Last year I went to Hong Kong with the dreams and intentions of working at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, aptly named Pierre. After much communication (and miscommunication) with the young executive chef, it turned out that I did in fact need a working visa to stage in the kitchen. I only had three months on my hand to be in Asia, and the proper papers would take 6-8 weeks to obtain. I decided I’d rather eat than work in Hong Kong for a few weeks anyway, and then head off and explore Burma…but that’s another story.
I went back to my hostel only slightly miffed but mostly reveling in the idea of running around the city and eating anything that looked delicious and/or interesting. I was ready for a little food mischief. I rounded up a group of friends I’d made from wandering around the city. Hong Kong is a city that reminded me so much of New York–but in an Asian way–begging to be examined, inspected and traversed. It is busy, with hawkers and high-end shops lining the same street, and bubbling vats of food are on every corner. The skyline is impressive and modern, and a “Guinness Book of World Records” light show takes place every night. Hong Kong is a vibrant and literally colorful city that caters to the desire to eat. Peking ducks glisten and drip in storefront windows, lobster balls and pork intestines can be fried in a New York minute in the sidewalk vendors cauldron of oil– all while you shield your bag of cream filled waffle bites from the elbows of the customer next to you. Whether you’re a shopper or an eater, or both, this city will constantly find ways to entertain you
My new found friends and I walked the streets exploring the neighborhoods of Kowloon. I would pull in one direction, they in another. They were shopping for jade, jewelry and watches. I was shopping for a sensory experience: I was chasing champoo (ruby red fruits), mentally mapping clay pot restaurant locations, and following my nose to the bamboo baskets that lured me in with their tendrils of dumpling scented steam .
I finally convinced my friends to join me at a nearby tea house. Everyone was skeptical about the food and the unknown environment we were in. Families were yelling at the adjacent tables and tea pots and cups were clinked and clanked as people cleaned their chopsticks and rice bowls. We tried to follow suit with the tea process too, but ended up just sipping the tea and watching the meals unfold around us. I tried to keep up, but of course in Hong Kong, I was now the amateur.
I did most of the ordering, since no one else had had dim sum before. I eased them into the meal with shumai and hargow, pork ribs and char sui bao. I waited towards the end of the meal before I ordered braised chicken feet and century eggs, but by this point, everyone was trusting and willing to try new foods. I pointed to our neighbors’ tables and ordered things that I was no longer familiar with. We ate lotus wrapped packages stuffed with dates, beans and pork. We bit into dumplings we assumed were savory but turned out to be sweet. All in all, the dim sum adventure turned out to be less scary than expected for them, and a tasty delight (as expected) for me.
After that day, I ate dim sum every morning, whether by myself or with the constantly rotating group of hostel friends. I loved the rituals I witnessed in the mornings: old men reading their newspapers and ignoring everyone and everything, the old ladies gossiping with their grandchildren, and groups of friends that met to catch up over steaming bowls of congee. Dim sum is more fun when you share it…yet I don’t mind having an entire basked of shrimp dumplings all to myself either.
After three weeks of this ritual, and much more food (and perhaps cocktail) exploration, I set off to eat through Thailand, Burma and then work a bit in Seoul, Korea. My friend Kyle emailed me and told me that he wanted to come visit our friend Ricky in Macau, and could I come back to Hong Kong for a few days towards the end of my trip? I contemplated long and hard. For two seconds. The chance to eat more around the city, and this time with a true food friend? Perfection in a vacation.
So Kyle came to Hong Kong and we scoured the city. A friend of his had given him a long list of places we should and must try. We knocked off about four restaurants on the list every day, eating spicy, hairy crabs, tracking down the eggiest egg custards, slurping down tendon soups, and of course eating for hours in dim sum palaces, pausing between courses so that the full sensation would subside so we could try the next round of carts. We were Hong Kong eating machines.
We ended up checking out just one flop restaurant…and maybe that was due to my poor ordering skills. I looked the menu up and down. Kyle finally decided to order shark’s fin soup while I chose steamed beef with orange. In my mind, I was envisioning Chun Pi beef–fried beef flavored with dried tangerine peel. Steamed? It must be a language translation error. Who steams beef?? I wasn’t deterred.
Sure enough, a bowl of steamed, bland beef arrived. I took one bite and pushed the plate away, which is something I’ve done maybe only one other time in my life! It was boring, in a terrible way. Kyle looked at me with an “I knew it was going to be like that” look on his face while he spooned gloppy soup into his mouth. I hate being wrong when it comes to food…
I was reminiscing about Hong Kong yesterday while I was in Chinatown, thinking about dried tangerine peel and also how I’d like to make Kyle pay for smirking at my steamed beef dish. I wanted to taste the flavors of the citrus in the Chun Pi in dumpling form–it’s one of my rituals to always get a plate of dumplings while I’m wandering C-town, so I decided that citrus could be worth exploring in a potsticker dimension. I headed to Hong Kong super market and bought all the ingredients I figured I would need to make my own, home style dim sum.
I road the train home with too many bags in my hand. By the time I got to my house my fingers were ready to fall off. Maybe I went a little overboard at the market by buying ingredients not intended for the dish at hand…but I want options when I’m experimenting in my kitchen!
I wiggled and cracked my fingers and prepped them for a short voyage into Asia land, where they’d be molding and crimping dumplings. My fingers were nimble, and I ended up making some pretty decent dumpling (though I did get lazy and stopped making the pretty folds on the wontons). They’re tasty enough that maybe even the old men in the tea houses would pay for them…after a few grunts and swatting of the newspaper. And maybe don’t mention that a guai lou made them…
Pork Butt, ground 1 lb.
Orange peel of one large orange (I peeled it and chopped it, for rougher, larger pieces, but zesting would be fine)
Ginger 2 tbsp. finely chopped
Garlic 2 cloves finely chopped
Napa Cabbage, finely shredded 1 cup
1 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp. sugar
1 scallion finely chopped
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground (optional)
1/4 cup diced water chestnuts
Package of white wonton wrappers
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. cornstarch
Combine the Naba cabbage and salt and let sit for 30 minutes. Press all the water out and then combine in a bowl with all other ingredients. Cook off a small piece in a pan, burger style, to test out the seasoning. The wonton wrappers should be kept under a damp cloth, so they don’t dry out.
Line a sheet tray with wax paper and grab a cup of water. Lay the wrappers out, six at a time, and spoon a tablespoon of filling into the centers. Lightly wet the rim of the wrapper with your finger and then pick up the wonton and seal the edges, making sure no air is trapped inside. Lay the finished dumpling on the tray and cover these with a damp towel as well. When the tray is full, remove the cloth and put in the freezer. When the dumplings are frozen, transfer to a ziploc.
To cook these bad boys, take a pan (I prefer nonstick) and lightly coat the bottom with vegetable oil. Lay the dumplings down in the pan once the oil shimmers and is hot. It should take no longer than 2 minutes for them to brown, but take a peak at about 1 minute. This next part takes some dexterity. You need to add about a cup of water to the pan. You’re adding water to oil, so there’s going to be some noise and splatter. Have the lid ready in one hand and the water in the other. Carefully pour the water into the pan and immediately place the lid on the pan. The dumplings take about 6-8 minutes to cook from this point out. The water may need a bit of a refresher after a few minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, remove the lid and let any of the remaining water cook off.
Serve the dumplings with a 3:1 mixture of soy and rice wine vinegar, adding ginger, garlic, sesame oil and chili oil (optional) to your taste.
Enjoy. These pork pot stickers will hopefully transport you to a better place. A Chinese dim sum palace place…mmmm.