Friday, September 01, 2006

Taste of Guilt - Chinese Style

In this day and age of environmental responsibility, health consciousness and animal conservation- guilt can be found everywhere in the food world. People are now more aware on where their salmon is farmed and the environmental impact fish-farming has, which kind of oils has the lease amount bad fats and of course, if what they are eating is threatened with extinction. All these thoughts go into our dinner. Think of the poor Chilean sea bass, or fois gras in Chicago.

Let me describe to you one of the most lavish yet guilt-ridden meals that I have had. Let me start by saying the being Chinese gives me a distinct advantage in the eating of the strange and wonderful foods of the world.

A well-know gastronome in Hong Kong invited me out to dinner the last time I was there. The meal was to be prepared by one of the last remaining chefs from the Imperial times of China. The first two courses of the meal was a shark’s fin served in a heavily flavored broth of chickens and Chinese ham and stir-fried shark’s fin with Chinese chives, ham and eggs. There is then a braised abalone with geese-feet, then spiky black sea cucumbers, the house special fried rice, and the double braised swallow’s nest. This meal was the very picture of environmental irresponsibility, animal cruelty and it is most definitely not a healthy meal, at least by western medical standard.

Let’s first talk about shark’s fin. To obtain these fins, sharks are hunted, their fins cut off, and thrown live back into the sea, where the shark drowns or is eaten by other sharks. Sharks like the hammerhead to great white are all indiscriminately hunted since the larger the shark, the larger the fin and the higher price they fetch, but they taste no different from spices to spices. The fin that the chef bought out to show us was about three feet across the base of the fin, making me wonder about the size of the shark that it came from. According to the 16th century Materia Medica, an ancient Chinese medical text, shark’s fin stimulates the appetite and should be served at the beginning of banquets. The ironic thing is, the fins themselves are tasteless because of the intense processing it takes to make it eatable. It’s the chicken broth refined from half-dozen chickens that gave the first course its flavors, and the Chinese ham in the second.

I was dining with eleven other people, so the abalone, a single-shelled mollusk hunted close to endangerment in Australia and Mexico, was cooked with twelve pairs of geese feet- a dozen geese that gave up only their feet to lend the abalone its flavor- what happened to the rest of the geese is beyond me. Again, the abalone itself doesn't taste much like anything, since it was dried and then reconstituted. My gourmand friend informed me that the secret is, again, the half dozen chickens, and the two pounds of pork trotters that went into the broth.

Unlike broth-making in western cooking, the flesh are left on chickens and simmered for days and then discarded. Three courses in the meal, and we’re already gone through one dozen chickens without touching a scrap of meat. Another quirk of the chef is that he only cooks over charcoal, so not only are the flesh twelve chickens wasted, as are days of coal. It all seems excessive to me. Guilt was beginning to set in.

The chef told me that there were fewer and fewer of the spiky sea cucumbers left in the wild and that I should enjoy them while they were available. The secret to the fried rice was that not only was it cooked with Chinese sausages, ham and spring onions, but that it is fried with lard- lots of it. Pig fat really does taste fantastic - my mom has fond memories of eating plain steamed rice with melted lard and soy sauce when she was a girl. It is traditionally the Chinese cooking medium of choice because of its high smoke point but, as every doctor out there will tell you, lard is one of the worst fats for your body out there. My inner intuitionalist scolded me for taking a second helping, but it tasted great.

The dessert course is perhaps the most decadent (and politically incorrect) part of the meal- double braised swallow’s nest with thick coconut milk. Swallow’s nest is the dried saliva of the swifts that nests in the sea caves of Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Maynmar (formally Burma). Not only is the collection of the nests dangerous because of the heights at which these swifts build their nests, but also because of the political instability in the regions where these caves are located. Collectors of these nests are armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons, and firefights have been known to break out between rivals with casualties.

In Chinese medicine, Swallow’s nest is one of the ultimate tonics for the skin and longevity, especially for women. Your average serving consists of one quarter of an ounce of the sticky, stringy substance in a broth or in this case, sugar syrup in which the Swallow’s nest has been braised for six hours. In this case, I was given around three ounces in my first serving, and around two ounces in my second. In this case, it was the cost of the bird’s nest alone that made me taste guilt along with the creamy coconut milk it was served with. A small legion of starving children could have been fed with the money that was paid for those two small bowls. But again, because swallow’s nest need intensive processing for it to be edible, it is completely tasteless but for the sugar syrup and the coconut milk.

The shark fin, the abalone, the sea cucumber and finally, the Swallow’s nest- they are all expensive and sources of guilt. They are only delicious because of the skill of the chef and the other ingredients in the dish. In this case, guilt is tasteless- literally.

And if you’re wondering, I went home that night and suffered for my guilt – indigestion.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


I don't know women way back when did it. Hell I don't know how women these days do it. Doing it night after night, sometimes even twice or three times a day. Mealtimes are as much pleasure as they are a pain in the butt, especially when I'm not the only one to worry about.

I'm now self employed, which also means I work from home the majority of time now. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is still a professional that works at an office. Meals are left up to me. In the early stages of our relationship, when I lived downtown, there was always the option to go out and grab dinner, or delivery, or takeout. If not, dinner were elaborate, planned affairs that was designed to show off and to seduce. Take this, for example, the first menu I ever cooked for my current beau:

Pea Soup with artisinal ham and creme frache
Rosemary Garlic Roast Beef with Hasselblad Potatos, Glazed Carrots, and roasted asparagus
Creme Brulee with port-marinated strawberries.

I spent the moring shopping and carefully preparing the creme brulee. I carefully timed my afternoon so that not only did I have time to cook, I did laundry, cleaned my apartment and to get ready myself. It was exciting but nerve wrecking. All those little questions: How does he like his beef: medium or well? How does he feel about pea soup? Will he like my cooking?

My beau knocked on the door at 7, wine in hand and smile on the face. We ate snuggled together on my little breakfast bar.

We've been togther almost three years now, and we live togther. We're at a stage where food is a daily nessesity, not a luxury. We moved into a little corner of the city where there's a fantastic little strip of resturants and shopping about a five minute drive away, but only a greasy spoon within walking distance. Delivery is still an option, but why bother when I can do the same at home? We're also trying to economize, so why not do it ourselves?

I've now learned that there are things better left in the care of my beau, like of we have a great steak, or if a chocolate dessert is in order. Otherwise, there are days that he loves my cooking and there are days he doesn't. There was a time when I thought dinner will always be like the that first dinner, with the candles and the wine. We very rarely have a three course dinner on our own anymore. At one point our dinner was whatever leftovers I dug out of the fridge, or cold pasta, or a tuna sandwich. This was when there were nights when I got off work late and didn't get home till 10:30pm.

Now, as soon as the dished from breakfast are cleared, I start obsessing. What's in the fridge? Do I have a meat substance? A vegetable? Rice or potatos tonight? Asian style maybe? I go about my business reviewing my inventory, checking importing statues, making phone calls and schduling meetings. By 5, I'm wondering when my beau will be home for dinner. I start cooking, maybe. A little chopping here, a little mixing there. Return a few phone calls, check some e-mail. Eventually, somthing or the other is done on the stove (most likely the meat product) and I need to round out the meal. By the time I could hear steps coming up the stairs I usually have dinner done, unless I planned somthing grilled, then I wait until he's home and throw whatever I had washed or marinated or whatever on the grill.

At first the was a novelty, a challenge. Can I really make somthing different every night while keeping things interesting? Now, only after a month, I find that there actually is a change in the way I cook. While I consult my overflowing bookshelf of cookbooks from time to time, I find that I now tend to go where things just lead me. Menu planning is reserved only for guests.

I think my mom's secret of doing this was that she went to the wet market almost everyday. After work, she would always go out and see what's good and from there, dinner was easy. Unfortunatly, I don't have the luxury of being near a market. So, I resort to my freezer, where we store bulk meats and the occasional frozen pizza.

The truth is, domestaction isn't so bad. I know excatly what I'm eating, instead of the golden arches or the dirty bird-type fast food I was forced into when I worked in a mall. I'm eating with the season, I take care of the ingredients, and in the even, eventually, this will stop being a mental chore and it'll challenge me again. Who knows, maybe a three course meal on a nightly basis is possible.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Robochon = Salty?

I had lunch at Joel Robochon's place in Macau inside Casino Lisbon. It was salty.
It was luscious, it was delicious, but it was salty.
There has been more then one article out there somwhere about the latest plague that befalls resturant chefs: blatant oversalting. While I understand that salt brings out and almagamate flavors in a dish, there actually is a point where one tastes nothing but salt. For some reason, fine dining establishments fall prey to this easily.
The menu was intersing: Very French, very plated. There was an amuse-bouche of tomato jelly with a mozarella foam (will the foam never end?!) , a starter of truffle-scented pork ragu on toasted bagette (salty), a consumme of smoked mushrooms(beatuifully smoky and complex, but salty) and my main was two hefty slices of veal head meat It had beautiful texture, between the crispiness of the crust contrasting with the tenderness of the meat and the meltingly good connective tissues which has that not-quite fat, not-quite meat, lip smacking quality. But why was it so damn salty?! Even the bread basket, with its seven or eight varieties of in house brioche, flatbreads and petite pains has some sort of salty filling, like olives or cured hams.
As resturant like this must be, and bills itself to be, all about the excess, one wonders sometimes if they've overdone it. We dined in a room designed by Versace, with its Sun-King influenced decor. We dined off plates rimmed in gold, sipped water from the finest crystal and had coffee in delicate bone china. Dessert was a fantasy on a cart, with about 10 different choices including an eclaire that sent me to dessert heaven. Coffee was served with delicate brittles and lace cookies (not to mention a jug full of caramel for the coffee) , as well as a coffee flavored jellee and beautiful chocolates. But is all that really just sugar to balance out the meal that was, in effect, a high class salt-lick?
The jury's still out fo me on whether it was a good meal or not. Service was immaculate, ambiance was wonderful. It rare that we take the time to linger for lunch for two and a half hours, basking in the dining room and holding our full stomachs like luxurious lizards in the sun. I just wish it didn't make us feel the need to guzzle three gallons of water afterwards.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Taste of Guilt

In a recent issue of "Bon Appetit" there was an article on the recent
debate on the ethics of Fois Gras. I'm naming this article in a similar spirit as the author. I just had a meal that just seemed to taste better because it was guilty.
First and foremost, the meal was held in a small unlicensed restaurant. Actually, it's not a restaurant, it's the home of the cook. The cook himself is an elderly gentlemen name Lee. He is the nephew of a Chinese Chef which was the cook for a government official of long ago. He has one sitting for twelve five nights a week.We are served in his living room, inside a rickety old walk-up in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lee cooks very traditional, very labour intensive, very decadent Cantonese Cuisine. While almost all homes nowadays is outfitted with a gas or electric range, he prefers to cook over coal in an iron wok.
I've been to this "restaurant" once before. I remember turning to my sister after the last meal I had there and said to her " I feel single handedly resposible for endangering rare animals. I just ate a half dozen for them!" Which is sort of true. In the last meal I had I remember eating a rare spiked sea cucumber, as well as shark fin, which in itself, is a guilty pleasure.
Tonight, however, we had two courses of shark fin, one stirred fried and one braised in a ham and chicken broth. Both delicious, both decadent, that is, until you remember that shark fin is actually prepared in such a way that it doesn't smell or taste of anything. It has the texture of cooked rubber bands. So there is an enormous amount of work and other ingredients going into both these dishes to make it taste like something.
The third course is a dish of abalone cooked with geese feet. Abalones are large, single shelled shellfish that, once dried, become a delicacy. There was a pair of feet for each person attending, so that's a dozen geese that gave up only their feet to lend the abalone its flavor. Again, the abalone itself doesn't taste much like anything, but it is the liquid that it's cooked in that gave it the earthreal flavor.
Young Chicken cooked with Young Ginger was sublime, as was the Young Bamboo shoots, as was the fried rice. It is the Three and a half ounces of Swallow's Nest double braised and served with thick coconut cream that shocked me. Three and a half ounces sounds like nothing, but in reality, usually only a portion of about a tenth of an ounce makes up a portion. I, personally, got three and half ounces, with a second helping of about two ounces. In terms of chinese medicine, this is the equalvilent of about a year's worth of facials for a girl. (Swallow's Nest is reputed to be excellent for the skin.) For a third time, Swallow's Nest itself (by the way, it'd effectively Swallow's Spit) taste like nothing. When it is cooking in rock sugar it transforms into something else.
How is it the three most expensive items on the menu taste like nothing itself? All three items, the Shark Fin, the Abalone and the Swallow's nest all require extensive cooking over a period of days to make it taste like what it's cooked in. And all these items, in one way or another, belongs on one endangered list or another. But everytime I come home, I look forward to maybe be extended an invitation to this place. I think it has to do with the fact that the elderly Mr. Lee must think about retiring soon, and taking with him the secrets and the know-how to prepare dishes like these. I know I'll never taste anything else quite like it in a proper restaurant. Maybe it's the knowledge that I'm part of a small group that has tasted something unique and, okay, I admit it, something that is rare, not unlike the Ortland.
This philosphy of food is the polar opposite of how chefs like Alice Waters would treat food. But something to be learned here is that even through the ages, the care that is put into a meal is relection of how a meal will taste. Afterall, with all the rare and unusual ingredients in my meal to night, the cost per person is about $150USD, the same as in any five start restaurant in New York City or Napa. The difference here is that I wasn't served yet another rare seared tuna, I was served somthing truly unique.

For those of you wondering, I'm paying for all this with sever indigestion. I would , however, do this again in a heartbeat.

Friday, November 26, 2004

To Ann... Teenage Memories

A few days ago, my best friend in the world (literally! She's in Perth!) Ann told me I should really update my blog. Looking at the sorry state that it's in.... I figured it's time for an overhaul and of course, time to return to you, dear reader.

I have to say that many of my culinary adventures too place at an early age. While I'm not talking about culinary epiphinys here, I'm talking about a stage of experimentations afterschool in my kitchen, often with Ann as my Lab Partner, so to speak.

Ask any of my freids in high school, and I'm willing to bet they have at least one memory of eating at my house. See, my flat lies right between my school and all major modes of transportation for my friends to get home. Most times of the year, it's a humid, muggy 15 miunte walk through what could only be described as a tropical jungle along a road that smells enternally of dog poop.

I met Ann through a mutal friend of ours. And over lunch times filled with rice boxes, instant noodles and gallons upon gallons of Diet Coke and Coffee, we bonded and became best of friends. And through Ann, I met also Alice, and Kate, and a bunch of people. But it's Ann you'll find most often at my house, or we're hanging out at the nearby Pacific Place Mall.

It's Ann who introduced me to the joys of Macdonald's fries dipped in their ice cream: that cold creaminess is the perfect foil for the hot, salty grease-stick. It's Ann who showed me it's possible for a someone with her slight, five-foot three frame to drink an entire one of the extra, extra, extra large Sprite we used to get there.

But what I remember most about Ann is her love for milk. Oh the lazy afternoon days afterschool when Ann and any other combination of people's over, I would make things like microwaved apple with brown sugar and cinnamon, and microwaving marshmellows with chocolate chips for a gooey mess, or finding creative uses for leftovers.

When it comes time for me to ask the girls what they want to drink, usually, the answer is Water or Pop. But with Ann, it's always 'Milk Please!". It's also usually how my mom figured out Ann was over at one point: the Milk carton would be empty, or close to it.

It strange how I assoicate those humid afternoons, spent in Air condtioning and flipping through magazines with Milk. And still not a time goes by I don't think of Ann when I Pass the dairy aisle.

Happy Belated 25th birthday Ann. May your next 25 be better, brighter then your last 25. May your hopes and wildest wishes come true. May your faith lead and guide you to where you want to be spiritually.

I miss you lady. And no matter now far you move, LYLAS

Sunday, June 20, 2004

To Eat What No White Man has Eaten Before!

(NOTE: The title, and this article, is in no way racist, nor was it meant to be. It just hit me and struck me as funny, so if I offend anyone: sorry, sorry, sorry.... )

Been a while since I blogged hasn't it?? :)

Well the truth is I ususally try to blog at least once on weekends, but last weekend I was in Ottawa attending a cousin's wedding.

Now, before you ask me how it went, as everyone inevitably does...
The cousin was lumious, the dresses are lovely, the ceremony- at the National Art Gallery no less - was moving. The day was perfect, none of us bridemaids tripped in the aisle and we all had a really good time on our little mini-vacation to our nation's capital. Even the location of the hotel was perfect: right in the heart of Byward Market, which comes alive on weekends with produce and arts vendors, less then 5 mintes walk from everything a tourist should see. This weekend showed off the best that Ottawa had to offer, my cousin included.

I should mention now the great guy my cousin married is of English/Irish decent. The ceremony is "western", but the reception is distinctly chinese, right down to the braised sea cucumbers with baby bak choy and abalone to Shark-Fin soup.

For those uninitiated to a chinese banquet, it goes somthing like this: a cold cut platter of somthing sort, usually invloving various roasted meats and poltury, then a veggie dish, then the Shark Fin Soup (always served third- don't ask me why), then the various dishes of hot entrees, including noodles and rice. Usually there's meat of some sort, a chicken of some sort, steamed fish of some sort, vegetables of some sort. Then it's dessert, ususally a sweet soup, some chinese pasteries maybe, or fruit. This was a modest, 9 course meal. I've had much bigger, and I've had smaller.

Keep in mind, all this comes naturally to me. As Kim Wong Keltner so correctly pointed out in "The Dim Sum of All Things":

"The food at these banquets was always the same. Objectively speaking, the food was a delectable twelve-course meal that was expertly prepared; any gourmand would be impressed by the delicate flavors of the various dishes. (me) and my cousins, who had all eaten countless feasts like these, the meal was simply as they expected. They had been spoilt for years by the routine of flawlessly cooked delicacies."

(Off topic for a moment: "Dim Sum" is a fun read, and is highly recommended- especially to "Banana Girls" like myself , although I think of myself as more of a "Twinky"...)

I can only imagine what it was like for my cousin's husband's family and friends, for whom (I would assume) this is their first full fledge Chinese banquet. The Jellyfish, the sea cucumber(which I personally will not touch with a five-foot pole), the shark fin soup, the heads of the chicken and the fish on the table. To them, I say bravo for eating with gusto.

All of us danced and drank into the wee hours of the night, and some of us had an after-party, to celebrate a job well well done, until even MORE wee hours of the morning.

So here's to the bride and groom - if you can survive a banquet such as this, with 150 guests, 9 courses of traditional chinese cooking, a line of uncles insisting on shots of chinese rice whiskey and a dancing waiter, you can survive anything.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

The Girl's Supper Club

Has anyone realized how theraputic eating with a group of like minded people can be? A shared meal is one of the most social things one can do in the society. Now add throw into this mix women of various background and experience,a glass of wine or two (really! only one or two!), a common obsession with somthing... ANYTHING viola! Instant Therapy group.

I'm lucky enough to be in one of these groups. See, I take a Food Writing Class at George Brown College (highly recommended!)and a bunch of us "foodie" girls like to ge together after class for dinner, a drink, and gossip, usually about food. And yes, it's possiable for a bunch of women to talk openly about the love of eating and the word "diet" not coming up once, other then in the context of " Can you BELIEVE that people would be crazy enough to go on a DIET?"

The regulars in the group usually include myself (duh!), a bonified food geek with zero professional chefing experience, Devonne, a young pastery chef, and Denise, who was once a cook but now teaches cooking at a home-cooking school. Occasionally, some of the other girls will join us: a message therpist, another lady who is studing to be a wine maker, a jockey.... Now, we're all women in very different time and stages of our lives, but we have that one thing in common, which is an obession with food and eating and dining.

We gather, we go to class, we chat about life, we eat. It's that simple. But as more then one of us has commented: we look forward to Monday all week simplly becasue we look forward to eating with each other. Its like the ladies from Sex and the City, but us, we skip the cocktails and head right for the entree.

That, dear reader, is the secret to my mental (in)stablilty.... ;)