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Archive for July, 2012

What to make of a Hong Kong celebrity chef who has tattooed the words Devil Chef on his arm in Chinese, calls his molecular style of cuisine ‘X-treme’ and gives his dishes names like Sex on the Beach. I’d be inclined to call him a tosser, especially as his real name is Alvin.

Alvin Leung, Devil Chef

However, Alvin ‘Devil Chef ‘Leung has two Michelin stars, which means he’s not to be written off lightly. His restaurant Bo Innovation is a celebrity hangout and he’s about to open in London. So when the Hong Kong Tourism Board offered to host me at his very expensive restaurant a few weeks ago, I was happy to give it a go.

It was a degustation menu. I think I’m alone in this, but I don’t really like tasting menus. It’s frustrating when you get a little plate of something that’s really intriguing and it’s gone in one forkful. By the end of the evening I’ve had so many of these little tastes it all turns into a gastronomic blur. I can never remember what I’ve eaten. The thing is, the ‘dego menu’, as it’s called in Auckland, demands concentration. It’s serious eating. And so is molecular gastronomy, which is why the two always seem to go hand in hand.

Anyway. What I did like about Alvin’s food was the wit. It didn’t take itself too seriously and neither did he. (I like to think he was being ironic when he joined us at the table to smoke an ostentatious cigar which he kept re-lighting with a crème brulée torch.)

We tasted our way through 15 courses of X-treme Chinese : ponzu cloud, oyster tea, sandalwood smoke, truffled beef tendon and my favourite: molecular xiao long bao. This was a riff on the famous Shanghai soup dumpling: it was presented as a wobbly liquid sphere that burst in the mouth with an explosion of porkiness.

It was a great menu. I even took notes so I wouldn’t forget it. Unfortunately I lost my notebook soon after so I’m grasping to remember the details, but there is one dish I won’t forget: Sex on the Beach. I shudder to recall it.

Sex on the Beach was an off-the-menu extra. It consisted of a ginger crumb ‘sand’ over which was draped an edible condom. The condom was a slippery pink – made of some sort of starch – and inside there was a blob of something white, sweet and viscous. I know it was sweet because I ate it. I nearly gagged, but I ate it. I can remember vividly what it looked like but I can hardly remember the taste – just gingery sand, something sweet and something gelatinous.

 

Sex on the Beach in Hong Kong

I’ve eaten some strange things in my time; duck tongues, ox penis, even a pan-fried huhu bug, but this really was challenging. It was a case of mind over matter. No matter that the base ingredients were quite ordinary, my mind recoiled and it really was hard to swallow.

It turns out this is a signature dish. The devil chef told us he launched it at an event in Milan. Serving up condoms in a Catholic country was quite a brave thing to do, I thought. He said the Italians loved it. Now, it’s part of his Chef’s Table Menu at Bo Innovation. It’s signed off with a pink ribbon and he donates the proceeds to the Aids Foundation. That’s clever.

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Having just come back from China, where I saw one or two things that would make your eyes water (see my last post), I’m once again having to defend my position on the relatively harmless farming of ducks and geese for foie gras.

The activists who continue to picket Le Canard restaurant in Wellington are now projecting videos into the restaurant in an effort to harass customers while they enjoy an evening out, which may or may not include eating foie gras at a restaurant that specialises in the cuisine of South-West France – cuisine in which ducks, geese and foie gras have a starring role.

The reason I’m writing what is now my third blog post on this issue is that the activists are being very selective about the information they choose to present. I’d like to redress the balance on behalf of Pascal the chef, who is simply too stressed-out to do so himself, and I’d like to apologise to our long-suffering and loyal customers who are being treated as collateral damage in this campaign. Yes, the activists have a democratic right to protest but they have no moral right to harass our customers.

The videos they are projecting through the windows of the restaurant have been taken from the internet. You can goggle them on YouTube. They were filmed nearly 10 years ago, (before individual battery cages were banned by the EU) and they show the very worst of factory farming – practices and conditions that Le Canard has never condoned. This is like showing images of factory pig farming – sow crates and all – to people who buy ethically-raised pork.

They get away with it because so little is known about foie gras in this country. Indeed, the activists admit they have never seen the gavage (force-feeding) process themselves.

The fact is, there are good and bad farmers. Le Canard buy its foie gras from Rougié, a producer in the Dordogne that sources its foie gras from farms like the one shown in this video.

 

I believe we should be supporting farmers like these in the same way we support free-range egg farmers. Good farmers like these hate to be associated with the sort of industrial scale farms depicted in the videos selected by the activists. There is a huge difference.

I’ve visited foie gras farms myself and seen the gavage. The photo below shows the geese on a farm near Sorge. They free-range on grass with plenty of food, grain, walnuts and shade. When the farmer comes into the field they run up to greet him.

Foie Gras Farm, Dordogne

The last 20 days of their lives are spent in a barn where they are kept in family groups and fed maize porridge(3 times a day) from a pipe that’s inserted down their necks into the crop where digestion takes place. The whole process takes less than 5 seconds and the geese remain perfectly calm throughout. Unlike humans they have no gag reflex.

La Gavage, Dordogne

This is a good farm run by good farmers and it produces good foie gras. Farms that maltreat their birds do not.

But back to the activists who continue to say they are not picking on Le Canard. How else do you explain the fact that Le Canard is the only business they are targeting when there are many others who import, sell or serve foie gras and the associated products of force-fed ducks. (Those imported tins of duck confit contain the legs and thighs of guess what? force-fed ducks.) Where is the consistency in this protest action?

It’s strange too that the activists have taken their protest to the City Market in Wellington, not because the market sells foie gras (it doesn’t) but because Le Canard has an occasional stall there. They would force Pascal out of the market even though the terrines and rillettes he sells are made from New Zealand farmed ducks, which are not force-fed. Work that one out.

It seem clear to me that they are seeking media publicity for their cause by forcing a small French restaurant out of business. So far they’ve managed to attract three newspaper stories in which they vow to continue their bullying until the chef bows to their demands and takes foie gras off the menu.

What should worry fair-minded New Zealanders is that they have picked on such an easy target – a 30 seater restaurant in the middle of a recession. Will they be cheering when they put six people out of work?  I’m sure they will.

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I’ve just finished writing a travel feature on Shanghai. As usual, the hardest part is deciding what goes in and what stays out of the story; there’s too much good material and you can’t write about everything.

So, I didn’t write about knock-off handbags, I went light on the restaurants and I left out the bit where I come home with dysentery. It seemed unfair to leave readers with the bad taste of that one over-priced greasy dumpling which I’d foolishly bought from a tourist trap restaurant.

And I left out the gory bits. I didn’t want to put readers off with stuff that’s really offensive so I hinted a bit here and there and I saved the ghastly stuff for my blog.

Vegetarians, read no further.

The wet market on Taikang Rd was an off-the-itinerary discovery made while souvenir shopping in the former French Concession. I’d got lost in the maze of allleyways that is the Tai Kang Art Centre and, when I finally got back on the main street, I found myself right outside a really wonderful produce market. It wasn’t a big market but it had a great selection of shiny looking vegetables, all sorts of tofu, stinky hundred year old eggs, fresh noodles and lots of seafood, including tanks of live shellfish and turtles.

Taikang Rd Wet Market, Shanghai

Right at the back I saw a big poster showing free range hens dotted around an emerald green field. I hadn’t expected to find free-range hens in China so I fought my way to the back for a closer look. Directly underneath the happy hen picture was a double row of cages stuffed full of them.

Poultry Section, Taikang Rd Market

I had to laugh but the irony was lost on the man behind the counter. He was attending to a fussy female customer who insisted on feeling the birds’ breasts to assess their worth. The vendor was kept busy for some time, pulling hens out of cages until she was satisfied she had the most buxom bird of the lot.

Purchasing Poultry, Taikang Rd Market

The chosen one was weighed on the scales. A price was calculated and then the vendor stretched out the hen’s neck and slit its throat. Blood started spurting and he immediately threw it into a large plastic drum and closed the lid. The bird, still half alive, went ballistic. It thumped around, rocking the drum and presumably making a hell of a mess inside while the vendor and customer talked about this and that until the fuss died down. At that stage, the poor creature was pulled out and thrust into another drum of hot water to loosen its feathers. Finally it was gutted, plucked, packed into a plastic bag and handed to the woman in exchange for some money.

Why was it so shocking? I think it was the noise, the casual way in which it was done, and the fact the other hens were watching and listening from behind the bars of their cages. I’d seen animals killed for food before but something about this made me feel a bit sick so I turned my back on it and wandered over to look at the fish section, where someone else was buying a turtle.

Seafood at Taikang Rd Wet Market

Turtles are farmed in China, which I figure makes it alright to eat them. I got in a bit closer as one was lifted out of the tank and then I saw what I can hardly believe I saw – the fishmonger, with a pair of scissors, calmly snipping off the turtle’s shell while it was still alive, its short little legs waving helplessly in the most horrible way.

I’d photographed the hens in their cages but I couldn’t take pictures of this. I left the market feeling slightly stunned. There was no way this was going in my story. To be honest, it didn’t even make it into my notebook. I censored myself, because of all the things I saw in Shanghai the one thing I wish I hadn’t seen was this.

My Shanghai story will appear in the Sept/Oct issue of NZ Life & Leisure.

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Why is it that when you give a group of men a job to do, it turns into a competition? It’s a universal truth and it’s well-documented in this photo of three New Zealand journalists intent on making the best dim sum dumpling at a Peninsula Hotel cooking class in Shanghai.

Journalists Simon Wilson, Duncan Gillies and Glen Scanlon hard at work.

I warned my three travelling companions that I would ‘out’ them on my blog. Their colleagues at Metro, NZ Herald and Stuff News will be pleased to see how seriously they took every part of this week long all-expenses paid, 5-star-luxury media trip to Shanghai.

Note the concentration with which they are willing their dumplings into shape. It really was that intense and I was happy to count myself out of the race. (Having been taught how to do this on a previous trip to China, I could afford to be smug about my own attempt.)

Stuffing dumplings under the watchful eye of chef Lai Wing

The winning dumpling was made by the high achieving editor of Metro, Simon Wilson. It was a group vote; he would have been impossible to travel with had he lost. Besides, Duncan didn’t need anyone else to tell him that his dumpling was the best one really and Glen had already won his race (and a tidy sum) on the horses in Hong Kong.

Not-so-perfect-looking dumplings

As a woman and a mother, I’m bound to say their messy looking dumplings were all ‘very special’. They did taste pretty good, largely due to Peninsula Chef Lai Wing who had prepared all the components beforehand. His recipe is published below.

I’ll be writing more about dumplings and other things Shanghai in the September issue of NZ Life & Leisure.

 

Shrimp Dumplings

The crucial ingredient here is the dough. Chef Lai Wing used a 50/50 blend of two types of flour. He didn’t speak English so I’m not absolutely sure about this but we worked out he was using rice flour and cornflour. I haven’t tested this recipe; try it at your own risk and let me know how it works.

Filling

500g shrimp meat

75g bamboo shoots, shredded

1 tsp salt

½ tsp chicken stock powder

20g sugar

90g vegetable oil

Dough

75g rice flour

75g cornflour

1 tablespoon oil

boiling water

Mix all filling ingredients together. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours. Mix flours together then add oil and enough boiling water to make a smooth dough. Use 10g pieces of dough (about 1 teaspoon) and form them into very thin discs. This was done with the flat side of a large cleaver – press down hard with the heel of your hand and turn a circle, first clockwise and then anti-clockwise. Put a little filling in each and seal at top to make a half moon. Pinch and pleat the sealed edge together to make a classic purse shape. Place dumplings in steam baskets and steam for 5 minutes until cooked.

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