Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Dining in HK

So it's been almost two months and we've travelled through India and Myanmar, seeking out roadside cafes, hole-in-the-wall style cheap eats and risky street food.

And now we arrive in Hong Kong, Asia's world city, which felt a lot more like home. It was an opportunity for us to feel a bit of comfort through our big city surroundings. We shopped, drank, and even indulged in a Christmas night out (and completely wrote off the next day...) It was a well needed break.

However this slice of home, complete with its spotlessly clean streets and functioning, well... everything, also came with a host of western style restaurants. You couldn't go anywhere without finding a McDonald's restaurant, McCafe or (Mc) ice cream shop.

The city in that respect was overwhelming. It felt difficult to find traditional Hong Kong food, which was nestled somewhere between Gucci and Prada... But where?

Sure we'd eaten at few obligatory dim sum restaurants, our favourite being Din Tai Fung, with spicy chicken dumplings and filthy battered and deep fried chicken with chilli, gulped down with unlimited jasmine tea. This chain restaurant was raved about so much we ended up trying two, one in Kowloon, the other near Connaught Bay on Hong Kong Island. Our favourite being the latter, with a queue out the door that swiftly moved along through the aid of a ticketing system. This fast turnaround of customers gave the restaurant a great buzzing atmosphere, without the feeling that the staff were eagerly waiting for you to finish up and vacate your table.

But dim sum is available in vast quantities in London and we didn't really feel that we were being bold enough. So after one attempt of trying local food - and that attempt ending in mixed feelings and uncertainty having spent 64 HKD (just over £6 - ridiculously cheap for Hong Kong prices) on two plates of cold rice, cold pork belly and a yellow chicken (or 'oil chicken' as we later found out) whilst sat next to a whole dead pig dangling from a chain - we decided to invest in a highly rated Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tour.

In desperate need to go beyond the dazzling lights of Hong Kong island and discover what culinary delights lay hidden, we opted for a foodie walking tour around the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon. The area was lined with markets upon markets of what resembled jumble sales, nestled in amongst herbal tea shops and BBQ stands, where you can buy just about anything from clothes to a spare remote control from a stall which claims to have a one for every model of TV out there.

I could give you a recital on everything we learnt on this tour, although if I'm honest not everything was worth noting, and having me rant on about a Hong Kong biscuit shop for 100 words or so would make for a pretty dull read. After all, they were to me, just biscuits. I will however give you my highlights, partly to give you something to salivate over, and partly to help me remember for future reference (Hong Kong has not seen the last of me!)

So we haul our weary heads out of bed and arrive in Sham Shui Po, late for our 9am start, and in need of food to help stifle a now three day hangover. After brief introduction, our knowledgeable local guide Fiona took us to our first stop for milk tea (not great hangover fluid) and pineapple buns (much needed carbs).

If you've been keeping up with my posts you will know that Asia has so far made its best attempt to expand my waistband. Not just the shear amount of food that we have consumed, with the main staple being rice, but for their apparent love to have ridiculously sweet tea. This time through the aid of evaporated milk, which tastes a bit like when you mistake cream for milk and obliviously and over-generously pour it into your tea.

But the people of Hong Kong can hardly feel such guilt for consuming this when sat next to the tea is a huuuuge pineapple bun or bor lo bao.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this bun would contain pineapple, even after taking the first bite and trying to convince yourself that those notes of pineapple exist. They don't.

These sumptuously soft buns of Kowloon restaurant, a Hong Kong style cafe, are freshly baked every day and come out warm with a shiny butter and sugar glaze. They are also the size of a small child's head.

Saving some room I reluctantly left half. James however ate it all, an error he would later discover at the final stop when he barely touched his shrimp roe noodles.

By far the most interesting and favourite foodie pit stop, was to try a Chinese style breakfast of rice rolls (ju cheung fun) which looked like giant anaemic noodles coated in hoisin sauce, peanut dressing and sesame seeds.

These not necessarily the most appealing looking noodles, are made from a rice flour batter, with this particular eatery, Hop Tick Tai, making around 10 thousand of these gluttonous rolls every weekend. Most punters opt to filling a bag of these rolls (sauce and all) and eating them in the alleyway next to the restaurant. Had I ventured here on my own, I would have probably joined them, as the locals method of 'table grabbing' by leering over anyone who looks like they may have eaten more than two bites, was all too much for me!

Two meals down and wishing I hadn't eaten as much of the pineapple bun as I had, we continued onto our next stop: A1 Tofu Company. Here the lady owner stands behind a large vat of tofu facing out onto the street. A gentleman, I assume husband, was in the back making more tofu to be consumed later that day.

The lady carefully slices off thin layers of the tofu, so as not to bring the liquid that lies beneath to the top, and placing them into plastic bowls.

My only experience of tofu is as a savoury item, usually in miso soup or a tasty banh mi from a little cafe off Piccadilly. But no, this was a tofu dessert (dau fu fa), which you can add Bird's custard powder disguised as sugar and ginger syrup.

Our guide Fiona loved this, me, not so much. It wasn't unpleasant, just lacked any sort of substance and only tasted of whatever you flavoured it with. The slippery texture nonetheless went don't incredibly easily and so as not to offend, I ate half and proclaimed that I wasn't having anymore so as to save myself for the next few stops. It seemed to work.

The day continued on with an array of local tips from where to get snake soup (if you dare) to traditional Chinese medicine - including a questionable dead, dried lizard on a stick. Nice.

Towards the end of the tour we were led to one of the big draws for me - to order, and know what to order, to get our greedy pores on those crispy, succulent braised goose (lo shui ngor) we'd seen hanging in many restaurant windows, something of a familiar sight in China town back home where windows are filled with flavoursome duck waiting to be devoured.

The downside for some however, was that the braised goose was served alongside slices of pork knuckle (fun tai). Whilst not unpleasant, the pork was cold and came with a lot of jelly, and came a clear last place sat next to the goose. The rich meaty texture of the goose, eaten of course with the fat still intact, delightfully slipped down well, even after the pineapple bun, biscuits, rice rolls and tofu...

For anyone visiting Hong Kong and are not sure where to start foodwise, I would definitely recommend this tour or any of the other tours they offer - but maybe in hindsight, it would have been more beneficial for us to do this at the start of our trip so that we could take what we'd learnt and try it out. Although trial and error isn't always a bad thing!

Yelly-fi-felly-food-belly x

Monday, 4 January 2016

A Burns Night Supper... King's Cross style

I had never eaten out for Burns Night before, sure I'd had haggis, but that was accompanied by eggs, sausages, bacon, potato cakes and a hearty serving of baked beans. I kind of just assumed we'd just be served our Scottish themed food paired with an array of whiskys and that would be that.

I was so wrong.

Just to set the scene, I had won a competition last year on Twitter for a 4 course Burns Night meal at Plum + Spilt Milk for two. So jumping on the chance to truly celebrate Burns Night in style, I threw on my tartan dress and headed to the bustling Kings Cross station.

Wading through the throng of Londoners returning to the city, heads bowed and full of Sunday night dread, we made our way up the escalators of the London underground. From the distance we hear the sound of bagpipes. "Must be something happening in the main station." Oh no, no those bagpipes were bellowing from the first floor of the Northern Hotel where Plum + Spilt Milk were getting ready to feed a crowd of about 40 a proper Scottish feast.

So with the knowledge from online reviews that the entrance may be somewhat difficult to find, we followed our ears up a dimly lit staircase, arriving at a small sign on the wall indicating that we had indeed arrived at our destination.

I always feel that going out for a meal should be more than just about the food. It's about the experience. And I'm a big fan of stretching that experience out for as long as possible (without obviously being considered slow). And Burns Night fits the bill.

After a short pit-stop in a small but comfortable and luxurious hotel bar, we were marched into the restaurant to the sound of bagpipes, and soon followed a sequence of events for a Burns Night supper.

Plum + Spilt Milk had it all: the Selkirk Grace, piping, addressing and stabbing of the haggis, poetry, toast to the lassies... All with brief intervals of whisky, tatties and napes.

To kick the night off we were served an Arbroath Smokie (Scottish smoked haddock), leek and whisky soup. It's the kind of Scottish warmer you'd expect. Thick, creamy, and begging to be mopped up with a wedge of crusty bread. 

With that came our first whisky. Not a big fan of whisky if I'm honest and so as expected, each sip came with a grimace, followed by a couple of large glugs of wine.

Having been paraded around the room to an upstanding audience and the belting sounds of the bagpipes, the haggis arrived at our table. Whilst the plate itself was not so pleasing on the eye, with splodges of mashed tatties and napes attempting to be delicately arranged, the flavour of the whisky sauce was pleasing on the taste buds, warming our insides and complimenting the richness of the haggis.

Onto whisky number 2: We're told that we should taste notes of Christmas pudding. Fools we were and having got into the spirit, we knocked it back.

Lies. No Christmas pudding.

Like most, one would assume the main event and therefore main course, would be the haggis, but swiftly after the scottish savoury pud, we were served a loin of venison, resembling something of a hearty winter main. The venison was served pink and seasoned well, and a perfect match for the accompanying roast beetroot. The shoulder stuffed cabbage in my opinion felt a little too much and I began to fear that the meat sweats may be about to kick in...

Whisky number 3: Another one with notes of Christmas pudding. Still tastes like whisky to me...

The final course was as expected and pretty much what it said on the tin. Cream, with raspberries and oats. It wasn't unpleasant but it didn't blow me away. The occasional oat that entered my mouth felt like it had fell in by accident and was drowning in the mountain of cream that resembled Everest. James seemed to like it though, and had I not been full of meat and whisky, perhaps I would have had a different opinion.

Whisky number 4: Nope, still no Christmas pudding. Only adding to to horrendous Monday morning hangover we both felt the next day. Bad plan, clearly.

For a competition, of course it was great value. To pay for it yourself, well I think it's a definite experience and perhaps worth the £60 per head, however, next time I'm in the country for Burns Night, I'd like to have a comparison and try somewhere else.

The venue itself is a draw, with its gloriously decorated and sophisticated bar and restaurant, creating an experience in itself, with not even a hint of the feeling of being rushed despite being located in a busy train station! For this reason, perhaps even the normal menu is worth a try.

Yelly-fi-felly-food-belly x

P.s. Interesting fact: the name Plum + Spilt milk reflects the colours of the Flying Scotsman dining cars - a train which has been running between Edinburgh and London since 1862.