It's fair to say that the Beijing Olympics are the water cooler topic of the week. Even cynics can't help themselves. Go ahead. Hum the anthem. Anyone with a TV knows either the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" by John Williams or "Bugler's Dream" by Leo Arnaud. So hum away, because it's been in my head now since the Games started on August 8.
With these persistent tunes lodged firmly in brain, your intrepid dining correspondent set out to take on a two-day trial of traditional Chinese dishes. So get ready for chicken feet, congee, and century egg -- and cue the music.
Day One of the meet was a team event. My fiancée joined me for a trip to Hong Kong Wok at the Hilldale Mall. While Hilldale may finally be shedding its reputation as a mall for the older set, there is at least one demographic surety still in place: you will find many ethnic Chinese people eating at Hong Kong Wok. I see this as nothing more or less than the best way to determine where to find the real deal.
Eating weird stuff isn't really the lady's strongest discipline, so she ordered the rice congee with fresh sliced chicken. Congee sounds worse than it is, probably because of the homophone congealed. But congee is really just a thin, watery porridge. I've had oatmeal that was more congealed. This congee was served with simple chicken breast slices, green onions and long, thin strips of fresh grated ginger.
I actually learned something new about myself in the process of sampling this bowl. I've never liked ginger, whether aled, brewed, pickled, or candied. As such, I have generally avoided anything with prominent ginger notes. Turns out, I've got no beef with fresh ginger whatsoever. It adds one of the lone flavors to a dish that doesn't feature much on its own. Don't be scared to add some of the complimentary hot sauce or cilantro to your chicken congee; it needs it.
Flavor was not lacking from the dish I ordered on Day One. Black bean sauce is a strong element in Chinese cuisine; when it's glazed thickly over the foot of a bird, though, well then you're in Flavor Country.
Chicken feet are one of those poverty dishes where getting fancy is set aside in favor of just getting by. They are a lot of skin, cartilage, and bone, but not much meat. Pros will tell you there's not much art to eating either feet or wings. Just dive in, get gnawing, and don't hold out your pinky.
I was hoping to encounter something crispy and fried, but I was left wanting. The feet were served lukewarm-to-cold, and they appeared to be boiled rather than fried. Perhaps not unexpectedly, chicken feet succeed on my palate about as much as chicken wings. I'm all for the muscles that move chickens' appendages; the appendages themselves, not so much. I prefer a higher ratio of protein to energy expended in the process, and this process requires more chopstick agility than I possess. But that black bean sauce, and the general chicken-y flavor, packs a definite wallop. Maybe I just caught 'em on a bad day.
With the preliminary round behind me, I advanced in the competition on Day Two. Working alone this time, I had to do something flashy with a higher artistic value to compensate for an assuredly reduced degree of difficulty, as ain't nothin'stepping to chicken feet when it comes to hard-to-eat. So it would be congee again -- after all, it's only available on the weekend and it's so inexpensive -- but this time dressed with salted pork and chopped century egg.
Century eggs are the kind of food item that confounds the understanding of those not familiar with it. Sure, people might have to eat stomach, or feet, or other nasty bits out of economic necessity. But if you've got a good duck egg, why would you bury it in a slurry of ash, clay, lime (not the fruit) and salt for days upon days? Why turn a perfectly nice, readily-available source of protein and calories into something blackish-green and smelly?
You won't find the answer from me; I just work here. But I will tell you -- in what should be a familiar refrain -- that it's not as bad as it sounds. Buried in rice porridge, and mingling with pork and green onions, the century egg is almost overlooked. Throw a little of the aforementioned hot sauce in there, and you've got a totally acceptable bowl of soup. Only those who can't get over the odd visual element of the century egg would find this combination unpleasant. It is in fact quite tasty.
But scorchingly, blood-boilingly hot! The burners at Hong Kong Wok must be stuck on high; don't expect to speed through your bowl of congee if you're running late. Even the deep fried-to-order and definitively non-fringe crab rangoon are temperate by comparison. A well-armed diner might just bring along a little handheld fan.
At the end of my weekend engagement, only the chicken feet could be marked as a non-medal event for me. I just don't have the requisite tenacity to tear successfully into cartilage and skin. But if you do, you'll at least be rewarded with a tasty, if not filling dish. The congee, on the other hand, can and should appeal to all sorts. With beef, chicken, fish, and seafood options in addition to liver and century egg, there's really no palate left unaddressed.
While athletes of all nations strive for greatness in Beijing, it's easy to feel awfully mundane and, well, flabby here at home. But hey, even if your greatest ambitions don't rank any higher than getting to the mall to buy a thank you card or some groceries, you can still achieve some glory with the weekend menu at Hong Kong Wok. Just make sure to stick the landing; that congee will give you one nasty burn if it spills.