Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Little Touch of Heart

When I was in high school, one of my best friends found an old picture of himself in a swimsuit that made him completely disgusted with himself (which he nicknamed "the whale").   He ultimately took the drastic action of eliminating virtually all fat from his diet.  He began subsisting almost entirely on bread, rice, and more than anything else cereal.   He took his diet and athletics extremely seriously, and he transformed into one of the most lean and toned individuals I've ever seen. 

Because of him, we always had to keep Costco sized boxes of cereal at our house.   Whenever he would come over (which was pretty frequently), cereal would be the only thing that we could enjoy together.  Although I'm a huge fan of Frosted Flakes, everything would have to be the fat and sugar free cereals (meaning no nuts or dried fruits either).  You'd be surprised at the cereals you THINK are healthy, but actually have a lot of sugar or fat in them, like Cracklin Oat Bran.  But there is still a surprising variety in this criteria; Cornflakes, Cheerios, Chex, Special K, Wheaties, Mini Wheats, Kix, and Grape Nuts to name a few.   Out of all of them, I never really liked Grape Nuts.  Although they withstood milk the best, they were just hard little pebbles that tasted way too earthy for my taste.  But I found that I really liked mixing Grape Nuts with Prego spaghetti sauce.  Don't ask me how that got started, but something about adding a little savoriness to the mix just made them a lot tastier.

Although we kept huge boxes of cereal at our house for our frequent guest, I've never really liked having cereal for breakfast.  To me, it was always a late night snack with my friend.  Something about having cereal with cold milk in the morning upsets my tummy.   Breakfast to me, has to be a warm and yummy thing.  Actually, cold cereals themselves are only a century old phenomenon.  It wasn't until the Kellog brothers invented Corn Flakes and granola, that such a product even existed and became popular.   Prior to their innovation, everyone ate oatmeal or porridge.   In the old world, porridge or gruel was made with oats, barley, or wheat.   Most people think of porridge as a European peasant food, but in actuality, all of the Asian countries also had an equivalent.   But there the porridge is made with rice.   Here in Hawaii, we know this dish for it's Chinese name, jook.

Sau Yuk Pei Dan Jook at Royal Garden
If you go to Hong Kong, or pretty much any other country on that side of the world, jook is the defacto breakfast item.  But here in Hawaii, jook has never really had the same connotation.  I was pretty surprised to see jook being eaten for breakfast everywhere I went in China.  Here, jook is most frequently associated with 2 other things.   It is the most popular way of dealing with Thanksgiving leftovers (something I'm very much looking forward to next week).  And it is the end all cure for the common cold, similar to the way that chicken soup is perceived on the mainland.   I remember whenever I got sick when I was younger, my Po Po would make me the best jook in the world.   After she passed away, and my mom had no time to make it for me, they would always stop at Kwok's Chop Suey on Waialae and pick up a container for me.   Unfortunately, when Hung Won took over from Kwok's, they no longer maintained a supply of jook on the menu.  But these days whenever I get sick, my wife will stop off at Mini Garden on the way home and pick up a bowl for me.   It really does make you feel better when you're sick and miserable.

Besides "Thanksgiving turkey" jook and "chicken soup for the local boy" jook, you can find nice steaming bowls of jook at dim sum.    Dim sum in Hawaii also has different connotations from dim sum in Hong Kong.   Originally created as a snack food for travellers visiting roadside inns, "dim sum" translates to a little touch of heart (although there is some debate as to whether it is touch as a verb meaning "to touch", or touch as a noun meaning "just a touch").  In the Orient is eaten all day long, but frequently enjoyed as "siu yeh" or a midnight snack.   Dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong serve dim sum 24 hours a day, and frequently at 1AM you can find a dim sum restaurant packed with people.   Here in Hawaii, dim sum is primarily a brunch occasion.  For a Chinese family, dim sum is the traditional Sunday brunch, and that is when you'll find most the most people at Chinese restaurants.

My favorite dim sum restaurant when I was very little was the Oceania floating restaurant.   It was a gorgeous Chinese restaurant built on a boat and docked at the harbor near the Falls of Clyde.  As I recall, the ship was built as a sister ship (or a clone of) the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong.   Unfortunately, it didn't do well, and it's bankruptcy financially devastated and marred the reputation of the late great Sen. Hiram Fong.  I was very little at the time, but distinctly remember how cool it was to be eating nai dan bao and grass jelly rolls on such a gorgeous boat.   As I was growing up, I would always favor Sea Fortune (whose chef moved on to build Happy Days), and of course the always crowded Legend Seafood Restaurant in the Chinese Cultural Plaza (probably the king of all dim sum places in Honolulu).   But these days, I also look for a little bit of ambiance, someplace a little nicer to take visitors and clients alike.   Although it isn't as cheap as eating dim sum in Chinatown, a little bit of elegance, and very high quality food, make the difference worth it.    For this extra touch, I like visiting Royal Garden in the Ala Moana Hotel.  

Baked Char Siu Bao at Royal Garden
Just walking in to Royal Garden, you're greeted with a beautiful display case of some of the more exotic dried Chinese delicacies.  They've got enormous dried doong gu (black mushrooms).   They've got some really expensive dried birds nests.   They've got dried abalone the size of softball, and dried scallops the size of golf balls.  Most impressively though, they've got one of the largest pair of shark fins that I've ever seen, that look to be taller than my baby boy.  Around Moon Festival time, they also bake an enormous mooncake which is the size of about 200 regular mooncakes and takes up an entire table.

Sau Yuk Pei Dan Jook with Yau Char Gwai at Royal Garden
When it comes to jook, Royal Garden has some of the best in town.  It's not as thick as my Po Po's was.  It's a little thinner, but it's got a nice smooth consistency.   There are some places where the jook is way too watery and the rice kernels still too distinct, so it's more like a rice soup than a jook.  Royal Garden is also one of the few places in town that serve it with the crispy fried dough (called yau char gwai).  For the Chinese in Hawaii, being originally farmers, jook was a working man's breakfast or lunch.  They really didn't have the little extras that Hong Kong style dim sum brought on, like the crispy fried dough.  Although not having it growing up, I really like dipping the cruncy little things in my jook.   It's similar to dipping saltine crackers in your soup, having the crunchiness play off of the flavorful soup trying to make it soggy.   It's a nice contrast of textures.   My favorite jook at Royal Garden has to be sau yuk pei dan jook (or pork with preserved egg).   The thousand year old egg (which is actually only several months old, preserved in clay and ash), has such a strong, salty flavor.  I once made the mistake of entering a pei dan eating contest, where I had to devour 2 straight whole pei dan, and it was quite overwhelming.   It tasted like putting pure salt and ash in my mouth, and I wound up gagging.   But in the jook, the flavor mellows and blends perfectly well with the rice.  People from the mainland may find it disturbing to eat a jet black egg, but to me the dark sheen of the egg "blacks" and the marbled greenish tinge of the yolks is just a beauty to behold, like black onyx agates.

Jellyfish Salad at Royal Garden
Besides jook, Royal Garden has a huge variety of dim sum.  But besides the regular dishes like char siu bao, lo bak gou, and noh mai gai, they've got some of the more elegant dishes.   They have nice cold appetizers like their jellyfish salad.   Jellyfish actually a little crunchier than you'd expect it to be.  Kind of like daikon or cucumber in it's crunch.  But it's almost tasteless.  Instead it imbibes the flavors of whatever you dip it in, in this case a slightly spicy sesame oil.  It's such a beautiful light taste, just the thing for whetting your appetite.

Yuu Jyuu at Royal Garden
They also make an amazingly killer roast pork.   But this is NOT siu yuk as we're normally accustomed to here.   This is yuu jyuu, or suckling pig.  Because it's such a young pig, it doesn't have layers of fat that you get with siu yuk.  However, also because it's such a young pig, the meat is so amazingly tender, you don't need the fat to moisten it.   Instead you're left with an extremely crunchy (but not oily) skin, and some tender lean meat, with a very delicate flavorful pork taste. 

Roast Duck at Royal Garden
Probably my favorite thing at Royal Garden though is their roast duck (or siu ngap).   Their duck may possibly be the best roast duck in town.   It's first of all quite lean, yet still tender.   It's also quite meaty, not just all bones.  The skin is crisp, not oily, and intensely flavorful.   But what it really has is an incredible duck flavor, which is kind of hard to describe in English.   In Chinese, we say a flavor like this is very "herng" or fragrant (this is also the first word in Hong Kong or herng gong meaning "fragrant harbor"), as if the smokey flavors of the duck transcends your sense of taste and intoxicates your sense of aroma as well.   This duck is certainly the most fragrant in town.  To top it all off, it's served on a bed of candied azuki beans, that just sit there and absorb all of the fantastic duck juices and flavors.   So you've got this amazing combination of candy sweet azuki bean flavor mixed with the smokey duck flavor.  My son will sit there and just pop them in his mouth, one by one, with his little chopsticks and be perfectly content.

Whether it is just a simple bowl of jook, or a full dim sum brunch, having a Chinese breakfast is such a nice change of pace from bacon and eggs.  A little touch of heart that fills you up for the rest of the day.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if there's a sweet version of Jook? Like say adding condensed milk in it? Or fruits?

    Did you see my write-up on making Turkey Jook? It's a really good recipe. Got it from my aunt who's half Chinese. Jook is easy to make. Secret ingredient is Chung Choi. That's the ticket right there! Best way to eat Jook is with a variety of garnishes, like shredded cabbage, peanuts, Chinese Parsley. Ono laddat.

    I heard when the Oceania began to delapidate, it became infested with rats. Hear anything about that? It was a beautiful restaurant though. I remember when it was moored where the Navatek now docks.