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The Taste of Old Hong Kong: Suki’s clams

Fred Schneiter moved to Hong Kong in the 1960s and wasted no time in getting to know the food. Here’s a recipe (and a reminiscence) from the old Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. It appears in his new book, The Taste of Old Hong Kong.

Living in one of the world’s major tourist destinations, the culinary epicenter of the China Seas and a world-class capital of fine dining, prompts many Hong Kong insiders to choose their restaurants following the ancient axiom “the fewer tourists the better the food.”

Fortunately, if you know your way around, the choices are virtually unlimited with a dazzling diversity of restaurants offering every imaginable ethnic favorite from arroz con pollo to zabaglione. Our destination of choice on evenings we felt like having something different was the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter, known to some as “the tycoon shelter” as it harbored the sleek and costly craft of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. It also afforded moorage for a small flotilla of durable seaworthy family junks.

The only tourists in evidence on these outings were those who’d been smuggled in by locals, quite likely with the visitors’ absolute assurance they wouldn’t reveal the location to anyone else. The inclination toward secrecy was perhaps overblown. Even having heard about the place a stranger had little chance of getting to it without help.

Logistically, with its access blocked by sea walls, the harbor and the life-threatening speedway of Victoria Park Road, there were only two reasonable approaches. One was the little-known underground passageway which carried utility services under the road from the basement of the Excelsior Hotel. The other was the harrowing approach by cab from the west. This entailed somehow getting the driver to understand that he had to pull off the speedway right here to discharge passengers in the blink of an eye. If you failed to stop exactly on target the cab would hurtle up the overpass onto Gloucester Road, whisking you off in the other direction.

Tricky. And that’s not all. It was essential to have a Cantonese-speaker make a phone call to reserve a junk which would comfortably accommodate a half dozen or so people. Once aboard, the little craft wheezed and bobbed out to the center of the shelter into a tiny fleet of junks and sampans rolling at anchor on the inky night sea. Each cast a glow from a bare bulb or two. Some were garlanded with multi-colored Christmas tree lights which sparkled and skittered across the choppy waves. As our anchor dropped, small junks pulled alongside like moths to a flame. One was the brightly-lit booze boat, loaded to the gunnels with hard liquor, beer, soft drinks, fruit, snacks and cigarettes. The music boat had a jovial three-piece off-key percussion band with a vocalist who belted out a cacophony of old-time songs in Chinglish. One of the more profitable businesses on the water, a generous tip assured an early upping of their anchor.

Then there were the sampans. Barely a dozen feet long, these were powered by a single oar which extended straight back from the stern. The vessel takes its name from the fact it is little more than three boards (saam paan) nailed together. Most typhoon shelter sampans were miniature floating kitchens.

That’s how we met Suki who churned alongside offering a variety of stir-fried seafood. His specialty—a favorite of typhoon shelter regulars—was clams. After we got to know Suki he shared the recipe. I tucked it away and didn’t get to it for quite some time, confident that when I did it would, typically, take considerable experimentation to figure out what key ingredient Suki had “forgotten” to include. When I finally tried the recipe I was amazed to have it turn out exactly the way he does it, causing the Lovely Charlene to note after dinner, “Suki’s clams even smell great when the dishes are being washed.” It’s a rare restaurateur who will share a recipe, much less a house specialty. Or, in Suki’s case, a boat specialty.

Of course Suki had to be confident in the knowledge a Westerner couldn’t go into competition with him as it’s highly unlikely that one could ever figure out how to propel a sampan with that single off-the-stern oar, without simply going around in circles or falling overboard.

If you aren’t yet into stir-frying, get yourself a wok and give this great dish a try….

serves 2 to 4
1 tablespoon black bean and garlic sauce
8 slices fresh ginger, peeled, ¼ inch thick, lightly chopped
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 pounds of steamers or littleneck clams, rinsed, in the shell
3 tablespoons peanut oil for frying
1 loaf French bread, sliced, for dipping

Mix together in a small bowl the bean and garlic sauce, ginger, pepper flakes, sugar, salt and soy sauce. Warm wok over medium high heat about 2 minutes until a drop of water falling onto it makes just one sizzling bounce. Add oil and increase heat to high and in about 1 minute when oil begins to shimmer and light haze (not smoke) begins to rise add sauce from the bowl. Stir-fry just 2 or 3 seconds. Add clams and stir-fry overhigh heat 1 minute. Cover and reduce heat for 1 minute. Remove cover, and stir occasionally a few minutes more until clams open. Place clams in serving bowl with juice and serve at once, with plenty of French bread for dipping into the juice while the clams are eaten.

Tips—Black bean and garlic sauce will be found at an Asian market or at your supermarket’s Asian section. Overcooking toughens clams. Discard any clams with broken shells or which float or which will not close tightly during rinsing under cold running water. When dining discard any which are not well opened. The American West Coast hard shell Manila and steamer clams are similar to those used by Suki but any small meaty clams should work fine. Commercially raised clams from the supermarket generally need only to be rinsed and drained. Eat them individually by hand, extracting the meat with chopsticks. Dip the French bread into the juice. It’s finger food, so feel free to approach this business casually. Set a big bowl on the table for empty shells and provide each diner with a damp, chilled washcloth. A bowl of warm black tea with a few thin slices of lemon may also be provided to rinse fingers after eating.

A final word of caution. Under no circumstance use your best tablecloth. In the typhoon shelter the table covering was either newspapers or butcher paper, which made sense. And would have tasted pretty good if you were set adrift for any length of time and had nothing else to eat.

New Hong Kong memoir: Year of Fire Dragons

An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong

n 2010, bookish 22-year-old Shannon follows her Eurasian boyfriend to Hong Kong, eager to forge a new love story in his hometown. But when work sends him to London a month later, Shannon embarks on a wide-eyed newcomer’s journey through Hong Kong – alone.

She teaches in a local school as the only foreigner, explores Asia with other young expats and discovers family history in Hong Kong, all while trying to hold on to her thwarted romance. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her plans. Soon, she must make a choice between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.

“Year of Fire Dragons is not only a riveting coming of age story, but also a testament to the distance people will travel for love. Shannon Young is the voice of the millennial generation and anyone who has ever built a new life abroad.” – Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife

“Year of Fire Dragons evokes all of the wonder of being in love as a young expat while capturing the true romance of Hong Kong. As you delight in Shannon Young’s deftly written coming-of-age story, you might just find yourself falling for this fiery city where East meets West.” – Jocelyn Eikenburg, author of Speaking of China

“Life’s twists and turns are like the tail of a dragon, but this intrepid American Millennial holds on tight to her dreams to carve out her place (creatively, financially and romantically) in Hong Kong — a world far from home. Shannon Young’s delightful memoir shows us that true discoveries are made when we let go of who we think we are and embrace who we might become.” – Leza Lowitz, author of Here Comes The Sun: A Yogi’s Journey of Adapting and Adopting in Japan

Shannon launched her book at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival last week. Read excerpts by clicking here!

Street Life Hong Kong

Many expats live in Hong Kong long-term, but language barriers make it hard to get to know the everyday local population. So we’re delighted to receive a wonderful review in the South China Morning Post for our new book, Street Life Hong Kong:

Here, we get a first-hand look at how life is for so many in our city. We are presented with richly evocative tales of normal, everyday life and of the common concerns that surround it – for the subjects, their families and, in some cases, for the city they call home. … The characters are made more accessible through the photographs of Michael Perini. You see the subjects as they work, and the scenes that surround them, and the effect is an authentic feel for the streets many of us pass every day. … One of the more illuminating aspects of the stories is the matter-of-fact way these people approach the situations in which they have found themselves – when your choices are limited, you play the cards fate deals you – and they share the moments of joy and of pride that they feel as they go about their daily lives. It’s that sense of commonality that makes Street Life Hong Kong by its end a celebration of our city and the spirit of the people who inhabit it.

Read the full review at the SCMP.

Eating Smoke: Ask Me Anything

If you missed Eating Smoke author Chris Thrall‘s “ask me anything” online question-and-answer session last week, which attracted 201 comments, you can now read through the whole discussion. Here it is on Reddit.

The Taste of Old Hong Kong

Look at the picture on the right. That’s our author Fred Schneiter and his children, on their arrival in Hong Kong at Chinese New Year in 1964.

Fred has written a combination of cookbook and memoir that includes 70 of the best recipes he collected over his three decades roaming the China coast, with a mix of adventurous and nostalgic stories thrown in. The Taste of Old Hong Kong will be in bookshops next month.

Here’s what Fred says to introduce the book…

It was a stroke of particularly good fortune to begin a 30-year career in Asia in the early 1960s, a time when much of the Far East retained the look, feel, charm, and sounds of a century before. It wasn’t simply another job in another place but rather a memorable romp through an earlier romantic age.

Today, unceremoniously swept under the rug of change by the twin deities of profit and progress, that Asia now exists only in memory and faded photos. Adaptable and vibrant, Hong Kong remains—and probably always will be—one of the world’s most exciting and fascinating cities. But the charming crooked little lanes with bougainvillea cascading from Victorian balconies above the clatter of rickshaws have pretty much vanished, giving way to the impersonal clusters of high-rise apartments and gleaming skyscrapers. But we didn’t lose it all. The tantalizing international cuisines and spicy cook pot scents of that earlier time remain.

That’s what this little offering is about. Reminiscences of 30 years in the China Seas, along with recipes of memorable old international and regional dishes you could find today in local or foreign households, fancy restaurants or back lanes in Hong Kong; that classy proud old gal who will forever reign as the Queen of Cuisine for those lucky enough to have shared with her some of those grand old yesterdays.

If you’ve ever daydreamed about what it might be like to drop back into an earlier, less hurried time in an exotic corner of the world, this is how we found the food, the friends and the fun in Old Hong Kong.


Writing the city and finding one’s identity

Chitralekha Basu at the China Daily newspaper interviews our author Jason Y. Ng.

Ng’s primary focus … is evident from the pages of his last book  — No City for Slow Men: Hong Kong’s Quirks and Quandaries Laid Bare (Blacksmith Books) — published earlier this year. What quirks?  What quandaries? Well, for instance, he writes about losing one’s Hong Kong Identity Card, an existential crisis for anyone coping with the frenetic pace of Hong Kong living, which for him, leads to an even greater identity crisis that confronts some Hong Kong-born Chinese — deciding if they were Hong Konger or Chinese national, and wondering whether the two ought to be treated as mutually exclusive. Eventually, he raises the big question: What about the imminent “sinification” of Hong Kong and what about whether “it might lose its individuality and become just another mainland city”?

Read the full story, Writing the City, at China Daily Asia.