The party took place in the Gaddi's French restaurant at The Peninsula Hotel on Kowloon side. I had always wanted to visit The Peninsula, and Michelle had taken a suite there for the night - she's a very stylish lady. Apart from the staggering views through floor-to-ceiling windows over the harbour to Hong Kong island, there was a television set buried within the marble surround to the huge bath, which competed with further eye-level panoramic views whilst one languished in the suds.
The Peninsula is a grand dame among great hotels, but two years ago it hired Phillipe Starck to design a new restaurant called Felix which perches on the 26th floor of the new tower. It is typical Starck, down to the gents loo. You look through plate-glass windows facing directly over downtown Kowloon as you pee. The food is Pacific Rim; the feel is more like a nightclub.
But I do not go to Hong Kong to eat Pacific Rim. I go to eat some of the best cooking in the world. This is not a mild recommendation, for I ate one of the very best meals in my life in the hotel's Chinese restaurant, the Spring Moon.
And, yes, I know that eating in the hotel restaurant is seen as a bit of a no-no, but I had tramped around a bit, and had a look at a few neon- lit joints in and around some side streets to (not very seriously) search out the ultimate, steamy Kowloon joint - all furious chopsticks and Triad gangs. There was one that sported noodle soup with beef tendons and a cold salad of sliced pig's ear with chilli (Reservoir Dogs special), but the Spring Moon had been so highly recommended by Michelle that I returned to base and booked myself in. I enjoyed it so much, I went twice. Let me tell you about the first outing.
Firstly, the maitre d' was thrilled to be able to tell me about the dishes on the menu of which he was most proud (nice, for a change, to have him tell me rather than chef). The pigeon dish (shown right) alone made me realise how meagre is our understanding of roasting. The four immaculate strips of suckling pig further caused me to think how litle we have grasped crackling. And a preparation of whole prawns (alive 30 seconds previously), that had been steamed, embedded in lazily beaten egg white and, possibly, a whole allotment of fresh garlic, confirmed how scandalously pathetic is our appreciation (never mind the cooking) of the super-fresh. We sell prawns to the Spanish, and seem quite happy with a bag of frozen pink commas.
How pleased the waiter was when I picked up the pigeon's head and split it open to remove the brain within. "Ah, so you know about the best bit, Sir!" And he was equally delighted to hear about our woodcock. I excitedly told him that, not only do you eat the brain, but, unlike other game birds (apart from the woodcock's cousin, the snipe), woodcock may be roasted with its trail intact. This is due to incessant and regular defecation every time they leave the ground, ensuring a pristine bum and clean insides at all times.
He also insisted I try the Double Boiled Snow Frog with Lotus Seeds and Red Dates. This limpid warm soup, slightly sweet and also faintly saline, sported lumps of transparent matter. "Ah," said smiling Tommy Leung, the maitre d', "those are the fat of the frog! When the snows come, they have to develop insulation from the cold weather." But, of course. This, in common with many Chinese dishes, is a textural thing, with the flavour of the snow frog's winter lining tasting of almost nothing at all. But an experience it most certainly was.
Hong Kong makes me wonder whether people can be really serious when they pontificate about London having become one of the gastronomic capitals of the world. I mean, come on. I know things here have improved, but this is chicken feed compared with the day-to-day eating cycle that is gastronomic downtown Hong Kong.
You only have to walk into a restaurant such as the Shanghai, in Tsimshatsui, Kowloon (24 Prat Avenue, tel: 7397083) at 2.30am, to see hungry groups of animated Chinese scoffing steamer after steamer of fantastically good Shanghai dumplings. These were so moreish, three of us managed to eat about 50. The thinnest paste enclosed the most marvellous savoury minced pork, which we dipped heartily into small dishes of fiery chilli sauce. Late-night food will never quite be the same again.
Then there is the East Ocean Seafood restaurant in the Harbour Centre, Wanchai, on Hong Kong island (2827 8887), where 10 of us gathered for Sunday dim sum. This was the first time I had eaten the comforting, porridgy rice dish called congee (it was also the day after the late-night dumplings, so it was particularly welcome). The bland and sloppy texture that is quintessential congee is further made savoury by the addition of spring onion, a little ginger and a choice of, perhaps, pork or chicken. Congee is regular breakfast fare, too. Once fortified by this, it was time to get into small bowls of tripe, plates of fried turnip cake, more dumplings, dishes of steamed pea shoots (fantastic) and spiced chicken feet.
I should also mention the ebullient and very stylish Philip Kwok, owner of the eclectic Bistro Gold restaurant in Times Square (Shop 1204, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Tel: 506 3288). Kwok, says Michelle, roasts one of the best pigeons in Hong Kong. Tragically, they had run out the previous evening and more were in stages of marinating and drying as we ate lunch, but I toyed with some supremely good cold jellyfish in chilli sauce while awaiting the arrival of my friend, Mr Ted Marr, orchestrator of the wild and wonderful Bella Vista balls that take place in exotic locations all over the world. I love jellyfish, which, I suppose, is an acquired taste - if it has a taste at all; it's that texture thing once more. But the braised eggplant in fish sauce won the day for me. It is rare for the Chinese to serve eggplant un-peeled, and anyway, what is the point of leaving the, frankly, indigestible black skin on something which is so soft and melting within (the Sicilians agree here, too)? The combination of the salty fish sauce combined wonderfully with the eggplant.
You only have to walk through the street markets in Causeway Bay to stand boggle-eyed at the freshness of everything: tiny sprouts of bok choy no bigger than a big thumb, fish still breathing its last gasp on the slab, chickens so freshly killed that rigor mortis has not quite set in. And every part of the pig is used here; nothing goes to waste. Even in the case of duck, webs and tongues are prized.
When the great handover takes place at the end of this month, I am as unsure as anyone as to what will happen politically to Hong Kong. But what I am convinced of is that the extraordinary cooking and the simple act of eating well - whether it be a dish of steamed bok choy or a festive banquet - will always be dear to the hearts of the Chinese.
Congee, serves 2
Do not be concerned that the congee turns out bland and sloppy; this is how it is meant to be, rather like porridge. Rice is the essential carbohydrate within the Chinese diet, and it would be inconceivable to go without some sort of rice dish during a meal.
Any sort of shredded or sliced meat or fish can be added to congee, but I think it essential to add the traditional ginger and spring onion. The other flavourings are up to you, but I favour the (possibly inauthentic) addition of green chilli and coriander. There is also no earthly reason why you may not use a light stock instead of the more mundane water with which to fashion your chosen congee. Use chicken stock made from the remains of a cold roast, shredding the scraps from the carcass into the rice once cooked. It would be even better to use a cooked duck. Chopped up raw king prawns, shelled, and with a stock made from the heads and tail shells, would make a luxurious congee. Add a little Asian fish sauce to the rice if you do this one.
Although most often eaten at breakfast, as I mentioned earlier, I love eating congee when feeling frail and tired; it's as perfect invalid food or to soothe a massive hangover.
110g/4oz short grain rice - the sort that goes a bit sticky, such as Jasmine
700ml/114 pints water or stock
splash of Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
a little salt
1 lobe of ginger, peeled and shredded and soaked in 1tbsp rice vinegar for 20 minutes
75-110g/3-4 oz shredded meat or fish
3-4 spring onions, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 large, medium-hot green chilli, de-seeded and finely sliced
1 tbsp freshly, but coarsely chopped, coriander leaves
Pre-heat the oven to 300F/150C/Gas mark 2. Wash the rice in a large bowl, allowing a running tap to trickle through it for a good five minutes, moving the rice around with your hands, until the water is clear. Drain in a sieve. Now take a heavy-bottomed stew pan that owns a lid and tip in the rice, water or stock and the rice wine. Bring gently to a boil, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is simmering. Put on the lid and place in the oven for about 35-40 minutes. Add a little salt to the mixture, which should be thinner than porridge (sloppy risotto is about right, but the rice should have disintegrated). Ladle the congee into heated shallow soup plates and distribute garnishing over the surface. Allow the ginger vinegar to infiltrate the congee if you want to sharpen it a little. Nothing else is needed as an accompaniment to what is a singularly nourishing dish.
Crisp roast Chinese belly pork, serves 4-6
Thickly sliced cold strips of crisp belly pork are one of the most delicious things to eat. For us, it is not a common cut to roast. However, the Chinese, who relish the lusciousness texture of fat, and understand the more fat there is underneath the skin, the more crisp will be the crackling, have been roasting pork like this to perfection for ever. I would go further to say they are the best cookers of roast pork in the world. The preparation of the pork sounds time-consuming and a fiddle, but, the result is well worth the effort involved. Ask the butcher to finely score the skin of the pork and to remove the bones, which should be chopped up into smaller pieces and taken home with you for use in the stock.
700g/112 lb fatty belly pork, scored and boned
1 heaped tbsp Chinese five spice
2 tsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp coarse salt
for the stock:
900ml/112 pints water
75ml/3fl oz light soy sauce
75ml/3fl oz dry sherry
1tbsp plum sauce
1 small bunch spring onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, bashed
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
4 strips orange rind
bones from the pork
Start preparing the pork a day before you want to eat it. Set a large pot of water to boil (about 10 pints). Lay the belly pork on a cooling rack over a deep tray, skin side uppermost. Ladle the boiling water over the skin until all the water is used up. Discard the water. Turn the belly pork over onto a large tray and rub the meat with the five spice mixture and pepper, working them in well with the tips of your fingers. Now turn over once more and rub the coarse salt into the skin. Hang the meat up to dry, in a cool and draughty place overnight.
Pre-heat the oven to 475F/240C/Gas mark 9. Mix all the stock ingredients into a bowl and pour into a deep roasting tin. Over this, suspend the same cooling rack as you used before and place the pork on it, skin side up. Place at the top of the oven and roast for 8 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 350F/180C/Gas mark 4 and cook for a further 30 minutes. Now take the pork out, top up the liquid with water if it has reduced too much, and turn the oven back up to full. Once back up to temperature, return the pork to the oven and roast for a final five minutes or so. This strange method has the magical effect of producing a fabulously crisp skin. Allow the pork to cool on the rack, set over a tray, and strain the liquid from the roasting tin into a bowl. This stock can be used again for roasting belly pork and will only improve with further use. You could freeze it until the next time you make the dish.
There are myriad ways in which to use this belly pork. I like to eat it cold - or, rather, at room temperature - thinly sliced, together with some punchy salad leaves, such as watercress or mustardy dressed chicory leaves, and a generous side dish of chilli sauce. The Chinese most commonly serve it thickly sliced in lozenges over steamed greens, such as bok choy or similar, and doused with some of the cooking juices. I don't happen to think it nice carved and eaten hot, directly from the oven.
When I see a good, fatty piece of belly pork in the butcher, I buy it, roast it as described above, and keep it in the fridge for cutting whenever I fancy a snack. After all, the chilli sauce is always there in my cupboard, the knife is sharp, and there is usually a lettuce or similar in the fridge. Carefully wrapped and kept good and cold, a joint such as this will keep for several days in the fridge.
Milk custard with ginger, serves 4
I came upon this custard recipe within an article on food in Hong Kong in a recent copy of the American food magazine, Saveur. It is incredibly simple and has a very subtle flavour. Best eaten warm, or, even better, chilled from the fridge.
2 x 7.5cm/3" pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
375ml/14fl oz full cream milk
3 tbsp caster sugar
2 egg whites
Puree the ginger in a food processor until smooth. Scrape out into a clean tea towel and squeeze the ginger juice into a medium-sized bowl. Use more than the specified amount of ginger if you wish, as small amounts of things worked in a processor have a habit of splattering around a bit; it is better to have too much juice, rather than not enough. Discard the ginger fibre.
Rinse out the processor bowl and add 2-212 tablespoons of the ginger juice, milk, sugar and egg whites. Process briefly to blend thoroughly and strain back into the bowl. Allow to settle for 5-10 minutes and then lift off any froth that may have settled on the surface with a spoon. Stir once or twice gently, to re-mix, pour into four small bowls or ramekins and cover tightly with cling film. Steam very, very gently for about 25- 30 minutes, or until the custards are just set.
Remove and leave to cool for 10 minutes or so, and eat warm or put into the fridge if you want to eat the custard cold. The texture reminds me very much of junket, so do not be alarmed about its trembling structure, which breaks down somewhat as you eat it. The flavour, however, is superbReuse content