Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sweet Endings in Sweet Garden in Windsor House Causeway Bay

"It was a dark and stormy night..." To quote my favourite beagle, Snoopy -- these were the exact weather conditions when I stumbled upon this wonderful little corner of sweetness otherwise known as Sweet Garden Hong Kong Desserts.

Sweet Garden is located on the 4th floor of Windsor House in Causeway Bay.  Its colourful and cheerful interiors brightened up my mood despite the blustery and wet weather outside.

At past 10 p.m, the tables were all full of young locals -- perhaps just starting their Friday evening, while I was on my way to ending mine.

Lest you think that I finished all these, there were five of us that shared these desserts --
 a strawberry snowflake ice with strawberry syrup, nata de coco and yoghurt balls, hot black sesame soup and a green tea snowflake ice with red beans and nata de coco and which the helpful and friendly waiter suggested would be much improved with a drizzle of condensed milk.  And he was right!
Everything matched perfectly -- the strawberry ice was complemented by the small yoghurt balls that yielded a squirt of tart yoghurt and who knew that condensada went well with green tea?  
Of course, hot black sesame soup is a personal addiction of mine so I happily finished that by myself.

Sweet Garden's extensive menu lists so many other choices of traditional Hong Kong desserts ...
hot and cold, stewed and soupy, puddings and custards too.
Sweet Garden was a sweet ending to an otherwise gloomy and rainy day in Hong Kong.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tour -- walking and eating my way through Central and Sheung Wan

Part of the planning for the recent Hong Kong getaway was looking for new things to do, new places to see, new restaurants to try.  After booking the hiking and dumpling tour of Hansen's Hikes, I found a tour that promised a lot of walking and eating -- albeit at a much more urban,  relaxed and easy pace.  
Participants per tour are limited to 12 (to ensure a more enjoyable and personalised experience) and thankfully,  I was lucky enough to get the last two slots for  the week-end that we would be in town.

Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours pride themselves as the first tour company in Hong Kong that specialises in local, traditional and popular specialties.  
After years and years of visiting Hong Kong, I was so ready to discover new places.  
While we do have our usual go-to haunts and favourites, I was sure there were so many treasures just waiting to be unearthed.
But how would our tried and tested favourites stand up? This tour would put them to the test.

Our tour started at 2:15 p.m.  We all met up with our guide Silvana in Central and the first food stop would be for wonton noodles, a quintessentially Hong Kong dish. 
We proceeded to a noodle house along Queen's Road Central which has been around for many years. Their specialty is King Prawn Wonton noodles.

Like many locals and tourists in the know, my  favourite wonton noodle in Hong Kong has always been Mak's located along the mid-level escalators.
But Mak's has since expanded into many branches and sadly, the quality is just not what it used to be.
The king wontons which we had, 3 big ones to a bowl, were much more appetising and definitely bigger.  They were too big to finish in just one bite.
I also noticed that the broth and noodles did not have that alkaline aftertaste which I get from a bowl of noodles at Mak's.
Silvana pointed out that each large wonton contained at least 3 very fresh shrimp, which, along with the broth, is the source of its unbelievable flavour.
And at just HK$23 per bowl, this is cheaper than Mak's and gives much better value.
Move over Mak's, this new discovery rules!

As we headed out the door, we passed by the open kitchen where you can watch the cooks preparing the food.  I saw a pan of gigantic freshly minced fish balls which I hope to try next time I visit.  In addition to wontons and fish balls, you can order beef brisket noodles.  Or have all three in your bowl for a super sized meal!

From Queen's Road,  we headed out towards Soho. Along the alleys, you find the dai pai dongs or street eateries. These open air food stalls serve cooked food and drinks and can be the source of many deliciously cheap meals.  I pointed out the San Miguel beer umbrella to some of the foreigners in the group and proudly claimed it as the best Philippine beer -- and quite possibly one of the best beers in the world!

Turning into one of the streets in Central, we headed to the next destination for another typical and much loved Hong Kong specialty ... roast meat!
Silvana said that this food stop, like all the restaurants we would visit on the tour is family owned and run and definitely, not part of a franchise or chain.

I am a vegetarian but sometimes, when traveling, I get off my vegetarian pedestal and wallow happily amidst the barnyard animals -- you know, pigs, cows, ducks, sheep, goats and what-have-you.
So on this trip, most particularly this food tasting tour, I was not about to forego this compact but delicious bowl of char siew topped rice.

Just look at this mound of char siew --  lean, boneless strips of pork belly, freshly roasted, straight out of the oven and cooling on the counter!
When in Hong Kong, our favourite roast meat restaurant has always been Guangdong Barbecue Meats, which has several branches throughout the city.  Guangdong's char siew is sliced thicker and therefore not as tender.  The burnt parts are also always so chewy.  It's also much sweeter than I would normally like.
The char siew that we had on the tour was more tender, even for the slightly burnt ends and the marinade was definitely not cloyingly sweet.  I also loved the smokiness and slightly caramelised char.  Looks like Guangdong has lost a loyal customer.
The score after just 2 stops?
Old Favourites - 0
New Discoveries - 2

 Before leaving, I paid homage to the rest of the roast meats hanging on the store front -- roast duck, roast goose, soy and white chicken, roast pigeons, sausages and yes -- there is a slab of roast pork somewhere there.  I shall return!

Next stop was for a refreshment -- just as well as the wonton noodles and the char siew were still waiting to be digested.  This is our friendly, knowledgeable and very enthusiastic guide Silvana. 
We were stopping for a typical local beverage -- sugar cane juice.  This shop has been here for over 50 years and is in one of the oldest buildings in Central.  It's been in the same family for generations and they still have their old original signage to prove it.

After that very savory char siew and wonton dumplings, this cup of cold and freshly pressed sugar cane juice was just what I needed to cleanse and refresh my palate.  Unfortunately, the westerners in the group didn't like it -- much too sweet for their taste.  
How did this sugar cane juice bear up against what is normally sold in street corners in Hong Kong? This was smoother, less sweet and really tasted like fresh sugar cane!
Old Favorites - 0
New Discoveries - 3

Time to move on and burn off more of those calories.  How about a hike up these steps that lead to the mid levels? We were along Hollywood Road -- which Silvana said is named not after the movie capital but because a lot of holly trees used to be planted by the roadside. 

The Hong Kong Foodie Tour is not just about food -- Silvana entertained us along the way with bits of trivia and historical and cultural data about the places that we passed through.  
At the top of the steps, she showed us this marker honouring  Dr. Sun Yat Sen who had studied in a school that used to be around this area.

And how about this large brick building which is the original and still the site of the Hong Kong YMCA. It stands in this quiet and residential street,  right across a Christian church.

Silvana also pointed out this temple where coils of incense hang from the ceiling.  Locals come and light these incense to remember their departed family members and loved ones.

We walked through back streets with old buildings but with a sure air of gentrification.

Consider the street art -- a precursor of trendiness.  This hip and modern vibe would be an exact opposite to our next destination.

Hidden in a typical Chinese courtyard house is our next stop -- a Chinese tea shop -- not just any tea shop but one that specialises in only the highest quality tea blends.  Silvana said that we would be treated to not just cups of tea but to an informal but informative lecture about tea from a tea master.

Tea Master Ivan and his wife own and run this place.  It is discreetly tucked into a building and has been designed like an old traditional tea house.
We sat around beautiful wooden antique tables and relaxed and sipped our tea as Ivan gives us a short but very interesting talk  -- on the various types of teas, how these are produced and fermented, how tea is best stored and which tea is good for what occasion or need.
He also taught us the proper way to serve tea and at what temperature it should be brewed.
Best information that I got from the lecture -- the caffeine in tea is higher than coffee but is released at very high temperatures. If you want less caffeine in your cup of green tea, use water that is less than boiling hot.

 I didn't know that teas have vintages too.  Ivan has teas from different years. Like wine, tea gets better with age.  There are teas from 2005.  Was that a good year for tea?

After that interesting break -- we head out onto the streets to our next to last destination.
We walk through many quaint and fascinating shops along Upper Lascar Row, also known as Cat street.  I spy many things I would love to look at but Silvana said at the start of the tour that in the interest of time, there would be absolutely no stopping for shopping.  
The Americans and the Europeans in our group walk right past ... it's only the two Asian ladies (my friend and I) who look longingly and lovingly at the curios for sale.

Thoughts of shopping are banished from our minds as we go into the next food stop -- a dim sum place  in Sheung Wan.   In the darkening Hong Kong afternoon, stylish paper lamps light up the place with a warm and welcoming glow.  It's nearly 6 p.m. and dim sum sounds perfect for an early and light dinner.

While we wait for the dim sum that Silvana has ordered, I look at the many tempting varieties on the menu.  I see familiar dishes like har gao or shrimp dumplings, rice rolls, shiumai, chicken feet, steamed spare ribs with black beans, fried and steamed tofu, spring rolls and the ubiquitous steamed buns.
I note a number of vegetarian friendly choices which can keep me guilt-free and on the straight and narrow vegetarian path the next time I come around.

But for now, I have  fallen off the vegetarian wagon yet again.  The first dim sum that is served  is a char siew bun.  What a delightful little pocket of goodness!  The bun is  baked not steamed and
 has just  a hint of sugary sweetness on top that perfectly complements the smoky,  savory char siew filling.

 Next up were bamboo steamers filled with two types of dumpling -- the shrimp dumpling or har gao and the usual pork shiumai.  While I found them a bit small,  they were both classically executed and perfectly seasoned.

Just around the corner from the dim sum place is this small local bakery, our last stop on the tour.
I had mentioned to Silvana about my abnormal fondness for that very ordinary Hong Kong pastry called a pineapple bun (no pineapples involved save for a pineapple design on the crust) and she was a bit unsure that it would still be available as it was so late in the day.
True enough, they had run out of pineapple buns by the time we arrived.

As Silvana gave a brief background and overview of local bakeries and their distinctive offerings, she passed around these small egg custard tarts which were still warm from the oven.
I was too full by this time so I passed this treat up.  Silvana very kindly gave me a small bag so I could bring my tart home and eat it later (which I did and it tasted more like an egg pie than the egg tart that my mouth was expecting).
Among all the food stops that we went to, this was the only one that disappointed me. I have had much better egg tarts in other bakeries in Hong Kong before so the score at the end was ...
Old Favorites -1
New Discoveries - 4

And this is the tour group that all met for the Central and Sheung Wan Foodie Tasting tour.
Silvana took this photo of all 12 of us and sent it to each one via e-mail.
Such a thoughtful gesture.
We spent a wonderful 4 hours on this walking food tour.  I met some interesting and nice people, walked through back streets that I had never been to and picked up interesting tidbits of local, historical and cultural info.
Best of all, I tasted a lot of the local food that I like, discovered new restaurants that I will definitely go back to, and yes combined my two most  favourite things to do ... walk and eat!
Next time I come back, I shall definitely book another Hong Kong Foodie Tour.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hiking the Hong Kong Trail with Hansen's Hikes - The Peak and Dumpling Tour

Sometimes you really should leave well enough alone.  This thought came to me as I was inching my way down the steep stone steps along Mount Austin aka The Peak in Hong Kong. There were no guardrails to stop me from hurtling myself off into the wide blue yonder and the steady drizzle was making the steps extremely slick and slippery.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.

On this trip to Hong Kong, I yearned to do something out of the usual -- the usual being shopping and eating and shopping some more.  Since I love to walk, albeit along urban paths and usually on flat surfaces, I thought I would look for an experience that would take me out of my comfort zone -- I would go hiking! I would walk on the road less travelled!  
Googling hikes and adventures yielded a company called Hansen's Hikes that was based in Hong Kong and had a whole array of hikes and rides to choose from.  
I was particularly struck by a hike called "Fantastic Panoramas and Fabulous Dumplings"  -- great, I thought!  I had always wanted to explore more of Victoria Peak, beyond the tram and the souvenir shops -- and the dumpling portion spoke to my inner hog.

Hansen's Hikes is owned by Michael Hansen, a Dane who has been living in Hong Kong for the past 19 years.  He picked me up at my hotel bright and early on a Friday morning.  
Getting off the MTR, we walked through Pacific Place  (the first and last mall I would see for the morning, Michael promised me), Hong Kong Park (which I had never seen before)  and took the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak to begin our hike.  We started our walk along Lugard Road, which is just around the bend from the tram station.  

True to its name, the walk yielded fantastic panoramas and breathtaking views of Hong Kong, all the way across the bay to the Kowloon side.  Michael pointed out notable skyscrapers and buildings of architectural and historic interest.

The path we would take would be part of the Hong Kong Trail, a 50 kilometre hike that Michael said he had done, not in one go but in various stages.  Our hike this morning would take us through the first segment, a 7 kilometre walk from the Peak down to the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir.  Since it was quite a wet and rainy morning, we didn't see too many hikers along the trail save for some expats power-walking their dogs.

All too soon, we reached the end of this wide and comfortable road and came upon this rest area which would lead us further down the mountain.  Can you see the towers in the distance?  That is where our hike originally started.  I was feeling quite proud of myself for having walked so far.

There was enough time to rest a bit and see the view before us.  The buildings seemed much closer since we were almost midway down the Peak at this point.

This stone walkway leads to the steps I had mentioned at the start of this post.  From here on in, it would be a series of narrow steep steps leading down and down and down.  
I hate walking downhill  as I find it much harder than walking uphill.  
The steps were wet with rain and as I gingerly and slowly made my way down, supporting myself on the umbrella that Michael thankfully lent me, I could hear my son's words when he heard that I was doing a hike along the Peak ... "Don't fall off a cliff, ma!"  

Thankfully there would be intervals in between the steps where we hiked through rough and muddy trails.  My toes could relax from clenching on the steps with all their might and muddy as they were, these trails were infinitely more comfortable to walk on.

Michael and I kept up a continuous and constant flow of patter and chatter as we hiked.  It certainly kept my mind from wandering and wondering if throwing myself off the Peak would be the easiest way down.
One of the topics which we discussed lengthily was the type of dangerous animals that Michael had encountered on the trail.  A king cobra was just one species that had personally crossed his path.  That piece of information was much more comforting for me than knowing that more steps were to come from this point in the trail.

Lest you think that "well you chose this bed, so lie in it!"... I was actually having a tremendously good time!  This was a side of Hong Kong that I had never seen, a hike of this kind was something I had not yet experienced and I was actually revelling in the fact that I was doing moderately well on this (for me) difficult hike.  
Michael said that on his difficulty scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most tough, this hike merited a 3 but  I was still pretty happy with myself and my progress.  
The views and the vistas were indeed fantastic and really showed off the beauty and grandeur of Hong Kong.  And not the least, I was with a very experienced and engaging tour guide.

We started off at Lugard Road, at the start of the trail just before 9 a.m. and it was a little past 11 when we reached Pok Fu Lam Reservoir, the end point for this first leg of the Hong Kong trail.  
This  reservoir still provides some of Hong Kong Island's drinking water, which Michael assured me is very potable and safe.
It was now time to decide if I wanted to walk on for another hour, all the way to our final destination in Aberdeen or end the hike now.   
While I may be adventurous, I am also not stupid.  
It was time to rely on public transportation.  We walked a few hundred meters more out of the reservoir and onto the road to catch the bus to Aberdeen.

This is Shanghai Tian Lung Lau on Old Main Street in Aberdeen. It's a family owned restaurant that has been in the same spot for years.  This is where Michael takes guests who opt to have a meal after the hike.  This is why the hike is called "fantastic panoramas AND fabulous dumplings".
Very local, no english menus, no english name or signage, no english spoken -- just my kind of place.

After huffing and puffing up and down the Peak, nothing can be better than cold, cold Tsingtao Beer!
Here is Michael doing the honors on our first bottle.  And yes, we had another one after this.

The specialty of the restaurant was dumplings. We ordered Xiao long bao which is wontons with soup inside and wo tip dumplings,  also known as pot stickers, which are dumplings that are quickly pan fried.    Both were freshly made and very savoury and flavourful.

The wo tip dumplings were just a teensy-weensy bit more yummy than the xiao long bao -- so yummy we had to have another order!

Since Michael speaks some Cantonese and since he was a regular in this restaurant, we were able to ask  the smiling waitress to take a souvenir photo.  
Mm goi sai, Michael!  
I had a terrific time, thanks to his excellent tour guide and hiking skills.
I have proven to myself that I can do a rugged nature hike and look forward to trying out the next segment of the Hong Kong trail with Hansen's Hikes the next time I visit!

Monday, June 10, 2013

My 5 Travel Planning Tips

Travel takes such a toll -- on resources and on time.  That's why I  believe that to fully enjoy your trip, a lot of planning is required.  Now don't get me wrong -- I am all for spur of the moment and serendipitous surprises but you can do this within a well planned trip -- it's not a paradox.
Here then are my proven travel planning tips to help make your next trip a success!

1. Do the math!    At the very start, before you even start any planning, have a realistic idea of how much you want to spend.  Whether this is just for a long week-end or for a once-in-a-lifetime getaway, you need to have a set idea of how much your budget is.  This actually dictates how the rest of the planning will go.

2. Hit the books!    The travel books, the guidebooks, the language books (if you're going to a non-English speaking country), the e-books.  Knowledge is power and will help you from making mistakes, falling into tourist traps, missing that must see place,  not finding that delicious meal in that only-the-locals-know-about-it restaurant.  I get a lot of useful information from the internet -- a lot of countries have tourism web sites that have very helpful and complete links to just about everything you need to know.

3. Find a friend!   Someone who has been to the place you're going to. Or has a friend who's just been there.  Or even better, a friend who lives in the area you're about to visit.  Personal experience and tips from those in the know can be very valuable.  I remember on a trip to Rome, I was told that just in case I over shopped as I traipsed through Italy, I could send everything back to Manila via LBC, which has an office in Rome.  Great news which saved me the stress and euros of paying for overweight luggage.  I have since passed the same tip on and friends have used it and thanked me for it!

4. Calendar it!   After careful planning and research, I take a calendar and write down each and every thing I plan to do each day I am away.  This way, I do not miss out on specific things I wanted to see or do.  For example, I like taking private walking tours with local guides.  I prefer  non-touristy areas and a local guide can put together a walking tour that suits my interests.  I also enjoy attending cultural events like classical music concerts, ballets, operas  -- these activities have to be planned, reservations made, tickets bought  and calendared way in advance.  By the time I am ready to leave, my calendar is pretty full!

5. (S)pace yourself!    Even if your calendar is full with all that you plan to do and the places you want to see, leave enough time to relax and rest.  Sleep in till mid day!  Wander around and get lost.  Put your feet up on a park bench.  Sit in a coffee shop and people watch.  Enjoy your trip!  And then, start planning for the next one!

Bon Voyage!