Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Souvenirs/Back from Hong Kong

When most people travel they bring home souvenirs, small tokens to remind them of their trip and the things they saw, experienced or even ate. I am usually one of those people, I love these reminders, something to look at that takes you back to the time and place you got it. On this trip I didn't bring home any trinkets though, instead I brought back something much more exciting, recipes. Even before I bought my ticket to Hong Kong, I knew that if I was going I would absolutely have to take a cooking class while I was there. A country's cuisine is so deeply entwined with its culture that for me, to go to a place without learning about its food would mean missing out on the essence of its culture. How can I, as an American, comprehend why spitting bones onto the dinner table is totally acceptable in Hong Kong, but not here? And why are there so many bones in the food in the first place? In my mind, understanding the answers to questions such as these is just as important as sightseeing and touring.

So in that vein I signed up for the Chinese Wok Cookery class at the Martha Sherpa cooking school in Hong Kong. I have taken several cooking classes in my time, but this one was definitely the most intense. Eight hours, five dishes and a personal meat cleaver definitely leads to a pretty crazy day. By the time I left I reeked of grease and garlic and although it was certainly not the most appealing aroma, something about it made me proud. The day started off by slicing thin pieces of beef, thin but not too thin, to marinate for a few hours. Then it was time to cut the duck into bite size pieces, it turns out it is a lot easier to watch someone hack away at a duck than it is to do so yourself. No matter how hard I tried to get my knife through the duck it was not happening. After a few good laughs at my expense the instructor finally gave up on me and stepped in to do the rest. However, she did tell me that at home I could do this with good scissors so I will keep that in mind for the future (if and when I choose to butcher my own duck again). My knife skills, or lack thereof, were really put to the test when we had to score the squid. Cut down at an angle almost all the way through, but absolutely do not cut all the way through. Also, don't ask if you're doing it right because the answer will be something along the lines of "you'll just have to see when you eat it."

We prepared our lunch of salt and pepper squid with crispy garlic and steamed fish filet with vermicelli and gold and silver garlic while the meat and duck marinated. The steamed fish was definitely my favorite dish, the flavors were bright and intense and the fish (a simple white fish, often labeled as sole, but actually catfish) was tender, flaky and a great backdrop for the gold and silver garlic, a combination of crispy fried garlic and raw minced garlic. It was steamed on a bed of mung bean vermicelli noodles that were dressed with a slightly sweet soy sauce just before serving. The squid was also really good, dredging it in custard powder definitely added an unusual facet of flavor, but made it something other than the usual fried calamari. The crispy garlic was mixed with tons of very hot chilies, which was as exciting on its own as it was heaped on top of a piece of slightly sweet, crisp squid.

The thought of preparing more food after this delicious meal was almost hard to bear, but somehow I persevered. For the rest of the afternoon we focused on some heartier dishes, village style braised duck, stir fried gai lan (chinese broccoli) with beef, yellow chives and oyster sauce, and stir fried beef with preserved mushrooms, water chestnuts and spongy gourd in a spicy sauce. Of these, the chinese broccoli stir fry was probably my favorite, the duck should have been, but there were so many small bones and odd bits that I found it harder to enjoy.
The stir fries were pretty straightforward, but definitely had more layers of flavor than most stir fries I have made or eaten. For both, the vegetables and beef were deep fried before stir frying, at home I would definitely skip this step and focus on emphasizing the layers of flavor in the sauces.

I was most surprised that we deep fried the duck before braising it to make it less greasy. When I asked why, the other students explained that it is essentially the same as searing a piece of meat before braising it, the jolt of heat renders out some of the fat.

Although I am not sure I will recreate any of these dishes in their entirety, I will definitely keep these new recipes and techniques on hand. A lot of the sauces would be great for other dishes and I learned a few tricks that will definitely make my food taste better in the future. I now know that the bitterness of fried garlic can be mitigated by rinsing it and squeezing out the water; just a small amount of baking soda can help tenderize meat if you need to marinate it quickly; and potato starch is better for frying than corn starch because it stays crispy longer. These tips, this post, the recipes, all of these are my souvenirs from Hong Kong; a few small, but irreplaceable and timeless reminders of an incredible vacation.

3 comments:

The Woozy said...

Great entry! Can't wait to see what you whip up next.
--Jack

tigerfish said...

That steamed fish filet with vermicelli, I've seen them cook shrimps/prawns, clams all the same way. They love steaming in minced garlic, red chili and green onions.

Mrs Erg├╝l said...

Wow! I have never thought of attending cooking school whenever I go to Hong Kong. Now, that is a great idea! I love all those dishes!