A Time and Place I've Never Known

After 1997, the economic changes in Hong Kong have been stamping out the most authentic of these institutions. However, they continue to grow in Canada, single-handedly keeping the history of Hong Kong alive. 

 

I've never lived in Hong Kong, but I could tell you a million stories about its past. How cheung fun noodles brought neighbours and families together. How irresistible the tofu stands were, even when it was hot and humid. How children would spend whole afternoons crouching in front of the comic book stands on tiny plastic stools, squandering their allowances on fifteen-minute intervals of reading time. How the green and tan minibuses were the best way to get around the city at any time of the day. All of them passed down to me over countless cups of damn good lai cha, milk tea, in Canadian replicas of cha chaan tengs, Hong Kong tea cafes.

Cha chaan tengs are Hong Kong tea cafes, famous for drawing inspiration from practically every Eastern culture and combining those flavours with British staples, an institution like no other. Many of its dishes reflect Hong Kong’s diversity and impermanence; unexplainable, creative, soulful. In fact, they’re often made of ingredients that would never appear in the recipe it came from, as if the chefs are making it up as they go along. You’ll find items like pineapple buns with sliced butter, baked Portuguese curry chicken rice, macaroni soup, sunny side up on wonton noodles, and deep-fried French toast with peanut butter and corn syrup. Why those combinations? No one knows. Nor does it matter. If it’s hearty and easy to make, it belongs on the menu.

These cafés have always been a place of comfort for my family, seasoned with memories and emotions so powerful that my sister and I can feel nostalgia for a time and place we’ve never known. It’s in these restaurants that I’ve felt the strongest connection to my roots, surrounded by 1970’s décor and posters filled with words I can’t read.

My parents are regulars at several cafés in the Markham area, and because of their influence, I’ve become a loyal customer in my own right. There’s Yan Woo Soya Bean Foods, known for its chow mein chow fun and furniture that’s been around since the beginning of time. Jim Chai Kee is famed for its wonton noodles and ability to curb that peckish feeling you get around midday. City Hollywood Café, the Fran’s of the cha chaan teng world, provides the full menu experience and 1950s décor for good measure. Lai Doh, for its lai cha and yin yang coffee. And Kenny’s Noodle, which serves breakfast foods all day and stays open until 1:30 in the morning. Like coffee shops, each has unique customer bases, specialities, and atmospheric appeal. It all depends on what you like, when you’d like it, and whom you want to eat it with.

Yan Woo Soya Bean Foods is particularly special to my father. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s significant to most of the over-fifty crowd. Located in the Market Village centre, the eight small white tables and matching chairs don’t seem like much. But when you look closer, it’s immediately apparent that the café is a replica from the good old days. A time when people still wore oversized glasses, permed their hair and met up in their slippers. Even its prices are stuck in the past with the most expensive item priced at $3.25. The staff often gossip as they bus the tables, speaking a version of Cantonese that’s usually found in old television series; sassy, curt, and honest. If you can understand it, you’ll find yourself trying not to laugh out loud at their quips. The menu has sixteen variations of tofu fa (a silken soybean dessert), eight kinds of soy milk, two types of fried noodles, and a variety of small hot snacks. Whether you go for a sweet or salty treat, I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself from ordering seconds.

No matter which cha chaan teng you go to, the owners will always say the same thing, “I don’t know why the recipes are made this way, it’s just how it’s done in Hong Kong.” It’s almost like they’re saying, “You just had to be there to get it.” Take for instance Singapore-style noodles, a Hong Kong invention you’ll have a hard time finding in Singapore. Or Spam egg noodles, which consists of sliced luncheon meat, a fried egg, instant noodles, a long steel spoon, and wooden chopsticks. Or red bean ice. Or baked tomato pork chop rice. Or Swiss wings (no, they don’t come from Switzerland). Or thick toast with condensed milk. All of them could have only been invented by chefs who, seeing the diversity of their customers, created dishes that reflected their tastes while staying true to Cantonese cuisine. In Canada, that diversity isn’t as readily available. It’s just not as easy for chefs to be inspired by the restaurant next door, combine its recipes with their own and confidently believe that customers will try it. Over here, it’s not as common for different communities to frequent the same food markets and share cooking tips and traditions. The philosophy of Hong Kong tea cafés relies on an ever-changing, fast-paced landscape, qualities the Greater Toronto Area lacks. As unfortunate as that sounds, it’s a good thing. It allowed for the preservation of culture. It allowed for people to feel at home, to pass on a piece of history without having it evolve and disappear. It allowed my family the opportunity to share stories, like how my mother used to wait for her mother to come home with a paper bag full of egg tarts every Monday. How she would hear the click of her mother’s heels and run to the door, anticipating the smell of crispy cookie crust and sweet egg custard. How her mother would go to the same tiny shop every week and line up for at least a couple blocks; something to inspire the kids to study harder, she’d say.

America has its cuppa joe diners. Britain, the rowdy local pub. Wherever you go, there’s always a place that represents the everyman or everywoman. They’re a particular kind of space, a setting for escape – friendly tables that are open to anyone who wants to sit down. Their appeal lies in the midway point between the street and home. For some, these places are essential to their way of life, symbolising a sense of community and culture. That place in Hong Kong, preserved here in Canada, is the cha chaan teng.

Trattoria Spaghetto: restaurant review

At the corner of Carmine and Bleecker, Trattoria Spaghetto has kept the same traditional Italian recipes for over 30 years. But you’d never know it.

Trattoria Spaghetto, 232 Bleecker St, New York, NY (212 255 6752). Meal for two, including wine and service: $98

takeabiteoutoflife.wordpress.com

takeabiteoutoflife.wordpress.com

 

Under that green awning, seated at a table just big enough for one, my boyfriend and I shared a plate of linguine al pesto. Bold, fresh, and satisfying, the pasta was nothing like we had ever tasted before. We had planned on looking through apartment listings on our phones while we ate but all we could think about was the food. It was just so good. The pesto was the colour of a kale pineapple smoothie; a green so bright it made you feel hungrier just looking at it. The texture of the linguine was velvety and rich and made me wish I had grown up with it instead of steamed jasmine rice. From our spot on the sidewalk patio, the West Village neighbourhood seemed to wrap around us. A park on one side, a row of eateries on the other, taxis cruising by just two metres away, and crowds of people everywhere. But we had eyes for none of it as we mopped up the last of the pesto sauce with slices of warm bread. We were just a couple of kids in New York at an old Italian restaurant. Somehow with barely any sleep or conversation between us, just good food and good wine, it became a moment we’ll never forget.

 

That was three years ago. Since then, I’ve tried everything on the menu, twice.

 

Like a good friend who’s always there for you no matter how much time has passed, Trattoria Spaghetto is a place of comfort. Every night is like an open house hosted by the neighbourhood’s oldest resident with a laissez-faire attitude. Sit wherever you like. Eat as much bread as you want. Laugh as loudly as you can. Just come and enjoy yourself. I recommend starting with the minestrone or if you’re hungry, the mozzarella classica as well. The soup is one of their most popular items on the menu and for good reason. It’s made with vegetables that are in season and just enough olive oil to produce a hearty flavour. The balance between the ditalini and vegetables is just right, every spoonful is a medley rather than luck-of-the-draw, making the experience wonderful and comforting. There’s no one ingredient that dominates the bowl and the carrots, zucchini, potatoes, beans, and celery are soft but still firm enough to present something to enjoy before swallowing. If you want to eat what the Italian and Portuguese workers ate when they lived in the area and Trattoria Spaghetto was Bleecker Luncheonette, try the calamari marinara. The peppery, even, and well-seasoned tomato and garlic sauce tastes exactly how you think it would, given the context that it’s a recipe that’s been perfected over three decades. It’s not too thick or thin and the generous seasoning compliments the squid well. It doesn’t really taste like any other marinara sauce, perhaps because of the lack of herbs, but it does taste delicious. As if the tomatoes were freshly picked off the vines not too long ago. Be sure to order it with a side of broccoli to really enjoy the zesty flavours.    

 

In some ways, eating at Trattoria Spaghetto is like attending a Gatsby party, albeit without the fancy dress code and mandatory dancing. There are no rules to the dining experience and you’ll find yourself amongst a diverse group of guests, as if anyone and everyone from the West Village goes there for dinner. This, along with the dim lighting and well-used tables, makes for a relaxed and familiar atmosphere. You’ll hear friends talk of other friends getting married, the day’s office drama, and sales at Bloomingdales. You won’t find any pretense or awkward blind dates. Nor will you ever see someone wondering where the bathrooms are located. Every time I go, I get the feeling everyone else has the same intention I do, to eat good food, sit with good people, and comfortably enjoy good conversation.

Authentic Italian Risotto

As told to by Joe Amaral.

Photo credit: allrecipes.com

Photo credit: allrecipes.com

 

Authenticity is something you can’t make up. Especially when it comes to Italian food. This dish goes hand in hand with phrases like, “back in the good old days” and “they don’t make them like they used to.” Like most recipes that have been passed down for generations, Italian mushroom risotto takes time and patience. This is because its creaminess comes from coaxing the starch out of the rice, rather than using cream. To a chef who believes in preserving a recipe’s authenticity, using any kind of dairy would be like heating up pizza in the microwave. Even the basic ingredients are made from scratch. Seriously, don’t laugh when you get to the part about foraging for mushrooms. I recommend doing things the old-fashioned way to really get into it. Prepare the ingredients ahead of time, research a good wine, buy fresh vegetables (perhaps from a farmer’s market), and have a premium oil on hand to drizzle before serving. Because when you make authentic Italian mushroom risotto, this is just how it’s done.

 

Ingredients:

6 cups vegetable broth

3 tablespoons olive oil

450 grams Portobello mushrooms, thinly sliced

450 grams white mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 medium onion, diced

3 tablespoons finely chopped chives

1 ½ cups Arborio rice

½ cup dry white wine

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

sea salt to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

Step 1: Go out and forage for mushrooms.

Step 2: Make sure they’re not poisonous. If you’re not sure, break a piece off, rub a bit on your gum, and if it welts, it’s no good. *Just kidding. Leave it to the professionals and visit a farmer’s market.

Step 3: Bring the mushrooms home, leave out half for later, and make a stock. Dice up some vegetables and add them to it. You can use anything to suit your taste; onions, celery, carrots, green peppers. (Cover with water, bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes.)

Step 4: Put a large pan on medium heat.

Step 5: Warm two tablespoons of oil in the pan.

Step 6: Cook the diced onions in the pan until they become translucent and white, not brown.

Step 7: Crank up the heat and throw your rice into the pan, coating it with oil and onions. Italians say that you should cook risotto with your ears, stir the rice until it begins to click.

Step 8: Temper the rice until all of it begins to click and pop in the pan. Just when you think it’s going to burn, throw in the white wine to lower the heat. Watch the grains absorb it.

Step 9: Walk away from the stove and wait for the temperature to come back up. Check your email. Sip some of the leftover wine.

Step 10: Use a wooden spoon to stir. Do this until it leaves a trail. Then add a ladle of stock. Stir some more. Repeat until the stock is gone which will be about twenty to thirty minutes. The rice should become creamy as the process goes on.

Step 11: When it gets close to the end, take the pan off the element, throw in the rest of the mushrooms and let the residual heat cook them. Stir and incorporate.

Step 12: Taste the rice. It should be al dente, it should give but not mush.

Step 13: Grate the parmesan to your liking. Add it with the heat off, otherwise it will separate.

Step 14: Put the lid on and walk away for a few minutes. Or throw a couple bowls into the oven to warm them before serving.

Step 15: Give the risotto a nice gentle stir. Drizzle the top with a truffle oil or premium olive oil. If you have some leftover mushrooms, put a couple more pieces on top with a couple curls of parmesan cheese.

Step 16: Take it to the table and enjoy.