Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sunday, Monday, Happy Days

To most little kids, the best part of eating chicken is having the drumstick.  Basically, it's just the right size for little hands to hold and little mouths to bite into.   It even comes with a built in handle to hold.  For me however, growing up in a Chinese family, the best part of the chicken was the foot.   That may sound a little strange to you, but consider that to most people the tastiest thing on a piece of chicken is the skin, and the chicken foot is basically all skin and little else.  As I've mentioned, my Po Po would always cook chicken feet.  My Goong Goong would pretty much have one every night, along with a piece of her yuk bang (pork hash).   But the way she would cook it was different from everyone else.   Basically she would do a simple "white" chicken foot, similar to how you get cold ginger chicken in a restaurant.   But instead of the ginger, green onion, and oil sauce that you get with cold ginger chicken, we would just eat it with shoyu.  I remember, I would hold the foot the same as a drumstick, and dip the whole "palm" into the shoyu, but eat each one of the fingers first, one at a time.  I would save the palm itself for last, as it was the easiest, meatiest part.  It never even occurred to me that eating a foot was something strange or unappetizing.  I was 5, and it was simply one of my favorite things to eat.

I have never seen anyone else serve chicken feet the way my Po Po did.  But if you go to any dim sum place, you will find something on the menu called foong jau, or phoenix claws.  That's basically a nice way of marketing chicken feet.   It's not the same.  For one thing, they cut off the leg part, so you no longer have that handle to hold, like on a drumstick.   For another, it's not white, but always barbecued and steamed, sometimes a little spicy, sometimes with a little black bean, sometimes with a little curry.  While much more seasoned and flavorful than the way my Po Po did it, I still miss hers sometimes.  When I was growing up, the best place to get foong jau was Sea Fortune in Chinatown.   But they changed hands, and they're not quite the same anymore.   The original chef, found his way to Kaimuki, and they opened a restaurant called Happy Days.  

Foong Jau at Happy Days
Happy Days is still one of my favorite places to go to get dim sum.   They've got a really light and sweet baked char siu bao.   When you've got a good char siu bao, and a good foong jau, then I'm pretty happy.   Everything else pretty much falls in line for me.   Har gao, siu mai, spinich dumpings, seafood rolls, everything else is just as high quality there.

Baked Char Siu Bao at Happy Days
But I started wondering, if their foong jau is that good, how would they handle some of my Po Po's other dishes.   I've already said how McCully Chop Suey used to do yuk bang and oyster rolls almost the same way that my Po Po did it.    But they were where we would go to get everyday food.  Chinese call it ga serng sik, or the food that you would eat at home every day.   What about stuff that wasn't everyday fare?   Well, the possibly the best thing my Po Po cooked was her kau yuk.   Her kau yuk was awesome, it was the pinnacle of old style, grandma made, Chinese cooking.   She would only cook it on special occasions, because it was such a long and difficult thing to cook.   She would boil it, take it out, poke holes in it to drain the fat, then boil it again.   She would boil it 3 or 4 times, so that was the most tender flavorful thing you've ever tasted.   I have never tasted kau yuk the way she did it ever again, but Happy Days comes pretty close.

Taro Kau Yuk at Happy Days
Happy Days' kau yuk is slightly different than my Po Po's, but it's similar.   Most other places, especially fast food places, that offer kau yuk, offer this bright red version of it, as if they are using char siu sauce.   That bright red kau yuk is usually pretty tough, the fat in between the layers is congealed hard, the skin is rubbery and spongy, and it's just not very appetizing.   Happy Days' kau yuk is natural brown and very tender, almost like my Po Po's.   It's remarkably bad for you, as my sister would hound me about, because it's so fatty, but it tastes like heaven.   Not only is the meat tender, but the skin on top has the texture of a very soft cheese, and the fat in between the layers is so buttery it literally melts in your mouth.   But it is the combination of these layers, skin, fat, meat, fat, meat that is so spectacular tasting.   It's like spreading butter on your bread.   You wouldn't want to eat straight butter, and plain bread has great texture but is kind of bland.  Put the two together and you've got something warm, filling, and tasty.   That's what the layers do.   If you're going to splurge once in a while, and indulge in something fatty, this is the dish to do it with.

There are 2 big differences between he kau yuk a happy days and my Po Po's.   For one, there is a thin gravy over theirs, that my Po Po's didn't have (or need for that matter).  For the other, she would serve hers over a bed of wu jook, a type of bean curd, which would soak up all of the flavor and was usually one of the best parts.   Happy Days on the other hand serves theirs another classic Hawaiian Chinese way, with slices of taro in between.   This is particularly significant because it is one of the reasons that the Chinese plantation workers felt so at home in Hawaii.   Cantonese cooking incorporates taro.  Not in exactly the same way that the Hawaiians made poi of course.   But seeing the Hawaiians utilize taro established a kind of kinship, one element of common ground between the 2 peoples.

Wu Tao Gok at Happy Days
Didn't know that taro is used in Chinese cooking?   One of my wife's absolute favorite dim sum dishes, is the wu tao gok or taro dumping.  The one at Happy Days is of course second to none.  The outside is crispy and flaky and the inside is so creamy and savory.   Again, it is the combination of the crispiness and the creaminess that makes for such a perfect bite.   Other places that do wu tao gok can sometimes get the texture inside too thick and starchy, which can get kinda dry.   Happy Day's is perfectly creamy, and an amazing example of the texture you can actually get out of taro.

Shrimp and Chicken Taro Basket at Happy Days
By contrast, another classic Chinese taro dish, and completely different taro texture, at Happy Day's is their taro basket.  You know how good taro chips taste?   Well, this taro basket has that same awesome crunchiness.   The best part is that it stands up really well to the gravy from the vegetables and meats inside.   Whereas other places' taro baskets can get soggy very quickly, this maintains its crunch with just the slight softening from the gravy.   The perfect texture.

House Special Chow Mein at Happy Days
Just to top things off here, we should mention the great chow mein at Happy Days.   Again, it's done in that Hawaiian Chinese style, where you've got a crispy fried noodle, softening to the gravy and ingredients on top, similar to the taro basket.   It's almost like having mein bang, or cake noodle, but not quite.   They do theirs with that really refined, thin Hong Kong style noodle, rather than it's slightly thicker, chewier Cantonese counterpart.  This is a very classic Chinese chow mein in Hawaii.  

With my Po Po's passing, I'm resigned to the fact that I'm never going to again taste the flavors she crafted with her loving hand.   No one could ever duplicate or replace that.   But with the classic Hawaiian Chinese dishes at Happy Days, these are still... well... happy days.

1 comment:

  1. Correction: The best part of the chicken that Popo cooked and gave to us was the butt. or the neck.

    Also, there are TWO layers of FAT and a layer of SKIN! Clearly, that ratio of bad stuff to lean meat is unbalanced. As much as I love that dish too, you really only should be eating it once a year. And when you do eat it, it's probably best to balance it out with healthy veggies!! Which it doesn't look like you did!!