White Russians and Soup

Hi reader – thanks for stopping by – this is a half formed chapter – but I wanted to get it down just to get some sort of accomplishment. I’m actually heading down to Hong Kong in a couple of weeks to do more research – the sort you can’t do from Shanghai – but I thought this exploration of how a food transforms through it’s journey from farmers in Ukraine to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong was fascinating. Obviously with the notes to myself and need for documentation – this is far from a final form, but I’m just spitballing here.

Borscht

If you were to end up a Hong Kong style Western steak place, say like Sammy’s Kitchen in Sheung Wan or Boston Restaurant in Wanchai, you’ll be presented with a selection of “Set Menus,” with some sort of steak, cooked on a sizzling iron plate, a soft dinner roll and a choice of soup. Those soups, almost uniformly are two options: cream soup, a sort of watery, cloudy white soup that tastes of a lot of butter and borscht or ??? in Chinese, literally “Russian Soup”.

Growing up, I never thought to question why a Ukrainian peasant soup would appear on menus half a world away. Even in the pre-Globalization world, it was one of those things that just was.

It wasn’t until I read Martin Booth’s excellent memoir Gweilo/Golden Boy (depending on what market you purchase/read it in, it’s got different titles) and he talks about meeting White Russians on the bus, and about Russian bakeries in Hong Kong that my curiosity was piqued, and I started to put two and two together.

[Insert quote from Golden Boy here where he talks about Tschanko’s pastries here]

photo from susanbkason.com

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917), supporters of the Russian Tsar scattered and escaped first to Vladivostok under the protection of the Japanese, and then as the turmoil of the 20s and 30s advanced, they would move from Vladivostok through Northeast China/Manchuria eventually landing in Shanghai, which at the time was a freeport, with no visa or identity papers or passport required.

During this time in Northeast China the recipe for the hearty soup changed dramatically. For those familiar with the original Ukrainian soup – traditionally made with beets and cabbage in a meat broth with a deep red color and served with sour cream. Beets are not common in Shanghai, so as a substitution Russian chefs began to use available red cabbage, ox tails and tomatoes. As the white Russian migration began down the coast they began to re-establish life in Shanghai, opening restaurants and businesses. Oddly enough, in present times, Pushkin Square, nearby the current locations of the French and US consulates, is one of the centers of expatriate life in 2017, with a creperie and a sports bar showing NFL and Premier League games.

As an aside, I took a trip to Russia in 2012, and one of my friends was obsessed with finding “authentic” borscht. And we went to restaurants all over St. Petersberg and Moscow ordering borscht, borscht and borscht. It wasn’t until I was on my way out of Russia that I actually was able to have the traditional beets and sour cream version. All the other versions of borscht we encountered were sorrel, rye, or cabbage based. Being the airport, the borscht was sadly mediocre.

Following World War II, while still reeling from occupation and atrocities committed by the Japanese army, China plunged right back into civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, eventually resulting with the Nationalists escaping to Taiwan and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

While this was going on, Hong Kong became a natural refuge for many in Mainland China during this time. Parts of my own family moved to Hong Kong in 1949, and in the post Civil War period, as many as 20,000 Russians made their way to and through Hong Kong as well.

[Note to self, more in-depth research and supporting material for migration of Russians down – as well as follow up on Apple Daily article regarding the recipe switch from beets to cabbage]

Bringing with them skills and experience from the restaurant industry in China, and shunned by the already existing expatriate community in Hong Kong, many of the white Russians opened bakeries and restaurants, as mentioned above in Booth’s memoir or the still famous Queen’s Cafe & Bakery in Causeway Bay today

During this era, existing Western restaurants were out of reach of all but the wealthiest Hong Kongers, or for actual Westerners. Either hotel restaurants like Gaddi’s in the Peninsula Hotel or stand-alone places like Jimmy’s Kitchen – most were out of the price range of solidly middle or working class Hong Kong. However as these white Russians moved into and through Hong Kong, a peasant based, modified for available ingredients was well within the reach of the working class, and as the life and business of restaurants evolved in Hong Kong, Chinese staff from these Russian founded eateries went off and founded their own businesses and took “Russian Soup” with them.

Mimi Thorisson wrote a blog post about this era of Russian food:

I have always loved a borscht soup, and have fond memories of going to a very unusual restaurant in Hong Kong called ‘Queen’s café’. It was the very old one that closed down decades ago (there are new ones now but the atmosphere is modern and completely different). It was small and dark, the waiters were old Shanghainese men, dressed in white jackets and matching gloves. They were extremely grumpy. Queen’s café served Russian food, like borscht soup, potato salads, marinated chicken wings, nougats and delicious biscuits you could buy at the deli. There was an element of old-school Shanghai, influenced with Russian culture. I loved it.

[Note – need more background about this era of HK restaurants – history of Louis Steakhouse, Boston Restaurant, Goldfinch – and Russian restaurant population in HK beyond Queen’s Bakery – start with this post about Tkachenko’s]

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Borscht and Baked Rice

Hey! It’s been 2.5 years since I’ve posted anything. Lots of stuff has been happening, but instead of an update, I’m going to post some writing.

A book has been kicking around in my head for a long long time, and I finally did something about it. This is an unedited, first draft. But I thought I’d put it up here. Let me know your thoughts.

Wong Kar Wai’s 2000 film In the Mood For Love is a masterclass in mood setting. Using muted colors, half heard conversations over phones to tell the story of neighbors Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung) slowly coming to realize their respective spouses are having an affair in 1962 Hong Kong. First deciding to discuss the affair, they end up at Sun Kwong Nam Restaurant and are shown eating steaks. With practiced ease, Mr. Chow supplements Mrs. Chen’s steak with a slight dollop of mustard. “Do you like it spicy?,” he asks. Originally planned to be a movie titled A Story of Food, the themes of eating often pop up. The protagonists continue to meet over noodles, over sesame syrup, over sticky rice, but what may strike viewers unfamiliar with Hong Kong as unusual, was their initial choice of steak, rather than something traditionally Chinese or Cantonese.

That initial dining scene, however, was not shot in Sun Kwong Nam, but in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay neighborhood in an enduring restaurant named “Goldfinch.” Replete with the red leather booths and large menus of a time gone by, restaurants like Goldfinch continue to serve a style of cuisine uniquely Hong Kong in origin.

“In the past, this was one of the very few upmarket Western restaurants around. It wasn’t so easy to come in here. Only people with some money could afford to,” said Wong Kin-wing, a manager who has worked at Goldfinch for more than 20 years.

During the post-war era, restaurants serving what would be recognizable as “Western food” were scarce and expensive – however, influences as disparate as the Portuguese, Malaysians, White Russians and obviously British colonialism combined to produce a brand of cuisine known as Soy Sauce Western or Hong Kong Style Western food.

In Anthony Bourdain’s 2011 visit to Hong Kong for his Travel Channel show The Layover he visits ???Sing Heung Yuen. The outdoor eatery or dai pai dong in Cantonese is famous for it’s tomato soup base instant noodles served with luncheon meat, hot dogs or cubed pork. Bourdain termed it “mutant Western cuisine” or the sort of food that a drunk college student would make at 2 in the morning, and theorized that the genesis of the food was similar to Korean fusion, from Western GIs stopping through on R&R trips during the Korean or Vietnam War. While Bourdain is right about the drunk college student part, the origins of Hong Kong’s Western cuisine are more interesting and reflect Hong Kong’s place as a stopover for the world’s travelers and population migrations.

I grew up in Los Angeles, myself. But not one of the suburban Chinatowns either, but rather the deep suburbs. My Chinese experience was one of weekend trips to Monterey Park, Arcadia, San Gabriel for dim sum, and then Chinese supermarkets. One of the things I did not understand growing up was the presence of strange Western food at Hong Kong style cafes around the San Gabriel Valley, with items such as baked pork chop rice and shrimp toast.

It wasn’t until I moved to Hong Kong in 1997 that I began to explore the world of Soy Sauce Western Cuisine by eating the length and breadth of Hong Kong. With recent restaurant closings of Goldfinch and Louis Steakhouse, and the rise of actual Western food, and sophisticated tastes in Hong Kong, where HKers are able to experience actual steakhouses, Italian food and Russian cuisine, versions of this cuisine may be dying away, and the nostalgic taste of the 60s and 70s may soon disappear from Hong Kong altogether. But to explore this, we must begin at the beginning, and that’s with borscht.

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Japanese Spring Festival

Wow, as always, we’re really catching up on old news.

Way back in February, my colleague Mike and I decided to go to Japan for snowboarding. While I had been many times, this was to be his first time to Japan.

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Night Marketing – Raohe Street

On my last night of free time (I’d be remaining in Taipei for another 4 days, however, my work schedule made it so I was eating a lot of hotel food and food court food for the rest of my time. So with my last night of freedom, I called up Abbie and we went to Raohe Night Market.

I hadn’t been to Raohe since my very first trip to Taiwan 16 years ago. I was between jobs, and agreed on a weekend visit to someone I barely even knew, and she ended up being sick the entire weekend. Armed with not very good Mandarin, I explored the city on my own. I barely even knew what night markets were back then, but I remember eating very well. I’d posit that Taipei has the best street eats in all of the East Asian Chinese world.

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Taipei Living

Sometimes in my life, circumstances collide and allow me to do something really fun things, even if they are for work. Over the last two weeks, due to the opening of a new Nike store in Taipei and the Nike Taipei Women’s Half Marathon, I was privilged enough to spend 10 days in Taipei!

Even better, for the first few days, when not working, my co-worker and I had some free time that one doesn’t usually have on business trips. In fact, from looking at my social media, it looked like all I had was free time to go eat. I assure you that wasn’t the case – it’s not like I was taking photos of me sitting in the hotel writing PowerPoint presentations. People actually looked at the photos that my colleague Tracy and I put up on Instagram and WeChat and thought we weren’t working. We were, we just had free time in the evening to go on a #taipeifattour.

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Tenya 22 in Shanghai

When you speak to Western expatriates in Shanghai, I feel as there is oftentimes a tried-and-true list of places to go to eat. Brunch? Madison. Spanish Tapas? El Wily. High end Italian? Mercato. I enjoy all of those places, but sometimes I think people don’t venture too far outside those set places. For example I think Otto E Mezzo 8 1/2 Bombana is overlooked, and yet every bit as good as Mercato. Same for high end sushi, especially of the omakase type, where the conversation usually ends at Sushi Oyama. But I think there’s a better place, and for my money, is one of the best meals to be had in Shanghai, and that’s at Tenya 22 on the Bund.

From the well known purveyors of tuna sushi, Tenya (or Tianjia to use the Chinese), Tenya 22 has been open for a couple of years now in a sometimes empty Bund facing building. Several weeks ago, I had the chance to go again with my friends Michelle and Colin.

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Love will tear us apart

Like many other Chinese Americans of my generation, New Order was an integral part of the soundtrack to much of my junior high and high school days. With cassette tapes (YES!) of Substance, Technique and Low Life riding around in my Honda Accord, the post punk electronic sounds of the Manchester Club scene blended in with the suburban Los Angeles landscape.

I’m a little bit younger than people who would’ve listened to Joy Division – so I wasn’t as familiar with the Joy Division catalog, until I got older. At my first job in Hong Kong one of my co-workers would wear a tie every May 18th to memorialize Ian Curtis’ suicide. So I soon picked up some Joy Division knowledge as well, but it wasn’t quite the same as New Order to me – I realize I’m in a distinct minority in this.

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Christmas in Hong Kong

Catching up on old happenings, I wasn’t planning to do anything for Christmas, just take a couple of days off and hang around in Shanghai. But my cubicle neighbor was complaining about the price of his tickets to Hong Kong over Chinese New Year (5000 RMB!) so I suggested flying into the new Shenzhen airport and crossing the border there. Normally, over a weekend, this is a terrible idea as the border crossing and bus ride takes 90 minutes each way and isn’t really the most pleasant thing in the world. Doing the same over the weekend just isn’t a good idea in terms of use of one’s time.

However, to do so over a 4 or 5 or 10 day trip? Well the savings can be pretty good. I checked on prices for my cube neighbor and it turns out you can get from Shanghai to Shenzhen for 700 RMB. Round-trip!

Well, if they are going to be that cheap for Chinese New Year, I had to check for Christmas, since I had those two days off – and moving times around to be a bit more convenient and it cost about 1000 RMB or $130 bucks. So I booked a trip down.

It was wonderful. Warm. Not a lot of time pressure to do what I wanted, as normally I have to for weekend trips. I went running on Lantau Island with my NBR teammate Joanne, as well as another run on Bowen Road. I explored different parts of HK I normally don’t go to. I avoided big tourist spots filled with Mainland tourists.

The run on Lantau Island was kind of funny. I had mentioned to Joanne that I wanted to eat seafood on an Outlying Island and she suggested traveling Tung Chung on Lantau Island and then hiking the 16km over to Tai O and stupidly I said “16km? Why don’t we just run it instead?”

So we met in the former village, now new town of Tung Chung (near the airport and on the Tung Chung MTR line) and set on on a run towards Tai O. About 5km in, we run into Police who warn us that there’s a protest going on and villagers have blocked off the path and we might not be able to go all the way to Tai O. We shrugged and kept on going – I mean, why turn back now, when we could’ve turned back at 8km? Well, it turned out the police were right. The path was blocked. Still, it turned into a nice rambling trail run on a warm, near Christmas Day.

Village Store

With the airport in the background

Running Path

Running Selfie with Jo

On the way to Tai O

Bridge Jumping

Finishing the run at Tung Chung

I also threw another run in at the Bowen Road Fitness Trail, which is still one of my absolute favorite places to run in the world.

All of this running had a purpose though – I was training for both the Hong Kong Half Marathon and my snowboarding trip in Japan. which I’ll update this blog about soon.

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Korean Chicken Wings

So my friend Tiff and I have become obsessed with Korean Fried chicken from this place out PAST Gubei. It’s actually a chain from Korean called Kyochon 1991. They make fried chicken. Koreans and fried chicken? Yeah, it’s seriously good.

You can see from my last trip to Seoul that I actually had the fried chicken while there – the streets are filled with fried chicken and beer joints. Kyochon is a large international chain (Malaysia, the US and Singapore all have them) and they have a branch out way deep in the middle of Koreatown in Shanghai on Ziteng Road.

You can get there via line 10 on the subway, getting out at the Ziteng Road exit and then walking up Ziteng Road for 5 minutes. Once you get there, you need to put your name down for a table (even though it’s a fast food setting, your meal is anything but). Usually the wait has been around 20-30 minutes. Then you can order – they have three flavors – soy sauce, spicy and honey. I love love love the honey wings. That’s all I eat now. I found the soy sauce slightly salty. And I’m not very good with spice. The wings take another 30 minutes and then you feast!

It takes a bit of time to get out there, and it is crowded and closes too early for my tastes (10pm) – but it’s pretty much a weekly trip now.

Kyochon 1991
Chinese Listing
182 Ziteng Lu, near Wuzhong Lu. Near Line 10

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Taipei redux

I was actually in Taipei, not to eat, but to run. Despite being woefully unprepared (wrong shoes!) and tired (just having run the Shanghai half two weeks prior).

I went for a warm up run around my hotel neighborhood just to get a feel for the weather (humid, rainy) and came across the Chaing Kai Shek memorial hall.

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