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Shui Hu Ju, Hong Kong, China, tasted on December 12, 2005  I've mentioned how hard it is to find out how to spend your few precious meals in a new city. Not knowing who to trust for recommendations, etc. I also had this fantasy about how I was going to try out a bunch of underground restaurant's in Hong Kong. That plan wasn't going so well either (though I was eating plenty of excellent food). The concierge at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, a stunning hotel (not to be confused with the just pain old Mandarin Oriental which is also lovely) was really a gem. I told him I wanted to go to Mum Chau's Sichuan Kitchen, what I thought was a Sichuan speakeasy (though given how well known it was it seemed pretty official to me). He said to me, "you seem like the kind of person who appreciates a more intimate and low key experience." He wasn't dissing on Mum Chau's as he thought it was also a great place to try, but he recommended I try Shui Hu Ju. He also had very specific instructions about what I was to order.

After driving in circles for 20 minutes in the cab (I don't know why I assumed in Asia that cabbies know where things are located... furthermore, I don't know why I assume that here in North America) I finall found Shui Hu Ju. There's no sign in English. The only way to identify it is by finding a traditional looking Chinese entryway with two red lanterns (one on either side). It's on the left at the top of Peel street (assuming you are walking uphill towards it. Peel street ends as a dead end with a staircase. If you've hit the staircase you've gone too far. Normally I don't spend a lot of time with directions, but this place is a little tricky to get to and I want to make sure you can go.

Once you step inside it's cozy. Everything has a very cool design. Rustic but refined. There's Chinese Jazz playing in the background. (Don't ask me what that means. It meant something too me when I wrote it down.) A little snack showed up as I sat down in my seat, Boiled Peanuts and Celery served cold. The peanuts had a faint kick and were quite tasty. Have I mentioned that I love snacks? :)

For some reason, menus in Hong Kong are not big on section headers. I challenge you to tell what the size of a potential dish will be from the menu. This might be because everything comes family style. Fine with me, but it took a little getting used to. Luckily on this evening I had coaching from the concierge on what to order.

First up was a dish of String Beans with Garlic and Chili Sauce. Wow! Cold, crisp, perfect string beans topped with enormous amounts of chopped oiled fresh garlic dotted with peppers and draping those perfect beans. Man oh man. I only added a touch of the spicy sauce that came with as I was worried about the super spicy dish I'd ordered for later. I love when food is just left to be what it is in its simplest and best form. This dish was truly amazing and special. The amount of garlic was obscene. But this was not a stunt. It's how it was meant to be eaten.

As I recovered from the garlic explosion I noticed an an adorable drawer in the table that I was eating on. It was filled with napkins and the toothpicks that are ubiquitous throughout many restaurants in Hong Kong.

After the beans I got Fried Prawns with Golden Garlic. Wow again. At this point I'm really falling in love with this restaurant. Gorgeous prawns in a mound of a garlic chili scallion crumble. These were light and flaky with an almost corn flake texture. Despite the presence of even more garlic the flavor was totally different than the sharpness of the garlic with the beans. There was some modest heat but no biggie. One other note: the shrimps had their own almost microscopic deep fried coating but inside retained a unique a seafoody quality. The shrimp had not been genericized or muddled but still retained their basic essence. Much like the beans did in the previous dish.

In preparation for the spicy dish I'd ordered I asked if I'd be able to taste anything after I ate it. My waiter said "that's why we bring it last."

Finally the waiter approached me with a dish of Deep-Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilis. I literally laughed out loud (out of nervousness I'm sure) when this ginormous bowl of peppers was served with big chunks of deep-fried chicken peering out from within the nooks and crannies of their pepper prison. Please take a moment to look at this picture of the bowl that arrived. It was roughly 16 inches in diameter. It looked like it could feed a family of 8 and it took a minute to notice there was even any chicken in there. I'll admit that I'm not a huge afficionado of spiciness, hot sauces, and hot peppers. I like some heat and kick but I'm kind of a wuss. On a scale from 1-10 where a 1 eats pablum and a 10 eats Scotch Bonnets raw I'm somewhere around a 6-7. I girded myself for the onslaught.

The chicken chunks were mostly black. I'm not entirely sure why. I tentatively bit into the first one and there was no going back. Then I discovered the bones. Someone took a cleaver to a chicken and made 2x2inch chunks and dumped them in the deep fry. That's fine but it did add to the difficulty of trying to keep a steady flow of meat into my mouth.

As I ate, the rules came back to me.

  1. Don't stop eating. The answer for heat isn't starch or water (though I had both at the ready), it's more heat so your mouth doesn't think anything is out of the ordinary. It's the contrast that gets you.

  2. When you finally do finish eating the spicy dish, the duration of the pain in your mouth is proportional to how much you abused it. I sat for a good 10 minutes breathing frantically as if to cool a fire raging in front of my face.

As the pepper haze slowly cleared I tried to collect my thoughts about this experience. Ultimately the single best thing about the evening is that every dish I ate, every ingredient that went into those dishes were presented with the absolute minimum of preparation. In a world where chefs often revel in just how much stuff they can do to various ingredients to manipulate and transform them, finding food that celebrates the core essence of each ingredient is refreshing (and in my opinion often more difficult to accomplish). Each ingredient was wonderfully prepared in unambiguous combinations. Fantastic. No doubt, this was the best meal I had in Hong Kong.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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