I had a lot of anxiety about moving to Hong Kong. Husband, at the time fiance, went to Hong Kong in 2000 and I was to go after we married in 2001. I am by nature incredibly resistant to change and am an introvert. As I write that I hear the snickers and the collective protest of those friends who know me, adamantly denying this statement, but it is true. I am in my true core an introvert. I enjoy being alone, I seek peace and solitude and I really don't enjoy much meeting new people and strangers. I'd rather be with the few people that know me and don't judge me than go and meet new people and distant acquaintances at a party. A move to a foreign country, where I knew no one except Husband petrified me and regularly brought me to tears in the year leading up to my move. Friends would be startled as I would spontaneously burst into racking sobs as we drove somewhere and they would hurriedly try and comfort me and make me feel better.
One of my first experiences in Hong Kong was going to a dinner hosted by a few Husband's coworkers. They wanted to welcome me and get to know me so we ended up up at a very elegant restaurant called the China Club in Central Hong Kong. Even before the evening, I was quite apprehensive about the whole event as it meant I was meeting some new people. There would be three other couples present and the idea of having to meet six new people completely sent my anxiety mode into overdrive. I could not relax in the hours leading up to the dinner and I kept asking husband, "Are they nice? What do they do? What are they like?" all the while the the knots in my stomach tightened and my heart pounded faster.
By the time we arrived at the restaurant, which was beautifully decorated, very Old Shanghai with gorgeous dark wood and dim lighting, I completely felt out of place. I was dressed very differently from the women in the restaurant (I was in Banana Republic chic while they were dressed in Hong Kong chic) and I felt very ginormous compared to all the women in the restaurant. I was at least four inches taller than most of the women and definitely much broader and heavier than most.
At this point, my anxiety level reached such a pitch I could feel myself breaking out into a massive sweat. I quickly excused myself, ran into the bathroom, closed myself into a stall and promptly began taking off all of my clothes as the clothes were going to be drenched in sweat. I couldn't stop sweating and my pulse was hopping erratically and I began to hyperventilate. I so much wanted to be a calm, collected woman of the world, sophisticated and elegant, but could not project that self from inside a bathroom stall half clothed and panting. I spent more than a few moments there, trying to collect my wits, wondering if I was ever going to be able to live in this country and wondering if it was necessary for me to show my place in public. I wanted to just to go back to my tiny apartment, overlooking the city and be alone. However, at some point I was going to have to emerge and when I had calmed down somewhat, I managed to pull myself together, managed to put my clothes back on and go to the restaurant.
That evening, one of the women (tiny little thing) was wonderfully warm to me and really catered to me and tried to make me feel at ease. She repeatedly asked for me to take the first serving, if not serving me first and explained what each of the exotic looking dishes was for me to try. (This was not your typical American Chinese restaurant by any stretch of the imagination.) I tried to enjoy the food, but most of the while was so nervous and anxious it ended up in my knotted stomach and was not enjoyed. I missed out on an excellent food experience because of my anxiety.
However, a few months later, the same woman whom I had begun to know as a friend, invited me again to another restaurant to meet for lunch. SFJ and PCK met me at Ye Shanghai, a restaurant I knew nothing about. When I arrived the two began discussing the order, asking me what I liked, and as I had never been there, I just told them to order what was good. After their rapid discussion with the waiter in Cantonese, I sat back and told myself, THIS meal I'm going to enjoy. Soon the food began to arrive and I was amazed at the delicious dishes.
The one dish that stood out to me that day was a Minced Chicken with Pinenuts and Sesame Pockets. Friend SFJ served it to me, filling a delicious baked sesame pocket with a rich chicken filling. She handed it to me, warned me it was hot, and told me to eat it. I did. And it was love at first bite. It was a bite so memorable even now, thinking about it makes my mouth water. The chicken, the pinenuts, the warm sesame pocket all together just made something so unusual, I couldn't stop eating it. In fact, I think that day, my amazement and joy at the dish must have been pretty evident on my face for my lunchmates told me to eat many of them and I did. I filled myself with them.
When I got home that day, I told Husband that I had eaten something so good that I needed to eat it again. Upon hearing WHICH restaurant, he groaned and said, "How much did you pay for lunch? When I sheepishly told him that it was about $35 USD equivalent, he shook his head and said, "I hope you liked it." When I nodded ecstatically, he hugged me and said, "We can go and eat it for special occasions." And we did. Any opportunity I had for a special occasion, we went back to Ye Shanghai. When guests or friends came to Hong Kong, Ye Shanghai. When I had a birthday, Ye Shanghai. When I got my teaching job, Ye Shanghai. When I was pregnant with Daughter #1, I ate there many times as it was one of my major cravings.
Since coming back to the US, that dish haunts my taste buds and my memory. Sometimes I will even smell the ghost of the dish and immediately want to eat it again. I recently began combing the web, Chinese cookbooks and my brain to see if I could come up with some sort of similar dish. After a few rounds, I came up with this. It is for sure, the poorest of imitations of the dish I had at Ye Shanghai, but it has enough of the notes, flavor, and consistency to make me think I'm almost sitting back in Hong Kong.
**Cooking notes. New ingredient - Shao Xing Rice Wine. Feel free to substitute sake instead. (The smell is VERY similar.)
Minced Chicken with Pinenuts in Sesame Pockets
Chicken and marinade (quick marinade - about 30 minutes to 1 hour)
1 1/4 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, minced (not ground up, but cut up into tiny pieces. This is the most time consuming portion.)
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons Shao Xing Wine (or sake if you don't want to buy yet another ingredient)
1 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 stalks of celery, finely chopped
10 water chestnuts (either fresh or canned) finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Shao Xing wine (or sake)
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup pinenuts
1 Package sesame pockets (Shao Bing - available at your local Chinese Supermarket. If you cannot find, simply substitute lettuce leaves.)
In a bowl, mix together minced chicken, ginger, garlic, soy sauce. Using your hands (covered with a disposable glove) mix together the ingredients so that it is all well incorporated. Put in refrigerator for 30 minutes or more.
Prepare celery and water chestnuts, chopped and ready to go. (water chestnuts are chopped and soaking in cold water to prevent them from changing color.)
In another bowl, mix together Shao Xing wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil. Set aside.
Heat oil over high heat in a heavy skillet until it is shimmering. Add marinated chicken all at once and quickly stir fry until all chicken is cooked all the way through, about 6 minutes. Quickly add drained water chestnuts and celery, cooking for another minute. Pour sauce mixture over the top and saute until the sauce reduces down and coats the chicken pieces, about 2 minutes. Add pinenuts and toss together. Remove from heat.
Toast sesame pockets in an oven until golden brown. Slice in half.
Serve minced chicken with pockets on the side. Invite guests to stuff their own pockets and enjoy.
I am almost back in Hong Kong