The Love of Good Eats
Like art, food connects with the consumer in Eureka moments
Fortunate enough to grow up in a family culture that values culinary excellence beyond flavor and plating, I relish every chance to appreciate a serious chef’s creations. I find it incredible to relate cooking to the consumer’s personality, health needs and moods as a norm. Despite being a modern nomad, having lived in several countries and crossed over a hundred cities and towns in the last few decades, my love for Cantonese cuisine has never waned. Not just because I’m half Cantonese, but the discerning Cantonese does not take a morsel without first asking what it does to the body. Every ingredient has its inherent health properties. I love classics for their unwavering qualities, yet the most touching are almost always ad hoc seasonal dishes. Like accomplished artists creating extraordinary pieces out of ordinary materials, backed by theory and solid skills, creative chefs are definitely art practitioners.
I’m lucky to be in Macau now where it’s safe to dine out, having done my share of necessary months-long lockdowns and quarantines in different countries during these challenging times. And I hope dining out with company will be back to normal for the rest of the world very soon.
It’s well into the subtropical autumn, rolling into a mild winter. To match the seasonal mood, our tea sommelier starts our dinner with a pot of fragrant, sweet olive blossoms mixed with Yunwu, the green tea from Lushan in Jiangxi, China. (For the unoriented, Lushan is where Germans once found the water at the natural springs and falls so good they decided to set up a beer industry on the spot — hence the origins of the famous Chinese TsingTao Beer.) This crystal gold, smooth tea concoction speaks for itself; it soothes the respiratory system for drinkers, bringing smiles to both me and my dinner companion.
To wet our appetite, Chef creates oh-so-delightful crispy baby cucumbers fried whole with blossoms, wafer thin fresh cucumber curls and leaves of crystalline ice plant, and brings them together with the slightly tart, pulpy citrus Yuzu sauce. What’s better to accompany this than with the delicate, warm protein of seasonal, plump yellow fish! Lightly steamed and seared cut-side down on a very light rice batter, these fish fillets immediately feeds to the imagination of fish bouncing in a net. Black caviar tops these, befitting this culturally rich casino city Macau, with a sprinkling of chives. The dish is simply heavenly. Yellow fish comes in two seasons. Scrumptious harvests are coming soon again in spring. I will be sure to return. My dinner companion (let’s call him Aldo) chooses a whole mantis shrimp, instead of yellow fish, with the yuzu cucumber combination. That works just as beautifully.
Seasonal lotus roots, dried octopus and lean pork make up the soup for the evening. A simple, ancient recipe. In traditional herbalist terms and based on scientific observations, this soup has protective effects on the body (1). With its condensed flavor of ocean life and fresh water lily pond, anchored by the run of the land, this is one of my all time favorites. Aldo likes his hot and sour crab meat soup, rich in texture and, according to him, with distinct taste of crab. After all, the eater controls half the culinary journey.
My love for fish is inherent to a coastal dweller. Layering of pork and seafood is classic across multiple cultures. In this dish, Chef steams grouper fillets with egg white mixed in a little Japanese cow’s milk, and tops them with Spanish Iberico ham; that one flavor complements the other is undeniable. What raises this dish though is the 20-year aged Hua Diao wine that Chef uses to flavor the proteins, elevating the course to a whole new level. Traditionally in Shaoxing, families make premium Hua Diao wine the year when a daughter is born, then breaks the batch open the year the daughter marries. Aroma of a mellow Hua Diao aged for 20 years is irresistible. This drink has historically nourished many a poet and writer. I certainly have an urge to pick up a bottle gourd flask of it now and sip its warmed nectar as we speak. By the way, have I mentioned this wine promotes blood circulation and metabolism (2)?
At this point, our very engaging tea sommelier presents a small, precious pot of oolong tea to go with the next course. Roasted with charcoal in a traditional process, these tea leaves are rare in this age of machine production. This brew has a ripe and restrained aroma. It goes seamlessly with my delicate, braised farm pigeon leg in the earthly black truffle sauce. Even the inconspicuous, fried half mantou on the side has an essential role of soaking up the sauce. Aldo chooses to have his truffles with roasted boneless chicken, a smart choice for someone with a generous appetite. We know truffles do well in autumn and winter months when trees go into resting mode, taking up the trees’ nutritions. As if we need an excuse to devour the delicacy, do we know that truffles are rich in antioxidants and other important nutrients as well (3)? Hmm…now the shavings make perfect sense.
Roasted rack of Te Mana lamb with cumin is part of Chef’s lychee wood barbecue series. Simply succulent, bursting with flavors minus the sometimes unwelcome taste associated with sheep. As a child, I noticed adults of the house would busy themselves in winter, cooking dishes to keep everyone warm. Every now and then dishes like mutton and tofu-skin casserole would appear on the dinner table, and I would pick other dishes to eat, quietly, hoping to be spared. This lamb course totally changed my obstinate view of any meat from sheep. As a winter course, sheep does warm the stomach.
I personally have not met Chef Tam at this point. But in the course of enjoying this journey, it is as if he were communicating directly with the guest, exchanging thoughts on life experiences and preferences. Like visual art, food connects with the consumer in Eureka moments. And that, to me, is the essence of culinary art.
Carbs usually come towards the later part of dinner in Cantonese tradition. These white noodles are having a stardust moment. Green pesto of all kinds is common in Mediterranean territories. I always have a soft spot for the Italian basil pesto, but this simple blend of the humble scallion and canola oil, with a touch of peanut oil and sea salt, impresses the palate with its unmatched distinct flavor. The scallion pesto rightly takes over center stage.
Calling to all vegetable buffs, this vegetable dish is like none other, featuring the rare black tiger’s paw fungus, highly valued in East and Southeast Asia for its preventative medicinal properties (4) but uncommon in the U.S. and European countries. For centuries, royals have happily devoured this deeply aromatic fungus originating from the mountains. On my plate, this velvety black fungus takes up one side of the oval palette, while its immunity boosting cousin — the crunchy white version of wood ear fungus (5) — takes the other, joined with juicy, tender long cabbages. Quite a pleasing sight.
Nutty, roasted porcini mushrooms find their way to my dinner companion’s vegetable plate, adding a luxury note to the tender pumpkin leaves coursing through chicken broth. The meaty porcini is richer in protein (6), unlike most mushrooms; its niche in fine cuisines instantly gives the under-stated, nourishing pumpkin leaves an unusual status.
To round off his gourmet journey, Aldo chooses chilled sago cream with mango and pomelo. I prefer warm endings, especially in cool months. Something rare on the dessert menu catches the eye: Doubled boiled fish maw with red dates, bamboo pith and lily bulbs. Why? Health benefits, of course. Fish maw, believed to be a good source of collagen and nutrients, is a delicacy not only for the affluent, as fisherpeople consume them as well. These gourmet slices of tender protein have a perfect balance of bite and yield. Since time immemorial, red dates (7), bamboo pith (8) and lily bulbs (9) have been part of the regular Cantonese herbal diet to maintain equilibrium, one ingredient balancing the other, for those with suitable body types. Isn’t it awesome that sciences are gradually catching up. This delectable sweet soup rounds up my autumn evening with a golden note.
I admire food critics for their gold palate, but even more so, I appreciate the chefs for their total involvement, and the sincere serving team for their product knowledge. In certain cultures, it is customary to express thanks to the chef after each meal. I find the practice appropriate and endearing regardless of geography. So let me say this here, “Thank you for your thoughtful creations.”
(The author writes freely and does not represent any industry or brand name. Dinner was complimentary on the occasion above.)
Photo credit: All photos are by the author
Copyright PseuPending 2021
(1) Lotus roots —
(2) Hua Diao Wine —
(3) Truffles —
(4) Black tiger’s paw fungus (Sarcodon aspratus) —
(5) Wood ear mushrooms —
(6) Porcini mushrooms —
(7) Red dates —
(8) Bamboo pith —
(9) Lily bulbs —