Eating my way from Greece to Southern China
Friday, my brethren and I made our way to the local Greek Orthodox church festival. Bonanza. And then this morning, my same cohorts and I made a trip into Durham, to the Hong Kong restaurant (not what it’s called in Chinese, oddly enough) for dim sum, and luckly Dex photodocumented the entire experience — even when we were slipping into a catatonic food coma.
The point is: there was a lot of eating this weekend.
I feel that eating half of this festival made up for my exposure to Greek culture coming primarily from one reluctant viewing of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Sort of, anyway.
Short of an unnatural and somewhat suspect love for moussaka and baklava, I know almost nothing about modern Greek culture — it’s a tragedy, I believe, because there was some pretty bitchin’ stuff going down at the festival: from forcing small children to dance in ridiculous clothing for our amusement to astonishingly good pastries, this was a culture that shouted “Oppa!” and broke dishes and got their jones on. I managed to restrain myself to thinking about thieving tiny, adorable Greek children dancing only once or twice (or once or twice times 893749834594875, but the point is I didn’t actually do it).
Moussaka, I think, is possibly the most perfect food on the face of the Earth: It combines savory and creamy and hearty and if you make your bechamel just right, the most wonderful flirtation of nutmeg sweet on the back of your tongue, and this moussaka was excellent. The best recipe I’ve found for this delightful treat on the internet has been by written up at the fabulous Tigers & Strawberries and is available with accompanying photographs here, in case you want to try on your own. The version being sold at the festival was made with beef instead of lamb, and heavy on cream and starches — with creamy whipped potato and cream topping and delicious boiled potato psuedo-crust, that cooked itself in all the wonderful juices from the eggplant and beef and vegetables in the filling of the moussaka during the baking process. It was unreservedly indulgent.
As if the moussaka and spanikopita sitting around waiting for me to devour them ferociously wasn’t bad enough, there was a pastry table at least as long as the entree table, and they were selling everything from loukoumathes (Greek doughnuts: only fresh-fried and drizzled in honey and sprinkled with nuts — I KNOW) to galaktoboureko (baked custard with phyllo soaked in honey — I KNOW) to ryzogalo (savory sweet rice pudding — I KNOW) among other things whose names were somehow even harder to spell. It was a labor of love to restrain myself from flinging myself in the general direction of the shortcake cookies, the spindly fried cakes, the beautiful phyllo-layered sweets, but I did it somehow.
I caved, ultimately, as I always do, in the face of baklava, which is such a killer combination of honey-sweet and nuts and crisp phyllo that it’s never even a fair fight, and this stuff was amazing. I bought a triangle and managed to make it last two days: half for desert after the moussaka and half with breakfast the next morning, and it felt like I was biting into a vacation in the Greek Isles: so sweet and wonderful it burned like sun. In fact, the summer I worked in Washington D.C. I used to brave what I affectionately called the skanky side of Pennsylvania Avenue (those of you who have lived/do live/have worked/do work/gotten lost near Capitol Hill are nodding and thinking, “Oh, next to the Cosi!” right now, even as we speak) to go to a subterranean Greek restaurant and buy containers of baklava to nurse me through my day — so all of my associations with it are of heat and delight and the bright spots of my day — as I imagine it will continue to be in the future.
On the other hand, my familiarity with dim sum culture and Asia is pretty good, if only because I’m kind of a glutton and all things food-related with the motherland are points of interest with me. If you’re a dim sum virgin, this might be a good place to get started on your lurid path to food-whoring your way through the morning tea service:
Living in the Southeastern United States doesn’t leave a lot of room for amazing Asian food — there’re pockets here and there and holes-in-the-wall patronized heavily by native Chinese/Japanese/Koreans, but they’re exceedingly rare, and with the subtle and fine art of dim sum, it’s even harder to find. Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant — apologize in advance for the character defamation — looks, from the side of the street, peeling off of the highway, like the sort of place where you would sooner find cat in the kitchen than chicken. But despite the poorly-disguised 1970s decor and appalling parking situation, on Saturdays and Sunday mornings between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. it’s your absolute best bet for semi-authentic dim sum in the Triangle. In fact, it’s really your only bet — trust me on this one: I’ve made the rounds, the other options aren’t worth your money.
They serve Chrysanthemum tea with its traditional rock sugar accompaniment and carts start rolling around the claustrophobic dining area: with steamer carts of dumplings and wraps and mysterious things and other cards with spring rolls (not to be confused with egg rolls) and egg custard cups and rice noodles, with shrimp folded inside, shu mai and fried turnip cake.
For the uninitiated, dim sum can be a pretty scary proposition — if only because you don’t know what to order, but it’s well worth the effort of learning. (All photos taken by Dex, which you can tell because they’re of better photographic quality than my own.)
Dim sum is tallied on these little sheets: usually with divisors like “small plate” and “medium” and “large,” with spaces with noting which kind of tea you ordered (we asked for Chrysanthemum, as should you), and any for-order dishes the kitchen had to pitch in additionally to serve up. Dim sum is easy and fairly inexpensive as a general rule, the three of us ate like kings for less than $35 total including tip, and we nearly had to be rolled out of the parking lot.
Clockwise, starting from the top: (1) sprouts, green pepper, and shitake mushrooms julienned and wrapped in tofu skins, braised (2) shrimp dumpling, a rice flour wrapper (note how its translucent) enclosing shrimp and waterchestnut mixture with ginger, amazing texture and subtle savoriness (3) wayward shrimp (4) “fen,” in Chinese, which just means large, flat rice-flour noodles, enclosing a vegetable and shrimp mixture and doused with an addictively good dipping sauce. Be aware: these were the leftovers after we’d demolished the actual plates.
Left to right: (1) shu mai, pork, water chestnut, and shrimp filling in wonto wrappers steamed (2) shrimp dumplings (2) “cha shao bao,” barbeque pork steamed bread — nothing like American barbeque: sweet and savory but not at all spiced. There is not a drop of cumin anywhere in that sauce. Note the cup of rock sugar.
The tofu-skin wraps before we uh…attacked them like feral dogs.
Oh Lord, how to describe this: in Chinese it’s called ‘zhong zi,” and they have a long and colorful social history that involves dead drunk poets and fish eating their bodes (please don’t ask, my people are wrong and wrong and sometimes wronger than wrong). But what it is, essentially, is sticky rice with filling: could be sweet, could be savory, ours was a mix of shrimp and pork, and then wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. As Dex noted, the rice comes out with an amazingly wonderful tea smell and taste, and the texture is fantastic. An incredibly time-consuming dish to make, which is why mostly you get them at restaurants like this, or, if you’re me, you trade your mother household favors in order to get her to teach you how to make them — a la the “Teach me how to make shu mai!” debacle of Christmas 2007.
And last but not least, the desert of choice for T and I, egg custards:
This has not been — at all — a comprehensive list of things available at morning tea services, but it’s a pretty safe one, and the food listed herein was enjoyed by all and pretty much safe for all to partake in. I know people get wary about Chinese food, especially when there are long menus and strange names and you are seriously concerned you might be eating a body part you totally do not want to even be thinking about — but the pictures and names here are a good guide for a beginner. But like with anything and everything else — I recommend you branch, and branch wide.