Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Home for the Holidays, and then a Departure

I hope everyone had a lovely, happy holidays.

My sister and I made a Christmas dinner for my parents on Christmas night.  They celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary!  We made shrimp and squid scampi, roasted vegetables with a reduced balsamic vinegar glaze, and garlic bread.

We also made a most amazing sweet potato casserole, which pretty much single-handedly changed my perception of the word "casserole" (because I don't really like green bean casserole, or tuna casserole, or really any kind of casserole, and I can't help but conjure up images of 1950s perky housewives, hair curlers, poodle skirts, food coloring, and canned goods…)

Is there a more heavenly union than the sweet potato and marshmallow?  Bedmates these two should forever be.
In times past, a sojourn home, whether from college, law school, or abroad, meant running around catching up frantically with friends in the city or on the island.  This time, it meant nothing more than shedding my winter gear at the door, unearthing my oldest sweatpants and most hideous t-shirts, forgetting my blackberry somewhere in the house, and soaking up every aspect of being ensconced in the warm embrace of my mom, dad, grandmother and sister.

I was much more homesick than I had realized.

This time, perhaps more than at any other time in my life, I felt very acutely the desire to hibernate at home and block out the real world.  2014 is almost upon us, and, yet again, I am left slightly breathless at time's mercurial character - inching slowly by day to day, almost suspended at times, and yet ruthlessly swift when it crashes over us in December.  Where has the time gone?

I have spent a lot of my life trying to get away, not because there is anything wrong with home, but because I have always loved and yearned to travel, see the world, live abroad - but it is only when I return that all of these feelings come to the fore.

Homecomings.  So simple and yet so fraught with emotion.

I even had a new appreciation for the house, as I tumbled down the carpeted stairs, typed in my sister's old bedroom, foraged in the attic's closets and played mah-johng in the basement.  This is where I spent my formative years, and it holds in its creaky eaves memories both good and bad, moments both dark and light.  This is the house my family has lived in for the past two decades.

No matter how far I fly or how long I go, this will be home.  What will become of it?

The time at home slipped by incomprehensibly, impossibly quickly, but I am so glad I had this time at home, this time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Baking: Banana Cookies with Coconut Oil Substitute

My sister and I recently made really amazing banana cookies.  We were hanging out at our grandma's apartment in Flushing when we spied super ripe bananas.  Well, that was enough to get the sisters going!

We got a little help from my cousin's little ones.
We only had 1/4 cup of unsalted butter, or half of the recipe's required amount.  But the day was saved when we substituted coconut oil (super easy because it's substituted at a 1:1 ratio).  I had never heard of coconut oil (though readers of this blog may know that I am slightly obsessed with coconuts) so when my sister unearthed a jar of it from the kitchen, well… we had to give it a go!

Despite how it sounds, and how it looks (more on this later) apparently coconut oil is VERY good for you - some articles tout that it is the BEST oil to use for cooking - take a look at this article.  I wonder if it is a bit overhyped but I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a go.  I bought a jar of coconut oil (this exact one) at Marshall's afterwards because now I want a nutty, sweet coconut flavor in (almost) everything I cook.  

The slightly disturbing thing about coconut oil is that it is solid at room temperature.  It has an incredibly low melting temperature - it melts at approximately 24 degrees Celsius, 76 degrees Fahrenheit - but that means that at room temperature, it is a solid jar of white.  To my inexperienced eye, it looks like a jar of lard, or a jar of solid candle wax.  So, it can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

However, my first foray into the land of coconut oils has won me over.  Our cookies turned out great, and they smelled so delicious as they were baking.

Adapted from Simply Recipes:


1/4 cup of unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup mashed bananas
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup pecans

We skipped the ground nutmeg, cloves and pecans as I do not really like those things (and we did not have them handy).

How to Make:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.  

2. In a big bowl, cream butter, coconut oil and sugar together until light and fluffy.  Add the egg and continue to beat until mixture is light and fluffy.

3.  Mix the mashed bananas and baking soda, let sit for 2 minutes.

4. Mix the banana mixture into the butter, oil and sugar mixture.  

5.  In another bowl, mix together the flour, salt and spices and sift into the banana, butter, oil and sugar mixture.  Mix until just combined.

6. Fold any pecans or nuts or any other accoutrements into the batter at this point.

7.  Drop in dollops onto parchment paper lined or greased cookie sheet.

8.  Bake for 12 minutes or until nicely golden brown.  Let cool.

The only part that was a little messy in this very simple recipe was dropping the batter onto the cookie sheet.  It was a little bit goop-y and wet and hard to control.  Added afterthought: It was also a little difficult to cream the coconut oil because it is solid at room temperature, so unlike the butter, which yielded after some patient pushing, there were still some hard coconut oil bits in the mixture when I declared myself done.  However, it did not seem to affect the end product in the least.

The top should brown nicely and the banana cookies will have a light coconut flavor.

Hope you like it.

Next thing I want to try is popcorn on the stovetop using coconut oil!  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Airline Review: Eva Airways HKG to TPE to JFK

This review is a bit of a cheat because I am combining my flight from Hong Kong to Taipei, and Taipei to JFK New York, all in one mish mash post.  I figured the experience was similar enough, since both were in business class.

First off, I am not sure I will ever cease to get a thrill out of seeing this sign and being able to head toward where it is pointing?!  So shameless….
I settled into my Royal Laurel seat… the name is a bit funny but there is nothing funny about the amazing, fluffy blanket, or the completely lie-flat seat!
I was serenaded by a singsong-y Hello Kitty rendition of Merry Christmas.  I found it pretty adorable, all in all.  Flipping through their duty free magazine, I have to believe that Eva makes an absolute killing in their Hello-Kitty themed airplane products.   Even I was tempted to get a thermos bottle or a key chain - just because.

The "light" menu from Hong Kong to Taipei (a barely 1.5 hour flight) cracked me up.  I was not sure that the flight attendants would have enough time to get us all of the dishes and options before we had to land!  But of course they pulled it off without a hitch.  The US airlines have so much to learn…
However, the food tasted pretty terrible.  I was really glad I had filled up on food in the lounge at the airport (I had heard that food on Eva is not great).
The alcohol selection on my TPE to JFK leg was plenty impressive, with two white wines and two red wines, Dom Perignon (!) and lots of liquor, although I did not partake in any of it:
Eva's new business class uses Cathay's herringbone layout, which provides you the most privacy because you cannot really see your neighbor on either side.  I snagged a window seat this time, which I quite like when I am traveling alone.
There is enough leg room so that I could lie flat and stretch out completely without a problem, but as you can see, the leg space narrows significantly as you get near the feet.  A tall person (probably anyone over 6 feet?) would still feel constrained.  The TV screen is great - good color, good brightness, good sound quality - and it pops out during the flight for uninterrupted viewing.  I was a little worried about the entertainment options (it seemed like the new releases were a little bit limited) but I did still manage to watch four decent movies (two foreign, two new releases) while getting a good six hours' worth of sleep, so I was satisfied.  I thought both of the new releases I watched, Blue Jasmine and Frozen Ground, were compelling and disturbing.
They have plenty of gadgets and plugs and a quite nice headset.  The seat levers (the lit up buttons at the bottom of the picture) are quite nuanced, to help you achieve the exact angle you desire.
My favorite meal of the flight was my "breakfast" as we neared JFK (at 9 PM local time).  I loved the traditional Chinese rice porridge and all of its traditional Taiwanese accompaniments, like egg and mushroom frittata, a mushroom and pork sautéed side dish, and an assorted plate of wood ear mushrooms, asparagus and wolf berries and dried pork floss.  It was very tasty.  Their coffee, on the other hand, I did not even want to touch...
I loved the amenities kit that Eva provided - a custom green Rimowa "suitcase"!  It was filled with lotion (which I thought smelled like the airplane, so that was not so great), lip balm, an eye mask, socks (with traction soles, woot woot!) and a foldable brush.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Airline Lounge Review: Eva Evergreen Club

Some of you may know that I have become a bit of a mile hound lately.  Having experienced the nearly 17 hour flight from Hong Kong to New York in both economy and business class, I pretty much decided that I would try my absolute hardest never to fly economy on such a long flight, ever again.  Of course, I still wasn't quite ready to start shelling out over USD$6,000 from my own pocket (and that's the lowest fare at the best possible times).

And so my airlines mileage accrual obsession began.  I learned a lot but I think I will leave those tips and strategies to the experts (many of whom I read on a daily basis).

All of this is to say that this has turned into a fun little hobby - and I am nowhere as good at it as some the true aficionados, but it is enough to make me happy - especially when I am ensconsed in business class on a long haul flight!

On this recent trip home, I flew Eva Airways from Hong Kong to Taipei, then Taipei to New York City.  I will review the lounge first, then my flight experience.

Eva's business class lounge is shared with Virgin, and while I grumbled about not being able to find it at first, it was actually quite nice.  It is open air, on the second floor, by gate 60.  Even so, it is very quiet and you cannot hear much of what is happening one floor below.

Unlike the Cathay lounges which serve food buffet style, this lounge gives you a set menu.  I selected the bean salad and the XO beef with rice.  The bean salad was very good (the greens very crisp and fresh, the beans cooked just right, the pita crisps not at all stale or soggy, and the French dressing portioned very well) - the beef with rice not so much.  But still flavorful, so I ate it all.
You get nice views of the planes outside:
If you sit on the edge (in their very funky chairs) you can see all of the hustle and bustle down below:
There is a snazzy bar:
There are loungers if you really want to relax:
Overall, though, the lounge is pretty small.  I could see it easily overwhelmed, especially since all food and drinks are served (how European!) but I was there on arguably one of the busiest travel weekends of the year (the weekend before Christmas) and it was still quite comfortable, so maybe they know what they are doing after all.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve Hotpot

I know this is not a traditional Christmas dinner, but it is what I really wanted to eat!

At the kitchen table, with all the fixin's set up, before we all dug in.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Sparkle

I met up with two of my very good friends, A and J, on my first day back in Long Island, to eat good food, catch up, and shoot the… breeze.

We went to J's parents' place, Venus Restaurant, a most awesome Greek diner/restaurant in West Hempstead, where we ordered spinach pie, chicken souvalkis and gyros with fries and Greek salad.  I had been dreaming about this Greek salad since I had it at least two years ago.  At 3 p.m. in the afternoon when my jet lag is at its most wretched, I probably would have been fine with substandard coffee, but theirs was served very strong and smooth, piping hot and with unlimited refills.  It hit the spot so well.

Afterward, we reluctantly forfeited our cozy corner spot and went on to a nail salon nearby to continue to chit chat away.  Oh, how much fun it was!

I decided to go for a little holiday sparkle.  The nail beautician spoke Mandarin.  I told her I was really enamored with the glitters in the nail polish, considering it was the holiday season.  She chuckled and agreed, noting that "all the little girls love this one"!

Well, I will shamelessly rock my inner five year old princess.

Happy Holidays all and sundry!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Above the Clouds

I took a flight out of Hong Kong on Saturday and took a moment to snap a picture of us high above the clouds.

And now I am home sweet home.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sweet Singing

Awww, happy holidays everyone!  Is there anything cuter than little kids singing? 

They have been hosting lunch time concerts in my office lobby.  The children are (surprisingly?) very good.  Their voices are so tender and sweet that it really does lend an angelic aura to the whole affair.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Awakening Cafe in Sai Ying Pun

We went to brunch with some new friends recently, at The Awakening Cafe in Sai Ying Pun.  It is located on Ying Wa Terrace just above High Street, off of Centre Street.
 They serve American food, such as Cincinnati chili, burgers, buffalo wings, omelets and traditional breakfast / brunch fare, in a casual space.  I quite like the chill atmosphere here, although they could really work on their service.  We were only a party of four people and they put my menu on a separate ticket, so that my dish came out about 10 minutes before anyone else's.  By the time I ate, everything was congealed and cold.  Frustrating.
When we went, they had some Christmas decorations up.  They have a bar and serve a few American craft beers that are hard to locate in Hong Kong, like Anchor Steam Beer and Longboard Lager.
I ordered the American Breakfast, which consisted of two eggs over easy, two strips of bacon, a pile of potatoes, and two slices of wheat bread. 
The good:
The eggs.  The eggs over easy were done very well - the first time I have actually had eggs over easy properly in Hong Kong.  They tend to over-fry the eggs here.  We have ordered eggs over easy that turned out to be completely cooked through, to the point where the yolks are practically calcifying. 
The bacon.  It was cooked the way I like it - not too crisy but not too soggy.
The bad:
The potatoes.  They were still hard in the middle and very oily.  This is what happens when you do not have good ole' Boise potatoes and you do not cook them for long enough.  I think the restaurant would do better if they roasted their potatoes for a little bit, rather than just frying them.
The wheat bread.  Is this wheat bread, truly?  It tasted like soft, white bread masquerading as wheat bread with a few slivers of grain.  It is clear that Hong Kong is not textured-bread friendly, preferring the consistency and texture of fluffy Texas toast or Wonder Bread.
For some reason blogger really doesn't want to publish this right side up
 We also ordered a plate of caramelized banana fritters for the table to share - I wasn't thrilled about these. 
The very bad: How is it caramelized if you just slice raw banana on top?  Clearly the cafe thought "caramelized" meant just dunking caramel sauce on the dish.  Someone needs to explain to them that caramelized is a slow cooking (thicker) pieces of banana until gooey, warm and browned.  Fail!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

He Jiang at The Cosmopolitan Hotel

I went to dinner at He Jiang (合江) with a very good friend on Saturday night.  It is a Chinese restaurant fusing the cuisines of Chengdu (a city in Sichuan) and Yangzhou (in Jiangsu), each with quite distinct styles of cooking.  The name of the restaurant means "the confluence of rivers".  It is located on the first floor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Queen's Road East, which is directly across from the Hong Kong Jockey Club race track.

I quite liked the little pig figurines at the entrance of the restaurant.
We ordered a few dishes to sample:

 Sesame bing (like a Chinese hot pocket!) with marinated spicy stringbeans and minced pork, which was flavorful except that I thought the bing was way too thin (it needed a little more chewy, pillowy filling).  The filling was well executed and very flavorful.
Chengdu wok fried sliced pork with fresh chilis and red peppers (成都小炒肉), which I thought was just okay.  I did like the fresh green whole chilis - they had a small kick and were seared to an almost blistered-but-not-quite-charred meltingly tender state.
Sliced pork in Sichuan sauce and a tofu, salted pork and tomato clay pot.  Both were rather uneventful and not particularly unique or interesting.  I would pass on these.
We finished the meal with a pan fried Eight Treasure dessert.  Eight Treasure (八宝饭) is a very popular and traditional sticky rice dessert with dates and red bean paste filling, usually in a dome shape.  He Jiang, however, had its own unique twist - they fried it so that it was more like a pancake.  The effect of the frying was to make the sticky rice even stickier, with a very nicy chewy, crispy texture.  The dessert was served piping hot and sweet.  I really enjoyed this dish.
Perhaps we ordered poorly, but everything came slightly different than how we pictured it, and the portions were small.  I would say that the food alone is not worth the trek. 
I think I would only come back to try their Chengdu Hot Pot, which is yuan yang soup base with a Sichuan spicy soup base on one side and a most intriguing fresh water herring and wolfberry soup base on the other.  I can be much more forgiving with hotpot...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More Bird Flu

Yeeesh, have you guys seen the latest?

H7N9 is so 2013, according to The Shanghaiist.  A new strain of bird flu has just been discovered and named, as a result of the death of a 73 year old woman in Jiangxi.

Is anyone else alarmed at how quickly it seems that viruses are jumping across animal barriers?

Images of Contagion keep flitting through my head as I look at the pictures of chickens and pigs being "treated" (i.e., killed and disposed as a preventative measure) across China.

Bird flu has struck at least 139 people and caused the death of 45 people in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan this year.

Escalators at Sai Ying Pun Centre Street

They are quite quick with construction here.  Unlike the second avenue subway in New York, which has a "long and tortured history" (exact words of the New York Transit Authority) starting from the 1920s and is to this day still not yet complete, the new set of outdoor escalators in Sai Ying Pun (the first set are in Soho on Shelley Street in Central and Midlevels) are pretty much complete.

They are also building a Sai Ying Pun metro stop. These escalators and the new MTR stop will do a lot to open up the neighborhood - unfortunately, real estate prices will rise, and in fact has already shown marked increase, as a result of this new construction.

New cafes and Western restaurants have been popping up in this area pretty steadily for the past year now.

A funny thing about these escalators is that they move really, really slowly.  Michael and I joke that "it's a local thing" that everyone just stands on the escalators in Soho, but given the glacial pace of this set of escalators, I would be very hard pressed not to walk it. 

They are just finishing up plumbing on the sides.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Butao Ramen

Last week I finally tried out Butao Ramen, where it had moved from its previously truly dubious hole-in-the-wall location in Lan Kwai Fong (on Wo On Lane) to Wellington Street. 

While I had not eaten at the old location, I am guessing the new location is slightly cleaner.  Well, at least inside everything looks new and pretty clean.
Ropes and bare bulbs adorn and match the rough hewn wood plank walls and tables
Little tchotchkes and rope wrapped hangers add an extra touch

 I opted to sit at the bar where I could see the ramen chefs at work.

Directly in front of me were instructions with very precise pictures.
 I went for the traditional Tonkatsu broth.  Interestingly, here they give you an option of scallions or cabbage.  I do not really like scallions so I opted for the cabbage.  It was very fresh and tender and soaked up the fatty, rich pork broth beautifully.   At Butao, they ask you to select the saltiness and heaviness of your broth, as well as noodle width and firmness (from very firm to al dente to soft).  I opted for a lighter, less salty broth, wide noodles and al dente or what they term "regular" firmness.

The noodles were still skinnier than I expected, and I thought it was still a little bit too much on the "hard" side of al dente.  I would have liked my noodles cooked maybe a minute longer.

They gave me an egg (on the side in a bowl) which turned out to be an accident. In typical Hong Kong fashion, they then took it away without saying a word. I hope they did not just serve it to someone else, because I could have licked it for all they knew, but I bet they plopped it right down in front of some poor unsuspecting patron. 

For HK$85, I thought this meal was way too expensive.  It only covered a (relatively small) bowl of noodles in broth, three very thin slices of pork, a handful of wood ear mushrooms (sliced), and some cabbage.   Anything else, like seaweed, egg, corn or bamboo shoots, as well as extra soup or extra noodles, cost more.  I can see why extra soup, and certainly why extra noodles, should cost more, but I am used to seeing a piece of seaweed or an egg as part of the ramen basic package.  I do not think it should be charged extra.

I know at the old location wait times could exceed two hours (what?!).  I do not know if it is still such a long wait at the new location, but I really do not think it is worth it.  When I went there was no line and I still left a bit unsatisfied.   Frankly, I am a bit mystified as to why people like this restaurant so much.

Lately, however, Hong Kong has been dreary and wet and cold, so I could see how this would be a very satisfying antidote.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Glasshouse

This past week I shamelessly dragged two of my friends (who are very easygoing and cheerful about my hotpot addiction) to try out a more local hotpot institution, The Glasshouse, in Braemer Hill in North Point.
Braemer Hill is the quieter area north of North Point on Hong Kong Island that I rarely frequent.  The units there tend to be bigger, older, more family oriented and more local.  It is a bit harder to get to as the MTR does not go up there and I am not as familiar with the bus and minibus routes up there.
The Glasshouse is an unusual restaurant located inside of a compound, with a barbecue area and hotpot available both indoors and al fresco on their deck.  I quite liked the idea of hotpot al fresco, but on the night we were there it was fully reserved.  It looked like there was a private party going on.
To add a bit of quirkiness - these barbecue grills are actually old foosball tables!
A few more foosball-turned-barbecue-grills, on their second life
The prices here were certainly right, where we could get a mixed hotpot soup base of satay and chicken for only HK$78.
The meat was very fresh and they assured us it had never been frozen.  Even though it was leaner and less fatty, it was incredibly tender and tasty.

We chose to order tonghao, this vegetable that I am obsessed with when it comes to hotpot. We also ordered fresh fish slices, fried tofu skin, dumplings, tofu skin, and a mushroom platter. 

One of the vegetables looked wilted and kind of "dead," as if it had been frozen and badly defrosted.  That was a disappointment. 

We also ordered fried fish skin and cuttlefish squid paste:

 I got a kick out of this menu item -- fresh water fish lips!

They had the traditional plum juice that is very tasty, especially if you are eating Sichuan spicy hotpot.

At the Glasshouse, they only have garlic, fried garlic, scallions, sesame paste, soy sauce and a chili satay paste for the mixing sauce.  I tried twice to get vinegar from the wait staff but did not succeed.  Vinegar is a key ingredient for my preferred hotpot sauce so that was a slight minus.

Overall, everything was very good, but I think I prefer the slightly fancier and slightly more expensive King's Garden and San Xi Lou. I think they have more offerings for making their sauces and their soup bases are slightly more complex. 

If I do come back to the Glasshouse, I will go for one of their fancier soup bases (like the Tom Yum soup base or Shaoxing wine chicken soup base or their HK$368(!) "special" (for that price it better be reaaaally special) lamb soup base, to see if those set the Glasshouse apart from its competition.