Slightly Peckish: Vegetarian Temple Food and Claypot Rice (HK)
One of the things we wanted to do when we were in Hong Kong was to try some vegetarian temple food. So my friend S took us to a modern vegetarian restaurant in the Chin Lin Nunnery and Nan Liang Gardens on Diamond Hill in Kowloon. The restaurant is situated in the temple gardens and almost camouflaged to blend in. It's a peaceful oasis of green surrounded by high rises and a lovely place to go for a stroll.
We were curious to see what was on offer and whether they would match up to the meaty Chinese food we are so fond of. We started with deep fried bean curd rolls with mushrooms. These were crunchy, light and delicious. The mushrooms were an excellent substitute for meat.
We followed this with steamed vegetable buns which were light and fluffy.
The filling was the usual Chinese cabbage and mushrooms and was pretty normal.
We also ordered some congee (rice porridge) with mushrooms, cashew nuts and greens called matrimony vine similar to watercress and pea shoots.
The rice porridge had a gentle taste and was filling although I could have used a little more salt. This was a big hit with my Japanese friend.
However, they made it up with our aubergine (eggplant) dish which was tasty and bursting with flavour. Cooked with minced mushrooms and lots of chilli, we were surprised at how well it mimicked the fiery aubergine and mince dish we always order in Chinese restaurants.
It's probably one of the best Chinese aubergine dishes I've had and perfect with steamed rice.
We couldn't resist these lovely steamed buns filled with lotus paste. They were nice but not as fluffy as expected.
But the sweet soup made with cashew nut paste and topped with golden peach jelly was the dish that surprised us the most. This innocent, deceptively plain bowl was soft and creamy and with just the right amount of tart sweetness provided by the jelly. It was probably one of the loveliest desserts I've ever had. I don't normally go for sweet, soupy desserts in Chinese restaurants unless it has sago in it, but this was a revelation and I intend to seek some out in London.
The restaurant was full of local tourists and booking is essential. We were all pleasantly surprised at how satisfying the dishes proved and the attention to detail in the ingredients, simply by using a mixture of mushrooms, bean curd and nuts to add depth and texture to the dishes. I'm curious to explore more temple food.
The next day, after an afternoon of sightseeing and snacking, we weren't sure if we could fit in dinner. But of course we were deluding ourselves. My Japanese friend had found a claypot rice restaurant in her trusted Chikyu no Arukikata (a popular Japanese travel guide) and we managed to find this small, local place in Mongkok using our smartphone (thank you 4G).
I think they get quite a few Japanese visitors at Chuen Moon Kee Restaurant as their menus had both English and Japanese translations and filled with pictures. But when we were there, it was filled with young locals all sharing claypots. They had a vast menu from claypots with a variety of different toppings to cooked and stir-fried dishes.
We were served complementary soup made with pea shoots and some kind of bean. This was unexpectedly tasty and had small chunks of meat, probably pork, which fell off the bone.
Our first claypot came with huge prawns on a bed of vermicelli and rice.
We were instructed to add a sweetish soy sauce to the rice and tuck in. We actually didn't need the extra sauce for this one because the prawns, cooked in their shells and very juicy, bled such flavour into the rice and was tasty on its own.
Our second claypot was with abalone, two whole ones in their shells plus slices.
Although it looked prettier, the flavours weren't really strong enough and we doused it with the sauce.
And as an accompaniment to all the rice, we also ordered their aubergine and mince dish which came piping hot and was incredibly tasty and put up a fair fight against the aubergine dish we had at the vegetarian temple restaurant the day before.
And when the waitress saw that we had dug into a fair bit of rice, she instructed us to etch away at the burnt, hardened edges and turn them over to eat.
This was what everyone looks forward to when eating claypot rice -- the crispy bits!
NAN LIAN GARDENS
60 Fung Tak Road
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2329 8811
CHUEN MOON MEE RESTAURANT
G/F, Man Fok Building
419 Reclamation Street
Mong Kok, Hong Kong
T: +852 3760 8855