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[681] The Hundred-Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais

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The Hundred-Foot Journey spans way beyond a hundred feet in the sense of how far the young lad has gone to fulfill the dream. Spanning from the protagonist’s native India, to England and then France, the last leg via a tricolor caravan of used Mercedes-Benzes that chugs through much of Western Europe, it’s the story of the making of a chef. Hassa Haji, second of six children born to a poor cotton farmer family, is a Muslim boy raised on the edge of a slum in what was still called Bombay. Among putrid streams and pungent smell of charcoal fires that insinuated the shantytown, Hassan has developed a keen sense of smell and taste. He is born with the innate culinary equivalent of a perfect pitch. The sudden and short-lived real estate boom allowed his father to capitalize on his acreage.

Somewhere in the middle of the play tears began streaming down my face. I am not exactly sure what happened . . . but I realized, about the human soul when it has a destiny—at odds with the society around it—and how this destiny drove people into exile. It was all about homesick men achingly missing their mothers and comforting food from home . . . (Ch.4, p.46)

The horrific death of his mother at the hands of a Hindu mobs upends the family, sending it over to rural France by way of England (portrayed as a food wasteland). In Lumiere his father finds a mansion, converts it to a boisterous Ballywood-esque eatery, with Hassan as the chief. Directly across the street, a hundred feet away, is a celebrated country inn that is the archtype of French rustic elegance. This is, of course, where the novel really takes wing. The clash with snobbish Madame Mallory.

Did you see that placard? Hear that plinky-plinky music? Quelle horreur. Non. Non. He can’t do such a thing. Not on my street. He’s destroying the ambience. Our customers. (Ch.6, p.73)

Embittered by her failure to earn a third Michelin star, Masdame Mallory, a well-trained chef reared in generations of prestige, declares war on her foreign neighbor—over fresh grocery, over customers, and even over noise abatement. But it doesn’t help matters when she comes to dine at Maison Mumbai, ready to crow over its mediocrity and discovers that the untrained Hassan is a culinary genius. She takes him under her wing and teaches him French cooking.

The clash between Madame Mallory and Hasaan’s Papa is no doubt the best part of the book. They are both very nuanced characters. But the book somewhat sags after they drop off the pages . In a wanly sketched Paris, Hassan charts his ascent to the pantheon of top chefs as if ticking off bullets on a resume. In spite of his success he preserves a very human side, which I find very touching. He seems to be always nostalgic of his family, of Madame Mallory and the food of his home. He never forgets the humble upbringing and remembers all his mentors through culinary associations. The book is light and proceeds with a brisk pace, despite it’s not evenly written. It’s a satire of the absurdly over-the-top, style-over-substance food porn culture that Le Guide Michelin helps overblow to an incredible disproportion.

250 pp. Simon and Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

40 Hong Kong Foods

CNN Go selects 40 Hong Kong foods one can’t live without. It as much fuels my homesickness as whets my appetite.

Yum/Neh 1. Hong Kong-style French toast: fried in butter and served in more butter and syrup, perfect comfort food
Yum/Neh 2. Scrambled egg sandwich: plump, full of eggy flavour and light, not greasy
Yum/Neh 3. Stinky tofu: I never understand this fermented tofu. Keep that away from me.
Yum/Neh 4. Hong Kong style-cheeseburgers: palm-sized, minimalist (ketchup, home-made mayo, half a slice of processed cheese) encased in butter roll
Yum/Neh 5. Sweet tofu soup: smooth and soft tofu doused in a lightly sweet syrup and sprinkled with yellow sugar
Yum/Neh 6. ‘Pineapple’ bun: the ultimate Hong Kong pastry—firm on the outside, soft on the inside and topped by crunchy, sugary pastry; I easily inhale 2
Yum/Neh 7. Chicken feet: deep fried then stewed in a blackbean sauce, the Chinese consider this a delicacy but not me
Yum/Neh 8. Miniature wife cakes: traditional Chinese pastry with a combo of lard and sweet pastes made from various beans and roots
Yum/Neh 9. Ginger milk curd: made by gently simmering sweetened milk and then mixing it with fresh ginger juice, which causes the milk to curdle
Yum/Neh 10. Five-layer roast pork: top layer of crackling skin, then alternating slivers of fat with moist meat, and a final salty-spiced layer at the bottom
Yum/Neh 11. Indonesian satay: skewers sizzle in a very satisfying way on a sizzling plate
Yum/Neh 12. Meat mountain: a mishmash of ground pork, mushrooms, water chestnuts and preserved vegetables, seasoned with simple soy sauce and sesame oil; I have never had this, probably won’t
Yum/Neh 13. Cantonese preserved sausage: mix of slightly-sweet pork fat and meat; sausage is never my cup of tea
Yum/Neh 14. Trendy hot pot
Yum/Neh 15. Beef brisket: huge chunks of it being slowly stewed in giant pots of sauce in noodle shop; another huge favorite among locals that I don’t care about
Yum/Neh 16. Egg tarts: custard egg in either a flaky puff pasty shell or in a sweet shortbread crust; great comfort food
Yum/Neh 17. Yung Kee’s roast goose: even specially pack their goose as carry-on luggage for departing travelers
Yum/Neh 18. Thai food in Kowloon City: small Thai community makes up Kowloon City’s ‘Little Thailand’
Yum/Neh 19. Roast pigeon: braised in soy sauce, rice wine and star anise before being roasted to crispy perfection; I still think pigeon is rat with wings
Yum/Neh 20. Snake soup: brothy mix of snake meat, mushrooms, ginger and pork–it’s chicken soup for Chinese; I might have some if I’m not told what it is
Yum/Neh 21. Lotus seed paste: rich, velvety lotus seed paste that can be stuffed in fluffy white buns
Yum/Neh 22. Typhoon-shelter crab: crab sauteed with plenty of spices; if I’m not allergic I will love this
Yum/Neh 23. Egg noodles: Salty shrimp roe is generously sprinkled all over strips of noodles that have just the right amount of elasticity and egginess
Yum/Neh 24. Milk tea: colonialism in a cup is special blend of black Ceylon tea that is strained through silk stockings and mixed with evaporated milk
Yum/Neh 25. Cantonese barbecued pork: it’s a taste of heaven, Be sure to order ‘half fatty, half skinny’ cha siu for the best cut: moist, not greasy, honeyed yet smoky
Yum/Neh 26. Cha siu baau: barbecued pork stuffed into a bun, I like it if the bun is not too doughy
Yum/Neh 27: Claypot rice: I don’t like the charcoal-cooked crusty rice through which fat from meat toppings drift
Yum/Neh 28. North Point mini egg cakes: mini toasted egg cake that is crackly on the outside and spongy on the inside
Yum/Neh 29. Thai shrimp sashimi: dished up in a bed of ice and garnished with a slice of raw garlic
Yum/Neh 30. Mulberry Mistletoe tea: some dessert herbal tea? Not my cup of tea!
Yum/Neh 31. Block 13 Cow Offal: Fatty, richly marinated beef innards
Yum/Neh 32. Congee
Yum/Neh 33. Bowl pudding: palm-sized puddings steamed in porcelain bowls (buut tsai goh) were widely sold by street hawkers
Yum/Neh 34. Tonkichi’s tonkatsu: Japanese style pork chops deep fried to perfect crunchiness
Yum/Neh 35. B Boy’s grass jelly: huge serving of grass jelly topped with plenty of mixed fruit and condensed milk
Yum/Neh 36. Mango pudding in mango sauce with extra mango
Yum/Neh 37. Sweet and sour pork: No, it isn’t just for gwailos. Sweet and sour pork, called ‘gu lo yuk,’ is also a comfort food craved by Hong Kongers
Yum/Neh 38. Louis’ steak: colonial-influenced institutions serve tender meat on hot griddle plates
Yum/Neh 39. Fishballs: probably the most ubiquitous street food
Yum/Neh 40. Swiss chicken wings: the story goes that a foreigner, bowled over by the wings’ sweet and salty taste, tried to ask the staff for the name of the ‘sweet’ dish

A Second Serving, Maybe Third?

The movie Julie and Julia has awakened the legend of an American living in Paris during the politically sensitive McCarthy era. What might have caught booksellers off-guard is how the film has boosted sales of anything Julia Child. The nation is swept by a Julia Child craze. My friend who lives in Julia Child’s hometown,. Pasadena, CA, never fails to point out to me where she went to high school at Polytechnic across the street from Cal Tech every time we drove by. Mastering the Art of French Cooking has topped Amazon’s book chart, trailed by her memoir, My Life in France, which I saw couple of students clutching to class. The food phenomenon continues as I picked up a couple new books (I have been on a binge of non-fiction). They are both food-related.

InOut

In-N-Out Burger by Stacy Perman doesn’t seem to be about burgers. So look elsewhere if you’re looking for the secret burger recipes that make this chain separate from the league of its rivals. A quick rummage through the book gives the impression of a corporate biography, something that is usually way out of my radar. Even though it is sans nuts-and-bolts of their culinary secrets, the book is worth the read since I have always been a fan of their burgers. It reveals the soapy dishes of how marriages—more like family drama of varying scales, change the business climate of the burger chain. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Chopsuey

On the heels of Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I welcome a gwailo’s (foreigner, or Caucasian male) perspective of Chinese food in America. I picked up Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States before I finished reading the blurb. It provides an historical overview of America’s fascination with what many consider to be the world’s finest cuisine. This is a well researched, entertaining book that is perfect for anyone who loves and wants to know more about Chinese food. I want to see how it compares to Lee in terms of America’s adoption of Chinese food.

[218] The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food – Jennifer 8. Lee

Fortune“Chinese food has become an American comfort food in part because it is so predictable.” [266]
“Nearly everyone has a go-to Chinese restaurant.” [10]

In spring 2005, while the lottery board launched an investigation on a possible fraud after dozens of people across America claimed the jackpot, Jennifer 8. Lee was on a mission to solve the mystery of how these people have obtained the same set of winning numbers from fortune cookies. Not only has her journey to Chinese restaurants across the country arrived in a surprising conclusion of the fortune cookie’s origin, it also unfolds a rich cultural history of Chinese Americans and explains how Chinese food has spread everywhere and becomes a brand of its own.

What Chinese restaurant menu doesn’t offer beef broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons, egg rolls, and egg drop soup? [267]

While every country has a Chinese dish that grabs its attention, Lee, who has set her feet on six continents, from New York to London, Paris, Dubai, Mumbai, Rome, Mauritius, Lima, Singapore, and Tokyo, to search for the greatest (not necessarily the best, because how does one define best anyway?) observes that regardless of the locale, the local taste, dictated by habit, has decided that fried rice, chow mein, and sweet-and-sour pork (or any batter-dipped meat) were going to be the standard-bearers of Chinese cuisine.

At my favorite Chinese restaurant that serves Hong Kong-style seafood dishes in San Francisco, the expansive menu boasts traditional fares and delicacies that remind me of my grandparents’ Chinese New year feast. The seafood and fancy ingredients, as well as dark meat with bones, appeal to Chinese clientele, of which my father is a representative. He is a vehement critic of Chinese restaurants that have gone astray (his own words), assimilating to the standard of American-Chinese (note that he doesn’t say Chinese-American) dishes that cater to gwai-los (foreigners). Peeking over at the other tables at The Great Eastern, I saw that most people had ordered the usual as if they order in: fried rice, chow mein, fried wontons, and egg foo young—just extremely pricey versions of those common dishes. In Los Angeles, to be exact the San Gabriel Valley where the Chinese pack the strip malls full of eateries, dim sum ladies in white smocks and purple aprons flock to our table with an assortment of dim sum plates, all deep fried. Those who brandish steamed dumplings and other Chinese favorites, which my American friend (a gwai lo) savors, stream by us without touting.

You can’t have a great Chinese restaurant unless Chinese people go. . . Would the greatest Chinese restaurant be a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people? Or would it be for others? Could it possibly be for both? [212-213]

Lee’s experience resonates with me because in order to reach out to the large swath of America that has yet escaped “the [culinary] gravitational pull of homogeneity”, Chinese food must inevitably alter the texture of food to suit the taste Americans have grown up with. One may only push the boundary of Chinese cuisine on foodies who are used to the real ethnic fares. In modern terminology, Lee observes, an ethnic cuisine has to undergo a global localization dictated by individual tastes. Lee and I agree that a great Chinese restaurant must appeal to both Chinese and non-Chinese in appealing to them a unique set of circumstances that are specific to the Chinese dining experience.

But Chinese food, cooked in a Chinese style for Chinese taste buds, is actually relatively healthy: lots of vegetables and seafood and low in sodium, with few deep-fried ingredients. The problem is that most Americans prefer American-style Chinese food to the real thing. [75]

Which comes to the point about how America is notorious for simplifying, reducing, and mass-producing many refined foods from around the world in order to suit the American palate. The mysterious (at least to the Chinese) General Tso’s chicken, and the soy sauce packet (sans soy) are few prime examples. Chain like P.F. Chang (there is no Mr. Chang) is a pure American creation that caters to non-Asian clientele in an upscale environment. At P.F. Chang Chinese food ceases to be ethnic because were it not for the “certain Chinese-ish items”, the restaurant could be a nice steakhouse.

One of the quickest way to learn about a culture is to explore its culinary practices. Jennifer 8. Lee has written a part travelogue on food tasting and part cultural history on how Chinese food has wormed its way to become a weekly or monthly rituals of American families. Many surprises are in store in this well-written documentary piece. As a Chinese-American, I find her book very informative and accurate on our perspective of what Chinese food is in America.

309 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Nougat

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Sudden craving and reminiscence of my mother brought me to Cherikoff, a bakery in Hong Kong that is known for homemade nougat, a variety of candies made with sugar or honey, roasted nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios or hazelnuts are common, but not peanuts) and sometimes chopped candied fruit. The consistency of nougat can range from chewy to hard depending on its composition, but I don’t like the kind with chocolate. When I was a little boy, dreadful and horrified at an imminent visit to the doctor, which might entail an injection, my mother would pull all of her wit’s end to comfort me. Her best trick was the promise of a bag of nougat from this bakery called ABC after the clinic visit.

I prefer the white nougat, which is made with beaten egg whites and is soft. For a long time I thought nougat originated in Russian as a Christmas treat but recent literature revealed that Spain is where traditional nougat is produced. It’s known as turrón in Spain. The ones that I brought back from Hong Kong are closest to the Spanish recipe: about two-thirds of walnut, sugar, honey, and egg whites. During candy making, a sugar solution is heated to different temperatures before folding in egg whites and honey. So some time on the treadmill will need to burn off the calories of these yummy nougat. But the memory of nougat always comforts me and warms of heart.

Meme | Bon Appetite!

Some of you have sent me e-mails asking about food on the trip. I have intentionally held back from writing about the exotic dining experiences until later, when I have the chance to sort through my pictures. I’m trying to look for a way to present these delicious, authentic local treats in a slide-show format in order to whet your salivary glands as if you’re being served from plate to plate!

Meanwhile, enjoy the food and drink meme that I snagged from Bookey Wookey. It’s nice change of wind after series of travel posts and the busy lineup of book reviews. Bon appetite!

What did you eat/drink today?
At the time I write the post, I have yet to have lunch. For breakfast, I had a bowl of granola topped with fat-free yogurt and fruit (blueberries, kiwi, banana, and apple), a double soy latte in a 16-oz mug from Cafe Flore, a cup of dragon-well (Chinese) green tea. For late-morning snack, I had a couple crackers with gorgonzola cheese. No idea what I’ll have for lunch since I’m still a bit full. I might skip lunch and have an early dinner. I’m thinking about mixed green salad with apple slices, walnuts, shredded parmesan cheese and balsamic vinaigrette for starter.

What do you never eat/drink?
Innards (Chinese can be so obsessed with this…the recent trip home just reminds me of this), feta cheese (can’t even smell that), fastfood (especially KFC), pine nuts (allergic reaction), crustaceans (allergic reaction), sausages, pepperoni, hard liquors, most sodas and anything sparkling except for champagne.

Favorite failsafe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don’t:
Mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette, pan-fried salmon with lemon juice, pasta with homemade meat sauce or just mushroom cream sauce, baked chicken breast seasoned with cumin, lemongrass, and rosemary.

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find:
Lots of fruit, milk, orange juice, water, vegetable, deli meat, low-fat cream cheese, bread, cheese, oyster sauce, black bean paste, hoisin sauce, and eggs.

What is your favorite kitchen item?
The five-speed juice blender and the Circulon set of pots and pans.

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Sushi Toku in Hong Kong

Where would you recommend eating out – either on home turf or elsewhere?
Slow Club for Californian fusion in San Francisco, Kincaid’s for seafood in Burlingame, Sushi Toku in Hong Kong, Ding Tai Fung for steamed dumplings in Taipei, The Food Loft in Bangkok, Terrace Cafe for English high tea in The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, Madame Kwan’s for nasi lemak and other Malay treats in Kuala Lumpur.

World ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?
Home-style Chinese soup, a platter of sushi, nigiri and sashimi, a Thai curry dish, caviar, a pot roast or filet mignon entree, a glass of pinot noir, and chocolate mousse cake, or as many Citizen Cake cupcakes as I can gorge.

Hong Kong | Last 48 Hours + Flight Back

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I’m back everyone!

Thanks to the tail wind my flight made it back to San Francisco in less than 11 hours (usually it’s about 12.5 hours). The baggage reclaim was a different story though! The refurbished Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-400 pulled out of the gate at Hong Kong half an hour late, due to secondary bag checks at the head of the airbridge. The flight was uneventful and that it was a daytime flight, I couldn’t sleep but instead finished reading The Echo Maker, a book I have started in Hong Kong but haven’t had a chance to devote an uninterrupted block of time to it.

I like reading on plane although at times it’s a bit difficult to get into the mood and find my comfortable position. The lighting is perfect when lights go off in the main cabin after the meal. I switch on the overhead reading light which shines a warm yellow patch on to the pages. As other passengers wind down for the nap, activities and foot traffic on the aisle tend to thin out. Over a cup of hot tea I snapped into the world of the book and five hours had gone by, like a breeze, until the next time I checked my watch.

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My last 48 hours in Hong Kong have been quite interesting but lazy. I was winding down the trip spending time with family and a couple friends. I paid second visit to local places that have intrigued me this time, like a hidden food-stall (one of the few remaining) tugged in the alley of Central serving noodle in tomato soup. A fellow blogger took me here a week ago and I was hooked. It’s a tiny family-run stall that cooks up quick local dishes with a twist. The “dining hall” is a make-shift area covered by tarpaulin. It does get very busy here during lunch and you’ll have to wait in line for the next available seat!

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Despite a warning of hemorrhoids (I’m not joking, but it sounds quite hilarious, I guess hemorrhoids would be the result of hotpot debauchery) from a newspaper article, many Hong Kongers gather for a scrumptious hotpot dinner. My family decided to have one. Hotpot is like buffet that you’ll probably don’t realize how much you have eaten until it’s a bit too late. Dinner consists of a simmering metal pot of stock at the center of the dining table. While the hot pot is kept simmering, ingredients are placed into the pot and are cooked at the table. Typical hot pot dishes include thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings, and seafood. The cooked food is usually eaten with a dipping sauce.

Food Festival – Thanksgiving Week

Dinner parties and engagements have dominated my whole week prior to the Asia trip. As you must have deduced from the pictures to follow, I haven’t got much reading done. I went to my aunt’s house for Thanksgiving, so I got together with my friends Stephen and Masa for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at Stephen’s house on the day before, with tea candles lit up all over the top-floor condo in Hayes Valley. We had a cheese plate, a mixed green salad with apple, walnut, and balsamic vinaigrette, homemade pasta with mushroom and asparagus in a creamy tomato sauce, and bite-size brownies. Sipping a bottle of Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir, we chatted into the wee hour.

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On Thanksgiving, my aunt and cousin threw a feast of traditional fares and some Asian twists.  We started off with baked cod and salmon with shrimps on a colorful bed of yellow pepper, squash, and zuccini. Roasted turkey was served with a tangy homemade cranberry sauce and rice. Food was shuffled out of the oven consistently throughout the evening. The scrumptious meal concluded with fresh fruit salad and a yummy warm cranberry-walnut bundt cake.

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Yesterday I met up with Ken for a dinner at Kincaid’s in Burlingame, on the promenade overlooking the bay and the SFO runway. Kincaid’s was thoughtful enough to send me a $20 off dinner coupon. We took a walk on the embankment, enjoying the the eerily quiet trail. It was low-tide and so tranquil that we couldn’t hear the water lapping against the rocks. We were promptly seated at 4:30 pm. While most of the Kincaid’s customers request window tables, Ken put in the word for a table on the upper seating level so we could have a panoramic view of the bay. We started off with some fried calamari, New England clam chowder soup, and a green pea-bacon bit salad with water chestnut. For main course we had pan fried sole and asiago-crusted sea scallops with wild rice and burre blanc sauce.

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We also exchanged Christmas gifts and split a keylime pie.