Monday, January 17, 2011

A New Year Breakfast with Bo Lo Yau: A Sinfully Good Beginning

As I look back to my travels and food encounters in 2010, I can't help but feel my taste buds tingle and find myself somewhat puzzled as to where to begin. Will it be the pungent aromas of fish paste in a Vietnamese wet market? The endless temptations of street foods in Taiwan? Or my unforgettable afternoon with tea and scones in the quaint English countryside? Alas, as I sit down and take my first bite of 2011, I decide that there is no more appropriate way to kickstart my writing than to begin with my very hometown: Hong Kong.

Having moved to northwestern New Territories of Hong Kong earlier last year, I have only recently begun rediscovering this region, comprising mainly of the Yuen Long and Tuen Mun districts. As a child I remember Yuen Long particularly for its fields and mazes of ancient, traditional walled villages, tucked aeons away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Hong Kong. As the district developed to meet housing needs and modern chain stores sprouted along its main thoroughfare, Yuen Long has begun to look like a generic Hong Kong residential complex - overcrowded, branded, and bland. The good news is, as I wander off into the flanks of the thoroughway, the town begins to feel and look different. Yuen Long has all but lost its charm.

It is my luck, therefore, that I stumble upon a tiny block skirted by semi-outdoor food stalls that appear to have endured certain age. It is January 1, the streets hum with an optimistic spirit spilt over from the previous night's New Year's Eve countdown. But with so many choices of places to eat, which one shall I pick? The Golden Rule: when in doubt, pick the one with the most customers.

Busy waitstaff delivering orders and buttering toast
At 4:00PM, this place is hopping. 西苑咖啡食店, roughly translated as Sai Yuen Coffee House, is perhaps best described as a 'teahouse' - a very local, traditional one at that - with nothing short of its plasticware, foldable tables and stools, runned by seasoned hands and serving all but the most familiar local fare and refreshments. Call it all-day breakfast - not pancakes, eggs, bacon or hash - but the local favorite bo lo bao, instant soup noodles with assorted toppings, various local versions of sandwiches, accompanied with Hong Kong-style milk tea and coffee.

And at four this afternoon, when every other Hong Konger is enjoying afternoon tea, I am hungry for my first bite of the day (yes, I had a late night) - and the first meal of the year - and nothing sounds better than comfort food. As is customary when there is a shortage of seats, I settle in a table with complete strangers, and start off with a ginger tea, an iced milk tea, and a bo lo yau.

Milk tea, hot ginger tea, and a bo lo yau
Hot ginger tea - not always found in most beverage lists across the city, this is certainly a perfect winter warmer that is believed to relieve rheumatism. Simply boiled with heaps of fresh ginger and brown rock sugar, the tea is spicy and not excessively sweet. Judging from the crates full of ginger in the back of the teahouse and from the generous amount of ginger floating in my glass, Sai Yuen definitely doesn't take its creation lightly. Also available on the menu is hot ginger cola - a supposedly great cold reliever that requires no more sugar than the Coke's own sugar content.  

Bo lo bao (菠蘿包), known as pineapple bun in Chinese, is a staple in Chinese bakeries and cha chaan tengs. A sweet pastry-bun, the bo lo bao is so named for its golden, crunchy, sugary, checkered top likened to the outer shell of the tropical fruit. When hot out of the oven, this local favorite is to die for.
Bo lo baos in the display oven 
Here at Sai Yuen Coffee House, a small stainless steel display oven keeps the buns ready to be reheated in the tiny toaster oven underneath. And on this special day, I have the perfect excuse for a mega-caloric and cholesterol indulgence - I treat myself to a bo lo yau (菠蘿油), which is a pineapple bun that comes halved and stuffed with a slab of chilled butter inside. Though I usually prefer mine piping hot, as a bo lo yau the bun is served only slightly warm perhaps to prevent the butter slab from melting. Gasp. At HKD 7, the bo lo yau is so divine, but so bad for you - but can you really deny that butter makes anything devilish good?

I put the guilt temporarily aside as the golden top gives way to a scrumptious crunch... then the butter and the world altogether dissolving on my tongue. It is January 1 after all. Save the new year resolutions for Chinese New Year.

Tables filled with patrons at Sai Yuen Coffee House

[Any comments or thoughts? Share with me!]

Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome to Worldly Eats, Local Treats!

Hong Kong celebrates as it enters 2011
Happy 2011! As we step into a brand new year, it is time to pull together my long-planned 'travelfoodlog' - a blog that brings together my adventures around the world and my encounters with local foods, tastes, and customs. A photographic journey that lets you into my gastronomic world of discovery (and sometimes nostalgia) through chaotic markets, slippery alleys, homely diners and quaint coffee shops. Follow me in my experiences of the good and the bad in jaded tourist traps or, as I much prefer, take the road less traveled and stumble upon unexpected rewards. Good food is everywhere, and most often it doesn't require a big checkbook.

I am always hungry for more, and I hope in reading my blog that you will, too.