Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Playing Slowly With Chinese Banquet Food

My last few posts have caught you up on the last few weeks. Bob and I played with food for two weeks in Florida, then returned to the cold (to be warmed up by Bar Cento), and played in our kitchen to produce our own comforting creation from the freezer.

Sunday night, we joined about 32 other members of Slow Food at Cleveland's Siam Cafe for a belated Chinese New Year feast. As you may recall, our last Chinese New Year dinner was a lot of fun, but the food was very Americanized (though extremely tasty). For the Slow Food dinner, Chef Michael Hong stepped a little more towards the traditional, while still respecting his mostly Western audience.

We began with Scallion Pancake Stuffed With Char-Sui BBQ Pork and served with sweet Hoisin sauce:

The stuffed scallion pancake is one of my favorite Siam Cafe treats.

Next came Crab Claw Stuffed with Shrimp Puree and Coated with Crispy Vermicelli:

Everyone loved this dish - except me. I was still too close to the exquisitely fresh gulf seafood we had spent two weeks eating. No matter how you slice it, in Ohio, shrimp and crab claws come frozen. And they just ain't the same.

Shanghai Sui Loo Bao - Soup Filled Dumpling with Pork and Crab:

Usually, this is served with a communal bowl of dipping sauce (a basic soy-vinegar-ginger dressing) and individual small bowls. In a twist that made these a lot easier to eat - each diner was given their own small bowl of dipping sauce. The server then placed two dumpings into each such bowl, such that each dumpling got a nice dose of dressing.

I simply adore the way Chef Michael makes these!

Wonton Dumplings in Thai Tom Yum Soup:

Spicy Thai Soup with Two Types of Mushrooms and Shrimp Filled Wonton Dumplings

This is how soup is traditionally served in Asian food service - the tureen is brought to the table, and the server portions out the soup for each diner. Guests may then serve themselves more from any that remains in the tureen.

Pardon the pun - but, yum! The soup was spicy and satisfying, and the freshly made won tons were lovely, frozen shrimp and all.

Lobster with Golden Garlic:

Maine Lobsters Stir-fried with Minced Roasted Garlic, Green & Red Peppers

In contrast to the shrimp - the lobster was exquisitely fresh and succulent. Our table cleaned its plate and I for one licked the shells and my fingers!

Michael’s Fabled New Years-Only Fried Custard with Shrimp, Snow Peas, & Carrots:

These fried delights crunch first, then melt in your mouth.

And note the above-illustrated tip for eating this type of meal more easily: I held onto my soup bowl and used it to eat from with my chopsticks. Especially when rice is involved - this is the most efficient way to play with this kind of food.

I was surprised that they served white rice with this meal - usually, there is no plain rice at a banquet. But the sauces we were served were definitely rice-friendly!

The next course was a variation on a Chinese New Year's Banquet staple. Traditionally, all Chinese banquets have a steamed whole fish. Most Western people, however, have become so accustomed to only eating filets that they don't like fish with bones. In this part of the country, even Michael Symon can't get away with selling whole fish to the masses!

So, Chef Hong prepared our fish course this way:

Pla Red Pik - Fillets of Victorian Perch Fried and Topped with Spicy Thai Tamarind Sauce

Though this treatment wasn't traditional - it was damn tasty - the fish was absolutely fresh, and carried the lightly spiced and slightly sweet tamarind-y sauce perfectly. And fear not, ye purists - Siam will pluck a fish from the tank (still swimming) and prepare it whole for you any number of ways, if that is how you want it!

The next course, by contrast, was a totally traditional ingredient treated in a very traditional way:

Baby Abalone & Shitake Mushroom over Mustard Greens

Abalone is a staple at Chinese New Year, due in part to its round shape. Round shapes represent coins, which one hopes to acquire in abundance in the new year (hence the coin shaped mushrooms), and it is served over a green vegetable to symbolize wealth (either currency or jade - take your pick). The sauce was a traditional light soy/oyster sauce combo.

Another dish often found on the Chinese New Year table is duck.

Roasted BBQ Duck

Anyone who worried about their diet and skipped eating some of this succulent skin really missed out on some great eats! And, as per tradition, the WHOLE animal was served:

"Here's Looking at You, Kid"

Our next course was one of Michael Hong's signature dishes:

Braised Ham Hock

In this treatment, a large ham hock is slow-cooked to melty tenderness overnight, and served whole, plated over baby bok choy. The server then shreds the hock at the table, so diners can reach in with their Chopsticks (or serving fork, as the case may be).

Even though it wasn't on our menu, I hoped we would be treated to some of Siam Cafe's fried rice. I usually avoid fried rice - ever since I had it in China in 1999, the authentic way is the only way I want it - fluffy rice stir fried in pork fat, with salt and maybe some Szechuan Peppercorn. And no restaurant makes it that way here - except for Siam Cafe. So I was very happy when this plate came to our table:

Though I was still unable to dig the shrimp - oh, the smell, texture and taste of the Chinese Ham and Lap Cheong Sausage that permeated this dish and enveloped the simply prepared rice! Heavenly!

For our last savory course, Chef Michael sent us another Chinese New Year staple - noodles. Traditionally, noodles are always served at New Year, and they must never be cut, as the long noodles represent long life and to cut them would be to cut life short.

Traditional Noodle with Chicken

As in so many foods - simple is sometimes supreme. This dish consisted of thin egg noodles that were crisped (this is what is really meant by "Chow Mein") then stir-fried in soy sauce with chicken and bean sprouts. We all enjoyed it.

And then we rested. And rested. Stuffed as we were, there was one course yet to come and we needed to "make room."

Flaky Pastry Crust Baked with Egg Custard (Dan Tac) and Mochi Ice Cream Balls

The pastry was exquisitely light and flaky, and the custard just-baked. One ice cream ball was Green Tea flavor, the other, berry. This brought a soothing and tasty close to a magnificent feast.

Thank you to Linda Griffith and the Northern Ohio Slow Food Convivium for making this event happen and Gong Xi Fa Cai to everyone at Siam Cafe!

1 comment:

  1. great post. my husband and i ate at this restaurant at least 3 times a month when we lived in Cleveland, and really wanted to do this event, but just couldn't do it.