Wan Chai Heritage Trail & Pak Tai Temple – Hong Kong

Tram tracks in Wan Chai

The Wan Chai Heritage Trail was one of those happy accidents, I found while Googling ‘what to do in Hong Kong Central’ one morning. Wan Chai was one of the first areas in the city to be built up, the shipyards arrived, then industrialization and eventually rich Europeans and colonials. The trail is a loosely marked architectural circuit of the area with a stop at Pak Tai Temple, an old temple nestled between the shadows of skyscrapers.

Link to WAN CHAI HERITAGE TRAIL MAP

The Pawn building
Happy Cake Shop

I got a coffee, then stopped for a bun at Happy Cake Shop. I’m not great with maps, but have a solid sense of direction, and I ended up looping around Wan Chai enjoying my morning off as I got to know a piece of the city and its history. I walked up to Stone Nulla Lane, past the recently renovated Blue House to stop at Pak Tai Temple.

Blue House, Wan Chai


I don’t know if it was luck or synchronicity, but I arrived in Pak Tai Temple, after stopping to take in the view of the beautiful trees in the courtyard, and watched as they lit the massive spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling and wafting blue smoke into the morning light .

Tree in the courtyard
Incense hangs from the ceiling
Lighting the incense at Pak Tai Temple

After the trail, I circled back down past Blue House and toward the Wan Chai Market, to look for something to eat before I returned to my hotel. It was a great walk, made more curious and interesting by the nooks and crannies and loops between the buildings of Hong Kong, and the slopes and hills of the city that force you to take it slow.

Happy Hour in Soho District – Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s SoHo, short for south of Hollywood Road, was one of those love at first sight neighbourhoods for me. The colours and casual pace of commuters downing pints on the way home and a local dogwalker stopped for an espresso on the curb, had me saying, I could live here, over and over. In the 80s and 90s, it was a run down part of Central HK, full of older residents and largely inaccessible to visitors because of the massive staircases and primarily residential streets. In 1993, when the famous mid-levels escalator system was built, it opened the area to revitalization.

There was an influx of ex-pats and younger residents, following the classic gentrification pattern, an area with more affordable rent fills with new people and new businesses follow close behind. Now its rife with restaurants and bars, an eclectic mix of watering holes, pubs and casual dining.

It was a perfect place to stroll around between visits to larger or more site specific destinations. There were plenty of good options for eating, and all of the bars had happy hour deals on pints and bar rail specials. Perched above the sidewalk and inset to the hills, the pub I stopped at was a prime spot for people watching after wandering away the afternoon with my camera, it was perfect to stop for a drink with my laptop and photoshop open.

Jamia Mosque – Hong Kong

One of the great pleasures of visiting Hong Kong is to walk through Escher like mazes of the midlevel escalators, flying concrete passovers, dead ends, detours and snaking alleyways of the city. The former colony and port is a palimpsest of styles and you often find yourself tossed back into another era. Layers of architecture, history and cultural adaptation are stacked on top of each other in a uniquely beautiful and organic way.

jamia-mosque-construction

 

I was constantly getting lost, circling back on my footsteps and pausing to take photos of all the different angles and corners of the city as they revealed themselves. One of my favourite spots was Jamia mosque, a secret garden halfway up the world’s largest outdoor escalator, ferrying commuters up the endless stairs and hills of the island.

jamia-mosque-plaque.jpg

It was a peaceful, quiet place of worship. Children were playing in the courtyard, a sweeper was watching pigeons feed, and the devotees were bent in silent prayers within the walls. The mosque, and its verdant grounds, was an oasis of silence and solitude wrapped in the towering cranes of the ever upward construction.

jamia-mosque-entrance.jpg

Mapo Tofu with Shiitake Mushroom (Vegan)

Mapo Dofu (麻婆豆腐) is one of those classic Sichuan dishes that have been made a million times in a million different Chinese restaurants around the world. Growing up vegetarian in a hippy household full of macrobiotic health food, it was fiery, grease-laden dishes like this tofu that blew my mind and sparked my taste buds. Mapu tofu is an umami-packed powerhouse of chilli and pepper that sucked me into Chinatown diners, and alerted me to the unbelievable depth possible in vegetarian cookery. Years later, it was the memory of those first plates of peppery tofu that forced me to travel around the world in search of that mouth-numbing hit of ma-la spice.

 

This recipe is a much simpler and faster take on the ragu-style mapo tofu that chef Danny Bowien makes by slow cooking a sichuan chilli pepper sauce using dehydrated shiitake mushrooms, tomato paste and mushroom powder/soup base. It steals the mushroom idea from Mission Chinese Food, but regresses to the much simpler wok style fry-cooking method of a more traditional mapu dofu from Sichuan province.

tofuMapo Tofu with Shiitake Mushroom (Vegan)

Note: Links are to Amazon affiliate, if you can’t find anything in your grocer)

Prep time: 20-30 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Makes enough for 6-8 portions

 

Ingredients:

  • 1K/2lbs tofu, cubed (I prefer silken, for the texture as it breaks down into the sauce)
  • 125ml/1/2C vegetable oil (grapeseed/corn/canola)
  • 500g/1.2lbs shiitake mushrooms, diced
  • 50g/1.8oz Sichuan peppers, whole (dry toasted in a wok)
  • 50g/1.8oz Sichuan peppers, ground to a fine powder
  • 125ml/1/2C doubanjiang (broad bean chilli paste)
  • 75ml/1/4C tomato paste
  • 750ml/3C mushroom (or other veggie) stock (simmering on a back burner)
  • 30ml/2tbsp mushroom powder/MSG
  • 125ml/1/2C garlic, smashed, diced and pasted
  • 125ml/1/2C ginger, grated
  • 75ml/1/4C Sichuan chilli oil
  • 1 bunch of scallions, finely sliced for garnish
  • 75ml/1/4C corn starch (diluted in equal amount water to form a slurry)

Preparation:

  1. Prepare all ingredients, as above. Open any cans, cut all the vegetables, measure out and have all your spices and stock and corn starch slurry within arms reach. When you’re cooking with a wok, and high heat, everything happens fast. You may also want to make your rice before hand, so it’s ready to serve as soon as your mapo tofu is cooked.
  2. Heat a wok, or large skillet over a high flame. Once your cooking surface is hot, as in singe the hairs on the back of your hand hot, add the oil and swirl it around the cooking surface.
  3. Add shiitake mushroom and cook off the liquid, stirring rapidly until they don’t give off any steam and start to brown. This could take 3-7 minutes, depending on how hot your stove is, whether it’s electric or gas.
  4. Add garlic and ginger, stirring rapidly for 30 seconds to a minute, until the aroma of garlic and ginger sweetens and begins to brown. Working quickly, stir in the tomato paste and ground sichuan pepper powder. Actively stir for 1-2 minutes, until the mixture darkens and resumes a fast boil.
  5. Dump in your mushroom powder/MSG and pour in your already simmering stock, bit by bit, stirring quickly to incorporate into your sauce. Simmer for a minute to get the flavours humming together.
  6. Turn down the heat to low and stir in the corn starch slurry to thicken the sauce into a gravy with a beautiful glossy, sheen.
  7. Now, very gently slide in your cubed tofu and carefully cover in the sauce, trying not to break the cubes, as they will inevitably break down on their own.
  8. Pour out your tofu onto a serving platter, or tray, and sprinkle with whole toasted sichuan peppers, sliced scallions and a swirl of the sichuan chill oil.

Note: Ladle this fireball of delicious tofu onto steaming bowls of rice while it’s piping hot and watch as your vegan friends descend into the ecstasy of an umami bomb that will numb their mouths faster than a visit to a novocaine happy dentist. 

Puerto Escondido – Salsa Verde con Piña

girl-in-pool

There are certain meals that slap you out of a waking sleep. I remember the exact moment I first tasted this salsa verde con piña. I was in Sayulita, a sleepy little surf town with an easy break, just close enough to California for ex-pats to drive down and just far enough to keep away the droves of tourists. I had only been drifting around Mexico for a few months, my Spanish was barely passable, and I was living out of a backpack. After hitchhiking to the Pacific coast with a girl from landlocked Guanajuato, we had been lazing on the beach, licking the salt off each other’s napes, and drinking long-necked Pacificos for a week.

canada-van

 

Sayulita is not the culinary capital of Mexico; it’s not even the culinary capital of Nayarit. We walked up from the beach to the main drag in a haze of heat and humidity, and plunked ourselves down on stools under the surfboard awning at another one of the beach-themed taquerias that you find everywhere from San Diego to Puerto Escondido. We ordered the classic deep fried white fish tacos  served with a ‘crema’ that is usually watered down mayonnaise. Our expectations were low.

blonde-surfer

A day earlier, we had smoked mota and walked through a forest so thick with mangoes that they were plunking into the soil around our bare feet., then lay down on the black sand beach and scooped the dripping flesh from the fruit with our bare hands. The rich, pregnant taste of the mangoes had been ethereal.  So when I reached for an American style squirt bottle of a yellowish salsa verde at a sidewalk taco stand, I was not expecting a life-changing bite. What I got was the sharp burn of serrano chiles, the acidic nip of tomatillos and the incredibly layered caramelized sweetness of charred pineapple. It was then, and remains now, one of the most incredible salsa I have ever tasted.

Enjoy. Provecho!

salsa-verde-con-pina-vert

 

Salsa Verde con Piña – Green Salsa with Pineapple

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Makes roughly 500ml

Ingredients

  • 6-8 tomatillos, peeled, rinsed and halved
  • 2 serrano chile peppers
  • 2 limes, juice only
  • 1 clove of garlic, preferably a small one
  • 1 fresh pineapple, peeled and sliced into wedges
  • 4 sprigs of cilantro, chopped
  • sea salt

Instructions:

  1. Grill tomatillos, garlic, serrano peppers and 1/2 of the pineapple wedges until charred.
  2. Blend in a food processor, then bring mixture to a boil in a pot. Simmer for ten minutes, season with salt.
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Blend in the remaining pineapple, cilantro and lime juice. Taste and season again, if necessary.
  4. Eat on everything. It is sweet, sour and spicy amazing.

Nota: Dime si la no esta riquisimo.

Roasted Squash Soup with Chilli Oil

 

This simple squash soup recipe is great for anytime in autumn or winter, and can be served chilled in warmer months. My mother, sister and other half have all made various versions of this recipe, which feature a roasted and then pureed squash. The spice combinations are endless, but I prefer to keep the additions to a minimum and let the star of the dish speak for itself. Keeping the recipe simple, and not mucking it up with a bunch of “pumpkin spices”, let’s each of your guests control the flavour with the meal time addition (or not) of a complex, smokey and garlicky chilli oil.

 

I do, on the other hand, love to mix and match different combinations of squash, pumpkin or any other gourd available to layer different flavours in each spoonful. My only recommendation for technique, if you’re experimenting with different gourds is to make sure you strain or sieve your finished soup because you don’t want to end up with any of the woody or stringy textures that accompany certain types of squash.

squash-soup-white-vert-tight-crop

 

Roasted Squash Soup with Chilli Oil

Prep time: 50 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes enough for 8-10 servings, lasts for a week, and will freeze and reheat well

Ingredients:

  • 1 acorn squash
  • 1 butternut squash
  • 45ml/3 tbsp olive oil
  • 500ml/2C chicken stock (substitute vegetable stock if you’re vegan)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 15ml/1 tbsp of freshly grated ginger (half if using ginger powder)
  • Salt
  • Chilli oil (if you don’t want to make chilli oil, buy some for your pantry)

Instructions:

Prep:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F/200C. Line a baking sheet with parchment or aluminum foil.
  2. Half each squash lengthwise, then cut again into quarters. Slice each quarter into four segments, and lay out slices flat on baking sheet.
  3. Drizzle with 15ml/1 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle to coat with salt.
  4. Roast in oven for 45 minutes.

Note: If you are uneasy about cutting into a squash, or don’t have a truly sharp knife in your kitchen, watch this video on how to cut a squash with a bread knife. If you still can’t figure it out, ask someone for help.

Cook:

  1. Bring stock to a rolling boil in a large pot.
  2. Scoop out the flesh of your squashes, reserving seeds for a snack. Discard the skin, unless you make your own stock. In which case, freeze the skin in your stock bag. If freezer scrap stock is a new concept to you, prepare to have your mind blown.
  3. Add squash, garlic clove, and grated ginger to your stock and stir until the temperature comes back to a boil.
  4. Turn down the stove to a low flame and cover with a lid. Think 20% of your stove’s maximum energy output. Simmer for at least ten minutes, and up to an hour to let the flavours marry.
  5. Remove from heat and blend the soup using an immersion blender, or food processor. If you don’t have one, please buy one. Seriously though, if you’re in a pinch, or cooking in a dormitory or at a friend’s who is incompetent in a kitchen, make sure the squash simmers for an hour, then mush out any chunks with the back of a spoon and strain through a fine sieve. Your soup should still be silky, smooth and delicious.

Note: This is a versatile soup, and the recipe can be played with a lot. If you want a rich, luscious version, use half stock and half cream, then serve with a monte au beurre, which is French for “put lots of butter in at the end”. If you’re a food nerd, read this explanation from Thomas Keller.

Wontons in Sichuan Chili Oil

 

Wontons are on the menu of almost every Chinese restaurant around the world, from Los Angeles to Paris. They are an incredibly adaptable dish: steamed, boiled, deep fried or floating in soup, they are a bite-sized package of delicious meat. My first introduction to ‘Chinese ravioli’ was in the classic Wonton Soup, a bowl of clear broth filled with a pile of hearty dumplings.

 

Wontons are popular in the street stalls and restaurants of Southern China, running the gamut from one yuan orders served on styrofoam and noshed on while perched at stools on the sidewalk, to daintily pleated upper crust versions served on silver platters at five star hotels. I have two favourite versions I ate while traveling in China. First,  at the Michelin recognized Mak’s Wonton Noodles in Hong Kong, they serve a perfect, tiny bowl of shrimp and pork broth with thin noodles topped by delicate wontons. Second is the inspiration for this recipe, the Wontons in Sichuan Chili Oil doled out in the markets of Chengdu. They also serve a mouth-watering version of Spicy Won Tons at Tim Ho Wan.

 

FYI: You need a blender, food processor or bad ass knife skills to make this recipe well.

steamed-wontons

Wontons in Sichuan Chili Oil

Prep time: 1-2 hour

Cook time: 10 minutes

Makes 50 wontons; chili oil to last for 1-2 months

Ingredients:

  • 1 package wonton wrappers.
Note: bend wrappers at the corner in package, like a sheaf of paper, to make sure they are pliable and don’t stick to each other.
Pork filling:
  • 500g/1.1lbs ground pork, roughly 30% fat, well chilled
  • 300ml/1 1/4C pork/chicken stock
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 30ml/2 tbsp fresh ginger, diced
  • 30ml/2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 30ml/2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 30ml/2 tbsp white sugar
  • 15ml/1 tbsp sesame oil
Sichuan Chili oil:
  • 250ml/1C peanut or vegetable oil
  • 20 whole dried chili peppers, hunan, thai or a similar small red chili pepper
  • 45ml/3 tbsp coarse salt
  • 30ml/2 tbsp fresh ginger, diced
  • 30ml/2 tbsp sichuan peppers, crushed or chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 15ml/1 tbsp sesame oil

Instructions:

Prep:

Pork filling:
  1. This recipe is easiest with a food processor, if you have one throw everything in their and pulse until it forms a ball. If not chop everything finely and evenly, then toss together in a mixing bowl using a fork or spatula. If you use your hands, you’ll melt with body heat everything, which you don’t want.

Note: The only way you can mess this up is if you don’t chill the filling before you fold your wontons, which will quickly turn into a sticky, messy disaster.

Sichuan Chili Oil:
  1. Heat a wok or frying pan and add the peanut/vegetable oil. Just before oil reaches smoking point, add garlic and ginger. Fry until golden in colour. Add half of the chilis and fry until they begin to turn a dark, crimson red.
  2. Remove from heat. Add remaining chili peppers and let cool for a few minutes.
  3. Once the mixture is a safe temperature, pour into a blender, add salt and pulse until chunky but uniform.
  4. Stir in sesame oil and put in a sealed container.

Note: This Sichuan chili oil lasts for months because the moisture has been cooked out of the garlic and ginger. It tastes ridiculously delicious on everything, adding a round numbing spice to any dish, and a depth of flavour to even simple soups and sauces.

Wontons:
  1. Before you wrap the wontons (choose a folding style, there’s great Youtube videos), line a baking sheet with parchment or aluminum foil, soak a tea towel in water to cover finished wontons while you’re working, and fill a bowl with cold water to rinse your fingers. You may want an additional tea towel to wipe your hands.
  2. Take your time folding the wontons, if they’re sealed properly the juice will stay locked inside and you’ll get that incredible soup dumpling explosion of juicy flavour when you bite into them.

Note: I fold wontons while I’m watching Netflix, or Mind of a Chef or whatever, so I get a whole folding station setup on my coffee table. Also, the wontons will keep for a week, if frozen on a baking sheet and properly sealed. So you can fold them ahead of time.

 

Cooking:

  1. Add enough water to cover wontons to a wide pan or pot and bring to a rolling boil. Add a pinch of salt, then place in a layer of wontons. Make sure they do not touch each other.
  2. Cover and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the wrappers are completely translucent.
  3. Serve wontons immediately, while they’re still bursting with juicy filling, drenched in the mala Sichuan chili oil.
  4. Alternatively, you can steam these wontons in a bamboo basket, or deep fry them in crock pot or any deep stock pot.

Note: These wontons are insanely addictive, scalding hot, and I betcha can’t just eat one.

Country Cornbread with Black Beans

cornbread-round-black-beans-wedged

This country cornbread incorporates black beans to add some sustenance to a quick and easy recipe that can be thrown together last minute, or in the morning before work. It is a versatile batter that can be baked in a cake pan, loaf pan or muffins to grab and go for the rest of the week. It is also a favourite in my house to make for cornbread dressing for a holiday dinner.

 

This cornbread batter can easily be adapted to add whatever flavours or ingredients with accompany your meal. If you’re going southwest, toss some jalapeno slices into the batter, stir in shredded cheese, or add peach slices to give it some sweet appeal.

cornbread-with-kidney-beans-sliced

Country Cornbread with Black Beans

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20-30 minutes

Makes one loaf, cake or 10 muffins

Ingredients:

Dry:
  • 250ml/1C cornmeal
  • 250ml/1C all purpose flour
  • 30ml/2 tbsp sugar
  • 15ml/1 tbsp baking powder
  • 5ml/1 tsp salt
  • 2.5ml/1/2 tsp baking soda
Wet:
  • 295ml/1 1/4C buttermilk
  • 30ml/2 tbsp melted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk, separated
  • 250ml/1 C black beans (or substitute of your choice)

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 225C/425F.
  2. Mix together dry ingredients and create a well in the middle.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat together ingredients, then incorporate into dry ingredients.
  4. Butter cake pan or muffin tins and spoon in batter.
  5. Bake until golden brown on the bottom, and a knife slipped into the middle comes out clean of any wet batter. Eat it while it’s hot, lathered in butter.

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.