You can go anywhere

My mother, quoting her mother told me my whole childhood; “it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, if you have good manners you can go anywhere.” She was kind of a stickler about it, making us sit on our left hand if we were poking in our food too much, telling us not to lean over our plates like a puppy at a bowl. I even remember her making me stand up for the last part of a meal because I had tipped my chair one too many times. The caveat was that no matter what, making other people comfortable is the soul of good manners. So when I found myself at a table where the hosts used their hands to eat, I washed up, watched for technique, and dug in.

We were guests in the home of a colleague, a family from Calcutta who live in Hong Kong. Along with my husband, a Chinese colleague, another visitor from India and our host, I was the only woman seated for the meal. The lady of the house, her daughter and a house helper bustled around serving food onto our plates, filling glasses with drinks, bringing new plates and bowls and fussing over all of us.  The table was covered with chapattis, a curry made with chickpeas, a saag paneer or spinach with paneer cheese, a spicy shrimp dish that was redolent of mustard seeds, fried fish served with a spicy mustard, a mutton curry with a cinnamon, cumin and rosewater scented biriyani, cucumber raita, hot mango pickles, and a fruit chutney with dates and mangoes. “Using a fork to eat is like talking to your fiancé through an interpreter,” they told us.

Chapattis are a flat round bread that is used sort of like a spoon to scoop saucier foods into your mouth. It is flaky, a little crispy and chewy .The fish and shrimp were all peeled, dipped in sauce and eaten with the right hand, the left hand not being used to touch the food, only to serve yourself with the serving spoon. The biriyani and mutton curry were mixed together by hand on the plate and when it was sticky enough to hold the rice together but not saucy enough to drip, you pick up a clump on your four fingers, bring it to your mouth and flick it in with the thumb. I did my best to keep myself food free above the wrist, and by leaning over the plate, only dropped a little into my lap.

It was a delicious meal characteristically full of complex flavors and the taste was enhanced by the uniqueness of the experience. I think my mother or grandmother would have been proud of my eating with my hands. Showing respect, trying to adapt, and eating whatever is put before me with thanks is what they taught me and that is what has allowed me to go anywhere.


One is the loneliest number

The downside to trips like this is that I end up spending a lot of time alone. With the language difference, I can walk around for hours with out understanding anything that anyone around me is saying, none of the ambient noise of familiarity, until I feel like I exist in a bubble. Mealtime is when it really hits.

Eating is a pleasure that is doubled in the sharing. That moment of “Ah” when the day is over and you relax with someone over a meal is one of my favorite times in life.  Last night, I was beginning to feel the loneliness and knew that I needed a supper that would not only be comforting and delicious, but would also give me something to intrigue my mind in lieu of conversation. I did a little research and found a ramen restaurant in the Miramar Building nearby that was well reviewed and took off looking for solace in a bowl.

I was eventually seated at a single table on a little red stool. The table had been pulled apart from another table so it was sans condiments, but all of the food going by looked great and the waitress was friendly. I ordered an Asahi and a bowl of tonkotsu or pork bone ramen.  The broth was incredible- milky white, rich and buttery with intriguing flavors lurking under the surface. There was cabbage, scallion, thin slices of what looked like wood ear mushrooms and some gorgeous chunks of braised pork belly all atop a tangle of chewy ramen noodles.

There are worse places to be than alone with a warm delicious bowl of soup that is as rich and comforting as the best chicken noodle but is also exotic and unfamiliar enough to leave me wanting to know more. I sat silently and drank my Asahi and the smoky oolong tea from the tiny glass and mug, thinking about this opportunity that I have to be challenged and have my horizons expanded.  I don’t want to miss out on moments like this just because I’d rather not eat alone.

Chungking Mansion

Have you ever seen one of those cars in a salvage yard that has been crushed into a little cube? Chungking Mansion is like a city that has been sent through the compacter and is now a condensed version of an entire city, but fits on one block of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.  An anthill of activity, it’s labyrinth of hallways houses 4,000 people and hundreds of shops, guest houses, import companies, restaurants and food stalls and everyone is there to hustle.

This is where we had supper last night. Third floor, block C , in the (unmarked) Delhi Club. I had read about it on and was in the mood for adventure. Walking in felt like walking into someone’s basement that had been decorated with cheap tile and glass Christmas balls, but the smell! We sat and ordered a couple of Kingfishers and looked through the menu. One of the waiters came and asked if we knew how to order and I said no because I like to see how he would guide us. “Spicy or mild?” he said, “spicy”I replied and we were off on a series of questions like mutton vs chicken, masala vs vindaloo, plain vs garlic naan, meat vs veg samosas. Another waiter dropped off a couple of crisp fresh papadam which we smeared with cilantro- mint chutney. The chutney was fresh, cool and spicy at the same time. Veg samosas were next, very hot with the flakiest shell and an intensely spiced interior. My tongue had started to heat up to the point where all of my taste buds are paying attention to what comes next, my favorite heat level. We shared a mutton vindaloo with garlic naan. The vindaloo was intense- sweet, sinus clearing hot, and rich with chewy mutton and potatoes. We used the flaky naan to wipe up the sauce into our happy mouths. We finished with cardamom scented masala tea, a milk tea made with black tea steeped with a spice blend that is both exotic and soothing.

When we left, winding our way back down and out, it struck me that our meal had a similar vibe to the Mansion- intense and hot, a complex blend of flavors, spices, and textures, a little overwhelming, but deeply satisfying and completely unforgettable.

Grits and congee

There are few foods more universally satisfying than starches. Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes, or biscuits, rice, or even millet? Billions of people probably start their days with oatmeal, rice, cream of wheat, or grits. It fills our bellies and satisfies our hunger gently without challenging us or forcing us to pay too much attention early in the morning.

I started my day with a delicious bowl of congee this morning at Sweet Dynasty on Canton Road in Hong Kong. Green onions, shitake mushroom, smoky, salty shreds of pork and rich gelatinous preserved egg elevated the rice porridge from a serviceable Asian breakfast to simply delicious. Each bite was a little different and as I sat there slurping my porridge looking through the menu at the 25 other congee options that I had had to forgo, I started thinking about their similarity to grits.

Grits are one of my favorite foods. Oft-maligned for being boring and well, gritty, this mainstay of the Southern table is to often misunderstood and sadly often mis-cooked. Take any starchy dish- potatoes, rice, taro, and underseason it, and anyone will hate it. But with a little salt and butter, you have a blandly handsome bowl of goodness- the Ben Affleck of hot breakfasts if you will. But then there is shrimp and grits, grillades and grits, even sausage egg and cheese grits and now you’re talking Johnny Depp-like gorgeousness.

Same thing with congee. It’s all in the add-ins. I had to pass up congee with fish belly, congee with salted pork and oysters, and congee with chicken and mushrooms today and that’s just three possibilities. Seafood congee is as fabulous as the ingredients make it. I think I’m going to have to go back  and work my way through a bit more of that menu while I’m here.