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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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.