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.

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

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.