These words, for most of the Western World, evoke an image of take-away boxes full of greasy kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork or deep friend wontons delivered to your doorstep and munched in front of the tv, or perhaps the all-you-can-eat buffet (adored by my father) with the dubious beef and broccoli and piles of fried rice. And while this is sometimes a fun and silly meal, it is actually NOT authentic Chinese cuisine.
With all of the political awkwardness going on between Americans and Chinese at the moment, I think that it is high time the barrier to cultural understanding gets a little crack or two in it, and while I have been feverishly desiring a holiday to Macau, the first thing, I always believe, to busting down ethnocentrism is really diving in and spending some quality time eating how and what said culture does! (See my earlier blog about Korean BBQ!) Yeah, yeah…you can always count on me to take a meal to a sociological and marginally utopian level.
Lucky me! My neighbors, Henry and Lieu, are from China and invited us to a premiere AUTHENTIC Chinese restaurant inside the Coco Garden Resort Hotel. This beautiful place is located on a quiet and secluded hill in Ishikawa with an incredibly view of Kinbu Bay.
View from the Coco Garden Resort Hotel Restaurant!
The aesthetic almost reminded me of the resorts in Sedona, Arizona, with it’s lovely distressed rose, burnt orange and golden colors, the fun nuances and art on the walls, as well as the interior wood work and lighting.
Henry get’s us all settled.
Henry, our smiling, all-too-happy-to-please host, Lieu, his sweet, shy wife and their slightly mad children led us to the table and promptly told us that we were to order one of everything on the menu….each!!!! Take that, American Chinese Buffet. And while we WERE presented with menus in English that we were meant to tick off quantities of our SELECT choices, Henry insisted that we enter 2 in each column and call it a day. His reasoning “So you try everything and know what you like best!” You can’t know if you like it without trying….which I would like to say is a good metaphor for cultural relativity. Jus’ sayin’.
Henry, Koyo, Ying, Kogang, Lieu, Me and the BEGINNING of lunch!
Before we knew it a barrage of dishes came barreling toward us! Soups, rice porridges, hot entrees, salads, cold meats, gyozas, dim sums, baozi or “bun bao,” fried dumplings and spring rolls, and ending with a heap of desserts!
All in all we were served about 40 courses! I am not kidding 40!!! Of which I tried around 38. I missed out on the pan fried turnip cakes and subtly did not try the shark fin dumpling for political and ecological reasons. Don’t worry, no one noticed. I would never be rude to my hosts.
Obviously listing the ENTIRE menu would make your brain feel overwhelmed and busting as my gut did so I will just give you a few of the interesting, delicious and awesome delicacy we tucked into today! I hope, at least, that this might entice you to try some of these dishes and give you a jumping off point for Cantonese Cuisine…although, maybe not all at once like we did!
We started with some amazing pork and veg soup (also on order was egg drop soup) and these lovely sesame donuts that were stuffed with Beni-Imo paste, which is purple sweet potato, also used natively in Okinawa and filled with antioxidants. It is sweet without being cloying and normally not a starter but as it was Lieu’s favorite I followed her suit!
Next course, cold foods. There was a seaweed salad, chicken in ginger sauce, and roast pork with honey.
Next up, fried rolls and dumplings!
The fried gyoza plate. From top right clockwise: Spring Roll, Shrimp and Sweet Rice Dumpling (my fav!) Shrimp Gyoza, Taro Dumpling, Shrimp Spring Rolls…err triangles. Most excellent!
Steamed Beni-Imo Dumpling. So beautiful and delicious!
Prawn in Mayo Sauce.
The special of the day was brought out. A beautiful, fresh prawn salad with a lemon-mayo sauce. Gorgeous fresh tomatoes, shredded cabbage and lettuce and lemon slices! Decadent!
Sauteed Seasonal Veggies
Very verdant and so elegant, this fresh, hot sauteed plate of seasonal veg, below, changes with what is available at the markets throughout the year. This was Bok Choy, Leeks, Mushrooms, and Bamboo.
More FOOD! Gah! Unbuttoning trousers….
So next we have Sauteed Beef in Oyster Sauce accompanied by a thick, savory Pork in Black Vinegar Sauce. I MUST find a recipe for the pork, as the concept of black vinegar is fascinating to me.
Shrimp in Chili Sauce
The spiciest meal on our adventure through Cantonese yummies was the Shrimp in Chili Sauce, perfectly seasoned and cooked to perfection. Shrimp in a sauce like this can be tricky because over-cooking can make it chewy. This was EXQUISITE.
Of course the towers of dumplings continued. Next up, amongst many, were the creamy, buttery scallop dumplings and some made of pork and Mozuku Seaweed, a lovely tasting thin-like-spaghetti, dark green seaweed with a tart taste, also used in salad or eaten on its own. Really, really grand, and so good for you! Also loved by my Goddaughter, Neva!
Ahhhh it never ends!!!
This is one of my favorite type of gyoza, Pork with Green Onion and Garlic. Variations on this theme were brought over to Oki years ago and I try it where I find it!
The last dumpling and steamed goodies I tucked into was the sweeter, more dessert versions. To the left is a Azuki, or Sweet Red Bean Paste Bun Bao, or Baozi.
It’s kinda like biting into a sweet, hot cloud! To the right, Beni-Imo Mochi, a squishy rice cake made of sweet rice, pounded into paste and molded into the desired shape. This one was stuffed with purple sweet potato paste! So delectable!
Whilst the capacity I have to put away THIS MUCH FOOD is pretty low, I did truly enjoy the experience of trying so many new foods and learn so much about Chinese culture.
Henry serves more delicacies, with the help of precocious daughter Ying, who plays piano, speaks three languages and writes for her school paper…as well as thinks I am the weirdest, most fascinating thing on the planet. Or so it seems! LOL
For instance I learned that where Henry comes from, in the south, the food resembled what we had on our plates, fresh, flavorful but subtle in seasonings, whereas Lieu, coming from the north, favors Szechuan style food, which is incredibly spicy. Another interesting conversation we had was concerning the freshness of the cooking itself. Henry waxed enthusiastic about how, when eating true Chinese food, he can taste the difference between the flavors of a dish that is even an hour to a half an hour old. He said that you must always eat the food as soon as it is delivered to your table so that you get the full experience of what the chef (from Hong Kong) intended. (Of course when all the food comes at once and can feed an ARMY this is difficult!)
The Chef at Coco Garden, making everything fresh and made to order.
The best part was a game that Lieu and I created where I would guess what item from the menu I was eating and she would confirm or essentially just laugh at me, depending on my outcome. To be honest I did quite well! The laughter at the table, however, provided the last great seasoning to a perfect meal and I left feeling that, after knowing these lovely people for almost 3 years, I finally really knew them and was on a path to understanding their world so much more. That, and a path to go jogging…..MAN THAT WAS SO MUCH FOOD!!!!
Cantonese Culinary Madness!
To Get to Coco Garden Resort Hotel head out Gate 3 of Kadena and head straight until you hit a “T” intersection to turn left on 329 (right after the big J/A) and head toward Ishikawa. In around 8ish km you will hit a small bypass and you will turn left and then immediately right to take that over the 329. Drive around 400 m and then veer slightly right. Another 300 m will take you to “Hill House.” Turn left and you will see a sign for Coco Garden. Park to the right where the big old “P” sign is and walk on through. OR….just put their phone number into your GPS or iPhone map. 098-965-1000 or visit them at http://www.cocogarden.com/