that time of year

My Canadian born friend now living in China reflects on the pressures placed on unmarried Chinese by their families during Chinese New Year reunions. Interesting and thoughtfully written. I hope you enjoy.

jason

here it comes again. i really don’t want to go home this year.

whenever i hear my friends utter similar phrases, i know it’s that time of year again.

in a city like shanghai, in which more than a third of its residents aren’t locals, chinese new year is the time where many leave shanghai for their hometowns. the consequence of that is the infamous 春运 chunyun, named after the colossal amount of traffic that leaves people stuck for hours trying to get home.

i would deem chinese new year as the chinese equivalent to christmas, an event where family members get together and celebrate, a time of year that’s supposed to represent togetherness (the dinner itself is even called reunion dinner), but for many, it can be one of the most dreaded times of the year.

in mainland china, chinese new year is often a grand affair attended…

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Starting Week Four

Tomorrow morning marks the start of my fourth week of full-time employment. After nearly a year of freelancing, I’m extremely happy with how the new job is developing. Since I had done some work for the company in the tailing months of the old year, I already knew some of the people and projects I am working with.

At the same time, they haven’t been shy about adding more responsibilities to my plate, including three major clients! As my mentor explained when we discussed the company’s view on work-life balance: over the long term, it is definitely a marathon and you need to pace yourself. But for the first six to twelve months, you had better sprint.

That’s the case with all new jobs, right? Work hard to prove yourself and compensate for your learning curve.

This past week the CEO sat down with me to lay out her vision of where I will be in the next two years as well as what she expects from me over my first ninety days. She’s one of the most respected leaders of her field, HR development and executive coaching, so it was exciting to hear that she has some very specific ideas about how I will fit into the company’s strategy.

Of course, when you are hearing this directly from the CEO, it creates a pretty high bar over which to jump!

All things considered, though, I’m having a blast. The experience reinforces for me that I stayed in my old job a few years too long and was stagnating rather than growing. I’m thankful, really, that they decided to give me the ultimatum of either moving back to the US or being let go. It was a decision that was long overdue.

The only downside? Now that I’m working so much, my time for blogging is diminished. I’m committed to doing it as often as possible, though, so stay tuned.

 

Plane Spotting at Don Mueang Airport

It has been a while since I’ve shared some aviation porn, so thought I would post pictures from my trip to Mae Sot, Thailand last December. I flew from Don Mueang Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, the older of the city’s two airports.

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Originally reopened as a domestic-only airport, DMK was served primarily by Nok Air and Orient Thai airlines. For some sections of the city, it is more easily accessible than the new airport, although from where I live, it is equally far.

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“Nok” means “bird” in Thai and this airline (with its colorful Boeing 737s) flies domestic routes and is half-owned by THAI Airways International, the country’s flag carrier.

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Airports of Thailand, the organization that runs the major airports, eventually decided to open DMK for international traffic, too, as a reliever to the newer airport, Suvarnabhumi, which despite opening just over seven years ago, long ago reached its design capacity. With that, Air Asia relocated its operations to DMK.

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Nok and Air Asia (which actually is a conglomeration of separate airlines operating under a common brand name) now provide the majority of service to DMK and Nok has recently added a limited number of international destinations.

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One very recent addition to Thailand’s crowded “low cost carrier” scene is Thai Lion Air. Just in the same way that Air Asia is a group of separate but related airlines, Thai Lion Air is the second affiliate for Indonesia-based Lion Air. They are operating brand new Boeing B737-900ER “extended range” aircraft and flying to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur internationally and Chiang Mai domestically. Their plan is to expand rapidly, which should provide the traveling public with downwards pressure on already low ticket prices.

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My flight was on a “Nok Mini” Saab 340. While branded as Nok Air, these mini flights are operated by Siam General Aviation. Some people don’t enjoy flying turboprops, I think they are fun and feel more like the “good old days” of early aviation. The plane is actually very stable and given that the flights are usually no longer than an hour, the seats are comfortable enough. The only challenge is the lavatory, which is tiny!

P1280066DMK is also the repository for a variety of oddball aircraft and airlines. Here is a row of airplanes in various stages of their lives. The Orient Thai B747-300 in the front and their Boeing 767 just beyond may still be used for some charter flights in the middle east, but the THAI Airways jets to the right have been pulled from service and are awaiting either buyers or scrapping. On the distance on the left are two City Airways Boeing 737s, part of an obscure charter airline that mostly runs flights to China.

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Another Boeing 737 operating under the City Airways name, although I’m sure many people would recognize the US Airways color scheme that still covers the plane. The interesting thing to notice is that on the very rear of the tail, the flag on the US Airways’ logo has not been painted over. This is because it lies on the rudder, the movable fin that controls the aircraft’s yaw. It is so finely balanced that adding a layer of paint over the logo would throw it out of balance, so a slap-dash paint job cannot be done.

P1280072A shot of the cockpit of my Saab 340 upon arrival at Mae Sot airport.

P1280074And a final shot on the tarmac at Mae Sot, of the Nok Mini Saab 340 against the setting Winter sun. Hope you enjoyed the photos. Food will return soon!

 

Lunch at Quince Bangkok

Recently, I stopped by Quince restaurant in Bangkok for a weekday lunch, a long-overdue chance to revisit a restaurant that features thoughtful food in a pleasant space. Tucked behind a furniture shop on Sukhumvit Road, Quince has gone through at least two chefs in about eighteen months. Originally helmed by Jess Barnes, now at the excellent Opposite Mess Hall, the menu at Quince continues to impress.

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This being lunch and dining with only one other person, I didn’t get a chance to try a broad selection. This special, a beetroot risotto with asparagus, parsley, and feta, was nicely composed and properly cooked. I would have preferred the beetroot to have been diced and folded in at the last moment instead of being pureed into the dish, but you have to admit that the scarlet color is striking.

P1280677From the regular menu, the ricotta gnocchi with zucchini, green pea, lemon, mint, and chili was nicely executed, bright flavors with good attention to the vegetables not being overcooked.

The interior of the restaurant continues to be one of my favorite in Bangkok – lots of light without being overly bright, different rooms have different types of energy. It is an especially good place for lunch or brunch, simply because it isn’t as crowded. I look forward to another return visit soon.

Food in Hong Kong: Little Bao

The final meal we had in Hong Kong over the New Year’s holiday was the most exciting and most memorable: a visit to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese burger bar called Little Bao.

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Located at the quiet end of Staunton Street in Central, a short walk from the escalator, Little Bao occupies a tiny storefront – maybe two dozen seats – with a large neon sign on the exterior. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations so we arrived about 6:30 on a weekday and faced an estimated wait of one hour. The friendly woman taking names suggested some nearby watering holes and offered to call when our table was ready, despite the fact that my phone number was overseas.

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In about fifty minutes, my phone rang and she let us know we could finish up our drinks and head back to the restaurant. We scored four prime seats, nestled along the counter facing the kitchen. (A second counter is placed along the wall to the left.) This afforded us a great view of the action. Adam, a friendly fellow, was running the front of the house and despite the hectic operation, had time to walk us through the menu and answer questions.

Little Bao has a short wine list with excellent selections from the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to there being no duties on wine imports in Hong Kong, these were good values and complemented the food very well.

The menu is divided into two sections. The first features baos – steamed buns filled hamburger-style with different ingredients – that are not intended for sharing. They have a strict “no cutting” policy although we did share our baos, each taking a bite and passing them unhygienically amongst our friends. The other part of the menu are dishes designed for sharing. With four people, we ordered one of nearly everything on the menu.

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The first dish to arrive was the orange chicken – fried chicken with salty egg yolk, a honey glaze, and orange zest. The salty egg yolk, a common but sometimes overpowering ingredient in Chinese cuisine, elevated the fried chicken to another level. You had a nice balance of sweet, salty, and savory with the citrus zest cutting through to unite the flavors.

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These short-rib pan fried dumplings (essentially gyoza) were filled with slow-braised beef short rib that was tender and rich, and served on a bed of celeriac coleslaw. It was like a pleasant collision of a plate of barbecue beef brisket and coleslaw with a Chinese take-out container filled with potstickers.

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The next dish was clams with bacon and potato, served in a white pepper miso broth with toasted miso-butter baos. The clams were tender and sweet and the broth was an interesting study in complementary flavors: the umami that comes from the miso and the subtle heat of white pepper.

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As they had been recommended by many reviewers, we also ordered the LB fries, served with a side of roasted tomato sambal and kewpie mayo. There’s a spray of lime on the fries but there must be something else – cocaine, perhaps? – that makes these batons of fried potatoes so very addictive.

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Directly in front of us was the bao preparation station. There are only four bao on the menu plus one special. We ordered all of them except for the regular chicken bao. Each bao was about four to five bites – about the size of a modest (but very vertical) hamburger. I can understand why they have a no-cutting policy: ingredients would fall out and you would lose out on the flavor gestalt of the experience.

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If I’m not mistaken, from left to right the bao pictures are the fish tempura (with tamarind palm sugar glaze and pickled lemongrass fennel salad), the pork belly (slow braised with leek and shiso red onion salad, sesame dressing, and hoisin ketchup), the Sloppy Chan (Taiwanese braised shitake tempeh, truffle mayo, sweet pickled daikon, and fried shallot), the pork belly again, and the special of the day, a spicy fried chicken bao.

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In the interest of giving you a closer look, here is the special, the spicy fried chicken with garlic black bean mayo and scallion coleslaw. All of the baos were tasty and they all succeed for the same reason: there aren’t too many ingredients, but enough to make the dish interesting. There are different textures and flavors and the soft but toasted bao bun absorbs some of the sauce so it isn’t just a neutral carrier for the ingredients but very much a part of the dish.

The food, which is excellent, is only a part of what makes Little Bao such a pleasant dining experience. There is a really good energy to the place. Part of this is because it is small and crowded, but in a way that feels intimate instead of cramped. Part of it is because there is great music, but at a volume low enough that you can still hear conversations with fellow diners. But the biggest part of the good energy is that you can tell that the staff seems to really love what they are doing and they enjoy working with each other.

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From what I’ve read, credit for that goes to the chef May Chow (pictured above). With a Canadian and Hong Kong background by way of the United States, she has built a team that is chosen for attitude rather than experience, treated well, and motivated based on their own interests. (Read more about that here.) I had a chance to chat with her for a few minutes and was very impressed with the way she thinks about food and running a restaurant. Thanks to a quick response to one of my Instagram photos, I also discovered that we have a common chef friend here in Bangkok: Jess Barnes of Opposite Mess Hall. In-depth profile of May at SassyHongKong.com here.

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Just as we were reaching that point of satiation, dessert arrived. There is only one dessert on the menu and that’s okay because that one dessert is so perfect, there is no need for anything else! It is an ice cream sandwich made with deep-fried bao, green tea ice cream, and a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. When I write that it is “so perfect,” I mean that it achieves a spectacular balance of flavors and textures that is satisfying and made for the ideal end to this meal.

You can probably tell that I enjoyed the meal, huh?

Anyhow, if you are in Hong Kong, I would strongly recommend a visit to Little Bao. Come with one or two other people so you can share but not with a large group otherwise you will never get seated. Come prepared to wait a bit – bring a book or go to one of the nearby bars for a drink. Most importantly, come with an appetite, because you’ll need it.

Food in Hong Kong: Peking Garden

The New Year’s trip to Hong Kong included a return visit to Peking Garden, one of the nice restaurants that are part of the Maxim Group. I’ve enjoyed dining there many times over the years and was glad to see that everything is still up to the standards I remembered. As an added bonus, we were joined by an ex-Xangan and his partner, who were still in town.

P.S. – I’m not still in Hong Kong; just takes me a while to get all the pictures posted and entries written!

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We enjoyed a set lunch for six that worked out to about US$40 per person, if memory serves. May sound expensive for a lunch but as you will see, it was quite a lunch. Plus, the setting and service are very nice. As we arrived, pickled vegetables and tofu were set out for us to munch on as we ordered.

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The first dish of the set was jellyfish, a traditional Chinese delicacy. For some reason, the menu’s English description of this was “sea blubber,” which of course is as inaccurate as it is unappetizing! If you haven’t had it, the dish is served cold and the texture is slightly crunchy with a pleasant, slightly salty taste. An unusual texture if you haven’t had it but very agreeable.

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The next dish featured pork spareribs, braised and served in a rich gravy. These were nice and tender so eating them with chopsticks was easy.

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The next dish was a sweet and spicy prawn dish. You can’t tell the scale from this picture, but these were very generously sized prawns, very fresh and of excellent quality. Normally, prawns in many restaurants are basically just large shrimp. These were genuine prawns and such a pleasure to eat.

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The star of the meal (and a dish for which the restaurant is famous) was the Peking Duck. It was presented at the table for photos and then taken to a nearby cart where a waiter expertly whittled off the skin into slices. Unlike some restaurants, Peking Garden also includes a layer of meat with the skin, which I very much like.

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At many restaurants, the meat would be served on a platter along with a stack of pancakes (crepes) and garnishes. Instead, the servers at Peking Garden prepare the pancakes for you, each with some hoisin sauce, cucumbers, green onions, and a piece of the crispy-juicy-fatty duck skin. Little packets of heaven! Notice the gorgeous tableware, too.

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The final main dish was fried white fish in a sweet and sour sauce. The fish was also very fresh and of good quality. Just a pleasant was to wind down the meal.

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Some stir-fried greens provided some needed roughage!

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And dessert was a simple plate of fresh fruit. In general, Chinese meals don’t tend to have a lot of dessert. If not fruit, it is a simple dish that is usually not super sweet. Big chocolate lava cake would be out of place. Something that I really appreciate about Chinese food is its ability to achieve such nice balance.

Overall, the meal was a success on all levels: food, service, decor, company, etc. Peking Garden will remain on my to-visit list.

Food in Hong Kong: Shanghai Min

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While in Hong Kong, we took a break from Cantonese food to have some Shanghainese cuisine, dining at Shanghai Min on the 11th floor of Times Square.

P1280488This beautiful restaurant has a swanky interior with tastefully embroidered tablecloths and elegant decorative touches.

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Our meal began with the “signature pan-fried crispy pork soup buns” or sheng jiang bao. These were good but not quite as good as the ones we had in Shanghai back in November 2012. This version felt like they had been made a bit before and sat for a while – the inside of the dough was a little gummy from the moisture of the filling.

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Next arrived a crispy scallion sesame cake, a carb fest that was much less heavy than you might imagine.

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Another classic was the spicy tofu with minced pork. This is almost more of a Hunan style dish, to my mind. It was tasty, though, spicy but not unbearably so.

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The standout was the “straw-tied pork belly” with Chinese steamed buns. Not only was the pork belly exceedingly tender but the neatly cut squares wrapped with straw (not edible) was pleasing to look at.

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So nice that it deserves a second shot. If only I had wiped that drip of sauce off the plate before taking the picture!

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Final dish was an interesting stir fry of small disks made from rice cake (like Japanese mochi) called chao nian gao. It is braised with scallions and pork in a savory sauce.

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Braised Shanghai cabbage (bok choy, I think) with shredded bean curd sheets and mushrooms. The sheets have the texture of very thin, fresh pasta. A nice clean finish to the meal.

Overall, I was very pleased with Shanghai Min. I first ate there several years ago and it is still every bit as enjoyable. If you are looking for a break from Cantonese cuisine, this is a worthwhile place to visit.

Tim Ho Wan at Olympian 2

One of my regular stops in Hong Kong is dim sum at Tim Ho Wan. The Michelin star recognized restaurant has opened several branches in the past few years and the original hole-in-the-wall Mongkok branch closed last year due to rent increases. On the most recent visit, we dined at the newest Tim Ho Wan branch at the Olympian 2 complex in Kowloon.

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The new location is a bit of a challenge to find, as it is an exterior restaurant and so you enter the interior of the mall from the MTR system and then have to find your way outside and around the building. Not too difficult, though.

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The interior of this branch is larger and brighter than any of the others, which means that the wait (which can be an hour or more at some locations like the Airport Express station at IFC) is much more reasonable. The four of us were seated in about fifteen minutes. The other benefit of the bright lighting is that pictures can much more easily be taken!

Speaking of which…

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On the left are steamed pork spareribs with black bean sauce. On the right are steamed beancurd skin rolls filled with meat and vegetables.

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On the left is steamed rice with chicken and Chinese sausage. On the right are pan-fried daikon radish cakes.

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On the left are the famous baked buns with barbecue pork – these I could eat several orders of. On the right are deep fried glutinous rice dumplings filled with minced meat. Hard to tell from the outside but both were filled with lots of delicious food.

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On the left is an interesting dish: quail eggs in dumpling wrappers! On the right is glutinous rice wrapped in a typical “bao” bread and steamed.

I didn’t take pictures of everything because dim sum just doesn’t photograph all that well. But we found the food to still be of a very high quality both in terms of ingredients and preparation. Dishes arrived quickly and service was efficient, if not particularly friendly.

In the future, this is the location I’ll return to for great dim sum while in Hong Kong.

Xanga Meet Up Dinner at Island Tang

Over the new year’s holiday we were in Hong Kong, in part to take part in the second annual Xanga meet-up or, more accurately, the Xanga alumni meet-up. This year’s group was roughly the same as last year’s and once again a nice venue was chosen for dinner: Island Tang.
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Island Tang’s owner is Sir David Tang (of the Shanghai Tang retail brand) whose restaurants include China Club, which I wrote about two days ago. The interior of the restaurant is every bit as elegant as China Club but many degrees subtler. As Time Out Hong Kong described it, Island Tang is Hong Kong of the 1940s compared to China Club’s Shanghai of the 1920s.

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In fact, it isn’t too much to describe the space as gorgeous. There was tremendous attention to detail in everything from decor to menu design to place settings. It felt elegant from the very start.

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The menu is primarily Cantonese food. The pictures here are a selection of what we ordered, although not everything. Above is the wok-fried jumbo garoupa fillets with Hangzhou pepper, garlic, and preserved black beans. Tasty dish although the fish was a bit overwhelmed by all the other flavors.

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A traditional braised duck with “eight treasures” – additional ingredients which can vary by recipe but in this case included shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms among other things. Very tasty dish.

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We tried several different soups, most of which were similar to what I showed from China Club. One unique offering was a casserole boiled bean curd (tofu) stuffed with minced pork and mushroom. This was a very nice, subtle dish.

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One of the non-Cantonese dishes, a very tasty pan-fried Welsh lamb belly seasons with cumin. The skin was crispy, the fat was properly rendered, and the cumin gave it an earthy flavor that was delightful.

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Quite an interesting dish was the wok-fried papaya with honey bean and fresh lily bulb. Most of the time in Thai cooking, we use green papaya, so I was caught a bit off guard to find ripe papaya used in this stir-fry. The most interesting ingredient was the lily bulb, something I don’t think I’ve had before. The combination was light and flavorful.

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For some more vegetables, we had wok-fried kale with crushed ginger and rice wine. A simple dish, well executed.

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We ordered a variety of chilled, pudding-like deserts that were tasty but did not photograph well. The only item I did photograph were these glutinous rice and sesame balls, which thankfully weren’t as oily as I had expected.

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A final shot of the dining room. We started eating at 8:30 and by the time we left, were pretty much the last diners. These ladies left before us.

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The obligatory shot of the current and former Xangans plus four non-blogger guests. Will let you figure out who is who.