Paul's Travel Pics

Friday, September 09, 2016

Macau - Part 3: Affordable Upmarket Restaurants

Besides its charming historic quarter, my favorite reason to keep visiting Macau is the alluring fusion cuisine, refined over 450 years of cultural amalgamation between the seafaring Portuguese and the indigenous Cantonese people. While I do tend to focus on cheaper hole-in-the-wall shops, this time I did visit some mid and upper range restaurants recommended by the locals.

Calcada da Igreja de Sao Lazaro 8; 5 minutes downhill walk to the east from Fortaleza do Monte

This was our most expensive meal in Macau, a seafood dinner of Portuguese favorites on the quiet backside of Fortaleza do Monte, overlooking an elegant cobblestone square that belied its past history as a leper hospital. For the romantic ambiance or the traditional recipes, Albergue 1601 is widely known as a popular venue even on weeknights, and we did make our reservation in advance.

It must have been at least 10 years since I last had Sopa de Rabo de Boi, or Portuguese for Oxtail Soup, from a neighbour's home cooking. As a carnivore I would have loved a little more meat, though my wife was quite satisfied with the broth in this Iberian classic.

My favorite Portuguese ingredient -- and I'm sure I'm not alone in this -- is the simple and flavorful Bacalhau. Picking just one out of many delectable Bacalhau dishes always creates a dilemma whenever I'm in Macau, and this time we ordered the popular Bacalhau a Bras, a scrumptious mixture of salted cod with crispy potato shreds, scrambled eggs and what might have been a fusion touch of Cantonese mung bean sprouts to soak up the flavor. Yes, it's as good as it sounds, at least to this Bacalhau fan.

My wife's favorite, and arguably the best value of the night, was this gigantic pot of Arroz con Mariscos large enough to feed two for 228 Patacas (CAD$32.6). I don't remember how we managed to finish the dish, but it did take us the rest of the night.

Swimming inside the paprika (didn't think it was saffron, but I could be wrong) infused soup stock were generous portions of blue crabs, giant prawns, clams, calamari and white fish chunks, the essences of which all became absorbed by the rice at the bottom. The final bill turned out to be 255 Patacas (CAD$36.4) per person without any alcohol, not exactly cheap but reasonable for some colonial nostalgia at one of the most charming locations in town.

Bill for Two Persons
Sopa de Rabo de Boi68 Patacas
Bacalhau a Bras168 Patacas
Arroz con Mariscos228 Patacas
Service Charge46 Patacas
TOTAL510 Patacas (CAD$73)

One side effect of Macau's overabundance of mega casino complexes is the blossoming of top end restaurants catering to a very specific clientele, the increasingly affluent upper class of the Chinese-speaking world. While our modest budget could not afford 700 Patacas (CAD$100) per person dinners, extravagant Dim Sum lunches could be enjoyed for just a fraction of that price.

2/F at the Grand Lisboa Casino

This has to be my best ever Dim Sum lunch in terms of quality, beating even Hong Kong's Lung King Heen, yet another Michelin 3-Star restaurant, in my mind.

And this is coming from someone fussy enough about Dim Sum that I've completely given up on Gwun Tong Gau because the modern interpretation has a light broth outside the dumpling (shouldn't that be called Gau Gwun Tong instead?) as opposed to the traditional, gelatinously thick and delicious paste inside. But I digress.

At the time of writing, The Eight remains one of the very few Michelin 3-Star Chinese restaurants anywhere in the world, having successfully defended its prestigious ranking several years running. While prices were upmarket as expected, every diner would be spoiled by this lavish appetizer duet of Chilled Abalone with Pomelo Jelly and Minced Pork Crisp in a paper-thin shell, served individually for FREE.

Yes, FREE abalone, simmered in consommé and served cold to accentuate that unique chewiness and Umami flavor. People can complain about the pot of tea for 30 Patacas (but it was a high quality Tieguanyin!), but the free abalone was certainly an eye-popping initiation to a fantastic lunch.

We purposely started with the classic Dim Sum staple of Rice Roll with Barbecued Pork, except this time it came with a fusion twist of Japanese Kyuuri no Tsukemono which, despite our initial skepticism, lent its acidity very well to complement the sweetness of the Char Siu. Two terrific dishes to set the tone, and things would soon get even better.

I had always been conditioned to avoid cute, contemporary Dim Sum -- Hello Kitty puddings and pink piggy steamed buns which typically turn out tasteless and stale. While I was glad that my wife loved the appearance of these little hedgehogs, I honestly did not expect them to rank among my two favorites courses of this meal, until my first bite.

Hedgehog-shaped or not, these were exceptional Crispy Barbecued Pork Buns in their own right -- crusty but not charred, crumbly to the bite and filled with a luscious Char Siu paste. One must appreciate the painstaking handiwork and cleverness of the chefs -- how did they manage to crisp the outer shell without browning the tips of the hedgehog spikes?

My absolute favorite of the meal was another Dim Sum classic with a contemporary twist. These Steamed Crystal Blue Shrimp Dumplings in Goldfish Form were so meticulously hand-sculpted that it was impossible not to stop and admire the level of edible craftsmanship typically found only in the best Japanese Nama-gashi ... and this is arguably even more difficult as the handworked dough of rice and tapioca flour had to be steamed and remain intact at the tips of the clientele's chopsticks.

Not only was the little Koi fish gorgeous to behold, beneath its perfectly al dente tapioca flour wrapping was a premium filling of South Pacific Blue Shrimp (better known as Tenshi-no-Ebi, or Angel Shrimps when used in Sashimi) that also made it one of the freshest, crispiest shrimp dumplings we've ever tasted. While 20 Patacas (CAD$2.9) per dumpling may sound pricey for Har Gow, I found it quite reasonable for the Michelin 3-star quality.

At 68 Patacas (CAD$7) a piece, the most expensive item of the day was this palm-sized pastry topped with the opulence of a whole braised abalone. While it couldn't have been a reconstituted abalone at this reasonable price, it was well-flavored and chewy as one would expect from one of the world's leading Cantonese restaurants. My wife the abalone lover was quite happy with it.

The only dish I did not thoroughly enjoy -- and it was probably my mistake -- came about when I deviated from the safety of Cantonese classics and ordered a steamer of Shanghainese Xiao Long Bao (a.k.a. XLB Dumplings), seasoned here with the celebrated Jinhua Cured Ham, the Prosciutto di Parma of Chinese cuisine. I thought the addition of cured ham was an unnecessary distraction designed only to elevate the stature, and therefore price, of this peasant favorite. We probably should have stuck to some unpretentious Cantonese Siu Mai instead.

As we asked for the cheque our waitress came back with two of Macau's best loved tea-time indulgences, scrumptious Portuguese Pastel de Nata accompanied by a cup of traditional, velvety Milk Tea, both tasting of the high quality one would expect from an authentic Cha Chaan Teng (Macanese Cafe) ... and for FREE.

As mentioned this was a Michelin 3-Star restaurant after all, which was never going to be dirt cheap. But compared with your typical Michelin starred establishments in France or the UK, 215 Patacas (CAD$30) per head was a definite bargain, especially for a 7-course lunch at one of the premier restaurants in the world for its genre.

Bill for Two Persons
Chilled Abalone with Pomelo Jelly and Minced Pork CrispFREE
Rice Roll with Barbecued Pork and Japanese Kyuuri Pickles60 Patacas
Crispy Barbecued Pork Buns in Hedgehog Shape45 Patacas
Steamed Crystal Blue Shrimp Dumpling in Goldfish Form60 Patacas
Pastry with Whole Abalone, Morel Mushroom and Diced Chicken x 2136 Patacas
Xiao Long Bao with Cured Jinhua Ham60 Patacas
Tieguanyin Tea for Two30 Patacas
Pastel de NataFREE
Milk TeaFREE
Service Charge39 Patacas
TOTAL430 Patacas (CAD$61)

I had a slight dilemma in classifying our next stop as an upmarket restaurant for its grimy plastic chairs, folded tables and greasy bowls. But then it's no longer the cheap mom-and-pop joint it once was, after earning accolades in the Michelin Guide several years in a row. Prices remains somewhat reasonable (144 Patacas / CAD$20 per person during our visit); just bear with the sticky floors.

308-310A Rua do Campo; 3 minutes walk to the north from Edificio Administracao Publica

Along with Luk Kei at Ponte 29 and Sing Kei off Av. Almeida Ribeiro, this place is well-known as one of the best spots in town for the Cantonese late-dinner favorite of Shui Hai Juk, or Crab Congee. Next to pictures of visiting Chinese celebrities and politicians were scribblings of menu offerings, which really wasn't necessary since everyone came for one of the three or four specialty items anyway.

Wong Kung Sio Kung's original claim to fame wasn't even the Crab Congee, but its artisan noodles meticulously made by folding duck eggs and flour under a bamboo press, operated by the master noodlemaker who would bounce up and down a ginormous bamboo stalk. These resulting Lo Mein noodles were as fresh and chewy as anyone could expect from pasta strands of such small radius, and the generous dusting of homemade Dried Shrimp Roe -- which could apparently be purchased for 288 Patacas (CAD$41) per jar -- was a nice traditional touch.

Years ago I learned my lesson to be extra cautious about crustacean-based congee after following a Hong Kong local to a Crab Congee place near Jordan Station in Kowloon and came down with a weeklong bout of serious diarrhea and fevers. The congee must be piping hot in order to penetrate the crab chunks and roes, which was well done here at Wong Kung Sio Kung with its saltwater crabs. While the flavor of the congee was slightly underwhelming for its price of 220 Patacas (CAD$31), at least the crab was fully cooked and filling enough for two. That said, I still wish Luk Kei were open that evening for us to get some Deep-Fried Dace Meatballs.

Bill for Two Persons
Lo Mein Noodles with Dried Shrimp Roes68 Patacas
Sea Crab Congee (1/2 Wor)220 Patacas
TOTAL288 Patacas (CAD$41)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Cheap Eats at Hong Kong's Secluded Floating Village

On our last trip to Hong Kong I finally returned to one of the city's most picturesque locales, quaint, remote and relatively unknown 25 years ago when I first visited. Since then it has gained minor popularity among foreign and Mainland Chinese tourists, though the quaintness and remoteness still stick.

Getting to Tai O is always an experience in itself -- this time we took the little ferry from Tuen Mun (45 minutes) on the way in, and the meandering bus ride (60 minutes) to Tung Chung MTR Station on the way back. Counting the various Green Vans and MTR rides from urban Hong Kong, we could have easily taken a day-trip to Shenzhen and back. Of course, Tai O is a thousand times more charming than shady foot parlours.

Tucked away at the sparsely populated northwestern edge of Lantau Island, Tai O is about as inconvenient as it gets among Hong Kong's tourist attractions -- though one could argue that it's the same inconvenience that has saved the village from the insatiable urbanization that turned nearby Tung Chung into yet another satellite city to Kowloon.

The smell of sundried shrimp paste greets visitors as they arrive at the little concrete pier, dotted with line-fishing anglers who would spend hours of their spare time hooking a few humble (but increasingly hard to find) Lai Mang fish for congee. This is worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Central District.

As tourism brochures focus on Tai O's signature stilt houses on mud flats, its centuries-old artisan industry of salt-curing fish and historical relics from the Tanka ethnic minority, most first time visitors would miss exploring the plethora of hole-in-the-wall eateries serving authentic Hong Konger street snacks. This time we purposely arrived with empty stomachs and visited four different street snack vendors, in addition to a classic Tai O lunch spot, on this half-day trip.


Just steps from the Bus Terminal we came across arguably the most popular of Hong Kong's original hawker food, some ginormous fish balls in original or extra spicy flavor served at an anonymous roadside stand. For HKD$12 (CAD$1.7) we shared two tangerine-sized fish balls, the curried version being my perpetual favorite.


Following the stream of villagers north of the terminal, one would inevitably pass by the popular Bus Terminal Soft Tofu at Wing On Street No.57, best known for the summer favorite of stone-ground Tofu Fa, or soft tofu dessert.

Compared with other artisan Tofu Fa makers such as Mongkok's Kung Wo, here the texture was slightly thicker and the flavor of soybeans was more pronounced. While the price of HKD$10 (CAD$1.4) per bowl was comparable with similar shops in urban Hong Kong, the owner here was undoubtedly making a fortune considering Tai O's cheaper rent.

A tiny wobbly Sampan boat used to be the only means of crossing the narrow creek when I visited many years back. Now a narrow footbridge carries the pedestrian traffic as well as offering spots for villagers to sun dry their sieves-full of salted fish and roes.

Less than a minute's walk north of the bridge stands one of heritage symbols of Tai O, a Qing Dynasty shrine with the ornate glazed roof tiles to tell the stories of Guan Di, a historical-character-turned-minor-deity in the local tradition.

Fans of Hong Kong films would know Guan Di as the deity revered by local policemen and Triad gang members alike, but judging by the dusty altars this shrine probably receives less visits from worshippers than curious tourists dropping by to play with the cowhide drum.


A few minutes west of the temple, we discovered this hidden gem of a hawker specializing in the traditional Hakka snack known as Cha Guo.

On first glance it's nothing but a crumbling, makeshift stall with a middle-aged guy selling Cha Guo out of a styrofoam box. But look again at the huddle of local housewives and grannies, and we knew this place was definitely legit. The exact location is difficult to describe, but it's about 5 minutes walk northwest of the pedestrian bridge, near Shek Tsai Po Street No.100-ish.

Fans of Japanese Sasadango would appreciate Cha Guo's uncanny similarity in the chewy glutinous rice dough and wrappings of bamboo leaves, except this was 2500 km away from Niigata. Compared with sweet Sasadango, these Hakka delicacies came with a sweet version with crushed peanuts and sesame, and a savory version with minced pork and Mei Dou beans. The price? Just HKD$5 (CAD$0.7) each.

Further west of the Cha Guo vendor was the Tai O Post Office where one could still pick out the insignia of Queen Elizabeth II on the post box, a colonial era relic now painted over with a hideous teal green instead of the blazing red of Royal Mail.


For lunch we took advice from some Hong Kongers and successfully found Wang Shui Do Siu Chu, located at Kat Hing Street No.33 just northeast of the pedestrian bridge. The specialty here? Old-fashioned Cantonese recipes of fresh caught or salt-cured local seafood, with heavy influence from the Tanka ethnic minority.

One such traditional -- and time-consuming -- recipe calls for the deboning of white cuttlefish, assiduously hand-pounding to achieve that highly desired chewiness in texture, and deep-frying until these patties become golden crispy to the bite. Seasoning was hardly necessary with ingredients this fresh out of the sea.

We did not leave Tai O without a taste of its famous shrimp paste. The robust, alluring aroma of crustaceans filled the entire restaurant long before this dish of Mixed Stir-Fry ended up on our table. Despite being highly prized by Cantonese gourmands, strong odours from shrimp paste's organic fermentation has marginalized its production to such remote villages at the periphery of Hong Kong. This seafood lunch for two come to about HKD$190 (CAD$27).

After lunch we took a stroll along the creek side, passing by this tiny landing flamboyantly named Tung King Ma Tau, or Tokyo Pier, after the popular corner store that has served as a Tai O institution for decades.

Widely embraced as the most eccentric sight in Tai O, Tokyo Store hosted a mishmash of cheesy gnomes, overgrown bonsai and an overabundance of bizarre characters painted onto plywood boards, with themes ranging from 16th Century classic novels to animals from the Chinese Zodiac to sexy ladies in bikinis doing hula hoops. And on top of all that, the store sign was flanked by what almost passed for a Chinese couplet ... except that the poem didn't follow any lexical rules.

The creativity behind the folk art, 86-year-old Lo Sai Hei, scurried around his store as usual, chatting up curious tourists and serving a few bottled pop on this sweltering afternoon. Every visitor would take an obligatory selfie with the legendary statue of Snow White, donated and shipped all the way from New Zealand after a Kiwi couple saw Lo's "bounty" for a Snow White to keep company with the Seven Dwarves he already owned.


Just steps from Tokyo Store, a 30-minute queue was developing outside this rundown shed of a workshop, clouds of white smoke billowing from the store front. As the mostly local clientele patiently waited, we joined the queue not knowing exactly what we're getting into except for the curious sight of a vintage 1950's style charcoal stove.

As the first batch came out with the enticing aroma of burnt butter, our mystery snack turned out to be the Hong Konger favorite of Gai Dan Jai, or Bubble Waffles, broiled over an old-fashioned charcoal fire that has become extinct in urban Hong Kong amidst 21st Century air quality legislations. The elderly artisan would then start handcrafting the next batch, taking close to 40 minutes before finally getting to our order. HKD$15 (CAD$2) was a small price for a made-to-order waffle from the master's hands.

This was easily our favorite street snack of the day, and as close to a perfect Bubble Waffle as anyone could ask for -- expertly charred around the edges, crispy on the crust, pillowy soft at the centre but not at all soggy. For any reader planning to visit Tai O, this nameless stall was located at Kat Hing Street No.59, about 5 minutes walk northeast of the pedestrian bridge.

On our return leg the bus negotiated some seriously winding roads, slowing down around the occasional feral cow before delivering us to Tung Chung and its high-end outlets catering to affluent Mainland Chinese tourists on their short layovers at the HKIA. While visitors may love or hate the eccentricity of Tai O, there are simply too few of these compared with too many Tung Chungs in 21st Century Hong Kong for my preference. I'm sure most Hong Kongers would agree.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Macau - Part 2: Old Macau through Insider's Eyes

I revisited Macau with someone who spent part of her childhood here in the 1980's, during the Portuguese era and before the former colony developed into the Vegas of the Sinosphere. A quarter century later she returned, roaming her old playgrounds and bringing me to photograph the old city through her eyes.

For two days I was guided through crumbling backstreets, snacking at the fast disappearing Dai Pai Dongs and gaining an in-depth appreciation for the little pockets of Old Macau that have endured into the 21st Century.

While many of these photos were shot within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, such street corners are typically skipped by tourists for their anonymity and largely ignored by locals for their state of decay. Another 20 years and much of this could be gone, which was why I wanted to capture this intimate perspective of Macau before it's too late.

Rua dos Mercadores No.121. Revered as the oldest existing pharmacy in Macau, Hang Wo Tong is a living fossil for everything you'd expect at a Traditional Chinese Medicine shop -- jars of aged Xinhui Citrus Rinds at the storefront, Lingzhi mushroom everywhere, and a century-old Baizi medicine cabinet with individual little drawers for a plethora of herbal and animal ingredients. Sadly the 4th generation descendants have said their generation will be the last to operate this family heirloom.

Rua da Felicidade, outside No.26.. The aroma of seaweed-wrapped egg roll biscuits permeates the air at this infamous former red light district, which saw its golden age after the English enforced the ban on brothels at nearby Hong Kong in the 1930's. Now the neighborhood is all about artisan-made biscuits and restaurants specializing in old-fashioned Cantonese recipes from the 1950's and earlier, many of which had gone virtually extinct in Hong Kong.

Travessa do Auto Novo No.25. Still fighting a flu picked up three days ago in Sichuan, I was brought to the venerable Cha Medicinal Un Iec, a Macau institution that has cured the local populace of coughs and flu for generations. For 7 Patacas (CAD$1.2) I was served a scaldingly hot bowl of their secret recipe Medicinal Tea, arguably the most representative Cantonese remedy for the common flu. The taste? Imagine Fisherman's Friend times ten, served in a coarse liquid form.

Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro No.611. Foodies around the world have long familiarized with the Cantonese invention of Oyster Sauce, and this little shop was the birthplace of it all. With humble beginnings in Macau in the late 1800's, Lee Kum Kee has since blossomed into an international operation with factories as far away as Los Angeles. Today the pillars of this Tong Lau building are still graced with red-character advertisements from the pre-WWII period for its well-loved condiment.

Largo do Carmo on Taipa Island. Incense curls and prayer sheets hang inside the Qing Dynasty shrine of Pak Tai Miu, or the Temple of the North Emperor. Established by a local community of fishermen, the Taoist shrine not only honoured the deity in charge of all sea creatures, but also served as a village court for the settlement of disputes in the presence of local tribe leaders.

Rua de Camilo Pessanha No.38. A throw-back to the 1950's is still alive and well in the form of Carvoaria U Wo, supplier of charcoal from a variety of hardwoods. Once a household necessity during the short but bone-chilling Southern Chinese winter, charcoal is now consumed mostly by specialist gourmet eateries focusing on traditional recipes such as Roasted Geese or Cantonese Claypot Rice.

Rua da Felicidade No.36. Sharks Fins as tall as a small child grace the display window at Sai Nam Restaurante, yet another Macau institution that has stood for over a half century. To environmentalists though this small street is the epicentre of the Sharks Fin trade in Macau, where the wealthy can blow their casino winning on the ridiculously expensive (300 Patacas per Tael, or roughly CAD$1 per gram) and controversially harvested Sharks Fin.

Rua dos Ervanarios No.42. The clanging sound of Mahjong tiles proclaims break time at Veng Kei Latoaria where shop owners and hired hands alike put aside the anvil for a little afternoon entertainment. Demand for galvanized-iron goods has been declining for decades, and the current stock on display are mostly Chinese Woks and baking cups designed for the Portuguese specialty of Pastel de Nata.

Rua de Cinco de Outubro No.197. Occupying the ground floor of an old 4-storey Tong Lau building is Sum Ip, the neighborhood handyman for all your air conditioner and refrigerator servicing needs. Such repair shops for home appliances and electronics are slowly becoming extinct even in Macau, amid the rise of disposable consumer products.

Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro No.396. The words "Maturity Date 6 Months" still adorns the walls of Tak Seng On, one of the last traditional pawn shops in Macau to close its doors. After serving this gambling town for nearly 80 years, this fully functional multi-storey bank vault has been turned into a quaint little museum. Entrance fee? A measly 5 Patacas (CAD$0.8).

While entire blocks of Tong Lau, old tenement buildings with a mixture of indigenous Chinese and neoclassical Western features, are becoming increasingly rare in neighboring Cantonese cities and Hong Kong, the Macau Peninsula is still lined with streets upon streets of this nostalgic backdrop.

Avenida de Carlos da Maia, Taipa. Across the bridge from the Peninsula lies the idyllic former island village of Taipa, a relatively new annex to the Portuguese territory just 160 years ago. While the island isn't protected as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, its slow-paced island vibe and cheap bites make for a good half-day trip.

Rua da Figueira, Taipa. Just one of an impossible number of temples on this short alley, Yi Ling Miu is a Qing Dynasty shrine dedicated to a multitude of historical figures associated with the medical profession. Apparently back in the day this also served as the community centre, adult night school, banquet hall, and storage space for a spare coffin for the occasional neighbor in such need.

Avenida de Carlos da Maia, Taipa. Just up the hill from the countless indigenous shrines, the neoclassical Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo dates from late Qing Dynasty when Taipa fell into Portuguese hands. To this date it remains the only Catholic church on Taipa.

Avenida da Praia, Taipa. Situated on what used to be the southern shoreline of Taipa Island, prior to the land reclamation project that turned the shallow bay into the brand new casino strip of Cotai, this row of colonial Portuguese residences has always been popular for first dates and wedding photos. The Wedding Registrar is housed in yet another gem of colonial architecture, conveniently just up the street.

These former colonial residences for government staffers have since been restored and converted into a folk museum of Portuguese-Macanese culture. The return of Macau's sovereignty to Beijing had become the final straw in the Macanese diaspora, and there are now more Macanese in Brazil or Australia than in their native Macau.

At the museum we chanced upon this fascinating Fotomo exhibition by Hong Kong artist Alexis Ip, who had captured this moment in history with a massive model of the entire Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro. In a sense this is also what I'm doing with this series of photos, but far from the grand scale and gorgeous style demonstrated by the master.

Rua do Guimaraes No.286. Back on the Peninsula we wrapped up in the Baia do Mastro neighborhood, once famous for its hand-sculpted mahjong tiles and extravagant ivory carvings. This is the end of my photos on Macau's architecture and cityscape, and in the upcoming posts the focus will be on the lip-smacking Macanese cuisine, from Michelin 3-star restaurants to the cheapest Dai Pai Dong street stalls.