Food again

Beautiful weather today. Strong wind cut the slight heat in the air, and it was clear all day.
I've been dying to cook, and have gotten some ideas together for when I finally have a kitchen of my own (assuming it'll be functional), and running around HK training for work or meeting for service or whatever has kept me busy, but I've tried to find good food. And I have succeeded.
Last night's dinner was a success. There was a suggestion on Wikitravel HK about a place in Wan Chai that's always packed and has cheap delicious food. They said the beef brisket rice noodle dish was only HKD$13 (USD$1.68, but the price has since gone up to HKD$16. Travesty) and is the big crowd pleaser. After walking around the same block three times, I finally spotted it. It was physically and mentally satisfying. A success. No one spoke English, and I managed to find the dish I wanted on the all-Chinese menu. Wonderful.
That was shortly before the meeting. A few more stops over on the island line on the MTR, and I was at the meeting about 45 minutes early, so I decided to walk around a bit. Found a bakery, and grabbed one of these little guys. Sweet, rich, but crumbly. I don't know pastries, but it was delicious. After the meeting I went back and bought four more, a muffin, some soymilk, some chocolate soymilk, canned coffee, bottle of water, some chocolate and a coke and paid HKD$60 (USD$7.75) and it will be my breakfast for the rest of the week.

Today was busy. Simple errands became far more complicated and I had to sort a few things out at the bank, but all in all it ended up okay. I was down in HK and didn't have anything else to do. I live so far away that if I go into HK, I'm going to spend some time there, and if I'm going back in the afternoon, I won't be dropping in again for dinner. (That'll be changing soon since I'll be moving into my new congregation's territory). So I headed back home today around 4 and had such a late lunch that I wasn't hungry until a little later. Really wanted to cook, but ended up being too lazy. Didn't want to go get something and bring it back here and sit around some more, so I decided to find a place to eat nearby. There's a mall-ish type thing about a five minute bus ride away, but I opted for real Chinese food. Found myself walking into a very small, somewhat scary restaurant just down the road, like one of those places in America that's always got a few people hanging around at all hours of the day smoking cigarettes and stuff. Yeah. I wondered after I got my soup what I was doing. The tea tasted like the water here, which tastes like dirt, and the soup wasn't much better. I had ordered from a woman who spoke nothing but Cantonese and a patron who could barely speak Mandarin. I told him I wanted some genuine Chinese food: a dish with pork, and a dish with chicken. The soup made me nervous, but I heard all sorts of things going on in the kitchen: the roaring of a wok on a burner, smelled oil and scallions and onions and general deliciousness. When I saw a clay pot coming my way, I knew I had made a good decision. Pictures didn't turn out, but it was a large clay pot with huge chunks of chicken on the bone, slices of chicken breast, huge slices of ginger, scallions, roasted onions (the outer layers were carmelized and crunchy and they were sweet) in this smokey sweet sauce. It was amazing. The second one came on a plate and was a pork pancake that was some kind of cross between a flattened meatloaf and homemade sausage. It had a great texture to it and had scallions and veggies and all sorts of porkbits in it and it was very good despite it's malformed pinkish appearance. I asked the lady to write down what it was I had. That pic will come later perhaps... I did take a picture of it.
I think the visa process will finally start tomorrow or early next week. That's the biggest thing right now; after that's confirmed I can sign a lease on a flat, move my publisher card and really get settled in.
Oh, this is the place I ate tonight: besides my table, there's only one more (left of the frame) that's not visible, with some picnic tables outside. She was helping her son with his homework and he'd take a break every once in a while to clean up a bit or do something in the kitchen.


So... I just had my first entirely helpless foreigner moment. I'm sitting on the train on my way into HK, and my phone rings (my local mobile phone). It's an unknown number, but a few numbers here, as well as calls I receive from America, are unknown. So I answered it, and almost immediately a polite sounding man started speaking to me in Cantonese. Being the only westerner on the train, I was somewhat self conscious about speaking Cantonese (I'm usually not, but was feeling incompetent anyway) and after his little 30 second spiel I asked him to speak in Mandarin. So he started over and I still didn't catch a whole lot (it's hard to understand people over the phone to begin with, especially on a crowded train), but was almost positive I caught words and phrases like "our company" and "credit card" and "cheaper" and "convenient." I'm used to recognizing the de rigueur egregiously fake friendly quality in an American telemarketer's voice. However, a friendly voice in a foreign tongue (especially Cantonese) doesn't yet carry any ulterior motive.
I was almost positive he was a telemarketer and repeatedly said "no thank you no thank you" (不要,不要 and 沒有興趣) and he seemed genuinely sorry to bother me and said so. I couldn't bring myself to hang up on him, but felt terribly rude all the same. He didn't address me by name like any of the friends here would, not even any of the brothers or sisters who I need to speak to and as of yet have not met.
But I got to thinking: What if he's the brother at the British Council I've been wanting to talk to, or someone at the bank I need to speak with, although I was sure it was a solicitation. I was confused and worried, and pulled out my ipod in lieu of continuing to read my book.

PS: I got another one on the way home. It was also an unidentified caller, and I was more confident this time. I told him I didn't speak Cantonese and that he'd have to speak in Mandarin or English. He said 不好意思 and thankfully hung up.
I don't know...



Today I bought Ruth Reichl's book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, and I'm about 60 pages into it. Really cool so far, about her taking the job as food critic of the NY Times and what goes along with being a food critic of that magnitude: not blowing your cover, disguising oneself, being objective, etc. Also reading Molecular Gastronomy, an informative but terribly bland and straightforward book of interest. Casual reading (the kind I can do anywhere for 30 seconds between trains or for 30 minutes on a train) has been keeping me occupied in down time, as our study material for the meetings is hard for me to do stop-and-go between trains or with babies screaming in the background.
Food has been exciting here, but I obviously don't have any idea of what's a great restaurant and what's not worth a half-hour train ride to. Obviously, restaurants like Amber (Two-star Michelin at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental HK) would be phenomenal (and cost a small fortune), and there are more and more high-end western-style (and owned) restaurants in the high rent districts. But I suppose for the most part, when it comes to noodle shops and HK BBQ, there's only so much one can do, and what I've had so far has been very good. Soups and noodles and rice and all sorts of animals (tripe even made an appearance in a noodle soup last night). I've been finding negligibly legitimate reasons to enter local businesses and upon departing will ask about food recommendations.
So today I ate at this place recommended to me by a lady at a teahouse that was supposed to be a really good true HK noodle place, their answer to a greasy spoon diner, I suppose. It was busy and tables were turning. I sat down and was immediately given a menu with about four options on it: a vegetable dumpling soup, a noodle soup, and a few dry noodle bowl type things, accompanied by a list of about 25 different items to add to the soup, from sliced pork to fish ball to cow stomach to slices of fat. I ordered the vegetable dumpling soup medium hot. The smell and color, accompanied by the reddish oil slick of chili paste on top when I got it was exciting, but it was so hot I couldn't finish it. Dumplings were great. Veggies were great. It was all good.
I've had some extremely hot food before, and love it, but this was a different kind of hot. It wasn't even a flavor-ish delicious hot as much as a caustic sinus-frying experience. I did my best, but couldn't finish it. It was more than my ravenously empty stomach (and my table void of quenching liquids) could take. I did a respectable job with it.
Needless to say, I'm terribly excited to try so much food here. We did 飲茶 (Cantonese: yam cha- literally "to drink tea"/Mandarin 暍茶) dim sum last week, which is more a ritual or experience rather than a meal. It was fabulous, and I love the reckless abandon with which people approach food, and from a Westerner's point of view, oftentimes at the expense of table manners, but it's wonderful.
If something here ever had a bone in it, it's almost assuredly still in it when you eat it. Pork, duck, chicken and (disappointingly) fish. People gnaw and chew on bones and dispose of them creatively, talk with their mouths full, grab for food, eat fast and messily. Food in Hong Kong is wonderful, and I hope to share regular food stories and pictures.


Internal Compass

Traveling around last year we spent a number of months in different cities. For whatever reason, I became the navigator in Belfast, and got to know my way around. I paid attention to street names and how we got places, but Belfast was laid out in a horrible excuse for concentric circles and radiating streets from the town center, and wasn't exactly logical. I got to learn my way around from memory. London wasn't difficult, but I completely shut down in Barcelona and John navigated there.
In Hong Kong, I feel like I'll be training my internal compass much more. I was thinking about it last night on my way to meet some friends and although I got turned around a few times coming up from subway stations underground or whatever and had to get my bearings, there are landmarks and points of reference that are great for those of us that are a little more directionally challenged. The MTR is terribly easy to navigate and get around in, but just walking around hasn't proven difficult either, especially in the larger parts of HK. I find myself using the actual cardinal directions for things ("I'm in Central HK, and the ocean is that way, so this must be due west"). It's small, I know, but I'm wondering how much quicker I'll learn my way around here having to walk or take the subway most places. Things are pretty easily recognizeable, and it's all laid out pretty well.
It's funny to think that this city is my home.



I've been so tired after getting home the past few days that I haven't really posted anything. I've fully intended to, but have had other minor adventures, like drying laundry, buying more groceries and trying to find a new Thai restaurant yesterday in the Mid-levels, where I was instead greeted with scores of Spanish, Italian, French, Greek, Arabic, English and Indian restaurants. Stopped and had a pint at a little English pub called the Pickled Pelican (before it got packed) and sure enough when I walked by it after dinner at another Thai restaurant, it was noisy and crowded.
I started teaching. The company I'm (most likely going to end up) working for is basically a third party provider of Native English teachers (NETs) to schools in HK. So I observed an advanced class thursday that was preparing for the oral part of an English exam. They attend one of the more prestigious schools in HK, and the principal is very demanding. So I was supposed to meet the same teacher (an elder in an English congregation here) yesterday for one class in the afternoon, a phonics course that our insitute developed that we usually teach as part of our curriculum at schools. However, another teacher fell ill and couldn't make it, so we ended up having almost a full day. Four classes, and I taught half of them. Held an English examination for Kindergarten-ish aged kids, and earlier in the morning was a drama class for a behaviorally deficient group of 20 sixteen year olds. Conducting the exam on 5 and 6 year old chinese kids was far easier. There was a list of words they were to identify the individual sounds of (three or four letters each), and then another set I was supposed to ask them to read at random. One little girl, sonya, wouldn't even look at me. She was so shy, and had some problems with b vs p and the letter u. She was so cute though. I had to have them write their name and class on their exam paper and she took my pen and it was like she needed two hands. No joke, I cold have almost put her in my backpack. And closed it shut. She was tiny. And freezing outside. It got really cold outside, at least for HK.
Rainy season started this week, and on thursday at the first school it suddenly started raining and within minutes we'd gotten at least an inch of rain, and it continued for almost the entire afternoon. There were rivers inches deep of water pouring down stairs out of parks. I'm told this lasts until about September.
There were so many things I was going to mention, if only briefly, but I'll get around to it later. On my way to service and going to be a bit late. It's cold again today, down to like 50F here, going out in svc in 15 mph winds right on the harbor. I think I'm dressed warmly enough.


Food and Clothing

I tried to make dinner yesterday.
I was too irritated about it to actually post it. I had frozen/packaged food from the store yesterday, but didn't have much else to do and kinda wanted to cook. So I decided I'd stroll into "the village" (which sounds like an African or Vietnamese cluster of thatched roof homes, when in reality, it's something like fifty 40-story buildings that make up the community, so it has its own mall and schools and playgrounds and parks and squares and a market.
This place is like a maze. I can get to it and into it fine, but I get so turned around so easily. I navigate my way through Hong Kong no problem, but this maze of identical looking buildings with sidewalks every which way and children running and playing and old Cantonese men smoking, and hacking and playing Mah Johng gets me every time. I asked one lady in Cantonese where the market was, and apparently said it wrong, because she pointed me off in some direction where I had to ask another guy who pointed me in an entirely different direction and gave me three or four commands, and after following the first two (all I could catch), I started heading in the direction from which the people with bags of produce were coming. I made it to the market.
I bought the following: some Thai chili paste, onions, ginger, garlic, carrots, (had something in mind with all of this) oranges, a few nice (looking) filets of freshly cleaned fish and a big one liter (or something) bottle of Tsingdao beer (for lack of white wine or chicken broth). The idea was this: sweat the veggies a bit, let them soften some. Add the beer, chili paste, ginger and orange zest and the fish, cover, let simmer for a bit and I'd have a decent thickish brothy substance with yummy veggies . I had some rice going too, to which I added some orange zest as the water was boiling. Gave it a nice... orangeyness.
It just didn't work. The fish was absolutely full of pinbones, and any attempts to remove them proved futile. I even found some needle nosed pliers and washed them clean and tried to pull 'em out like they do in restaurants... nope. The beer didn't work, the veggies were kinda icky from the start. I didn't have a lot of the extra stuff I really would have needed to make it work. it was an improv. But I ate it and it sufficed.
I did my first load of laundry tonight. It didn't take that long. There is a washing machine here, and it sings like one of those rice cookers when it starts and stops (cuz it's Asian). What I lack (and I knew I would) is a dryer... My clothes came out of the washing machine wrinked. I let them sit no more than five minutes and it looked like I'd braided them all together and bungee jumped from a bridge with them. They're hanging dry now, and we'll see how stiff and crunchy (and still wrinkled) they are tomorrow.
Oh, yeah, I hung them inside. It's not that I don't trust the neighbors, who have all hung their clothes outside, but I just don't feel comfortable leaving my clothes outside two stories up on the top floor of this building to dry. I don't know why we don't actually have a rack on our own balcony... anywho, I was told adding a cup or so of vinegar to the rinse water in the machine would soften them a bit, so I'll try that next time. Any other suggestions?



Woke up this morning rather early. I went to bed rather early last night. The brother I'm staying with left for France this morning, so I'll be here by myself for three weeks. I didn't know what I was going to do, but decided to go for a run. It was nice today. Only about 62 or so, and threatening to rain. I ran a few miles and went into the grocery store/market for breakfast, which was only going to be bottled water and some buns or something, but I ended up getting real groceries. Fruit, soymilk, cereal, Coke, bread, etc. I think I spent around HK$350, or about US$45. Came home and had a shower and now I'm having lunch and heading out to go do something or other. Might try to meet a few people about jobs, but I don't have any appointments. Service today isn't until 6:45 and I'm unclear as to exactly where they're meeting, but I'm going out tomorrow I believe. Service arrangements have been a little hit-or-miss, as I guess they are when you don't actually belong to a congregation yet. I'm visiting the other two Mandarin congregations this week, in Shau Kei Wan (a newly formed one) and Tai Po. The one I went to last weekend is in Aberdeen. Over.