Eating through Hong Kong

Egg tarts as sweet as sunshine

 

Springy, bouncy, wiry noodles in steaming soup

 

Flashy Mongkok by night

It’s midnight and we’re prowling through the dark, chilly alleys of Kowloon, Hong Kong.
As Temple Street’s night market quietens down, people flaunting fake Louis Vuittons, triple piercings and shiny leather pants elbow past looking for a late night snack. In true flashy big city style, the neon boards and electronic signage act like disco lights, covering the scene in surreal red-blue-green swathes.
We’re looking for Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. This tiny eatery, run by the former dim sum chef of the Four Season’s hotel is so popular we’re warned there’s a three hour wait for tables. Yet, in Mongkok, the locals – busy eating pungent tofu, Siu Mai and a Hong Kong style fried chicken covered in sesame seeds – don’t seem to know its exact location.
By 1 a.m. we stumble upon an alternative: a petite, steamy, bright eatery bursting with teenagers wearing their angst and iPhones as badges of honour. After much gesticulation the owner brings us a warm basket, filled with succulent fish dim sum and a bowl of sharp soya sauce. It’s teamed with sticky fried rice studded with disconcertingly sweet, fatty sausage.
Our Hong Kong food adventure’s off to an interesting start.
The next day we wake up to delicate stir fried vermicelli noodle crunchy with peanuts and a stodgy congee. It’s time to tick off the two next items on our ‘best of Hong Kong food’ list: silk stocking tea and egg tarts.
Hong Kong’s Central Business District is chic and busy, bustling with fashionistas in elegant winter coats and edgy hairdos. At the Good Spring Herbal Pharmacy, young bankers in sharp suits and startlingly feminine manbags delicately sip on ginseng tea, dispensed from an ornate, steaming brass pot. Inside, pharmacists read Chinese prescriptions written in graceful calligraphy, rapidly choosing roots and powders from heavy wooden cabinets and wrapping them up in crisp paper.
After a glass of Sweet Flower tea, tasting of honey and gardens, we trip into the Lan Fong Yuen tearoom. This heaving café claims to have invented Hong Kong milk tea, strained through a silk stocking. Serendipity sees us seated with charming Ad executive Jacqueline Ho, who logs onto Hong Kong’s popular OpenRice website on her iPhone to show us the best places to dine. After cups of the thin, smooth milky tea, served in heavy Lipton cups, she walks us to the Tai Cheong Bakery next door for egg tarts.
Ten minutes in line, and we’re rewarded by a warm, wobbly egg tart. Set in a flaky, buttery, golden pastry shell, the deep yellow tart is silky and just sweet enough to be satisfying. The city’s last British Governer, Chris Patten agrees. The store front boasts a blown-up picture of him pasted across the window, declaring his allegiance.
Day three’s dedicated to noodles. And, hopefully, that elusive Michelin meal. Back in central after a lot of walking, much of it uphill thanks to the city’s steep inclines, we find ourselves staring at an unexpected bonus – the Michelin ‘approved’ sign outside a random restaurant in the CBD. Inside, it’s quiet but for the steady sound of slurping as the family at the next table enjoys their bowl of noodles. Our noodles, however, lack punch – they’re watery and tasteless. The sticky rice served with soy and honey glazed pork is delicious, however. The pork’s so succulent and well done, it can be taken off the bone with just chopsticks.
Ever since travelling-celebrity Chef Antony Bourdain ‘discovered’ Mak’s Noodle in Wellington Street, it’s been a tourist magnet. However, following Jacquline’s advice to pick crowded restaurants, we head to Tsim Chai Kee, opposite Mak’s and positively bursting with the local lunch crowd. Inside, the community beach is so narrow and packed I’m a little worried my hungry neighbour will mistake my elbow for his lunch.
Tsim Chai Kee serves just three kinds of noodles: shrimp, fish balls and beef. My bowl of translucent wantons stuffed with king shrimp set on a generous squiggle of wiry, springy noodles arrives quickly. The noodles, wallowing in a fragrant broth, have to be teased out with chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Nobody bothers with small talk. Everyone’s here to eat, and eat well. Who needs a pat from Michelin with food so good.

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The Franschhoek Valley Food Safari

We drive past quiet vineyards, gleaming horses and Hansel ‘n Gretel cottages. Watched over by towering mountains, idyllic Franschhoek Valley (about an hour away from Cape Town, South Africa) seems to be the land where time stands still.

More than 300 years ago, when Protestantism was outlawed in France, hundred of Huguenots were forced to flee their homeland. When a group of them arrived at the Cape of Good Hope by ship, the Dutch government gave them land in this valley. It was then home to wild elephants and called Oliphantshoek, or Elephant’s Corner. In a delightfully appropriate twist of phonetics, it became Franschhoek — French Corner.

We kick off our day of culinary tourism at Graham-Beck wineries, where cellar master Pieter Ferreira walks us through the elegant tasting room, lined with lustrous bottles from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, in the private dining area we gather around a table bearing a tray of smoked salmon and an array of wine glasses filled with the most curious ingredients. There’s a glass of bright yellow butter. Apples, oranges and strawberries. Crumbly brioche, thick honey, roasted almonds.

There’s even one filled with what smells like instant soup mix. “It’s got umami — which is the flavour that you also get in tomato and parmesan cheese,” says Ferreira, opening a bottle of Brut NV, a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He then gets us to match the flavours in the wine with the ingredients in the glasses. It makes the usually airy-fairy exercise, so loved by the connoisseurs, far easier to understand.

We’re understandably a very cheery group by the time we get to their Cuvée Clive, a sophisticated bubbly that tastes of spring. Ferreira explains that they wait for six years, till the carbon di-oxide gets more integrated, “it becomes finer; the bubbles feel softer, rounder, like feathers on the tongue”.

We’re plied with more bubbly as we enter the sprawling grounds of Le Quartier Français, a restaurant so distinctive it’s practically become a local institution. Owner Susan Huxtur’s got all sorts of stories about guests, ranging from petulant celebrities to Russian businessmen accompanied by a flood of gun-toting bodyguards. Listed on the San Pellegrino’s influential list of the world’s top 50 restaurants, it’s even managed to edge ahead of Thomas Keller’s iconic French Laundry.

It’s surprising because unlike the restaurants of chefs such as Keller, Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià — all acknowledged to be culinary revolutionaries — Le Quartier Français is defiantly laidback. You almost expect to see people in scruffy Bermudas lounging by the pool, beside the resident cat.

However, the moment the starters arrive it’s clear why this restaurant is special. The food is simple, focusing on maximising flavours by using the best local ingredients and intelligent techniques. And then there’s the tongue-in-cheek presentation.

Fluffy corn bread is served in a dented sardine tin besides crisp sheet bread peppered generously with fennel seeds. All accompanied by the most deliciously nutty butter. “You allow butter to clarify, and then whip it into fresh butter to get that caramelly taste,” explains Chef Margot Janse, adding with a grin, “All the butter and milk here comes from a cow called Daisy who lives nearby.”

That morning, when she was jogging Janse found wood sorrel, which turned up for lunch. It’s set on a salty jelly of porcine, in the form of foam that tastes like sour grass. We also eat a coffee roasted warthog loin served with potato fondant, garlic puree and currant vinaigrette. (It helps that I don’t know it’s warthog till well after the meal.) And there’s lamb, from the Karoo region of South Africa, served with chakalaka marmalade, inspired by the spicy chakalaka made in the townships of Johannesburg.

This is food that is rooted, and that’s its greatest strength. Today’s gourmands don’t want to travel halfway across the world to eat the expected, no matter how smothered it is in time-honoured exotica like truffles or caviar. They’re in search of the unexpected and irreproducible.

Which is why Janse’s approach works: she leans on the strength of local ingredients and is constantly inspired by traditional recipes and flavour pairings. Then, she reinvents it all for a global audience.

Cape Town: City of Faith

This is a city that’s been rescued by faith. Time and time again. The wandering Khoisan and Khoikhoi were drawn here by the benevolence of Table Mountain, which provides the city with water through its porous sandstone structure. They called it Camissa, or ‘place of sweet water’.

Framed by mountains and fringed by beaches, Cape Town proved irresistible to the ships of traders and merchants who docked here — Portuguese, Dutch, British… Eventually, the slave trade was rampant, drawing labour from all over the world to build the city. You know the rest of the story — after all, it’s unnervingly recent history. Apartheid. Rebellion. Freedom. Forgiveness.

As the old order changed, it was faith — in their country, leaders and themselves — that kept the South Africans from plunging into anarchy. Of course, there were, and still are, massive problems — unemployment, poverty and crime. Post-freedom, the country’s biggest cities became recklessly dangerous. Today, this intimidating reputation for violence lingers. A reputation they’re working hard on changing.

Cape Town’s now a playground for the rich. Yet, for a long time, its inner city suffocated under a deluge of graffiti, theft and violence. Till the Cape Town Partnership stepped in. Since 1999, it’s been bringing together corporates, citizens and the Government, to rejuvenate the historic downtown area.

They have faith in the city, believing it’s worth saving for its remarkable beauty as well as history, containing lessons for the world. The partnership has repaired street lights, cleaned graffiti, and worked on crime prevention. Now, they’re inviting businesses, tourists and locals into the inner city to enjoy its public spaces together, with art exhibits, concerts and markets.

“We want to get the locals to come here. Get them out of their cars, high-security buildings and shopping malls…” says Andrew Boraine, chief executive of The Cape Town Partnership. “We run walking tours to teach people the history of our city, which is the history of our country… This is the oldest area of modern human settlement on the planet. People have lived here for 75,000 years.”

Lined with graceful heritage buildings, each with a chequered past, the centre of South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ certainly has atmosphere. History leaves its mark. Especially, when it’s turbulent.

Take the Purple Rain revolt, for instance. In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid protestors were on the streets with banners stating ‘The People Shall Govern.’ When the police turned a water cannon filled with purple paint on them, intending to mark and arrest, a student swung it around, showering the police. The next day walls were scrawled with triumphant graffiti declaring: ‘The purple shall govern’.

Today, the event is celebrated by stories, public artwork, and the ‘Purple Turtle,’ a club that calls itself ‘the cornerstone of eccentricity and culture in the South African music scene’. As Cape Town has discovered, history stays relevant when it keeps pace with the lives of its people. Hence, reinvention is essential. This way buildings and stories continue to serve a purpose, instead of merely becoming empty repositories for stories and fading memories.

Taj Cape Town, a joint partnership between Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Eurocape (an Irish property investment company), for instance, is housed within the historic South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers buildings located in the downtown area. Significant to Capetonians, it not just gives a fillip to inner city rejuvenation, but is also a tribute to the rainbow people.

After all, Cape Town’s first Indians, among many other nationalities, first arrived in on filthy slave ships in chains between the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Slave Lodge down the road from the hotel, once a dilapidated, filthy prison, locked in about 9,000 slaves between 1697 and 1811. Today, it’s a glossy museum endeavouring to convey the horror of its past. South Africa has discovered that air-brushing its tumultuous history does nobody any favours. Over here, healing comes with truth, no matter how painful, and reconciliation, no matter how difficult.

Groote Kerk, next door to the Slave Lodge, offered little comfort in those days. The site of the oldest Christian congregation in South Africa, it was open only to the whites. On the other hand, St George’s Cathedral, just down the road, surmounted its inevitable colonial beginnings to become a symbol of protest for the anti-apartheid regime, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Once home to vigils and high drama, it’s now peacefully hushed, lit by the candles flickering around a striking black Madonna and vivid stained-glass windows.

Today, the inner city is still speckled with barbed wire. Houses and stores bristle with menacing grills, locks and posters promising an ‘Armed Response’ to break-ins. Yet, the streets feel non-threatening.

South Africa’s current focus on tourism has involved locals and traders, explaining how important it is for tourists to feel safe. It helps that everyone we meet is fiercely proud of the country. The bargaining at Greenmarket square, once a place to sell slaves, and now the site of a bustling flea market, is cheerfully spirited. One charming woman selling quirky hand-made jewellery even seals the deal by enveloping me in an unexpected hug.

Healing comes in many ways. Perhaps, Cape Town’s performance poet Malika Ndlovu said it best — “In the light of memory and remembering / Through the streams of ourselves / reconnecting / recollecting / we find our way home.”

***

(Jet Airways recently inaugurated non-stop flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg, six days a week. Return Economy fares start at Rs. 35,595, while return Premiere (Business Class) fares start at Rs. 1,16,020. Jet Airways’ new Airbus 330-200 aircraft departs from Mumbai at 0205 hours, and arrives in Johannesburg at 0735 hrs. From there, it’s a two-hour flight to Cape Town)

Faluknama: My Princess Diaries

I tend to get a little silly when it comes to palaces.

All that history and romance, gilt and glamour. It’s the ideal setting to pretend I’m royalty, with all accompanying affectations and theatrics. So I’m delighted when our prosaic car is replaced with a carriage pulled by neighing, stamping black horses at the gates of Taj Falaknuma palace.

As we gallop up the hill, it looms above us in an appropriately intimidating fashion.

Falaknuma, or ‘‘Mirror of the sky’ is built in the shape of a scorpion, at the crest of a 32 acre compound. As we descend grandly from the carriage, I gawk in a most un-princess-like fashion. A line of glittering guards escort us to the door in a ceremonial welcome, while rose petals softly rain down.

It’s quite a view. The palace blends so dramatically into the evening sky it almost looks like it’s a part of the heavens. And all it took was ten years of restoration, and 30 coats of paint to get the colour just right.

This story begins in 1884. Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, then Prime Minister of Hyderabad was determined to create a palace of dreams. With foreign architects, luxury products shipped from all over the world and challenging design, Faluknama ended up taking him 10 years to build, and 22 years to decorate. Then, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, dropped by for a visit and expressed admiration. And Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra immediately gave it to him as a gift. He moved out the next day with his family, taking nothing.

We glide in over a carpet of red rose petals. In princess mode I sweep through the foyer, featuring images of nubile angels cavorting all over the high ceiling. To the left is the Gossip Room, where Queen Ujala Begum and her girls caught up on the daily news. Under a lustrous chandelier the furniture sparkles with nifty mirrors flaked by shelves for cosmetics. I grab some champagne, and teeter across to the study, where the last Nizam famously used the hefty Jacob’s diamond as a paperweight.

Wandering around, it becomes easier to understand why restoration by The Taj overseen by Princess Esra (who was married to the last Nizam’s son) has taken a decade to complete. Unabashedly ostentatious, the palace is lush with luxury. Even light comes from myriad sources: vivid glass lanterns from Bohemia, Belgian chandeliers dripping stars and sunshine pouring through glass stained windows.

It’s all very over the top – but then restraint was hardly a virtue in those days. Restoration’s been so meticulous we hear Princess Esra got a single carpet dyed 300 times before she was satisfied with the colour.

Though I’m too busy bouncing excitedly around my room to care about interior decorating details. The bathroom’s humongous, featuring marble bowls brimming with delicious scrubs and creams. At night, a tray bearing silky cardamom infused moisturiser is placed on my bed, along with an array of decadently dark chocolates. If I need anything else, there’s a button I can press for ‘palace services.’ I briefly considering trying to order a palanquin or royal elephant to take me to Charminar, 15 minutes away, but am so happy slathering myself in velvety creams I can’t bear to leave the room.

As the morning sunshine filters in through billowing Turkish curtains, I’m finally drawn out by the sound of a flute. It leads me down the garden, and then mysteriously disappears.

So I head to the imposing Jade Room’s graceful balcony for warm sweet pineapple Danishes served with powerfully aromatic coffee. Downstairs, the begum’s bedroom’s open so guests can admire her specially-designed Doulton bathtub, equipped with pipes for hot water, cold water and perfume. I’d be jealous if not for the languid spa treatment lined up at Jiva, featuring frankincense and sandalwood infused sesame oil.

Finally, like the princess in the fairy tale, I climb into my carriage – drawn by white horses this time – and gallop away. As I settle down in my cramped aircraft seat, I wonder why I’m drawing strange glances. Then I realize my skin’s still redolent with the scent of spices. Perhaps I should have called for the palanquin after all.

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Splashing about in Champagne

Apparently you never forget your first taste of champagne.

Mine was at a bustling bar in Singapore, renowned for its easygoing attitude towards customers dancing on their tables. A blackboard announced ‘champagne on the house for babes.’ (Quite flattering, till I realised it was a blanket term for all women.)

Nevertheless, it was a good start, shattering the illusion that drinking it on a yacht in the Cote d’Azure was the only way to go. Except, I now realise it was probably sparkling wine.

What’s the difference? Thousands of kilometres for starters.

Over a chilled glass of Laurent Perrier Rose Champagne at the dramatic Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, Rajiv Singhal Ambassador to Champagne in India discusses the fact that Champagne (the drink) can come only from Champagne (the geographical location). He represents the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), an interprofessional body that brings together all the Houses and Growers in Champagne, defining policy, quality control and protection of the Champagne appellation.

With 15,000 growers, 300 houses and 12,000 brands to oversee, they really have their work cut out for them! Especially considering the term ‘champagne’ has become so synonymous with luxury that it’s indiscriminately used to justify anything with a hefty price tag. So far, besides a variety of sparkling wines masquerading as Champagne, Rajiv’s found mangoes, biscuits and — yes — pantyhose bearing the label.

In reality, if it’s not grown in the production zone, delimited in 1927, it’s not the real thing. The area, 150 km to the east of Paris covers roughly 34,000 hectares of vineyards spread across 319 villages.

Thanks to CIVC you’re guaranteed a quality bottle if it originates here since there are strict rules at every stage: only 8,000 vines can be planted per hectare with a 1.5 mt distance between rows, only bunches bearing 12 to 15 grapes can be picked, and then only 102 litres of juice can be pressed out of 160 kg of grapes.

The results are evident when we settle down for a ‘Prestige Cuvee’ dinner at the suitably flamboyant Durbar Hall of the palace, glittering with spangled chandeliers and rows of long stemmed, delicate champagne glasses.

Seared scallops on smoked salmon are served with Ayala Cuvee Perle, 2002, blending ripe citrus fruit with feisty bubbles. It’s followed by the iconic Krug, Grand Cuvee. Rich and toasty it stands up bravely to aromatic lamb shikampuri kebab and spicy king prawns.

More champagne, more courses — each demonstrating that the drink can hold it’s own in any company. As we reach dessert, we’re tipsy enough to find the murmur of bubbles neck lacing up to the surface great theatre. After a dessert of strawberry mousse truffles served with Armand de Brignac Rose (a bottle so delightfully pink I consider using it as an accessory), we’re rambunctiously cheery and dive into the Nawab’s grand dining room, featuring his gleaming table for 101 people, and attempt conversations from both ends.

Of course, gilt and glamour are purely optional. Rajiv says one of the most memorable bottles he drank was in Paris, after he cooled it on a snowy window ledge in winter, teamed with Chicken Mc Nuggets.

The point of this ‘Champagne Experience’ is to prove the drink’s versatility. Rajiv even laughingly offers to send some to our rooms to brush our teeth with. However, after drinking till 1 a.m., all I want is a cup of coffee when I wake up, bleary and hoarse.

Clearly, I’m a lightweight. As I stagger to breakfast at 8 a.m., I find everyone in high spirits drinking champagne with warm croissants and fluffy omelettes. Too early? Apparently not. I stick to coffee and toast. But unbend enough to sip some Louis Roederer by the swimming pool a little later. It’s chilled, complex and fruity — ideal for the gentle sunshine. This is the life.



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Soaking in sunshine and history at Taj Cape Town

T he lobby’s an unusual shade of gold. Sure it has the usual five-star accoutrements — majestic chandeliers, plush sofas and a bar tinkling with expensive crystal. But, what makes Taj Cape Town’s lobby so instantly soothing is a lot more basic — structure.

A cathedral-like space with high ceilings, a barrel-vaulted skylight and dramatic lines, it’s clearly been created with a passion that borders on the obsessive.

So, it’s hardly surprising to learn the original architect James Morris, who designed the grand old Reserve Bank that now houses the Taj lobby, was an exasperatingly pernickety man. Intent on glittering Capetonian sunshine in the main banking room through the year, he bullied the Astronomer Royal into measuring the position of shadows in the skylight for every month of 1929 so he could design the skylight appropriately. He then imported Portuguese marble columns, commissioned a sculptor to create four medallions of lions for the façade and even organised special tiles, complete with spares “in case an aircraft crashed into the building”.

Recklessly flamboyant architecture of this sort creates memorable spaces. It’s also notoriously difficult to replicate. The Taj didn’t even try.

Instead, Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, along with Eurocape (an Irish property investment company) spent two years and over $69 million, meticulously restoring the old South African Reserve Bank and neighbouring Temple Chambers buildings for their new 177-room luxury hotel. A ponderous clock from 1932, balconies for the mistrals that once entertained the public during banking hours, gates of detailed bronze… they’ve all been retained, giving the building a depth, character and gravitas that could never have been achieved by any contemporary structure, no matter how extravagant.

Recently inaugurated, this is Cape Town’s ‘oldest new hotel’. Set in the heart of the city’s historic downtown area, it’s surrounded by monuments representing much of South Africa’s turbulent history — from the Slave Lodge (now a museum) to St George’s Cathedral, from where Archbishop Desmond Tutu rallied the masses and demanded equality.

In tune with contemporary South Africa, the hotel is designed to be welcoming to one and all — hence the two main entrances, the Temple Chambers’ doors on Wale Street, and the South African Reserve Bank entry off St. George’s Mall, a pedestrian road that bustles with street artists, cafes and colour. There’s also street access to its coffee shop Mint and The Twankey, a seafood, champagne and oyster bar.

Of course, two buildings, no matter how steeped in history, aren’t ever big enough for the kind of full-scale, decadent luxury Taj hotels concentrate on. Hence, a more modern tower rises from the fabric of the heritage buildings, culminating in the gargantuan Presidential suite.

We watch the sun spilling a thousand shades of red and orange over Table Mountain, as it sinks away from the terrace of the suite, over glasses of chilled champagne and succulent smoked salmon. Then it’s time for dinner at Bombay Brasserie, where the menu balances tradition and plucky experimentation. Roasted corn soup served with fluffy turmeric popcorn. Tandoori Norwegian salmon flavoured with Bishop’s weed. Baked Alphonso mango yoghurt.

After a few days of incessant pampering, we’re getting dangerously spoilt. Our rooms, set in the heritage suite are luxuriously charming, with dignified pastel furnishing, chocolates and pillow menus.

Our 24-hour butler, who — to our delight — is called ‘Lovemore’ plies us with chamomile tea and gossip, in the Business Lounge every evening, when we stagger back after yet another party or dinner bristling with heady South African wine.

We hear Paris Hilton and her entourage occupied our rooms during the World Cup. But, don’t let that put you off. Especially if, like us, you have a fondness for drinking creamy Amarula cocktails in a lobby that glitters with cheerful South African sunshine, amid echoes of a colourful history.

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Sho-Buzz

February 2011
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