Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Peking Garden

One fine Saturday evening hubby and I took some clients of his, who also happen to be friends of ours, to Peking Garden Restaurant at the basement of Alexandra House in Central.

We ordered the Peking Duck , a whole bird with glistening crisp brown skin blanketing a thin layer of fat and juicy, tender meat. Peking Duck is usually served with paper-thin round pancakes, sliced cucumbers and scallions, and plum or hoisin sauce. Most people are familiar with the way this is eaten -- place a pancake on your plate, choose some skin, or meat, or both from the expertly sliced pieces on a serving plate and place them in the middle or near the edge of the wrapper. Add a sliver or two of of scallion and cucumber, spread a teaspoonful of hoisin or plum sauce on the wrapper or drizzle it over the duck, wrap the whole thing like you would a tiny burrito and bite into the fattening, heavenly goodness of roast duck made slightly sweet by the sauce and tempered by the freshness of the vegetables.

The waiter, after presenting the duck to your table but before wielding his sharp knife to create perfect slivers, will give you a choice between separating the skin from the meat, or slicing them together. I knew hubby would ignore the healthier meat and go for the skin if he had a choice so we opted for the latter. Some restaurants in Manila prepare the duck three ways (the skin and topmost layer of meat with pancake, the meat separated from the bones minced with vegetables and served in lettuce cups, and the bones as a rich, clear soup). Here in Hong Kong most will do it two ways, invariably with pancake, and a choice of minced with lettuce cups or stir-fried with a special sauce. Whenever hubby and I eat this together, we don't order it a second or third way. We ask for the remainder to be chopped and we take it home. I shred the meat and saute it with minced onions, carrots, fresh Chinese black mushrooms and water chestnut. Lettuce leaves are washed and dried and serve as pretty vessels for the crunchy mixture. More hoisin sauce is drizzled on top. The bones I boil and the resulting broth I freeze, after skimming all the fat out. I haven't used my duck stock yet, but will write about whatever I invent when it happens. In Peking Garden the minced duck meat is stir-fried with pine nuts, which gave it an interesting texture and flavor.

Another Chinese specialty which needs to be ordered a day before is the Beggar' Chicken. Since childhood I have heard about this dish, so named because a beggar in China invented it.

There are two versions of the story I know. The first is during the war, a beggar stole a chicken from someone's backyard. Hearing soldiers approaching and fearing for his life lest he get caught, he covered the chicken in mud. The next day the mud had hardened but he still cooked it over a hot flame. The result? Fork-tender, juicy, fragrant, steaming chicken with all the flavors encapsulated in that hard shell. The second story is the official one. A beggar, for lack of cooking utensils, a stove and ingredients, decided to wrap his chicken in lotus leaves, cover the bird with mud, and cook it over a hot flame. A passing emperor and his entourage caught a whiff of the wonderful aroma of cooking chicken and when they tasted it, they declared it worthy of the Imperial Court. Appearance notwithstanding, Beggar's chicken is now a prized delicacy served in the best Chinese restaurants the world over. It doesn't come cheap, despite the name, and in fact some quarters prefer to call it the exact opposite -- something like Divine or Imperial Chicken (I read about this but can't find the corresponding article again).

At Peking Garden they let the special guest at the table wield the golden hammer and have his picture taken for posterity (and as a souvenir, which is a neat marketing gimmick for tourists). They paste the picture onto a cardboard stand with the Beggar's Chicken legend printed at the back.

They also give you a small red box with a miniature replica of the golden hammer. The guest lowers the hammer with all his might in order to crack the hard clay shell. The waiter then takes over and removes the cracked pieces and reveals the lotus-wrapped gem inside:

As each layer of fragrant leaf unfolds the scent of mysterious ingredients waft through the air, tantalizing the patrons seated beside us, who look on with barely concealed curiosity. After the last layer is opened up; very much like huge petals blossoming in the spring, except these petals are leaf green instead of a lovely shade of red or sunny yellow or periwinkle blue; the light brown chicken is exposed to the glaring lights, stares of wonder and whispered comments of nearly everyone surounding our table. The chicken is quite small, considering how bulky the mud encasing it was. The waiter gently prods it with a fork and knife to reveal the stuffing, the soft flesh yielding without resistance and the aroma still lingering.

The stuffing is made up of thickly sliced black mushrooms, mustard greens, sometimes pork or other native Chinese ingredients. Five-spice powder and star anise lend this dish its Oriental, somewhat herb-y and medicinal scent. It has an acquired taste, and despite the pomp and pageantry accompanying an order, some people just plain don't like the way it tastes. I've tried this twice, in the same restaurant but with different people, and I can honestly say only a handful of us adventurous eaters chewed, bit, chomped and sucked our way through to the bones.

This is my chopstick with bits of Beggar's chicken hanging on for dear life before they are devoured by hungry me.

Another dish that sparked interest at our table was the deep-fried conpoy (dried scallops extensively used in Chinese cooking) with bamboo shoots and glazed walnuts. It was listed under vegetables. I spied several tables with this dish and didn't want to be left out. It came and it conquered. It was delicious. The flavors intermingled and complemented each other perfectly, from the sweetness and crunch of the walnuts to the firm bite and hint of sourness from the bamboo shoots.

Of course dining at any Chinese restaurant means ordering the requisite seafood. That night we had scallops with broccoli and steamed fish. The scallops were very fresh and cooked just right, the flesh still retaining a bit of firmness to it. The broccoli, as evidenced by the picture, was excellent, a crown of deep, dark green florets enclircling the pristine whiteness of the scallops, which twinkled a bit in the light. Chinese restaurants almost always cook broccoli the right way, it always beckons with the lushness of its hue and is never ever mushy.

The steamed fish wasn't the usual whole live lapu-lapu steamed with ginger and scallions with a light soya sauce taht goes great with a fluffy bowl of rice. At Peking Garden they serve thin slivers of codfish in a sauce similar to that of whole fish, but made interesting with curls of chili and chopped black olives as garnish.

Other items we tried were the shrimp paste on deep-fried toast, double-boiled pork soup, and three kinds of dessert: coconut milk custard, purple rice with warm coconut milk (similar to guinatan), and apple and banana fritters (they coat the fruits in batter and fry it with sugar, similar to making the ubiquitous roadside bestsellers: banana-q and maruya, then they plunk these fritters down in a bowl of ice-cold soda water to "harden" the coating and give the fritters a caramelized feel).

It was a wonderful night of stories, laughter and authentic Chinese cuisine. There ar a few good reasons why Peking Garden has been around for so long and is patronized by locals and tourists alike. They are consistent, innovative, and for the elegant surroundings and food, the prices are acceptable. There are many small hole-in-the-walls and family-run restaurants in HK serving up the best dimsum, congee, fishball, wonton noodles and I'll write about them next time. In the meantime, if you find yourself in the heart of Central, try the lavishly decorated Peking Garden at Alexandra House.