject to change.

Well, that’s enough of my ponderings… better get back to study! (four exams in the coming week…)

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Feast in Hong Kong (Feb 2009) II – Restaurants : 四點金潮州料理 Four Golds Chiu Chow Cuisine Restaurant

Answer to previous post’s question: compressed dried wood ear 木耳.

My dining companion was my aunty, whose husband’s relatives own this restaurant. Like I said before, my mother’s family’s heritage is Chiu Chow, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s ingrained in my genes, or because anybody with a tongue would concur, but Chiu Chow cuisine is awesome. It seems like most Chiu Chow people have still remained connected to their roots: of the many of my Chinese friends, I only know the heritage of those who hail from this region (even if the ancestry was a hundred years ago!)! And indeed, why wouldn’t you be proud of such heritage, especially when it boasts subtle and delectable food that is also espoused as being one of the healthiest of Chinese cuisines ?

You’d expect that with two dining companions, there wouldn’t be much variety, yeah? We actually ordered, in much excess, six dishes and, amazingly, we managed to stuff more than half of that into our stomachs. Located a distant walk from the MTR station, in an unassuming street of Yau Ma Tei, this small restaurant has a cosy feel with warm-tinted decor. The menu is filled with an extensive array of authentic Chiu Chow dishes, and we sampled the most famous ones.

First up were the appetisers, which technically speaking, aren’t really Chiu Chow exclusively: jellyfish and chicken salad, and goose liver. Very tasty and light as they were cold, and the goose liver was, fortunately, not as pungent as I had remembered; perhaps the slight tang of the sauce countered the richness (which would usually be overemphasised in a dish like foie gras). Then came the deep-fried tofu, which I don’t think words can do justice. I don’t know what the batter they used was, but it was so crisp and crunchy, unlike any other ordinary batter I’ve tasted that goes soggy after a while. Have a look at the picture, the patterning is so cute, it’s like a coral! The dish came with a bowl of ‘broth’ (maybe it’s just salty water with spring onions) with which the tofu is dipped in, much like tempura; probably to reduce the 熱氣 (‘yit hei’: heatiness). Even after dipping the tofu in the stock, the batter retained its unique crunchy, ridgey texture, and actually made it taste nicer since the tofu itself was quite bland, and the salty spring onion broth gave it more body (the juices exude out from the crunchy skin that gave depth to the taste and mouthfeel). This was my favourite dish, and even though it’s a well-established fact that anything deep-fried will taste great, this version puts all other batters in the world to shame.

Next came the congee (潮州糜 Chiu Chow mue). I’m very familiar with this since my mum often created her own rendition by putting rice into Chinese soup, and I sometimes liked to do that too. Chiu Chow mue is different from Cantonese congee in that the rice still maintains their integrity and the soup is not as viscous: basically, just like putting cooked rice into soup, as apparently many Chiu Chow families do!  But the soup that was served was much more full-bodied and flavourful with a delightful combination of meaty baby mussels, gobbets (oh my gosh, don’t accuse me of being the bio nerd I am, but I accidentally typed in ‘goblet’, as in the goblet cells of the respiratory tract that secrete mucus…yeah, just ignore all that 😉 ) of mince pork, dried salty fish, some kind of preserved vegetable and spring onion, all of which infused flavour throughout the soup while the character of each still remaining intact and not boiled to death like many Cantonese people like. I do not like congee, but this delicious dish might just make me a convert.

And yes, the most well-known and integral dish of any Chiu Chow banquet, oyster omelette (蠔烙). I had actually tried it before, in Brisbane! I also really like this dish, but I can’t really put my finger on what was missing in this one, maybe not enough herb? Nevertheless, with the texture of the omelette and generous servings of succulent oysters, I still loved it.

The last dish we had doesn’t quite share the same acclaim as the oyster omelette, but not deservingly so! 潮州糖醋麵 (Chiu Chow sugar vinegar noodle) are orange-coloured Chinese egg noodles (伊麵 yi mein) pan-fried to crisp perfection and sliced much like a pizza, then topped with dark vinegar and granules of sugar (very typical Chiu Chow idiosyncrasy: a friend of mine also of this heritage said her family also sprinkles sugar onto everything! (eg. toast, bread, yam…)). The flavours don’t sound right but it complements each other in a strangely appetising way, and the sugar granules gives an extra nice crunch to the crispy noodles. This is probably a dish that could be easily made at home (and I will!)

Some other samples from the menu which looked enticing include 韭菜餜 chive dumpling, which are chopped garlic chives enclosed in wrapping shaped like a disk and always cutely stamped with a pink dot, other varieties include radish or peanuts: steamed and sauteed for crispiness. I believe this was my mum’s family’s favourite childhood snack, and my uncle still goes back to Hong Kong to buy these from markets to bring back to Australia. Google searching this (as I do), I was surprised to find no pictures so I decided to upload this from my Sydney trip (after my uncle transported them, of course). I never knew this was such a rare delicacy!guo

A dessert dish I remember is the taro coated in sugar (very nice, and it is easy enough to be cooked yourself). And the cost? Honestly I don’t remember, but it ranged somewhere between $HK30-$70 per dish.

This may not be the most renowned Chiu Chow restaurant in Hong Kong, but if you’re just craving for a little pecking for this wonderfully delicate and hearty cuisine at reasonable prices, I would recommend it (but then again, I’ve never given a bad review. If you’re a picky eater, you’d know by now I make a terrible food critic :D).

100 Chinese Foods to Try Before You Die

Another meme (from this food blog)!

This is like the Omnivore’s Hundred from last time, only now it focusses on Chinese cuisine. How timely this is: I’ll be going back to Hong Kong in February! I’ve actually tried most of the foods listed here, I don’t know why I’m surprised at that considering I am Chinese after all! (maybe because I’m an omnivore as well and the score for that was pretty pitiful. haha) As per tradition, the asterisks indicate my fondness toward the food… from the lavish dottings, you can tell I like my Chinese food very much. 🙂

100 Chinese Foods to Try Before You Die

1. Almond milk 杏仁茶*
2. Ants Climbing a Tree (poetic, not literal, name) 螞蟻上樹** (I like it so much that there was a phase where on my cooking rotation, this would be the default)
3. Asian pear 鴨梨
4. Baby bok choy 白菜苗*
5. Baijiu 白酒
6. Beef brisket 牛腩*
7. Beggar’s Chicken 乞丐雞 (I REALLY want to try!!)
8. Bingtang hulu 冰糖葫蘆
9. Bitter melon 苦瓜*
10. Bubble tea 波霸奶茶*
11. Buddha’s Delight 羅漢齋**
12. Cantonese roast duck 燒鴨*
13. Century egg, or thousand-year egg 皮蛋*
14. Cha siu (Cantonese roast pork)叉燒**
15. Char kway teow 炒粿條/炒貴刁*
16. Chicken feet 雞腳
17. Chinese sausage 臘腸*
18. Chow mein 炒麵**
19. Chrysanthemum tea 菊花茶
20. Claypot rice 煲仔飯*
21. Congee 粥
22. Conpoy (dried scallops) 干貝/江瑤柱*
23. Crab rangoon 炸蟹角
24. Dan Dan noodles 擔擔麵**
25. Dragonfruit 火龍果**
26. Dragon’s Beard candy 龍鬚糖** (my favourite candy of all time! so much so, that, upon realising there was none in Australia, I looked up a recipe. Needless to say, I haven’t ventured into that yet!)
27. Dried cuttlefish 墨魚乾*
28. Drunken chicken 醉雞**
29. Dry-fried green beans 乾扁四季豆**
30. Egg drop soup 蛋花湯*
31. Egg rolls 蛋卷**
32. Egg tart, Cantonese (蛋撻) or Macanese (葡國蛋撻)** (I am one of the rare ones who prefer the biscuity tarts, not the flaky pastry…)
33. Fresh bamboo shoots 鮮露筍/竹筍
34. Fortune cookies*
35. Fried milk 炸牛奶* (it tasted so artificial, but it’s interestingly tasty.)
36. Fried rice 炒飯**
37. Gai lan (Chinese broccoli) 芥蘭**
38. General Tso’s Chicken 左公雞
39. Gobi Manchurian
40. Goji berries (Chinese wolfberries) 杞子 (hahaha, when I was younger, and I had not got a clue what these bizarre red wrinklies were, my brother would trick me and say it was ‘rabbit poo’… needless to say, I was pretty terrified of these berries afterwards, making me miss out on this apparent ‘superfood’!)
41. Grass jelly 涼粉** (mixed with a little sugar and evaporated milk.. !)
42. Hainan chicken rice 海南雞飯**
43. Hand-pulled noodles 拉麵**
44. Har gau (steamed shrimp dumplings in translucent wrappers) 蝦餃*
45. Haw flakes 山楂餅** (ah, this was my childhood nibble food…)
46. Hibiscus tea 芙蓉茶
47. Hong Kong-style Milk Tea 港式奶茶*
48. Hot and sour soup 酸辣湯
49. Hot Coca-Cola with Ginger 薑汁可樂
50. Hot Pot 火鍋/打邊爐** (the ultimate Chinese get-together on cold days)
51. Iron Goddess tea (Tieguanyin) 鐵觀音
52. Jellyfish 海蜇*
53. Kosher Chinese food 猶太中國菜
54. Kung Pao Chicken 宮保雞丁*
55. Lamb skewers (yangrou chua’r) 羊肉串
56. Lion’s Head meatballs 獅子頭
57. Lomo Saltado (is that even Chinese..)
58. Longan fruit 龍眼** (they just had to add the ‘fruit’ at the end to eludicate it’s not real dragon’s eyes! lol)
59. Lychee 荔枝** (I can’t really taste too much of a difference between this and longan.. maybe lychee is sweeter?)
60. Macaroni in soup with Spam 午餐肉通粉 (a most strange breakfast indeed)
61. Malatang 麻辣湯
62. Mantou, especially if fried and dipped in sweetened condensed milk 镘頭** (yumm!! Who would have thought a simple bread dipped in condensed milk could be so good?)
63. Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐**
64. Mock meat 齋肉**
65. Mooncake (bonus points for the snow-skin variety) 月餅** (snow skin mooncakes are even nicer)
66. Nor mai gai (chicken and sticky rice in lotus leaf) 糯米雞** (one of my favourite yum cha dishes)
67. Pan-fried jiaozi 煎餃子**
68. Peking duck 北京填鴨** (hm.. what’s the difference between this and the Cantonese one? I like it with the pancakes and hoisin sauce.)
69. Pineapple bun 菠蘿包** (one of my favourite breakfasts!)
70. Prawn crackers 蝦片*
71. Pu’er tea 普洱茶
72. Rambutan 紅毛丹
73. Red bean in dessert form 紅豆甜品 (I’ve never been too fond of it though)
74. Red bayberry 楊梅
75. Red cooked pork 紅燒肉
76. Roast pigeon 燒乳鴿
77. Rose tea 玫瑰茶
78. Roujiamo 肉夾饃
79. Scallion pancake 蔥油餅
80. Shaved ice dessert 刨冰*
81. Sesame chicken 芝麻雞* (a lot of American ‘Chinese’ food here!)
82. Sichuan pepper in any dish 花椒*
83. Sichuan preserved vegetable (zhacai) 榨菜*
84. Silken tofu 滑豆腐*
85. Soy milk, freshly made 豆漿*
86. Steamed egg custard 墩蛋**
87. Stinky tofu 臭豆腐
88. Sugar cane juice 庶汁*
89. Sweet and sour pork, chicken, or shrimp 咕嚕肉、雞、蝦*
90. Taro 芋頭*
91. Tea eggs 茶葉蛋*
92. Tea-smoked duck
93. Turnip cake (law bok gau) 蘿蔔糕*
94. Twice-cooked pork 回鍋肉 (well, I’ve had the canned variety XD)
95. Water chestnut cake (mati gau) 馬蹄糕* (in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, my family made a huge batch of these)
96. Wonton noodle soup 雲吞麵*
97. Wood ear 木耳*
98. Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) 小籠包*
99. Yuanyang (half coffee, half tea, Hong Kong style) 鴛鴦
100. Yunnan goat cheese 雲南乳餅

84/100

Stomach about to explode

Hello all! I am in foodie paradise!

Not really, that was just a hyperbole merely intended to attract your attention. Well, Sydney certainly does offer much more culinary choice than Brisbane, but the main reason is not because of the actual restaurants/food offered in a place per se, but more the notion of one’s prerogative to become a lunatic and stuff onself crazy since everybody is treating you to food that is entailed from holiday mode. It’s not like I’m complaining here, I love to eat out, but sometimes it’s a bit too much.

I’m here right now, in pain from overeating tonight. It feels as if my stomach is being weighed down by a 5kg rock inside that won’t budge, just sitting there like some intrusive, irksome visitor adamantly refusing to leave. I tried to resist, but it’s just so hard to not eat when there’s food in front of me. My uncle is a huge eater, akin to the appetite of a sumo wrestler (despite his svelte frame), and I think I owe my genetic makeup to my lack of overweight (without such unusually high metabolism, my diet (probably double or triple the amount a typical asian girl would consume) would no doubt have made me morbidly obese), and I think my family tends to encourage me to keep eating, don’t waste food… But I need to learn to say no. The few weeks I’ve been in Sydney, I’ve been stuffing myself silly even though I’m already full, and I think family has a lot to blame, being the frugal Chinese we (they) are, constantly forcing me to finish the scraps left from every dish. I am staying in Wagga Wagga for 5 days with my uncle, and he knows I love to eat, so he brought so much food for me. A pandan cake, black sesame soup, pocky, “sachima cookie”, two tubs of yogurt, three mangoes, six Chinese buns, Panetonne, ice cream sticks… you get the gist. And this is in addition to the three meals a day. And he expects me to finish it all, in five days. I like snacks, but it’s just too much! I know he loves me and is being hospitable, but when it gets to the point where my stomach is about to explode (me being my vocab-extending self, I was on the brinkof writing ‘implode’ before I realised that would probably be the verb used to describe a famine), it’s kind of overboard.

wagga-food

Okay, so I have part blame too, loving eating so much and a natural curiosity to try a bit of everything (if they order 20 dishes in yum cha for example, I’ll try each and every one of them), but then my family is again to blame, because at home I would cut things in half so I can try a small piece of everything, but here, they’re so rigid, and thinks I’m rude for doing that.. making me eat a huge piece of everything).

But anyway, aside from my health, I’ve been having wonderful meals down in New South Wales. Good food. I just went to a Vietnamese restaurant today with uncle, and we ordered the pork and shrimp rice roll for entree, and beef with lemongrass and chilli, and combination meats (chicken, shrimp, beef, pork) in tammarind sauce. My uncle, having such an astute tongue, commented the mains were a good combination because the two had very distinct flavours of their own and stood out individually, rather than the common problem of ordering two very similar dishes that just taste the same (very easy mistake to do in an Asian restaurant where all the dishes are doused in sauces which are practically identical). The spicy, poignant flavour of the beef contrasted well with the sourness of the tarramind sauce. So it got me thinking… it’s rarely discussed, the matching of dishes in one meal, but it’s such an important thing, and I wonder why that is? Perhaps most Western people are less lavish than us Chinese, and just have one main with a salad to match. Much more simple.

This restaurant, called Saigon restaurant (it’s in Wagga Wagga),  was the first time I tried those lovely Vietnamese spring rolls and fell head over heels for. In this version, it’s made with fillings of shrimp, pork shreds (it’s marinated, not just plain), vermicelli noodles, lettuce, carrots, bean sprouts, Thai basil, with the dipping sauce probably made of hoisin sauce with crushed peanuts on top. I don’t know how authentic it is, but it seems to taste nicer than the ones in Brisbane. That’s probably because there’s coriander leaves (yuck), and maybe the sauce wasn’t the super sweet hoisin sauce. It’s probably more authentic in Brisbane, I remember there’s always a little strip of green protruding from the ends of the rolls. Oh well. I think I’ve had enough rambling for today. My goal for the rest of the holiday: to say ‘no’ when I am already stuffed, and avoid further stomach aches.

(P.S. I’ll upload some pertinent photos when I get the chance)