Good Eats in Asia

The top two activities in Hong Kong are eating and shopping. Probably in that order. In Taiwan there is no shortage of tasty food either. Check out some of the delicious and strange things we ate on the trip.

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Eat More, Drink More, Enjoy Yourselves! A Wedding in Hong Kong

Some of you may be wondering, how did a wedding in Hong Kong make it onto a Mexican travel blog? Actually, our trip to Hong Kong was planned even before we set off for Mexico. I have three cousins in Hong Kong, and two of them have already married. When my cousin Donna invited us over a year ago, we knew we had to take this once in a lifetime opportunity to participate in a Chinese wedding despite John’s grumbling about having any commitments that might interfere with surfing.

Neon in Babylon

John had never been to this side of the world and was in for quite a surprise. Making the transition from the wide open desert and relaxed pace of camping in Baja to the neon-lit, jam-packed, consumption-oriented culture of Hong Kong was definitely a culture shock.

John and I traveled with my aunt and uncle (parents of the bride) under the harbour in a taxi and arrived at the Renaissance Hotel on Hong Kong Island hours before the banquet was set to begin. We had our jobs to do: John taking snapshots alongside photographers and videographers, and me practicing lines as the English-speaking MC. By the time the wedding officially began I was hungry, and was relieved when waiters passed cake and tea. You get to eat cake first in Hong Kong! Money is the traditional wedding gift for people in Hong Kong, but the bride and groom are not the only ones who receive bills in red and gold envelopes. Guests also receive lucky money, two envelopes in fact, because two is a more auspicious number than one for the Chinese.

The banquet began with a parade of waiters marching in with roasted pork on plates supported by silver platters with four piggy legs. The waiters deftly transferred the pork onto 12 little plates, one for each person seated at our table. Then the silver piggy platter was whisked away. Before tasting each course, it is traditional to give a “cheers!” to the table. Cheers in Hong Kong is a raise of the glass, clinking with other diners’ glasses is not necessary.

More courses followed, including abalone on sauteed pea sprouts, a steamed whole fish, and a seafood stuffing

Tasty treats in a sea shell

baked inside of a whelk shell. Donna and Joe skipped the shark’s fin soup, opting instead for a bird’s nest soup. Yes, the bird’s nest is actually made of bird spit. I once saw a cave on the side of an island in Thailand where locals are allowed to harvest the birds’ nests. I imagine that this practice is more sustainable than the harvesting of sharks only for their fins, but who knows.

After the shark’s fin, we played a version of the flower toss. Single girls grasped ribbons attached to the bride’s bouquet. Donna thrust the bouquet into the air, and all of the ribbons fell from the flowers except for one which had been tied tightly. The girl who gets the ribbon still attached to the flowers is the lucky future bride-to-be!

Who's the next lucky girl?

The evening included three dress and accessory changes for Donna, assisted by a makeup artist who traveled from Taiwan to help out. I knew Donna’s arms were getting tired from carrying what looked like about a pound of 24K gold bracelets on her arms. The couple visited table after table, trailed by their families, giving toasts at each one.

Traditional gold wedding bracelets adorn the bride

Holy Pozole!

Pozole (pronounced po-zo-lay) is my favorite Mexican stew. It can be made with either pork or chicken, and you can even make a vegetarian version using sprouted wheat berries. When our friend Rosie offered to teach me how to make it, I was so excited!

First we headed to the grocery store to pick up some maiz nixtamal, also known as hominy. This is corn that has been treated with a weak lye solution. This treatment increases the availability of nutrients from the corn and also makes it very tasty.

Start with the biggest stock pot that you own. First rinse the corn, then cover with water in a large pot and bring it to a boil. Then drain that water, add more to cover and bring to a boil again. Keep adding water to the pot and boiling for several hours, until the kernels are nice and tender and look fluffy.

From the carniceria (butcher shop) across the street, we picked up the following:

  • a piece of kind of dried out pork skin – the same kind for making chicarrones. We asked for pork rinds without a lot of fat. Go figure.
  • soup bones
  • two pork ribs cut into pieces
  • a nice hunk of pork leg, no bones, probably about a pound

This little piggy went to market

I threw it all in the pressure cooker and filled it about halfway with water, and cooked for 25 minutes. When the meat is finished cooking, make sure to pull out any hairs that were left on the pork skin – yum. Drain the corn and add it to the pork stew.

Then add the following chile and tomato mixture.

     

  • Guajillo chiles, about 6 good sized ones. Pull out the stem and shake out the seeds, then cut into large pieces and soak in water. If you want to remove all spiciness, you can also remove the veins of the chiles.
  • 3 or 4 plum tomatoes

Throw the chiles, their soaking water, and tomatoes in a blender with enough

Los ingredientes

water to blend and puree until completely smooth. Add this mixture to the corn and pork. Then add:

  • A whole onion, with a cross cut in the bottom
  • Cloves of garlic to taste
  • Salt to taste

Bring it back to a boil for about 15-20 minutes to combine the flavors.  At the VERY end of cooking, throw in a small handful of oregano and cook for 2 more minutes. Then turn off the heat. When dishing up the pozole, make sure each bowl has a good combination of corn, pork and broth.

Serve with small dishes of the following garnishes. The garnishes are very important and are what really make the pozole experience come together.

  • Cabbage – sliced very thinly and treated with Microdyn
  • Minced onion (and I mean tiny – Rosie re-chopped mine to be smaller!)
  • Minced hot peppers – any kind will do: jalapenos, habaneros, etc. Use a plastic bag or a glove to protect your hand if using very spicy peppers.
  • Sliced radishes
  • Lime wedges (very important)

What is Microdyn, you ask? Since coming to Mexico, Microdyn is our new best friend for disinfecting vegetables that you intend to eat without cooking. It is an ionized silver microbiocide of 0.35% concentration.

A little help in the kitchen

I don’t know if this is bad for me to eat or not, but for the moment I’ll assume it is better than getting amoebas or diarrhea from salads. While this wonderful tool is cheap and available in every supermarket, not every cook uses it. We still avoid raw lettuce and cabbage in most restaurants unless they specifically tell us they’ve washed things carefully.

Buen provecho!

The pozole turned out delicious. I ate it for lunch, then dinner and breakfast the following day! It is a great food for hangovers, by the way. I can’t wait to try making it again in the states to see if I can get the same results.

~ Amy

Fine Dining at Casa Oaxaca

Casa Oaxaca is a candle-lit, cloth napkin, jazz in the lobby and tiny-plants-on-your-table kind of place. After weeks of camping and street food we were a little surprised by the high prices, but we quickly decided to dive in and enjoy the rare opportunity for gourmet food, a glass of wine and fly-free dining.

Bread and blue-corn totopos (a kind of slightly crispy tortilla) arrived accompanied by pickled onions, salsa verde and guacamole. The latter were served in bowls made from the shells of a local fruit which in turn were balanced on tiny woven rings, which were further supported by a metate (a traditional grinding stone). Someone had obviously spent a long time planning all of this presentation and we had quite a challenge trying not to knock it all over while trying to serve ourselves.

The house Chilean cabernet did the trick and soon we were eagerly anticipating our meals of duck tacos with mole coloradito (amazing) and steak with mojo de chapulines. Yes, that is steak with grasshopper sauce. Chapulines are a regional food in Oaxaca and we felt it wouldn’t be right to visit and not at least taste the flavor of the little insects. We figured a sauce would spare us the crunchy part. Honestly it tasted a little shrimpy, and didn’t add much to the very tender and delicious steak medallions.

This is probably the best restaurant meal we’ve had in Mexico. Our meals were good enough that we decided to go for dessert. “Taquitos de chocolate” meant two rolls of chocolate delicately embracing a mousse filling – one of chocolate and one of guanábana. Wild cherries adorned the plate and I nearly picked it up to lick it clean.

Monterrey, Que Romantico

Paseo Santa Lucia (pictured in the gallery below) is a recently developed attraction for the city, proclaimed in promotional materials as Monterrey’s “gift to the world”. It is so recent that none of our travel books included any information on it. It’s a man-made “river” lined with restaurants, fountains, interesting architecture and lighting. Boats carry people up and down with a tour guide announcing points of interest. We stopped at a restaurant called Tenerias for some tortas de huitlacoche, arracheras with a sauce of nopales and chiles and steak fajitas.

Monterrey wins the prize for the city I’ve visited with the most public displays of affection.  Couples kissed on park benches, in dimly lit recesses of the Paseo, on the stairs of the Metro.

Wandering back into the Barrio Antiguo after dinner, we looked into windows filled with the glow of candles, the wax piled up in small hills. A friendly guy stepped out and told us in Spanish and English that there was live music upstairs. Neuquen is an Argentinian restaurant where young and good-looking people seemed to be concentrated. We enjoyed a glass of wine while Frederico Montoya’s band played funk, Beatles and Bob Marley covers on a balcony decorated in old window frames and a chandelier.

Cabrito & Topo Chico

Monterrey is navigable and easy to get around. Taxis whiz by every few minutes and chirp like the initial “woop” of a police siren to get your attention. The Metro runs both above and below ground, and is free every Sunday. Rush hour traffic results in creative driving, but somehow the buses, cars and pedestrians all seem to coexist and get to their destinations. Mexican traffic lights do have one advantage over their American counterparts: the green light flashes before it turns yellow. This way everyone knows to speed up and get through before it turns red.

The arc in the photo forces traffic to fork and go either through or around. Buses don’t slow down for this challenge, swerving with impressive speed to avoid a collision with the arch.

Twice we have stumbled into La Siberia for lunch. It has a bustling, cafeteria-like atmosphere. The choices here are tostadas, tacos and chicken soup. For about $2.50 you can get the lunch pictured here: a bowl of soup with your choice of breast or leg with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. The chicken leg in that bowl of soup certainly came from well-exercised (and probably old) chicken. The leg was skinny and the meat was dark, chewy and flavorful, in a way that I’ve never tasted in even free-range, organic chickens in the U.S.

We also enjoyed a chicken tostada with a thick layer of guacamole, shredded chicken breast and crema. (Avoid the taco. It’s the same filling as the tostada, but in a greasy tortilla). Our new favorite beverage is Topo Chico – a sparkling mineral water made in the region. It is especially effervescent, and I’m going to rely on it to avoid a Coca-Cola addiction on my travels.

One thing I like about Mexican restrooms in casual restaurants: the sink for washing your hands is separate from the actual toilet, and often located in public view of the restaurant. You’ll never wonder if someone washed their hands again….

For dinner we took a recommendation from hotel staff for cabrito. Cabrito is a regional specialty, and several restaurants in town such as “El Gran Pastor” and “El Rey de Cabrito” specialize in skewering and roasting an entire baby goat on rebar over open pits. You choose the cut you’d like, and it comes with chips, salsa, tortillas, beans, crispy pita-like tortillas, a bean dip and a salad bar. I was especially excited to see cooked broccoli, cauliflower and beets on a salad bar decorated with illuminated rock crystals. Salad is common here, but I’m still wary of eating uncooked vegetables of unknown origin.

Goat meat has a special flavor and smell. The outermost layer was crispy, the outer bits of meat were dry and chewy, and the inner bits tender and delicious. Perhaps not for everyone but we enjoyed it. We did the math on 8 servings per goat and estimated that it’s possible they go through 8,000 or more goats per year at this large restaurant. A several course meal for two at El Gran Pastor was about $36. After dinner, a trio began playing music to the beat of a drum machine. The view from the highway on our ride home included many soccer games on lit-up fields and a go-kart race track that intrigued John.