Thanksgiving Cola Braised Ham Hocks

 

Turkey, turkey, turkey. You say Thanksgiving, first thing everyone pictures is a wattle-necked gobbler. Then they think dry, tough, chewy: these are not the words you want associated with your home cooking.

Some of you might think stuffing or cornbread dressing is the best item on your Thanksgiving table. Stuffing and dressing are certainly scrumptious, but they’re side dishes, and so, left out of the running for best holiday plate. It’s really no contest. Ham hocks are the best Thanksgiving dish. A thick, cheap, fatty, bone-in slab of pork, braised slowly over low temperature, these ham hocks are tenderly simmered in a delicious bath of stock and cola rendering a more delicious, more juicy and more flavourful meat to adorn your holiday table than any turkey, deep-fried or baked.

 

This is a very easy recipe that lets bold flavours sit at the head of the table without too much fuss in the kitchen. These braised ham hocks stew in Asian staples, like soy and hoisin, with a sweet American classic, cola, to build depth and subtlety that soaks up into a hearty cut of meat until it slips free of the bone. A pot of these cola braised ham hocks will make your whole house smell like the sweet savoury salty sticky bits that everybody wants on their plate at Thanksgiving.

braised-ham-hock-pot-overhead

 

Cola Braised Ham Hocks Recipe

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 3-8 hours
Serves 8-12 people

Ingredients:

  • 4 – 6 ham hocks
  • pork neck bones
Cola Braise
  • 1L/4C of bone broth (substitute any kind of stock)
  • 750ml/3C of your favourite cola (Mine is a Canadian classic, A & W Root Beer)
  • 125ml/1/2C soy sauce
  • 30ml/2tbsp oyster sauce
  • 30ml/2 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 30ml/2 tbsp Chinese five spice
  • 15ml/1 tbsp apple cider vinegar or black rice vinegar
  • 15ml/1tbsp tomato paste or red bean curd (for depth and colour)
  • 1 thumb-sized chunk of ginger, roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 whole dried chiles (chipotles add a bit of smoke, but whatever works)
  • 2 scallions, roughly chopped
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions:

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 150C/300F.
  2. Heat up  broth/stock in a pot until it reaches boiling point.
  3. In a large crock pot or Dutch oven layer up ham hocks, seasoning each piece of meat on both sides before placing it in the pot, then weigh down with seasoned neck bones.
  4. In a mixing bowl, stir together all ingredients of cola braise except stock, then pour over ham hocks and bones.

Cooking:

  1. Pour simmering broth over meat and braising liquid. If liquid does not reach the top of your pot, add water until it is sufficiently full to cover all the meat.
  2. Place in oven and braised for a minimum of 3 hours.

Note:

This dish will only get better with time, cooking for a whole day will allow the flavours to fully come together, while breaking down the tendons and connective tissue in the meat, resulting in that tender fall off the bone, melt in your mouth yum yum.

Serve & Plate:

  1. Pull out each piece of meat and gently slide out the bones, then plate the meat on a serving platter. If strained, the braising liquid can be boiled down, or thickened with a corn starch slurry, to make an amazing cola gravy. Ham hock leftovers and remaining gravy will make awesome pulled pork sandwiches for the rest of the week.

Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭) and Sichuan Strange Flavour Sauce (Guaiwei 怪味)

The first time I made Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭), I forgot to write down the recipe. I had looked at a hundred variations, but none of them stuck. I planned to serve the wok-fried then braised meatballs with bok choy, then finish them with Sichuan ‘strange flavor’ sauce (Guaiwei 怪味) to add a bit of lip smacking flavour to what seemed like a plain sort of meat and greens dish with a punchy name. When I got home, annoyed at myself for having lost the recipe I wanted to riff on, I unpacked my groceries and realized I had compounded my mistake and somehow bought ground turkey instead of pork. Thus, this crackpot Chinese-American Thanksgiving holiday mashup recipe was born.

bok-choy

The dish works like a charm for a bunch of reasons: turkey meat is primarily dark and packed with rich, gamey flavour, but famously dry and texturally boring. The meatballs are heavily seasoned and fried, giving a deep caramelized brown to the exterior and a bit of crunch to the exterior while sealing in the natural juices. Then, they’re braised in chicken stock suffusing the potentially dry meat with succulent moisture and ensuring a delicious and juice-packed meatball. The Sichuan strange flavour sauce has a tahini and sesame base, ingredients not native to Sichuan which were introduced via the Silk Road, hence the unique name. The nutty chilli sauce adds a layer of salty sour sweet and spicy umami bang to the dish that will give you a bit of leo pride when you lay it down on the table beside the sliced cardboard, dry beast meat everyone else is serving.

lions-head-meatball

 

Lion’s Head Meatball  Recipe (紅燒獅子頭)

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35-40 minutes
Makes  8-10 meatballs, serves 4-6 people

Ingredients:

Meatballs
  • 900g/2 lb ground turkey
  • 30ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
  • 45ml soy sauce
  • 15ml sesame oil
  • 15ml neutral oil
  • 10ml cornstarch
Broth
  • 2 scallions, slivered
  • 1 finger of ginger, in matchsticks
  • 200ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
  • 500ml chicken broth, simmering
Odd Sauce
  • 45ml soy sauce
  • 45 ml neutral oil
  • 30ml tahini
  • 15ml chinkiang black rice vinegar
  • 15ml sesame oil
  • 10ml sugar
  • 20g ginger, roughly chopped
  • 20g garlic, smashed
  • 10g Sichuan peppers
  • 2 whole dried chilis
Garnish
  • 1 head of bok choy

 

Instructions:

Preparation:

  1. In a mixing bowl, beat together turkey, soy, shaoxing wine, and sesame oil until the meat forms a smooth paste.
  2. Stir in cornstarch and neutral oil, then form 10-12 large meatballs, cover and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.

Cooking:

Odd Sauce:
  1. Heat oil in wok or frying pan until smoking point. Add ginger, garlic, chilis, Sichuan peppers and scallions.
  2. Remove from heat and stir rapidly for 30 second as the oil cools.
  3. Blend mixture in a food processor, coffee grinder or mortar. Stir in remaining ingredients and set aside. (Note: this is an awesome all purpose umami rich dipping sauce.)
Meatballs (Not using a wok):
  1. If not using a wok, line a roasting pan or crock pot with cleaned and stemmed leaves of bok choy. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Heat a frying pan over a medium flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
  3. In two or three batches, fry the meatballs, cooking evenly on all surface areas. As they brown, set meatballs on waiting bok choy leaves.
  4. When the meatballs are all browned and set aside, deglaze your frying pan with shaoxing wine, add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions and stir rapidly as moisture evaporates.
  5. When the wine sauce is reduced by half pour it over the meatballs, add simmering chicken stock.
  6. Cover with aluminum or parchment and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
Meatballs (With wok):
  1. Heat wok over high flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
  2. At smoking point, add meatballs and roll around cooking surface to brown, careful not to burn as you must work fast.
  3. Once the meatballs have all browned, push to the side of cooking surface, deglaze wok with shaoxing wine, and add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions, toss mixture together as moisture evaporates.
  4. Slip bok choy leaves under meatballs, add simmering chicken stock, and cover wok with a large lid. Turn down heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve & Plate:
  1. Serve as Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs in a larger meal, such as a Thanksgiving or a pot luck. Plate meatballs on bok choy leaves and drizzle with odd sauce.
  2. Don’t ditch the broth! Make a soup, or freeze for stock.
  3. Alternatively, if you’re making Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs for a weekday dinner or your family, serve swimming in the broth, atop noodles or rice. These meatballs and their cooking broth make a hearty and pungent soup, served over a starch.
  4. This dish will be the most talked about addition to any holiday dinner. It tastes delicious, looks intense and has a bad ass name. It might even be healthy.

 

A Visit to Aidao Nunnery, for the Buddhist Vegetarian Lunch Ceremony, Wenshu Monastery and a walk around Chengdu

Chengdu is damp, gray, and fresh with scent of running water this morning. Like the Pacific northwest, the green is pervasive, flora sprouts from sidewalk cracks and coats stone lions in a mossy patina. The city lies in the midst of the fertile Chengdu Plain, known as the Country of Heaven and ‘Land of Abundance’. For most of its history, this region has been the bread basket of China, providing a surplus of rice, grains, and Sichuan spices to more populous Eastern provinces and cities.

old-chengdu

Recently, Chengdu has seen an incredible population and economic boom as families and companies relocated through the government’s ‘Go West’ programs and subsidies. The urban core is now home to 8 million, with over 15 million in the surrounding administrative area, making it roughly the size of New York City. According to a French couple I spoke with, when they were on university exchange here in 1996, traffic was still primarily bicycles, and none of the skyscrapers that dominate the central business district had been constructed. Despite the population doubling in the last twenty years, there are neighbourhoods that retain the quiet, cloistered feel of its recent past.

mix-hostel

I head out from Mix Hostel, a subdued guesthouse on a quiet side street near the river, and walk across the bridge to the old quarter to experience a bit of the city’s history. My first stop is at the Aidao Nunnery for their Buddhist (vegetarian) lunch ceremony. There are no signs and certainly no one who speaks English to guide me in the right direction, so I wander in through the open gate and circle the luscious plant-strewn courtyard a few times before I spot a small pantry, where other visitors are collecting table ware. I mimic everyone else and take two bowls, one for rice and one for hot dishes, then find a matching pair of chopsticks in the large bamboo steamer.

At precisely 11:40, the fish gong is struck and the lunch ceremony begins. Nuns sit in the first two rows of benches that line the Five Vision Hall, and visitors quickly sort out spots in the back rows. The nuns, with shaved heads and unadorned jiāshā robes dyed in the familiar Buddhist shades of ochre, pale brown and bright saffrons, sit and say a few words, sing a short and strikingly beautiful hymn, and then food is served. Because it was neither the time nor the place for photography, touristic voyeurism would have been rude and disruptive as a guest in the temple, I will try and offer a vivid description of each plate.

monastery

The Mahayana school of Buddhists in China abstain from alcohol, meat, fish, eggs, garlic and onion, as part of the Brahma’s Net Sutra, a list of 10 major rules, and as result their cuisine is strikingly different from the Sichuan fare of Chengdu. One after the other, younger nuns circle the cafeteria and ladle scoops of subtle, yet refined dishes into our outstretched bowl, which flavour and accompany our steamed rice. First, we eat soy beans (黄豆 Huángdòu) braised in acidic tomato sauce; followed immediately by crunchy, lotus root (莲藕 Lián’ǒu) that has been wok-tossed with a generous amount of fresh, spicy ginger; the third dish consists of cubes of taro (芋头 Yùtou) jelly and steamed Chinese spinach (菠菜 Bōcài), the gelatinous root has an exquisite mouthfeel countered by the bitter, earthy green vegetable; next, a sharp, vinegar heavy,  palate cleansing array of pickled vegetables that includes carrots and mustard root (芥菜根 Jiècài gēn); before a gentle finish, boiled sweet potato (甘薯 Gānshǔ), which most of us elect to have poured over the remaining rice, creating a sweet soupy, colourful rice pudding to finish.

While we are eating, each of the nun’s guests places a 5 yuan note on the table, which is collected during the meal. The meal is a pleasant surprise, filling and pungent if unadorned, layered with the delicious flavours of market-fresh bounty from this land of abundance. After lunch, everyone returns to the pantry to wash and put away their chopsticks and bowls. I walk away relaxed and sated, enjoying the rest of my afternoon dawdling around the old quarter.

Wenshu monastery is just up the street from the nunnery, no more than a five or ten minute walk. I saunter past old-style shops and a bevy of tourists eating the fiery dandan noodles, Chengdu is most commonly associated with, and through the old gates of the temple grounds. I pass through a serene, verdant sculpture garden and tea house with a courtyard full of chatter, wander away as the sound of voices trails off and quiet prevails on the many paths circling through bamboo reeds and past prayer halls and a rock garden. The Wenshu Monastery and its many winding paths are a delightful bit of calm, tucked away in a city the size of Manhattan, and I forget for a moment where I am, lost in the tranquility of the fish ponds and Buddhist reveries.

wenshu

Char Siu Pork Belly Recipe; 叉燒 Cantonese Yale: Chāsīu

 

(Note: scroll straight to the bottom of the post for recipe details.)

Your butcher is your friend. If you start with a crappy piece of lifeless meat lodged to a piece of styrofoam ‘wet aging’ (i.e. rotting in its own juices on a Cryovac absorbent pad in the discount aisle of the supermarket) nothing you do will mask the flavour of chemicals. Conversely, a good piece of meat will make your meal sing, and will have your guests groaning and drooling with carnal bliss. Pork is the most flavourful and juicy meat. Pork belly is the fattiest, juiciest and thus most flavourful cut of a hog. There’s a reason why a panful of bacon can still make a seasoned gourmand weak in the knees, and a vegan questions their faith in ascetic principles. Your friends and family will appreciate a few incredible slices of this Char Siu (“fork roasted”) barbecue, which elevates the best qualities of pork, highlighting the flavours of the cut and rendering the fat into succulent meat. Serve smaller portions of better quality food, if you have to skimp, with more rice and greens.

fish-vendor

This famous dish goes by many names, but it is instantly recognizable, when you see the tantalizing strips of glossy, copper-hued barbecue hanging in the windows of Cantonese restaurants around the world. It’s a type of siu mei (燒味), roasted meat, rotisserie or barbecue, from the Pearl River Delta: Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangzhou. Because of the time it takes to prepare, this popular dish is usually a take-out meal served with white rice and a side of simple greens. This char siu recipe stays true to traditional ingredients, using real red wine lees and red bean curd for the trademark colour instead of food colouring or ketchup, but plays with a few Western cooking techniques to produce a crunchier, caramelized bark on the meat, similar to an American-style barbecue char.

char-siu-pork

Char Siu Pork Belly Recipe – 叉燒 Cantonese Yale: Chāsīu

Prep time: 2 to 3 days
Cook time: 60 minutes
Makes 8 to 12 strips of ‘char siu’ barbecue, serves 6 to 12 people

FYI I have tried to find links to all the hard to find, or regionally specific ingredients on Amazon, or included substitutes where applicable.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 Kilos of pork belly, sliced into 2 cm slabs
Marinade
Finishing ‘Wing’ Sauce
  • Marinade, set aside remainder after removing meat
  • 15 ml maltose (molasses)
  • 15 ml honey

Instructions:

Cooking (oven):
  1. Slice the pork belly into slabs as thick as a finger (roughly 2 cm). You want them to have a maximum amount of surface area to absorb marinade and create the crunchy bark, while maintaining enough volume to produce a juicy interior meat.
  2. Mix all marinade ingredients, then toss the slabs of pork to thoroughly coat. Refrigerate in a sealed, air tight bag for 48 to 72 hours.
  3. Remove slabs from marinade, let excess marinade drip off, and lay on a rack elevated from a baking sheet, leaving space for hot air to circulate around each strip.
  4. Place the baking sheet of ribs in the cold and oven and heat (100C/215F). This will allow the meat to sweat and open to the flavours. Once the oven is heated, turn up to 125C/250F for 20 minutes, rendering much of the fat at low heat. Turn up to 175C/350F for 20 minutes.
  5. Finish under the broiler for 10 minutes, flipping continually. Beware, the fat may spit and/or smoke under a gas broiler, and you must maintain eye contact with the meat throughout broiling. The pork belly strips are finished when they form a dark,  caramelized, crunchy bark. Remove to a large mixing bowl.
Cooking (barbecue/smoker):
  1. Remove the skin from the top of pork belly slab and score with a crosshatch pattern.
  2. Mix all marinade ingredients, then thoroughly coat the pork belly meat. Refrigerate in a sealed, air tight bag for 48 to 72 hours.
  3. Smoke for 4-5 hours with applewood and/or hickory at 100C/215F. Allow to cool completely. The smoking process can be done 2 to 3 days before your meal.
  4. Slice pork belly against the grain into 2 cm slab portions with a very sharp knife. Brown slabs on the grill, for a few minutes on each side.
Serve & Plate:
  1. For the finishing ‘wing’ style sauce, boil down leftover marinade with maltose and honey, stirring constantly, until it thickens and sticks to the back of a spoon.
  2. Pour the hot sauce over the cooling pork belly strips and toss in mixing bowl. The sauce should be thick enough that it binds to the meat and does not drip off. Return strips to rack and cool slightly before serving, which will allow the sauce to candy and harden to crunchy perfection.
  3. Optional: You can slice leftover strips crosswise into bite-sized ‘burnt ends’ and serve as an amazing snack, appetizer, or fancy plating option. The interior of the pork belly strips will cut into 3 different bands of colour, and the red marinade will mimic the beautiful red ‘smoke ring’ of American barbecue.

 

Tim Ho Wan: In search of an authentic (barbecue pork bun) experience in the margins of Hong Kong.

It is 3:42 pm, when you arrive at the Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, and you haven’t eaten a morsel of food. A morning coffee and OJ slosh around your empty stomach. You moved hotels from Hong Kong Island this morning, and are staying in a shit hole of the lowest common denominator, a place reminiscent of the Chungking Mansions (not that kind of mansion), so you could walk here. You are already a little peevish before you get sat at a two top, in part because you’re hungry and have low blood sugar, and partially because you could have just gone to a Tim Ho Wan location in Manhattan, or Waikiki, or even Las Vegas.

Tim Ho Wan is famously the “world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant”, a rapidly expanding global chain of dim sum restaurants founded by an enterprising chef, Mr.Mak who left a three Michelin-starred restaurant, Lung King Heen, to start his business. In other words, you could have tasted Tim Ho Wan pork buns without leaving home, could’ve just UberEats’d it to your apartment door. But no, you came to Hong Kong because you are in search of the “authentic”, whatever that means in the context of what is really just a much-hyped international fast food chain.

Worse, you may have lost your appetite on the walk over. You see, you are a foreigner, a stranger in Hong Kong, clueless about the city and the context, other than passing knowledge of its colonial past as a British outpost. But on the walk through Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district, you became progressively more disturbed by what you saw. You passed by thousands of Malaysian, Philippine and Indonesian women lying on cardboard boxes, an endless congregation of young women in pyjamas, socks and hijabs. Your first thought was that there must have been a refugee crisis, which you didn’t hear about. Was a boat lost at sea? Were these women survivors of another tragedy buried in the liner notes of the news?

maids-day-off

You ask around and find out these women are not homeless. They are in permanent flux, marginalized like a remainder in a bookkeeper’s equation. Once a week, domestic workers in Hong Kong are given a break from their slavish labour, but they are required to leave their employer’s homes, which also happen to be their (permanent) temporary homes. Known as ‘Maids Day Off’, every Sunday these women lay out cardboard boxes, and picnic blankets, and cell phones and cards and snacks are brought, and they take off their shoes and stretch out their feet and rest in the streets and overpasses and parks. They chat and laugh and enjoy themselves in spite of the miserable working conditions.

The normalization of this local abberation is unmistakably a bellwether for the decline of a democratic civilization, a hangover from Hong Kong’s colonial past before Beijing took control. These women, who cook and clean and care for the wealthy families of bankers and lawyers, have been pushed out into a lawless frontier. And, like Hong Kong itself, the rising tide of progress threatens to brush aside their story into the forgotten annals of history.  

Back to Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns. They are brown-bottomed, buttery crispy flaky dough that shreds as you tear it in half and litters your plate with detritus, like a perfect homemade pie crust. Wispy, senescent tails of steam slip from their hot, gooey center, which spills out a sweet and savoury ‘char siu’ barbecue pork that has the unmistakable shine of maltose, and tastes so exquisite that you must lick the saucy dribble off your thumb. Make no mistake, Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns are delicious. When crumbs fall off, you’re tempted to lick the Tim Ho Wan branded paper placemat. They’re so good, you eat all three in quick succession.

dim-sum-tim-ho-wan

When more dishes arrive, you have forgotten about Hong Kong and the outside world. The flavour combinations and gentle textures of each bite work their magic and let you slip out of body into a trance of tastes and aromas. The spicy wonton is so subtle, just a breath of Sichuan pepper’s mouth-numbing ma spice, and a throat tickle of fresh chilli’s la spice. It’s a gorgeous dish to look at, bright with the painted red and green of chillies and scallions contrasted against inky sauce and translucent wrapper. The experience is finished with a wonderful black vinegar nip and fresh ginger click that brings your mouth alive with tingling pleasure.

The turnip cakes are soft, falling apart with a fish flakiness and salty, freshwater crab flavour lanced with a garlicky chili dip. Shrimp har gow, a dim sum classic, is restrained in seasoning and beautifully folded, letting the sweet shrimp flavour stand alone. The steamed chiu chow style dumplings are a garden medley of water rich radish and nutty crunch; a fertile soil sweetness, and a refreshing bit of cilantro green and earthiness among so much shrimp and pork meat. But Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns are the beginning and end, they take center stage, the only star of this show. 

It turns out that eating one of Tim Ho Wan’s baked barbecue pork buns is actually one of those transcendent food experiences, once you get all that other shit out of the way. You smile and nod at all the other tourists and bloggers craning and stooping and angling their Iphones over their small, white trays of buns, and it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing you’re all about to location tag the same instant, right here, right now. IT makes you think: Oh yeah, this is why I flew fourteen hours and however many thousand kilometers over the melting Arctic ice caps and down across the Russian steppes and over the grasslands of Mongolia, to ingest (and Instagram) this bun in to this body at this exact moment. For now, deep down in that cliche drowned heart of yours, you’re still a romantic, a poet like Byron. You’re in love (with a pork bun) and where thoughts serenely sweet express, how pure, how dear their dwelling-place (like this pork bun) in your belly comes to rest.

In fact, the pork buns are so good, there is a limit of four orders per guest, which limits (sort of) lead you back to the question of haves and have nots in Hong Kong, and “free” time, and the culture of food blogging, and in a tertiary way to you, strolling by all of those working women with your camera and its CANON strap around your neck, like a great big TOURIST sign, and your countless number of privileges, and your ridiculous quest for an authentic pork bun, instead of just ordering delivery to your couch. If right about now you’re getting annoyed with me, and you’re thinking, why don’t I just drop the second-person facade and admit that you are, in fact, me . . .

cook-in-kitchen.jpg

Well, you’d be missing the point entirely. Because there’s thousands of us, and we’re all lined up for tables, every day in every city in the world, waiting to get our teeth into the perfect pork bun (ramen, burger, paleo, brunch, vegan, whatever), so we can snap a photo and upload it to our stories, before we eat. You see, the old MFK Fisher maxim: First we eat, then we do everything else, no longer applies. First we snap a pic, then we hashtag the fuck out of it, then we share it online, then we eat, and only then, maybe, we do everything else, like live.

In this world of fingertip interconnectedness, this local practice of kicking domestic workers out of the house for a day, of creating a brief but regular weekly wave of homelessness, becomes part of the context of a meal in Sham Sui Po on a Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong. You see, food, trade and labour markets, specifically unpaid or underpaid workers, derogatorily called ‘coolies’, were the backbone of colonialism. There would be no Hong Kong without this ongoing history of oppressed labour. And so, there is history in each bite, a backstory, notes in the margins and secrets between the lines, and in telling these unheard stories, they also become truths. 

So you do a little more research because you can’t resist a good Google deep dive, and something just doesn’t sit right after lunch. It’s not quite food poisoning, just a little bout of acid reflux, probably it was the acidity of your coffee and orange juice and an empty stomach, not the overly sweet filling of the pork buns, and definitely not the lingering undercurrent of racism.

What you find out, way off in the margins, is that Mr. Mak, the founder of Tim Ho Wan, actually has his own history with Malaysia. You see, he opened a Tim Ho wan there to capitalize on all the Hong Kong Malays who knew about his brand. But he failed, spectacularly. Local reports suggested “the price of Tim Ho Wan’s is too high, the food is so and so, and service is poor”. And when the ship went down, rather than accept his losses, Mr. Mak blamed Muslim practices and cultural differences, for the shortcomings of his pork buns.

 

Note:  If you’re curious to learn more about domestic workers in Hong Kong, check out ‘The Helper’, (2017) a documentary by Joanna Bowers.

Scallion Pancake Recipe – Cong You Bing (葱油饼)

 

Note: scroll straight to the bottom of the post for recipe details.

I grew up in a vegetarian household during the 1980s and, like most adolescence, I was always hungry. The maddening lack of meatless options at friends’ houses and in Toronto’s diners led me to experiment in my tastes. As a result of my diet, I was usually left with starches to tied me over between home cooked meals.

 

And so, as a youngster in Toronto, I developed an affinity for substantial snacks, which gave potato and bread the lead role. In the Little India on Gerrard Street, there were plentiful samosas: deep-fried pockets of dough, packed with potatoes and peas heavily spiced with cumin and turmeric-laced curry powders. At Willow Fish and Chips on Queen Street East, there were thick, hand-cut fries tossed in salt and wrapped in newsprint, which I doused in malt vinegar and buried in a heap of glistening ketchup.

As I branched out into downtown, I found the strip of Chinese restaurants and bakeries on Dundas Street West between the art gallery and Spadina Avenue. Toronto’s first Chinese community had landed on their feet in The Ward, and after being pushed north by the construction of the new City Hall, the neighbourhood’s belly occupied the storefront’s along Dundas in the city’s original Chinatown.

dundas-streetcar

I didn’t know I was having my first dim sum experience, as I entered the old Kim Moon Bakery at 438 Dundas. When Howard Wong opened the restaurant in the 1970s, it was the largest Chinese bakery in the city. But by the time I found my seat, the upstairs dining room was a ghost of its former self. Through the sliding doors, past the bakery display case full of moon pastries, and a steel dumb waiter with a port hole, there was an unadorned dining room. Elderly Chinese men in weathered sport coats read the Apple Daily and South China Morning Post, drank Hong Kong milk tea, and let ash accumulate on the cigarettes that burned black worms along Kim Moon’s red-belted side plates. A paper menu was delivered to my table with a stub-nosed pencil, and a love affair began, as soon as I saw the prices: buns and pastries were a dollar, dim sum items set you back between $2 for a Small, and $4.50 for a Large. I ignored the Extra Large and Specialty items, which were out of my price range.

The free jasmine tea (茉莉花茶) , stuffed eggplant (煎釀茄子) — I was too naive then to realize the filling had shrimp and/or seafood– , turnip cakes (蘿蔔糕), and red bean pastries (红豆酥 ) became regular after school snacks. But it was the spring onion pancakes (葱油饼), Cong You Bing, that kept me coming back for years afterward. They were cheap, crunchy, filling, and once slathered in black vinegar, soy sauce and chilli paste, they fulfilled all the basic requirements: salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Around the corner, at the first location of Mother’s Dumplings on Huron Street, I truly came to understand what Cong You Bing could become with the right tough. I was studying History at the University of Toronto, and living up the street in a basement matchbox at the Epitome Apartments, when I made the big switch. Unlike the notebook-thin, cracker like pancakes served at Kim Moon, Mother’s was (and still is) serving scallion pancakes similar to those you’ll find stacked on the trays of vendors in the streets of Shanghai — almost like ‘grabbed flatbreads’, zhua bing (手饼). By my undergraduate years, I was deep into the delights of an omnivore’s diet, and the ground meat stuffing at Mother’s added a new layer of complexity to an old favourite, keeping me wedded to the simple appetizer.

The recipe below will render a much thicker, crunchier, and flakier pastry, which actually has a bit of spice to it, lent by a quick paint on of a roux-like wash, “yo sue”. But enough with the backstory, see the recipe below for further details.

scallion-pancake-vendor

Scallion Pancakes Recipe – Cong You Bing (葱油饼)

Makes 6 pancakes, serves 4 to 6 people

  • Peanut or vegetable oil, on hand
  • 2 bunches of green onion/scallions, finely chopped greens
  • (Optional) 200 grams of ground pork

DOUGH

  • 350 grams of Chinese flour (low protein/gluten content)
  • 250 ml boiling water

SEASONING PASTE (YO SUE)

  • 70 grams Chinese flour
  • 15 grams sea salt
  • 15 grams of ground Chinese five spice
  • 60 grams lard/butter, melted
  • 30 grams of peanut/vegetable oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large mixing bowl, form a well in the flour and start adding boiling water, little by little. Slowly incorporate the water into flour, using chopsticks, two butter knives, or a food processor.
  2. Once a dough ball has formed, turn out and knead gently on an oiled working surface, trying not to add more flour unless absolutely necessary.
  3. Once the dough is tensile, oil its smooth surface, and cover in plastic wrap. Let rest for half an hour, as glutens activate and work their magic.
  4. In a smaller bowl, make paste by mixing flour, salt and Chinese five spice. Add melted fat and oil and beat until a smooth, glossy paste forms. It should look like an egg wash.
  5. Portion dough into 6 balls, and cover remaining dough balls with a moist tea towel while you form pancakes, one by one.
  6. Press the ball into a flat rectangle with the palm of your hand. Pinch one end of the rectangle, and give your wrist a quick flick, to slap the dough onto your work surface and stretch it thin. Slap dough repeatedly, until you have a 20cm long, almost transparently thin strip, roughly as wide as your hand. If the prospect of dough slapping is too much for your gentle soul, use a rolling pin. But make sure to get the dough to 3 or 4 mm in thickness– roughly as thick as leather belt.
  7. Coat one-side of the rectangle with seasoning paste, then roll up a small handful of pork/scallion into a short, fat tube, and pinch off the ends.(Refer to the picture above for a visual reference) Repeat with each portion until you have 6 balls of spiralled dough filled with scallions, pinched closed on the sides.
  8. Heat pan/wok over high flame, add a thick coating of cooking oil, then place all six balls in the hot oil and gently press flat with the back of your spatula. Fry until golden and crusty on each side, pressing thinner with each flip of the pancake.
  9. For an extra crispy pancake, place the pancakes on a rack in a hot oven or toaster oven for 5 to 10 minutes at 180C, and let the excess fat bake off. This mimics the use of the drying rack inside the charcoal ovens street vendors use in Shanghai.
  10. Eat’em while they’re hot!

 

 

Lost in Translation at Jia Jia Tang Bao

Many people online, in person, at the hotels and hostels around the city, will tell you that Jia Jia Tang Bao are the purveyors of the best Shanghai soup dumplings. And, if you are anything like me, you are in Shanghai in search of the famous Shanghai soup dumplings.  You will, of course, have heard of Din Tai Fung. The Taiwanese chain received a Michelin star, made quick work of global expansion, and according to many, is the reason why ‘xiao long bao’ results in over 35 million hits on Google.

jia-jia-street-van

The xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung are petite dumplings with an incredibly thin yet impressively durable skin, housing an explosive bite of meat and gelatin, which renders and melts during steaming to create an unforgettable one bite experience. They are, undoubtably, heaven sent. They have been called one of the great culinary wonders of the world.

If you do a deep dive, you’ll find that in 1996, long before the Din Tai Fung craze went global, the legendary food critic of the New York Times, Ruth Reichl, said the xiao long bao at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown, Manhattan were “the best thing in the whole world.” For those of you yet to try xiao long bao, now might be a good time for a snack break.

But, in a culinary world obsessed with authenticity, the Jia Jia Tang Bao versus Din Tai Fung debate over soup dumpling supremacy raises a few eyebrows. First of all, there is the question of what exactly is a dumpling?

jia-jia-foodie

 

There is, certainly, no all encompassing character in Mandarin, for the simple concept. Similar to ravioli and tortellini in Italy, each regional variation of stuffing in wrapper is considered a unique specimen. There are bao, bao zi, hun tun or won ton, and jiao or gauu (think, dim sum), and the list goes on ad infinitum. All of which is to say, don’t be shocked when you find out that Jia Jia Tang Bao, does not serve xiao long bao. They only offer their eponymous namesake tang bao.

The characters for xiao long bao, 小籠包, translate to small-basket-bun. The character for tang, 湯, on the other hand (or tongue) means boiling water, or soup. So, tang bao are, literally, soup dumplings. Guan tang bao, a larger variation often served with a spoon or straw, are found all across mainland China, and are, as a matter of fact, not Shanghainese specific.

 

So, it is with some trepidation, and certainly a mind lost in translation, that you will first taste the slightly saccharine, yet subtly savoury soup dumplings at Jia Jia Tang Bao. After you have waited patiently in the line that forms in front of the humble shop, and ordered pork and crab tang bao, pure crab tang bao, and a side of ginger, from the woman presiding like a general at the counter, and passed by a squad of women in the open kitchen folding the dumplings to order with military precision, you will take your seat on a plastic stool, at a table that is being bussed and wiped as the last customer leaves with the smugly, drunken look of satiated post-coital bliss. You are prepared for oral nirvana.

jiA-jia-diners

The first bite of the pork and crab bao at Jia Jia Tang Bao will confirm what you had felt, intuitively, the moment you saw the restaurant’s unassuming facade, with rental bikes tilted against the wall, laundry hung out to dry on the balcony upstairs, and two very hungry young men in a delivery van demolishing an order each on a work break: there is no way to recreate the real thing. That it is October, and Shanghai’s famous crab comes into season right now, for a fleeting few months; that the portions are made one off, each steaming basket of a dozen dumplings folded, steamed and served before your eyes; that the restaurant closes when they run out; that the ginger is fresh and stings your palate; that the vinegar is gentle and almost palatable as a dry wine, and the pork fat and gelatin oozes out in a single mouthful of soupy delight, nearly hot enough to scald, as your teeth pierce the impossibly tender hand-rolled skin; that even now, a month later, your stomach groans impatiently at the thought of returning to Shanghai, because this morsel of food, whatever its name, is dancing with perfection. Jia Jia Tang Bao are inimitable. If you don’t believe me, you’ll have to try one for yourself, but hurry to Shanghai because they say a good thing never lasts.

 

Jia Jia Tang Bao, 90 Huanghe Rd, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi, China, 200000

The 5 Best Street Foods in Shanghai

Shanghai is mainland China’s most cosmopolitan city, brimming with culinary diversity. Shanghai rests like a hungry baby, at mouth of the Yangtze River, waiting to be fed. Its culinary traditions shaped by the meeting of south and north China, Jiangsu and Zhejiang province, and the 19th century Western concessions that occupied the port city. Today, most popular Shanghai street foods are flatbreads, ‘bing’, and dumplings, ‘bao’.

1. Cong You Bing – Scallion Pancakes

 

These savoury scallion pancakes are found on street corners across Shanghai. A crunchy first bite and fresh green onion bite keep them simple and delicious. Unlike Western pancakes, Shanghai scallion pancakes are made from a dough wrapped around scallions, pounded flat, then fried.

2. Jian Bing – Breakfast Crepes

 

Showing off the influence of the French concession, Jian Bing are popular Shanghai crepes. Served at breakfast, street vendors skillfully spread the thin batter atop a hot, circular griddle, crack open an egg, then wrap up a combination of cilantro, chilis, hoisin sauce, and a crunchy deep-fried wonton cracker to add texture to each bite. These are a personal fave, the Shanghai equivalent of a California burrito.

juicy-shanghai-dumplings

3. Sheng Jian Bao – Pan-fried Pork Dumplings

Less well known than Shanghai ‘xiao long bao’ soup dumplings, the heartier sheng jian bao, have all the juicy gelatinous burst of Shanghai’s most famous soup dumplings, plus an incredible caramelized bottom created by pan frying their breadier dough. They used to be served in the mornings outside factories, and workers bought these hearty dumplings because they would last until lunch.  Today, they are ubiquitous on Shanghai’s streets, and you’ll see people chomping into sheng jian bao from Shanghai’s street food vendors, fast food chains and Michelin recommended restaurants.

4. Da Bing – Big Flatbread

 

Da bing, literally big flatbread, is one of the big four traditional breakfasts in Shanghai, Suzhou and Jiangsu province, along with warm soy milk and fried pastries. Da bing is perhaps the simplest Shanghai street food; it’s a large flatbread topped with sesame, seasoned with sugar, scallion of spices to produce sweet and savoury variations. It is cut to order, and often weighed on a scale. Simply tell the vendor how much you want to pay and your slice is portioned accordingly.

5. Xiao Long Bao – Shanghai Soup Dumplings

 

The golden child of Shanghai street food xiao long bao soup dumplings are world famous for the thin skin and explosively juicy filling. You’re just as likely to find them in a chain restaurant, or at home in Los Angeles or Toronto, as you are on a street corner in Shanghai. But no street food tour of Shanghai would be complete without a taste of the native xiao long bao. If you can, try the subtle crab version dipped in vinegar at Jia Jia Tang Bao. The mom and pop joint only does one thing, xiao long bao, but their tender rendition of the Shanghai soup dumplings are as close to perfection as I can bare.