Monday, 30 July 2012

Hong Kong Food Heaven: Bo Innovation

During my trip to Hong Kong, we had some memorable meals and some not-so-delightful ones. It's all part of the travel experience, isn't it? Don't worry, I don't intend to review each and every dining experience, complete with photos.... It would take too long, and by the end, nobody would be reading this blog. It's just overkill, right?

So I'm only going to write in detail about one meal I had, which was far and away the best. There are literally thousands of restaurants in Hong Kong. Not only that, but many are Michelin starred. And many are excellent, but undiscovered by those who write guide books and write lists of 'best restaurants'. So you are spoiled with a level of variety which frankly, is bewildering.

One recommendation we received was for Bo Innovation. The person who gave us this recommendation knows who he is, and should know that Him Indoors and I are very grateful for his help. The restaurant and concept are the brainchild of Chef Alvin Leung. Born in the UK, he was raised in Canada, qualified in Acoustic Engineering, decided instead to teach himself to be a chef (he is entirely self-schooled), and then moved to Hong Kong. He calls himself the 'Demon Chef' and I am given to understand that is what the sizable tattoo on his arm states, but my skills at reading Chinese script isn't up to much. so I have to trust that Chef Leung is telling the truth! 

Chef Leung has been asked why he has given himself such a name. His response is typically frank and direct. As he said when talking to Anthony Bourdain: "because I cook like a demon in the kitchen". But don't let that lead you to the idea anything about his food is evil, because it is quite the opposite! He has since explained: "Well, Demon is actually far from sinister. It derived from the Greek word “Daimôn” which literally means ‘’good-spiritedness’’, and is a term for happiness. I chose ‘’Demon Chef’’ to show my cuisine follows the same principles of applying happiness to people. The tattoo on my arm represents a long term commitment to do what I am doing as it was painful to put it on and probably more painful to remove it." (See the full interview at:

Chef Leung's food and flavours draw heavily on his Cantonese ethnic background, and seeks to make the flavours cleaner and dishes lighter. Whilst his take on them is incredibly original and innovative, and some of the dishes I must admit look unrecognisably Chinese, to me the influence of his Cantonese culinary heritage is clear. I firmly believe if (and I do hope this never happens!) he were to be sliced open, this Cantonese heritage would become apparent, as letters would in a stick of rock. Chef Leung calls his style 'X-Treme Chinese', which he admits is a deliberate attempt to distance himself from 'fusion' cooking. I sympathise, since that was a food movement which suffered from a poor reputation despite being a great and very simple idea. It has only been recently that 2010 Masterchef Winner, Dhruv Baker, has injected new life and enthusiasm into the genre. 

Many of the articles on the Web make much of his more sensational dishes, such as the now infamous 'Sex On The Beach' (which features an edible 'condom'), but I don't think this is an accurate reflection of Bo Innovation and the range of dishes available there. It is easy to focus on the sensational, as is attested by the column inches devoted to Heston Blumenthal's 'Snail Porridge' and 'Bacon Ice Cream', rather than the overall excellence of Blumenthal's ground-breaking dishes. It is noteworthy that Chef Leung has been compared by Anthony Bourdain to Ferran Adria. I never got the chance to eat at the now mythical El Bulli, so I'll have to take Bourdain's word for it.

So. what did we eat? Well, our meal was part of the Tasting Menu, featuring a belly busting 11 courses. We began with the Canape, which was a play on Hong Kong's famous street food, the Waffle. Hong Kong "Eggette" Waffle goes by the name of gai daan jai or 鷄蛋仔. It is normally made with eggs, sugar, evaporated milk and flour and is served with fruit or chocolate, obviously being sweet. Chef Leung, however, has reinvented this favourite as a savoury dish with cheese, and most interestingly, with Iberico ham. It was unexpectedly sweet, but all the flavours complemented each other in a delicate and pleasant way. It was a good start to what was a fantastic meal, and the street food style serving style was an effective tribute to the dish's origins.
Our next course was a whole, ripe, sweet tomato, cooked in Pat chun vinegar, with chinese fermented olives "lam kok" and a fluffy baked dumpling. Pat Chun vinegar is a sweetened vinegar, well known in the culinary culture of Hong Kong. Made of Rice Vinegar, sugar, caramel/molasses, glutinous rice and is flavoured with ginger, orange zest and cloves. It made the tomato sing with flavours of mellow, tangy sweetness. I would have been doubtful of a dish where a single tomato was the main attraction, but here, it is pulled off with class. 

I probably need to explain this photo. I had intended to take pictures of each course as they arrived for the edification of my (small band of) readers. But I admit that I totally forgot this thought and took my first bite of the Pat Chun Tomato. Him Indoors suddenly realised what had happened and reminded me that I was supposed to take a picture. So, sadly, owing to my gluttony, here is a picture of Pat Chun Tomato minus a rather big mouthful. Teethmarks are fully visible!

The nibbled tomato was followed by Saba with Sesame, ponzu cloud, ginger, parfum du Hong Kong. The Ponzu cloud is inspired by the Japanese Ponzu sauce, a citrus sauce usually served with grilled meat and fish or the very popular Shabu-Shabu. The phrase "Hong Kong" literally translates as 'Fragrant Harbour', something which it cannot claim to be any longer. Taking that ancient history as his inspiration, Chef Leung has sought to bring the aroma back to the city; by means of fragranced rose oils in dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide). The result is a dreamily subtle fragrance fizzing up like smoke. The dish itself is exquisite, and I am left wishing there had been more. 

Foie Gras with "Mui choy" was the next dish to be brought our way. I am ambivalent towards Foie Gras. I realise I eat meat and contribute to the suffering of my fellow beast. But I just can't give it up and could not live as a vegetarian. So, yes, it seems a little hypocritical to be a little finicky about Foie Gras, but I did not make any claims to consistency. I prefer that animals don't suffer downright cruelty before getting to my plate. Also, my past experience has been that for the horrible time the poor duck has, the final product has not really been worth it. I don't order it, but don't refuse it if it comes as part of a menu. Chef Leung appears to understand that to make the duck's sacrifice worthwhile, any foie gras dish must excel. There was no creamy, greasy blandness to this dish. I should add that Mui Choy is a traditional Hakka dish of preserved Mustard Greens, a dish hailing from Taiwan. So what we have here is a marriage of French with Taiwanese cuisine.  

The Fish Course, on paper: Cod with Saffron miso, Sauternes wine, seaweed sounds unappealing, right? How can you combine the intense sweetness of Sauternes with the delicate spicing of Saffron and the gutsy "of the sea" smells and flavours of seaweed? Well, I wasn't let into any kitchen secrets, but this seemingly contradictory combination has been duly nailed. 

Molecular Xiao Long Bao was the next course. Xiao Long Bao is a dish we found in Shanghai and elsewhere in Hong Kong. It is a dim sum style dumpling (a steamed parcel with a doughy skin with a meaty or veggie filling) with a difference. The special difference is that it is full of a flavoursome broth, which comes out either when you eat it or pop it. The proper way of eating them is to make a sauce which is a mix of Chinese black vinegar and soy sauce, to which you then add a little ginger (in julienne/ grated). When mixed, you put the dumpling in a ceramic spoon, dip in the sauce, add a couple of slivers of ginger, burst the dumpling with a chopstick so the broth inside mixes with the sauce and tuck in! This may sound complicated, but makes perfect sense, particularly if you try it somewhere like Ding Tai Fun.

Chef Leung's version of Xiao Long Bao is obviously a Molecular take. But what was unique was how it managed to achieve every nuance of texture and variation of flavour present in the fiddly traditional Xiao Long Bao, but without the sauces, mixing, ginger and piercing required in the traditional dish. It was delectable and intriguing. When you taste this food, you just wonder how it is done. Then you realise it is bound to be hopelessly complicated, and you go back to just enjoying the experience.

I am unashamedly a seafood fan. I have long messed with the joke that 'whenever I see food I eat it' by saying that whenever I see 'seafood' it gets scoffed. So scallops were right in the office. The menu description was typically enigmatic: Scallop with Kaffir lime, passion fruit, schichimi potato. The schichimi potato was served as a cutely presented puree cake, with a Kaffir lime sauce. The scallop was a generously sized and perfectly cooked specimen. The dish married up the fruity kick of the passion fruit with the mild citrus of the lime with the slight sweetness of the pureed potato. 

We then were treated to a palate cleanser of Bubble Tea with Mango, Hawthorn, and chili. Bubble teas are beginnng to catch on here in the UK. Originating in Taiwan in the 1980s, they spread to Hong Kong, China and then to the West. The 'bubbles' are small balls made from tapioca, which are sucked up through the fruity/milky tea drink through an extra wide straw. (If you are looking for a good bubble tea in London, go to Chinatown to Candy Cafe (1st floor, 3 Macclesfield Street) for lots of wonderful fruity flavoured bubble teas and deserts. It's a great place to go after a lunch in Chinatown, provided that you left space for puddings!) Here at Bo Innovation, in a humourous play on the tag of 'molecular cuisine',  the bubble tea is served in tall test tubes. The chili was mixed into the tea in a subtle way, and did not overpower. The result was a pleasant, lightly creamy fruity treat with the attitude and bubbles (pearls) its inspiration called for. 

The palate cleanser made way for Langoustine with English Mustard, salty egg, cauliflower, black truffle, duck sauce. Read that description again. Come on, I know what you want to say. It's 'whaaaaaaaaaaa?!' I was sceptical, but thought I could enjoy the Langoustine and scrape off what came with it if it disappointed. My fears were premature. Some might criticise this dish as the trend for foams has suffered a backlash, but the foam was flavoursome and managed to combine some of the strong flavours in a way which was intriguing and definitely complemented the flavour of the langoustine and truffle studded cauliflower beneath. 

The pudding course was Memories of Cha Chiang Teng: French toast, condensed milk, peanut butter and jam, corn syrup, ying yang. Apparently a "Cha Chiang Teng" is a tea restaurant or tea house. In Hong Kong, French toast is a particularly popular dish, as are egg tarts. Cha Chiang Tengs often serve noodles, and are now beginning to serve rice plates (although it is not traditional to do so). they are informal and fun places to eat, much loved by the people of Hong Kong. I am not usually a fan of eggy things, but tucked into this with relish. It was light, despite the ingredients and was sweet without being cloying. It made me want to visit a Cha Chiang Teng in Hong Kong. 

Finally we enjoyed the "petit (sweet) dim sum" served on a delicate little stand, in the same way as you'd expect with petits fours. As you can see there were 8 little offerings. We could have squabbled over them, but decided very wisely to cut them in half and share them out. All in the interests of marital accord! The sweet dumpling and the macaron were particular highlights.

Overall this is one of the very best meals we have ever had. Every course was delightful. Our servers were knowledgeable, helpful and kind. Molecular food is occasionally derided because it is the current 'in thing'. However this is a different premise, since it takes its roots from the food of Hong Kong rather than Europe. It is a meal that stands out for us as a highly enjoyable experience.

Chef Leung's risky, groundbreaking and highly innovative approach to food - and his clear challenge to our perceptions - can be seen to great effect in this short film:
It may at first seem a little shocking. But really think to yourself; how influenced are you by the mere appearance of food? How much do you actually trust your tastebuds alone? If you had to taste foods without seeing them, could you identify even basic flavours? We eat with our eyes first (as the famous saying goes), and it is the eyes which can end up influencing the tongue. 

Chef Leung was kind enough not just to sign my menu, but to come out and have a chat. He was affable, talkative and sweet. There was no arrogance to him, he engaged with me and Him Indoors in conversation on the same level. Some have felt the need to criticise Chef Leung, saying he is 'up himself'. This is completely not my perception. Perhaps when he is being filmed or is in the public eye, he comes across as larger than life, but during the time we had with him, he gave me every impression about being passionate about what he does. He shown real interest in our experience of the meal, hoping with unfaked concern that we had enjoyed ourselves. We swapped notes about life in West London, as it turns out he has a home in Brentford, back in my old stomping ground of the London Borough of Hounslow! 

I was delighted to discover from Chef Leung that he intends to open a sister restaurant to Bo Innovation in London. Bo London is due to open in September or October in Mill Street, Mayfair. I wish Chef Leung every success with his new venture!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

China: Lowdown on the sights

Lowdown on the sights

This is a follow on post from Top tips for travelling round China -  food and otherwise (which you can find here ). I thought that people planning a trip to China, particularly with limited time, might want an idea of which places to prioritise. There are many 'sights' which are in the guide books and tour itineraries, but some are nice but not essential, and others a bit of a waste of time.


Must See

- Forbidden City
- Lama Temple (not really on the Western tourist trail, but very popular among Chinese tourists; a former imperial palace which was given up to become a Buddhist temple)
- Great Wall at Badaling (out of Beijing. Yes, it is a well-visited section, but spectacular and an easy and short drive from Beijing. Going somewhere else will take much more time. Also, there is a cablecar which can save you some climbing if the weather is poor or you are really pushed for time.)
- Acrobatics show at the Heaven & Earth Theatre; a fun show, full of amazing performers. 

Worth Seeing

- Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan); the symbol of Beijing
- Summer Palace (just outside of Beijing)
- Tianenmen Square (but if you are seeing the Forbidden City, you'll probably be walking across it!)
- Wangfujing Food Street

OK/Overrated - See if time permits

- The Ming Tombs
- Birds Nest Stadium & The Water Cube
- The Huotong (old town); Rough and ready, this isn't the old Beijing you are expecting. It isn't terrible, but it is a run down part of town which is being dressed up as a tourist trap. The Pedicab tours are fun, but there is nothing particularly authentic about the experience any more.

Lama Temple, Beijing


Must See

- Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses Museum
- Shaanxi History Museum

Worth Seeing

- Xi'an Mosque
- Goose Pagoda

OK/Overrated - See if time permits

- Xi'an Cultural Street
- Tang Dynasty Show (Make sure you do your homework about which one is currently the best, some are a little amateur and you probably should check out whether a meal and show package is a good idea. There are about 3 different shows, and they are not all as good as each other. If on a tour, the guide will probably be on commission to one of them and may not give you an impartial opinion.)
The Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi'an

Must See

- Li River cruise (3.5 hours). You can take this cruise and stay overnight in the destination of Yangshuo. It's not a bad place to spend an evening. However, if time is of the essence, you should arrange a driver to collect you and drive you back to Guilin. Guilin is probably a better place to spend an evening compared to Yangshuo.
- 4 Lake and Cormorant Show (there are 2 shows, one of the 4 lakes and this one with the added cormorant show. Seeing the cormorants fish is amazing. The lakeshores of Guilin are really beautiful. Some of the entertainment on the show is perhaps a little brash and touristy, but the scenery is so good, it's worth it. Just let go and enjoy the experience!

Worth Seeing

- The Reed Flute Cave
- Moon Hill; This rock formation is amazing. The village nearby has become a bit of a tourist trap for the minibuses and coaches stopping off for pictures of the rock. But it is still good natured and you can get a nice lunch here.

OK/Overrated - See if time permits

- Elephant Trunk Hill; not really worth bothering with unless you are in the area
- Big Banyan Tree; worth stopping by if on your way to Moon Hill
Fisherman with his cormorants


Must See

- The Bund & New Bund; see the banking and financial skyscrapers of the 20th Century on one side of the river, overshadowed by those of the 21st Century on the opposite side
Yu Garden; beautifully set out Ming era Garden (try to find out when it is quiet, because it is so beautiful and atmospheric, you want to see it without too much of a crowd)
- The Pedestrianised part of Nanjing Road (in the evening; has the feel-good atmosphere of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, watch people do ballroom dancing and line dancing en masse with their own homemade sound systems!)

Worth Seeing

- Jade Buddha Temple
- The Old Town/British Concession

OK/Overrated - See if time permits

- People's Square
- Radisson Blu Revolving Restaurant; mediocre food in this 'multi cuisine restaurant'. Do your homework to find out which of the high level restaurants has the best food. We heard good things about the Pearl TV tower, but there was a special event when we were there so we couldn't try it out.
- Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition (don't bother!)
Yu Garden, Shanghai

Hong Kong SAR

If staying for any length of time, get an Octopus card. It's like an Oyster card, so it saves time and money on travelling. It can be used to pay for other things too.

Must See

- The harbour
- Nian Lin Garden / Chi Lin Nunnery; not quite on the tourist trail, I hesitate in recommending this to too many people, since it is currently serene, quiet and beautiful. The nunnery is in the grounds, and the main building is the biggest wooden building in the world which hasn't been made with a single nail.
- Bo Innovation; Michelin starred molecular take on classic Cantonese food
- Maxim's Chinese Palace Restaurant, City Hall; the High Temple for Dim Sum brunch between 11 and 3. Trolley service!

Worth Seeing

- 8pm Harbour lights show; visible either side (HK or Kowloon side)
- The Star Ferry
- Mid Level Travelators; a little grubby now, but still an achievement. When it's very hot and humid, you'll be very grateful not to have to walk uphill!
- Tsim Sha Tsui
- So Ho (the restaurants, clubs and bars south of Hollywood Road)

OK/Overrated - See if time permits

- Chunking Mansions (see only if you have seen Chungking Express and want to see the reality. I'm pleased to have seen it, but it's not really an essential sight.)
- The Peak (it's good for the view over Hong Kong, but otherwise there isn't much to see. If you have an Octopus card, the tram fare is much reduced. Don't bother with the official 'Observation Deck'; it is expensive for what it is. There is a free observation deck in the Peak Galleria Shopping Centre, it is only 5 metres below the paid deck and frankly does not have any worse a view.)
- Man Mo Temple
- Temple Street Night Market (quite touristy, but not bad for cheap souvenirs. One or two good stalls for Chinese style tops and Cheungsam dresses.)
- The Big Buddha on Lantau
- Ping Shan Heritage Trail; really, don't bother. The oldest pagoda in HK is NOT worth bothering with.
- Avenue of Stars (Not particularly worth bothering with; no hand or foot prints, just the names of Hong Kong film stars. Go only to see Bruce Lee sculpture if you are a fan.)
Junk, Hong Kong Harbour

My secret top tip: You can go to the tallest building (Sky 360) and go to the Observation Deck on the 100th Floor (the building is Kowloon side). But it costs nearly £30 per person. I have heard that there is a bar on the 98th floor, with just as good views, but without the crowds and the hefty entrance fees. I can't vouch for the prices, but after the gaggle of chatty loud tourists at the 100th floor deck, I think this may be a great way of having a great experience without the crowds or undue expense!

I hope these tips are of assistance. If any of you have any other useful information of the above places, or if I have got it wrong, please help by posting your comments below. 

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Recipe Road Test: Ching He-Huang's Beef and Chilli Bamboo Shoots in Little Gem Lettuce

My trip to China and Hong Kong was one of the most brilliant experiences of my life. (For my tips on travelling around China, see my previous blog post: The food was a real highlight. One leg of our trip involved a cruise along the Chiang Jiang river (better known to Westerners as the Yangtze). We arrived in Yichang in good spirits, but also with something of an appetite. Our tour guide wondered what we wanted and offered the option of 'burgers, KFC or Pizza'. We were puzzled and interjected 'Chinese food, please!'. He was surprised. He told us that usually all his clients complain that they've had nothing but Chinese food for three days and ask to be taken to McDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC (as already mentioned). 

It's funny, but after three and a half weeks of travelling around China, my appetite for its flavours remains undimmed. The food is varied, vibrant and enticing.  I feel even more energised towards making Chinese dishes to taste that wonderful spectrum of texture and flavour.

Having said that, eating all that wonderful food has taken its toll. My clothes are ever so tight since I left London! One skirt I had packed can just about be done up, but only when I breathe in. It was not always thus! So I wanted to find something tasty but a little on the healthy side.

I've already written on this blog about Ching-He Huang's book "China Modern" before, when I road tested her recipe for Nutty Chicken Cool Noodle Salad (see post here). It is a favourite recipe. So it is to her book I have returned and decided to have a go at Beef and Chilli Bamboo Shoots in Little Gem Lettuce. You will find it at page 17 of her book. A similar dish was served up on Come Dine With Me, so you will find a version of the recipe here:

This dish reminds me of 'San Choi Bao'. It is a dish I first had at Deptford Malaysian-Chinese Restaurant Kaya House, back when it was run by Ambrose and his lovely wife. Theirs is a vegetarian version, which is such a wonderful combination of flavours, hardened carnivores do not miss meat. They put in some 'secret' ingredients, including tinned pickled cabbage. 

Other versions use pork, or chicken and I've even read that in some restaurants, they use the meat from the Peking duck as part of the filling:

So after shopping for the ingredients, I was ready to get cracking!

Ching-He Huang's take on this dish involves using Little Gem lettuce rather than iceberg. I am deeply grateful to her for this. It is FAR easier to remove the leaves of a Little Gem and get something resembling a small plate/shallow cup. If I had to deal with extracting intact leaves from an Iceberg lettuce, there would have been chaos here at Snig's Kitchen. I don't have the patience or the knife skills or the care. There would have been lots of torn leaves, swearing and perhaps drawn blood from a not-quite-so-near-miss with a knife. This variation is a heartily recommended!

As I have previously suggested in my Kitchen tips - it is a good idea to get all of your preparatory work done in advance, before you start cooking. It may take a little longer, but makes for a much more relaxed experience of cooking. This way there are no panics about not having peeled this, or chopped that or diced this at the time it needs to go in the pot.

One annoying thing was having to peel the individual segments of orange. Yes, Ching does recommend Mandarins. But I couldn't find any, so had to make do with Satsumas. However, I doubt that removing the membrane from the segments would have been any easier had I been able to find Mandarins. This is a highly fiddly step. My domestic goddess status has never been assured, so if some of the segments fell apart, I was neither going to get upset or start again. Broken segments? I think we can survive! I am not on Come Dine With Me and neither am I a professional chef!

Once the ingredients were prepared, the dish was a breeze to cook. Perhaps I could have made it in our households' wok, but the bottom is uneven and I was afraid to lose control of it and its contents. Far better to use a bog-standard non-stick frying pan and stay on top of things. I could control the heat, the stirring and weight of the overall contents. If you are bigger than me (chances are you are - I am a munchkin), you need not worry about this.

So I started by frying up the 'holy trinity' (ginger, garlic and chilli) in the frying pan. They sizzled, giving up their flavours and aroma, promising a great supper in due course.

Next came the minced beef. I bought some low fat minced steak meat. I have found that cheap mince is a false economy. There is too much water and foamy gunk which comes out of cooking cheap mince. I don't want that rubbish in my dinner! So best to pay more for stuff which has had the fat trimmed off and has as little water added as possible. Better still, make your own. I DO have a mincer which gets used reasonably often, but this time I decided against the extra work of using the mincer and cleaning it out afterwards. 

Next up came the onions and mushrooms. My only real deviation from Ching's original dish was the addition of two thirds of a red pepper, diced. I could not have sold the dish to Him Indoors as a supper dish without a little more taste, colour and flavour. It is a sympathetic ingredient which thankfully worked rather well.

As the mince browns, it needs turning over, and then the sauce ingredients (light soy sauce and sesame oil) need to be added and mixed thoroughly. These will infuse the ingredients and get cooked out to add moisture and subtle flavour to the dish. 

The spring onions and coriander are added at the last moment. They don't need much cooking, and you want to keep their integrity. 

The last task is  the assembly. The beef mixed is divided up between the Little Gem leaves, and them topped with the orange segments and chopped peanuts. A simple operation, but looks extremely effective and colourful. I served up the dish with hoping that it tasted as good as it looked.

So what is the verdict? Well, it is remarkably tasty. And the variety of ingredients gives a good variation of texture in each bite. The sweet but slight tartness of the orange plays against the crunch of the Little Gem and the deeper tastes of the beef. An enjoyable, flavourful, healthy dish.  Because you can eat it with your hands,  you don't even need to get any cutlery dirty! So it saves on the washing up! 
Thanks Ching! Another great meal from your debut book!

If you want to buy China Modern, the ISBN number is 978-1-85626-673-4, and it is published by Kyle Cathie.

For those of you who think lettuce or Little Gem are dull, there is another variation I found online. This involves serving the beef in hollowed out tomatoes