Congee & Congeniality
"Umm!" I gushed as the gelatinous white substance slithered through my gullet. "It tastes good. Is it silken tofu?" The encyclopedic Angela Wong, who had suffered my gastronomic odyssey through Hong Kong with the patience of a Buddha, greeted my question with a wide smile.
"It's hashima," she declared excitedly, as if I'd just had liquid gold. "It's a natural source of collagen. It's very good for the skin."
Must be a cousin of sashimi, I mused, as I moved on to the next entry at the Best of the Best Culinary Awards 2004, where Hong Kong's best restaurants were showcasing their signature dishes in a classroom that overlooked the impressive cyber port being built by the enclave's most powerful man, Li Kai Shin. "It's the placenta of a pregnant frog," said the ever-helpful Angela, tucking in a spoonful to retain her flawlessly ageless skin. I froze. Like a frog on a dissection table.
The Chinese love to eat. It doesn't show because of the endless cups of Chinese tea that accompany each meal. But nothing that I'd known or heard had prepared me for the mind-boggling repertoire of Chinese gastronomy.
From the crunchy gullets of ducks imported from Brazil and marinated in rose-flavoured rice wine (which I'd had in the private room of Win Lai Yuen, Hong Kong 's most popular restaurant, located at the Whampoa Garden Mall) to the slow-witted frogs that the locals call "field chicken," there isn't a living thing that isn't consumed in Hong Kong .
The enclave's residents eat out almost daily. They find it hard to entertain in their matchbox apartments -- Hong Kong, to jog your memory of your old geography lessons, has the highest density of population in the world -- so the place is teeming with restaurants catering to all pockets and tastes. So when you're in Hong Kong , you can't afford to be squeamish.
You could have a wholesome Chinese breakfast of watery rice served with steamed carp, or squid and pork, or fried fish and peanuts, or even cakes made with pig's or chicken's blood at a congee restaurant in the distinctly working-class Hung Hom neighbourhood, where I felt very hot under the collar as I stepped out of the gleaming white S-Class Merc provided by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. And where you're at one of these grimy places, don't forget to have the sweet and sticky rice doughnuts quilted with crunchy sesame seeds. Barbra Streisand loves them.
Only in Hong Kong , you can begin the day at a congee restaurant and end it with a wine dinner at the very upper-crust Yu restaurant, located a flight
above Alain Ducase's Spoon in the InterContinental. At this romantically lit, uncluttered restaurant, the floor-to-roof glass tanks filled with seawater and edible marine life set you in the mood for the gastronomical tour de force that Geoff Havilland, the young and hip Aussie chef with aspiring Hollywood star looks, puts together every evening.
My meal, washed down with five elite wines from Burgundy, consisted of West Australian Marron (a relative of the freshwater crayfish that we often confuse with lobsters) dressed in a miso-mustard sauce and Roast Squab Pigeon from Bresse (East of France), to Duck Foie Gras served in three different styles and an awesome Snowpea Soup with an unforgettable White Truffle Sabayon. At the end came the Eleven Deadly Sins of Yu, small glasses with a mind-boggling array of desserts served on a frosted glass show plate with edges brushed with 24-carat gold. It was fine food that oozed flamboyance and creative energy.
That's Hong Kong . It's the temple of Cantonese cooking; it's also the nursery of some of the best contemporary restaurants that cater to the delicately honed palate of Hong Kong 's elite.
Nowhere is this contrast more evident than on the Golden Mile, which extends from the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula to Nathan Road , Hong Kong 's answer to the opulence of New York 's Fifth Avenue and the organised vastness of Champs Elysees , Paris .
Walk into one of the lanes branching out of Nathan Road and you'll enter into another world of steaming pots and appetising aromas that jostle for your attention with the garish neon signs of saunas, karaoke bars and poky hotels where you can have your hour of paid sex.
In one of these grimy lanes, in an unpretentious restaurant teeming with noisy diners dunking away Hennessy VS mixed with water in glassware that'll remind you of what you'd get at our railway stations, and women with scanty clothes and come-hither make-up preparing for the long night ahead, I'd one of the best meals of my life.
It was at the Yuen Fat Seafood Restaurant on Ng Chung Street in the Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood. My dinner began with an aromatic claypot dish of mussels cooked in Chinese rice wine with chillies, green and red peppers, onions and green bean noodles. The dish had originated in Hunan , the birthplace of the Chinese revolutionary leader, Mao Zhedong, and it's hotter than anything imaginable. It's just the kind of dish that you keep wanting to eat more and then break out into cold sweat. No wonder, Hunan became the hothouse of revolutionary ideas.
Having rather regretfully abandoned the mussels, and having doused the flames inside with copious quantities of Tsingtao, I moved on to scallops steamed and cooked with garlic sauce and green bean noodles, oysters cooked with ginger and spring onions in a claypot, memorable skewered shrimps dipped in duck's egg yolk and sauteed in butter, and rice drizzled with soy sauce, served with braised Chinese salami, pork liver, duck breast and choy sun (flowering cabbage).
It's an experience that defies description. Especially after you've been through half a bottle of Hennessy VS, Hong Kong 's national drink.
CAMBRIDGE , USA
Lobsters & Nobel Laureates
It is hard to find places as culturally poles apart as Cambridge , USA , and Hong Kong . Cambridge is a town of boffins with five major squares and more Nobel laureates -- 60 and counting -- than any other town. It's the place where Harvard and MIT lock intellectual horns (as the local joke goes, if your dream is to have MIT engineers working for you, enroll at Harvard's B-School. Expectedly, Cambridge also has the honour, in a nation famed for its aversion to the written word, of having the highest number of bookshops per capita in the US of A.
When you have so many illustrious minds in one city, it's hard to expect any agreement on any subject. But though it's impossible to get the guys from Harvard and MIT to agree on anything, they happily speak in one voice on one institution. It's the clam 'chowda' (chowder) that the Legal Sea Food Restaurant, named by NBC's Today Show as America 's Best Seafood Restaurant, has been ladling out at US presidential inaugurations ever since Ronald Reagan took the oath in January 1981. "If you can get the Republicans and the Democrats to agree on something, it has to be very good," joked our host, as we settled down for what turned out to be a humongous seafood dinner at the restaurant's outlet in Cambridge , bang next to The Charles Hotel.
The restaurant is famous for its courteous service -- and it doesn't take you long to find that out when you're part of a group that speaks four languages and can never seem to make up its mind -- and portions that are designed for giants. After washing down oysters with three varieties of chardonnay from the restaurant's impressive wine list (I eventually settled for Francis Ford Coppola's wine from Napa Valley), I asked for a platter of steamed New England lobsters (the couple on my plate looked like members of the Chesapeake Bay football team), mussels and clams. And of course a cup of clam chowder, though I was curious to have their rasam seafood soup. When the platter arrived, it looked like the entire New England coast had been emptied of its shell life. I devoured the succulent and sweet lobster, but could not muster the appetite for the rest of the shelled temptations. Had it been New Delhi , it would have cost me an arm and a leg; in Cambridge , USA , the platter was priced at US$33 (Rs 1,485).
WINNIPEG , CANADA
Fine Food In The Flatlands
Winnipeg is the last place you'd expect to find a Pune lad. When I arrived in that flat, wind-swept Canadian city in the middle of nowhere, it was the night of Halloween. The last time I was in North America on Halloween was when I was a grad student at Athens, Ohio, a campus town with the highest number of pubs per capita than in any other place in the US of A, where the night dedicated to the dead comes alive with women who drop their inhibitions with the alacrity with which they take off their tops for the benefit of men who are too smashed to take notice.
But Winnipeg, at 8.30 p.m., the time when the pubs at Athens start filling up, is as lifeless as the conversation between the two anthropology dons that I was overhearing to keep myself amused as I settled down with the local favourite, Stimson's Ale, at The Toad. There were five souls around me and they were all finishing their last drink of the day. I blamed it on the flatness of Winnipeg , the capital of Manitoba , Canada granary, and God's personal curse on anyone who believes that His planet is a sphere.
My introduction to Winnipeg hadn't prepared me for the abundance of new ideas simmering in the pots and pans of the city's famously creative chefs. At the Fusion Grill on 550 Academy Road , Scott McTaggart, the only restaurant owner in the world, perhaps, with the impressive title of Waiter/Owner, is proud to declare that the man assisting his Executive Chef, Terry Gereta, is David Fernandez from Pune.
"He's the only guy I know in Winnipeg who bikes back home in this terrible cold," announced the goateed Waiter/Owner, who provided my first experience of warmth in a city I was writing off as icy and soulless. "Had I not met David, I'd never have known that you had a Christian community in India that is as old as Christianity," he continued, as he opened a bottle of wine from Oakanagan Valley , which I believe is Canada 's most exciting wine-producing region.
My meal began with roasted parsnip puree, curried rutabaga (which is a cross between turnip and romaine) and carrot soup. McTaggart called it the "soup of tomorrow." I'd call it a soul-satisfying experience. It was followed by grilled farm-bred quail and rice paper roll served with sugar snap peas, bean sprouts, carrots, chilli oil and nuoc nam (an Indonesian soy sauce). Then came the cornmeal-crusted baby pickerel from Lake Winnipeg and rainbow trout with red peppers, arugula (these are purple potatoes), capers, red pepper, roasted garlic and brown butter. For the finalé, McTaggart had kept the best -- slow-roasted Manitoba bison ribs (the bison, like the quail, is farm-bread) doused with a spicy glaze of Seagram's rye whiskey distilled in Manitoba 's fresh-water fish haven, Gimli, and garlic-smashed potatoes.
"We're inventing Canadian cuisine, we're defining what it is by fusing local ingredients and global flavours," explained McTaggart. The sentiments of this 'global soul' were echoed by Executive Chef Craig Guenther at the Delta Pinnacle. He explained to me that the new Canadian cuisine owed much to the departure of the old European master-chefs who ruled the kitchens from Vancouver to Montreal . "That gave us the opportunity to hear our voices. We realised there was so much bounty all around us for us to use," said Guenther, a major proponent of what he calls the "urban prairie" cuisine.
Guenther gets bison meat from Gilbert Plains in south-western Manitoba' rack of lamb from Stonewall, an hour's drive north of Winnipeg; white fish 'caviar' from Lake Winnipeg; chanterelles (orange mushrooms) from Sandy Lands, Manitoba; fresh porcini from the Manitoba-Ontario border, picked daily at 4 a.m., "before the worms get them," from late August to October. As he invents "new classics" -- from Pickerel Bruschetta (a great way to eat Winnipeg 's favourite fish) to the elaborate Mushroom and Couscous Phyllo Tower with Spaetzle (German-style dumplings flavoured gently with Dijon mustard) -- Guenther keeps using ingredients as exotic as hemp oil, Thai red curry sauce and lavender and lavender. His "simple, subtle yet sexy" lavender prawns, we're told, has a committed following.
CADBOLL HOUSE , SCOTLAND
Civilisation's Last Outpost
Cadboll House is a 45-minute drive from Inverness, the city of Loch Ness and Pringle, a drive that takes you through undulating terrain flanked by the fields producing the barley that goes into making Glenmorangie, Scotland's top-selling singe malt.
When I stepped into the restored 18th-century mansion overlooking the peacock-blue North Sea on the eastern extremity of Scotland 's Northern Highlands, I was overcome by the feeling that I'd finally reached the last outpost of civilisation. The screaming jets from the Royal Air Force base nearby, preparing for action in post-Saddam Iraq , and the oil rigs dotting the horizon were the only reminders of the real world.
Glenmorangie Plc, now a part of the LVMH empire of luxury labels, had bought Cadboll House in 1989 to entertain its business partners. In 1998, the company opened it to discerning travellers who were prepared to pay £220 a night (double occupancy) for the luxury of chilling out without the encumbrances of civilisation -- television, for instance; for the experience of seeing fishermen lowering gargantuan nets to catch the wild salmon that would be served for dinner and the chef picking fresh strawberries for the dessert of the day; and for the pleasure of family-style dinners (at Cadboll House, no one's allowed to eat in the room) washed down with whisky and generous amounts of wine.
Cadboll House isn't your everyday hotel. It has six rooms and three cottages, presided over by the genial Helen McKenzie-Smith, who's hospitality personified, although her last job involved buying and selling vintage cars. Her husband, Drew, who was working with Christie's, the auction house before chose to become a chef, dons his whites on three days of the week, so you must plan ahead if you wish to try out his food. Drew believes that simplicity is the essence of good food, so he lets the ingredients speak for themselves.
The Cadboll House menu includes palate ticklers like seared fillet of wild salmon served with champagne sauce, pan-seared scallops in a delicate citrus dressing, roasted fillets of venison cooked in grain mustard sauce, served with artichoke mash, and Cullen Skink, the chowder-like Scottish speciality made with peat-smoked haddock poached in milk and cooked with potatoes and leeks in the same milk. For dessert, Drew's favourites are Ecclefechen tart (named after a Scottish border town), which is packed with sultanas and raisins, served with ice-cream flavoured with Ardberg, the Islay malt from Glenmorangie, and rosemary-scented créme brulee . His greatest contribution to the Scottish table, though, has been to make haggis more presentable.
Scotland's national dish -- haggis consists of minced sheep's heart, liver, kidneys and meat, packed with oatmeal and spices into a casing made from sheep's stomach -- had inspired Robert Burns to pen a poem in its honour (I wonder how!), but the French may be right for once: to the uninitiated, haggis looks like turd. But Drew is to haggis what Armani is to fashion -- he has made haggis worthy of Burns's poetry, presented like a shepherd's pie between layers of finely mashed potatoes and bathed in an inoffensive turnip sauce. That was a contemporary twist to the age-old tradition of eating haggis with 'neeps and tatties', or mashed turnips and potatoes.
One City, Many Flavours
"Singaporeans," declared a friend from Price WaterhouseCoopers over a _moc-ha frappaccino at the Starbucks on Orchard Road , "eat out so much that on the evenings when the mother cooks at home, they actually leave office at the normal closing time, which is a very rare event in this paradise of workaholics."
One can't really blame the Singaporeans for being obsessive about dining out, for there's an abundance of good food going around in this city-state of 4 million residents and 7.5 million tourists. Singapore has the kind of cross-cultural social mix -- where else would you find a 175-year-old temple dedicated to Goddess Mariamman in the heart of Chinatown -- that's happy to support a culinary melting pot.
But somehow, Indian tourists, who are otherwise very high spenders in Singapore , don't come across as Christopher Columbuses of gastronomy. Which is real pity because Singapore has so much to offer, from Blue Lobster's Canadian Malaspina oysters (which are best had with fresh lemon juice or Tabasco), or Salmon sashimi with wasabi sauce on the riverside, to the piping-hot street food, satay, Mee Goreng and braised tiger prawns washed down with chilled Tiger beer, at Lau Pa Sat on Shenton Way in the heart of the financial district, which transforms dramatically in the evenings.
Lau Pa Sat gives good competition to the established gourmet hangouts of Clarke Quay and Boat Quay along the Singapore River , where you get the world of good food, from Chinese steamboats to American steaks, from Irish Stouts to Turkish tea. For the best (and reasonably priced) seafood, though, you have to drive down to the East Coast beach, where the Red House wows locals with its spicy specialities.
If Singapore 's sultry nights intimidate you (I kept changing my undershirts throughout my stay), you can order the same street food in AC comfort at the Kopitiam outlet below the Le Meridien on Orchard Road . You'll need the sustenance, otherwise you're likely to drop after you shop. But don't shop so much that you don't have any dosh left for a treat at Mezza9, a 450-seater beehive of serious gastronomy at the Hyatt on Scotts Road , another favourite destination of shopaholics.
Executive Sous Chef Ross Lusted, another Aussie, told me that Mezza9 is Asia 's largest single buyer of Moet & Chandon, and he was saying this on the morning after he had dished out an eight-course Mouton Rothschild dinner in the wine room, where 3,500 labels rest. At this ground-breaking restaurant, an army of chefs manages nine counters, from a bar dedicated to crustaceans to a dim sum steamer, yakitori grill and Chinese wok, where you can have the fish that you've chosen cooked according to your choice. The prices, surprisingly, are not the least unappetising -- meals for two can be priced at S$49 to S$109 -- and the dishes, like all things in Singapore , combines the best of all worlds.
Of course, you can't miss the comfortably chic Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific, described by Condé Nast Traveller , as the "refined culinary temple for complex, spicy North Indian food." Order their divine Bharwan Jhinga (tandoori prawns stuffed with minced seafood) with paneer -stuffed portabello mushrooms, or the ajwain-infused Lobster Masaledar served with a Tandoori Salad. This is one place that's serious about matching North Indian food with the wines of the world, so don't ask for a dry German Riesling or an Alsatian Gewurtztraminer, or maybe a Zinfandel Blush from California .
It's impossible to conclude a gastronomic tour through Singapore without pausing to salivate at the Seafood Soup in Young Coconut that you can order at Ah Hoi's Kitchen at the Traders Hotel. My dinner at Ah Hoi's consisted of Fried Soft Shell Crab, Fried Prawns with Garlic and Chilli, Deep-Fried Tofu topped with Fruit Sauce, Stir-Fried Sambal Kang Kong (the greens came as a relief from the pak choy routine of most Chinese restaurants, though the sambal , which is essentially a shrimp paste, may rule it out for vegetarians) and Fried Black Pepper Kway Teow (flat rice noodles) with Seafood. Guess what the bill came to? S$60 (or Rs 1,500) for two! Don't even think of it back home.
No wonder, when you meet someone in Singapore , you're first asked: "Have you eaten yet?"