Travels: Rustic Kuching

By Henry & Stephanie Yuen

Before we were told by Agnes, the Canadian liaison for Tourism Sarawak, that we were to spend 4 days in Kuching (2-hour flight distant from Kuala Lumpur), including an overnight trip to an Iban longhouse, we have not heard of Kuching or Iban.  But Agnes did a very good job convincing us it would be a very worthy trip for nature and food lovers.  Once we witnessed 11 almost extinct wild orangutans including 2 sets of mom and baby in Semenggoh Wild Life Centre, a wild life conservatory managed by Sarawak Forestry, and stayed for lunch prepared by the rangers, we were totally sold on the nature part. 

Under the warm tropical sun, the lush green hills of wild forests and slopes of palm trees, banana groves and peppercorn farms, and the meandering Sarawak River laid before our eyes.

[wpvideo Kns9P3Zf]

City Dining

In the city, we had a beautifully prepared seafood dinner in a large open-style dining zone called Top Spot where a number of restaurants gathered.  Top Spot is located on the roof-top of a 5-storey parkade where seafood is the main attraction. In front of every kiosk is an array of fresh seafood: King prawns, Crabs, Shaver clams, and varieties of fish including Stingrays, Red snappers, Pompfrets, Grouper, Soles and huge catfish. Next to the seafood display are local vegetables: Fern Shoot (long stem fiddle head), Red spinach, Brinjal (aubergine) and other Asian greens.    

Though served in plastic wares, the quality of food was top-notch.  We had a 1.5lb very flaky and tender red Pomfret, steamed with ginger, garlic and scallions; 1 lb. of succulent shaver clams; an order of sweet and crunchy wok-fried fiddle heads plus an order of home-style egg fried rice. With tea and beer, the bill came to $20 Canadian; but the dining experience, definitely priceless!  

Longhouse Living

After 3 hours of driving from Kuching and another 45 minutes of a longboat ride upstream, we arrived in a longhouse where an Iban tribe of 14 families lived.  This is one of the 5000 longhouses in Sarawak. Iban was once known as the long-eared native tribe, and is the largest tribe.  The long ears, caused by the weight of heavy ornaments pulling down the earlobes, were seen as a form of beauty.     

Today, Ibans head-hunt no more and long ears are gone.  They have become farmers trying to adapt and welcome modern day living into their lives. The longhouse that hosted us for the night was led by Chief Juan, a young chief with a forward thinking of how his longhouse tribe should operate during this transitional period.  Juan stressed that every tribe members, except for the very young and old, must contribute. His “No work, no food” philosophy provides them with good supply of hill rice which they grow up the slopes; income from selling the peppercorns and rubbers they harvest; and revenues generated by working with the tourism bodies and welcoming visitors into their longhouse, their home.

Home is a long wooden hut mounted on beams and studs built alongside the muddy river. Out front is a stretch of bamboo patios. The front portion is the community hall where meetings and festivities take place.  The back rooms are living quarters for families, where they cook, eat and sleep. Families take turns to host visitors, meaning that they will throw a welcoming party and cook for the guests.

Native Dining

Dinner was served at nightfall in the hosting family’s quarter.  Plates of stir-fried local vegetables and deep-fried plantains spread out on the mat near the kitchen where family members gathered. The only meat for the evening was chicken, brought in and cooked by our tour guide Leslie and the driver as a token to the family.  Chicken feet cooked with ginger in soup was considered ‘gourmet’ here. Whole chicken chopped in pieces and pan-fried was the meat entree. The tiny, grainier and drier hill rice was the main starch.  We ate our dinner with home-made rice wine they kept pouring into small glasses passed around the circle. Communicating with them through Leslie and the driver, along with broad smiles, body languages and hand signals was often pleasant and full of laughter, thanks to the sweet and very tasty rice wine we kept sipping whole night long.

After dinner was the tribal welcoming ceremony with music, ceremonial dance performances and yes, more wine. We presented our gifts to the chief who distributed them to the 14 families graciously.

Breakfast in the following morning with bread, eggs, bananas and leftover was simple, nutritious and functional, since tribe members had already been up and working since dawn – they all came hungry.  But the preparation for a BBQ lunch by the river, from the moment freshly cut bamboo sections were brought into the kitchen, was riveting. This last meal before our departure was indeed a culinary highlight.

Aubergines mixed with bell peppers and moistened rice wrapped in palm leaves were stuffed into the different bamboo tubes and sprinkled with water before putting into the open fire to cook. Marinated beef strips and chicken filets were thrown onto the grill barrel fueled by tree branches and sticks.  When the meat was ready, they removed the bamboos from the fire and poured the aromatic contents into serving plates. No BBQ sauce from a bottle, no fancy herbs and spices, but mother nature’s gifts and known-how of the native women, who have been preparing and cooking food the same way for generations. Truth is, this delicious BBQ lunch prepared and enjoyed in such unique ways was not available in fancy hotels or Michelin-star restaurants!

Bottles: From New Zealand, with Riesling

By Stephanie Yuen

I’ve always been a big fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir and loved its elegance and deep complexity, though I have to admit, Pinot Noir is not an easy wine to pair Asian food with.
A recent wine tasting lunch hosted by Jeremy McKenzie, Senior Winemaker of Villa Maria Estate who looks after the Marlborough wineries, along with the dishes prepared by David Wong, Executive Chef of Oru at Fairmont Pacific Rim put me in ease. As a result of their superb pairing, I now am an avid admirer of their Riesling as well.

McKenzie showcased three wines from Marlborough:
1/ 2008 Riesling
2/ 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
3/ 2007 Pinot Noir

Chef Wong prepared three dishes respectively:
1/ Heart of Palm Salad with grapefruit, cilantro and coconut vinaigrette.
2/ Sake Kasu Sablefish with gingered tomato, gailan and miso butter sauce.
3/ Roasted Duck Breast with wakame and peashoots.

With its supple, silky texture and berry, distinct flavour, the Pinot Noir was a perfect match for the tender velvety duck. I did, however, prefer the crisp Sauvignon Blanc for the citrus Palm Salad. Surprisingly, the one wine that I kept on sipping throughout lunch was the Riesling.

Riesling has always been my choice for Asian cuisine, especially when ‘hot and spicy’ is the description of the meal.
But to enjoy it thoroughly from the salad course to the entrée course while a spectrum of Asian flavours, from coconut to miso; ginger to slightly acidic wakame and mildly sweet and earthy peashoots entered my palate.

I have to say, McKenzie’s 2008 Villa Maria Riesling has a good balance of acidity and lingering charm. It fine-tuned the gingered tomato, mellowed down the subtle bitterness of gailan and sensationalized the gentle miso-moist sablefish.

Travels: Unique flavours of Hong Kong

[wpvideo v6MPHMvv]

By Henry & Stephanie Yuen

Our plane landed around 6pm.  It took the Airport Express 30 minutes to get us to the Central, Hong Kong station, took the taxi 10 minutes to drop us at the Harbour Grand Hong Kong Hotel.  We spent 3 minutes to register but a good 10 minutes to admire the open style, meticulously beautiful lobby of this newly opened ocean-front 5-star hotel located in Fortress Hill, North Point. 

We quickly dropped off our luggage and freshened up, 15 minutes later we found ourselves looking at the menu in a nearby Chiu-Chow restaurant and sipping the tiny cups of ‘Kung-fu’ tea.  Ah, just the way we pictured how this trip would begin.

Harbour Grand Hong Kong Hotel’s live honeycomb

Most hotels in Asian offer breakfast vouchers as part of the guest service and quite often; these are vouchers for buffet breakfast in their nice restaurants. We have had our shares of delightful buffet breakfast at Asian hotels for the food is always decent with plenty choices of local and international fares.  However, it was our very first time to be greeted by a live honeycomb dripping golden drops at the buffet beverage table. A healthy, soothing honey drink in the morning? How could we say no! This feature alone told us how serious and creative Harbour Grand’s thoughtful culinary team was.

Weekend organic farmers market

Taking the Star Ferry across the Victoria Harbour from Central Hong Kong to Tsim-Sa-Tsui, Kowloon was a ‘must-do’ on our list. The ferry ride proved to be more enlightening when we found an organic farmers market at the Central Ferry Terminal.  They were all local farmers from New Territories and were truly crusaders of healthy eating and organic greens.

Street temptations

They used to be everywhere, now street restaurants (daipaidon) and food vendors are hard to come by, thanks to the by-law banning of street food.  We were able to locate a couple daipaidon in Central Hong Kong, tucked away in narrow streets and alleys behind glamorous fashion stores and mega shops.  Time seems to come to a still in these corners as these few remaining daipaidon are allowed to stay as evidence of old Hong Kong and a glimpse into its culinary history. Dai-pai-dons are like real restaurants with different themes.   Some serve congees and snacking food, some serve wonton soups and chowmeins and noodle in soups; some are simply seafood restaurants in the open.  Majorities of the street vendors are gone or moved indoors, but some manage to operate out of street levels and retain the street vendor look and feel.

Must try:

  • Bite into the sizzling hot infamous ‘Chodoufu’ (stinky Shanghai style deep-fried fermented tofu blocks), brushed with chili bean sauce and hoisin sauce, at Lui-yun-gai (Women Street), Sai Yeng Choi Street in Mongkok, Kowloon.
  • Grab a glass of 100% most refreshing sugar-cane juice at Kung Lee Sugar Cane Drink on Hollywood Road in Central Hong Kong.

The family behind Kung Lee used to be sugar cane farmers and knows everything there is about sugar cane. 

  • At Good Spring Company Ltd on Cochrane Road, also in Central Hong Kong, take a 2-minute herbal tea break and help yourself to a cup of 24-herbs tea that helps cleanse the body.
  • For HK$2, take a tram to Shau Kei Wan and taste the Deep-fried Yellow Eel skin with a bowl of house-made Horfan (broad white noodle) and fish balls in soup at On Lee Daipaidon on Shau Kei Wan Main Street East in Hong Kong.
  • Take a front seat at the

Heritage food factories

We were able to visit a few of family-operated food producers that still used traditional methods.  Walking into these factories was like a stroll back in time, and the integrity and quality behind the products were as strong and respectful as their names.

60-year old Kan Kee Handmade Noodle Store

The noodles all look familiar: Egg noodles, dried or wet; Shanghai noodles; Hand-pulled noodles; Noodles with shrimp caviars and deep-fried Iman noodle.  You can see Master Cheung working away in the back room, where a few of the cutters are. Before the noodle sheets are sent to the cutters, Master Cheung is the one who makes them from scratches.  All the recipes are in his head and even though he jokes that he is useless once he steps outside of Kan Kee, he knows exactly when to make what noodles and has yet messed up a schedule.    

100+year old Kowloon Soy Co. Ltd.

The set-up in their retail store on Graham Street in Central Hong Kong has not changed much.  There are jars and barrels of all kinds of sauces and condiments on the ground and on the shelves: Soy sauce, bean paste, chili, dried olives, Chinese wines, vinegars, pickles, brined vegetables…all those bottled products bearing the logo ‘Mee Chun’ we see in stores here are in massive volumes there.  Kowloon Soy Company whose huge manufacturing plants are in Yuenlong and Guangzhou started out as a family business a century ago and is now a major import and export key player in the traditional soy sauce and condiments producing field.