Eating Local, Hong Kong Style: Ginger

I consider having a weekly CSA farmshare here in Hong Kong a triumph, one of those things I'm secretly really proud of (or not so secretly, once this is published.) But really, all it testifies to is the power of the internet ... just a few clicks, an email, a money transfer and voila ... fresh organic vegetables at our door.

We opt for the Western/Asian mixed pack, and thus we usually get an assortment of salad greens, tomatoes, bok choy, celery, carrots, eggplant, potatos, and all sorts of squash/winter melons that I never know quite what to do with. But last week, amidst the various greens and dirt-covered carrots, we got ginger. Ginger! Fresh-from-the-ground ginger. Still-dirty ginger. Of course ginger has to be locally grown somewhere, but, wow. This was a gift I did not expect.

The flavor of Hong Kong-grown ginger was familiar ... sharp, spicy, warm, pungent. But it was somehow a little fresher, and also completely lacking in bitterness. I know, I've never thought of grocery-store ginger as bitter either, but this was so un-bitter that it completely changed how I think about ginger. And the best thing? No fibers, no strings---just crisp, firm flesh, easy to slice or mince as fine as you like.

Immediately upon discovery visions of candied ginger filled my head---specifically, chocolate-dipped candied ginger. Elegant, sophisticated, and completely delicious. I decided then and there that this would be my Christmas present for the Hong Kong crowd, and they would all see me as the pastry chef I used to be. Sigh. This isn't the first time that Christmas plans have, um, over-reached.

The candying procedure itself was straightforward (I used instructions from David Lebovitz) and it's basically the same process as candying ornage rind. But after cooking the ginger in the syrup, you have a choice---either to drain the ginger from the syrup, dip in granulated sugar and let dry overnight, or store in the syrup. Of course what I had imagined was the dry version, but I hadn't thought through the process to the point of letting it dry on a rack overnight. What's the problem, you say? One word: cockroaches.

Not that we've seen any, let me hasten to add, but that doesn't mean much. We know cockroaches are a reality in Hong Kong, and in an old building like ours it's almost a given. But I'm as afraid of the chemicals used to kill cockroaches as I am of the little guys themselves, so I've developed an obsession about doing the dishes, sweeping and taking out the trash. Truly, I've never been concerned about leaving a few dishes in the sink all day, and I've certainly never felt a need to sweep after each meal, but this is my new reality. Dirty dishes hardly last 5 minutes in this kitchen, friends. So leaving sugary, candied ginger slices out on the counter overnight? No way.

I drained some of the ginger and let it dry on a rack in the refrigerator, just to see what would happen, but no luck. It's just too moist in there. (For that matter, the humidity is out of control right now, so maybe they wouldn't have dried properly on our counter anyway?)

Alas, no elegant, dark-chocolate-dipped ginger for me. What I do have, though, is a whole jar filled with syrupy sweet, chewy ginger slices and lovely ginger-spiked syrup...just right for adding to cocktails, pouring over ice cream, pouring over oatmeal!, or using in salad dressings. And I have these cookies, which are so comforting and cozy I can almost forgive them for not being the confection I wanted.

Chewy Ginger-Chocolate Cookies

(probably my all-time favorite cookies … from a Martha Stewart Living magazine years ago)
  • 7 ounces semisweet chocolate (or good quality chocolate chips)
  • 1 ½ cups +1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger (or a couple tablespoons chopped candied ginger)
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • ½ cup molasses
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
Line two baking sheets with parchment. Chop chocolate into 1/4-inch chunks; set aside. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cocoa.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and grated ginger until whitened, about 4 minutes. Add brown sugar; beat until combined. Add molasses; beat until combined. (Note: there is no electric mixer in this tiny kitchen. A spatula works just fine, as long as the butter is soft enough, but don't let it be too soft and melty either. A KAF dough whisk is brilliant for this.)
In a small bowl, dissolve baking soda in 1 1/2 teaspoons boiling water. Beat half of flour mixture into butter mixture. Beat in baking-soda mixture, then remaining half of flour mixture. Mix in chocolate; turn out onto a piece of plastic wrap. Pat dough out to about 1 inch thick; seal with wrap; refrigerate until firm, 2 hours or more.
Preheat oven to 325°F. Roll dough into 1 1/2- inch balls; place 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Refrigerate 20 minutes. Roll in granulated sugar. Bake until the surfaces crack slightly, 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes; transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, which you only need to do if you plan to transport them. Otherwise, eat warm, and preferably with a cold glass of milk.  Yields: 2 dozen cookies.


Phuket, part two.

Okay, so I know that things sounded idyllic in that last post. And actually, they were pretty nearly so. Matt has had a busy fall, and I'm finding parenting a toddler to be way more exhausting than the infant days, so we were both ready for vacation. It was heavenly to sit and knit, listening to my son and his father shriek with laughter as they chased each other on the beach or ran into the waves. Finn loved all that time with his papa and Matt and I each got alone time as well.

The resort we stayed in was, as I alluded to, quite hip. Every detail was clearly designed and in keeping with the theme, which references the history of tin mining here in Phuket.

It all felt very industrial, with lots of metal and concrete, like a hip urban nightclub. The techno music that played in the public areas--bathrooms, lobby, restaurants--added to that "club" feel.

It was cool---our room, and in particular, the shower, felt like something in a design magazine.

But it's not the type of space I could ever live in, and in fact started to feel a little oppressive. Matt, however, didn't find it oppressive at all and really loved how clean and modern it felt---not fussy or hokey in the least.

The other part of the trip which gave us mixed feelings was a mass-market tourist day trip out to the Phi Phi Islands. It was absolutely gorgeous and almost unreal to swim in such clear turquoise waters. And snorkeling among coral reefs and colorful fish is otherworldly and dream-like.

But ours was just one of so many boats, all putting down anchors in that coral, and we were just two of so many snorkelers, putting our sunscreen-lathered bodies into that water, letting the waves wash those chemicals right off of us.

We felt downright queasy when our boat pulled up to "Monkey Island" and people fed the monkeys from the boat. Everybody wanted a great picture, but the guides were clearly nervous, since the monkeys have become mean and bold, thanks to boat after boat of tourists bringing them food. We were warned not to let Finn near, since the monkeys have a tendency to bite children, and adults too, if they don't get what they want.

We don't regret seeing such beauty at all, nor are we sorry to put money into an economy that is still recovering from the 2004 tsunami. But I do regret not doing more advance research on responsible day-trip operators. I studied the environmental impacts of tourism while in Indonesia and I know better than to just go with the best price. We plan to return to Thailand over Christmas break (this time to Chiang Mai) and this is good motivation to do our homework on the various elephant camps and trekking outfits located in that region.

I guess the truth is just that travel is always complex, and that as much as local areas benefit from and rely on tourism dollars, there is a cost as well. From increased sewage load and trash production to outright exploitation of cultural practices or wildlife, rarely is the tourism industry entirely benign. We were reminded, in our island day-trip, that travel involves responsibility, and requires recognition of the social exchange that takes place, more than just the financial one. My responsibility, as a tourist, goes beyond simply learning something of the language and customs, though that is a good place to start. My responsibility involves research on activities and purchases that I can feel good about, and involves slowing down enough to treat each person I meet with courtesy and respect.

In the end, I guess, being a responsible tourist isn't all that different than being a responsible human being. The cultural differences may complicate what "responsible" looks like, but the limited demands of each day allow more than enough space and time for reflection.


Phuket, part one.

This past week we've been in Phuket, Thailand. (n.b. Phuket is pronounced "poo-ket." It hadn't occurred to me that there was a less-than-family-friendly way to mispronounce Phuket, until my friend Andrea left a comment on facebook alluding to said mispronunciation. Now, of course, that's all I can think of when I see the word written. Thanks, Andrea!)

Phuket has quite a reputation for parties and sleaze ... think beach spring break all year round. But we found a resort in a quiet village and haven't seen a bit of that. Instead, this is what we've been experiencing ...

  • waves crash on the shore (obvious, I know, but true)
  • new phrases from Finn: "okey-i" (okay, guys) "oh no!" (mainly said if loses a ball) "ten-ten" (tennis, his current obsession) and "be-ball" (beach ball)
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle---we listen at night (after Finn goes to sleep) on one of two porches. I knit, Matt stretches.
  • techno-pop music throughout the resort (more on this later)
  • sugar-soft sand (again, obvious, but so marvelously true) and salty breezes
  • a foot massage while lounging on the beach (heaven!)
  • wool in my hands (is it crazy to knit on the beach?)
  • just a teensy sunburn on my shoulders and on Matt's neck, but none for Finn!
  • king prawns with garlic, grilled fish with lemongrass and chilies, curried crab
  • fresh juice, milkshakes, and cocktails everyday...Finn is in love with virgin pina coladas.
  • amazing breakfasts: fruit, cheese, breads, pastries, waffles, omelets, fresh honey from a honeycomb!
  • Finn gain confidence with the waves
  • fishermen bring in the boats while we eat dinner
  • Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter--another Korean movie which will get full review next week
marveling at:
  • the wonderful way baby powder gets sand off a baby's body ... off a grown-up's body too!
  • this ultra-cool hotel, almost too cool for me.
  • classic tropical postcard scenes: white sand, clear turquoise waters
wishing for:
  • nothing, except that you were here. Truly. We said many times on this vacation that as wonderful as it was, it would be better to share it with friends or family. So, we're heading to Chiang Mai for Christmas ... anyone coming along?
More later, and lots of pictures over at flickr.


Hong Kong health care: a note on costs

Ok, this is the last thing I'll say about health care, in Hong Kong or otherwise. First, I heartily recommend last week's This American Life episode about the exploding costs of health care.

Said episode prompted me to ask my pregnant friend about the costs of maternity care in HK. Her first baby was at a public hospital, and the second one will be in a private one. A number of things surprised me about our conversation:

1. The costs were much less than I expected, even at the fancy private hospital on The Peak. An average normal delivery here in a private hospital runs between HK $60,000 and $100,000, which is about US $7500-13,000. That includes a 3 day stay, doctor's fees, epidural and anesthesiologist's fees and pediatric care. I don't know how much insurance paid for our delivery of Finn in the US, so maybe these costs are comparable (anyone know?), but honestly, US $10,000 seems sort of cheap. It's not cheap, I know that, but that's the point.

At a public hospital, on the other hand, for people with an ID card, it truly is cheap--between HK $1000-$10,000 (if in a private room), which is about US $100-1200. Lots of people choose a half/half option, going to a private doctor for prenatal care and then delivering in a public hospital. Private prenatal care runs between HK $10,000-20,000, which is about US $1280-2560.

2. The costs, both for prenatal care and for the delivery packages, are readily available. Hospital websites have them posted as well as online forums like geobaby. Maybe you can find a breakdown of the prices for medical services in the US, but I've never seen one. Having insurance meant I never cared what the cost was for a service, I just cared if it was covered.

3. One practice I find appalling here is that some doctors (and hospitals) charge more for their services if you use a private room rather than a shared room--up to twice as much. The only thing I can chalk this up to is pure greed--how could it possibly cost more to care for a person in a private room? You already pay more, of course, to the hospital for the private room, which makes sense. But to pay more for the doctor's fees, for the delivery, for the epidural, for the anesthesiologist? That's crazy.


Dragon Dance

I posted some pictures both of the Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns and the Tai Hang dragon dance over on flickr, but I realized a little explanation was in order.

From Wikipedia: The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the few most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, the others being Chinese New Year andWinter Solstice, and is a legal holiday in several countries. Farmers celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season on this date. Traditionally on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon, and eat moon cakes and pomelos together. Accompanying the celebration, there are additional cultural or regional customs, such as:

  • Eating mooncakes outside under the moon (lots of this ... we, for the record, don't really like mooncakes)

  • Putting pomelo rinds on one's head  (we didn't see any of this!)

  • Carrying brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, floating sky lanterns (lots of this, too, though a lot of the lanterns these days are plastic and shaped like cartoon characters!)

  • Burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang'e (lots)

  • Planting Mid-Autumn trees (didn't see any of this ...)

  • Collecting dandelion leaves and distributing them evenly among family members (nor this)

  • Fire Dragon Dances (well, as a matter of fact ...)

So I've mentioned how much we like our new neighborhood, Tai Hang. And this past weekend we realized that it is home to one of these dragon dances. From the Tai Hang Residents Welfare Association's Website:

The Fire Dragon Dance in Tai Hang has its origin in 1880. Tai Hang was a small Hakka village by the sea and most of the villagers were either farmers or fishermen. They lived a simple but peaceful life. The story began in one stormy night when the villagers killed a serpent. The body of the dead serpent disappeared in the next morning. Right after a plague spread out and many villagers died of infection. One night, an old villager saw Buddha in his dream and was advised to stop the plague by performing a fire dragon dance and burning fire crackers in the Mid-Autumn nights. It might be the sulphur in the fire crackers that disinfect the village and the villagers were saved. Since then, the villagers in Tai Hang would perform fire dragon dance during the Mid-Autumn Festival every year to commemorate the incident. The fire dragon is made of stuffed straw and stuck full of incense sticks, and is 220 feet long with 32 segments.

There are lots of photos and even videos online you can google, but here are some great ones---this guy obviously had a much better view than we did!

I should say that we didn't actually stick around for the whole thing ... It was getting very crowded, and late, and all that incense puts off a lot of smoke. But Finn loved the drums, he loved drumming Matt's head, and he's been talking about drums ever since. In fact, today we walked around the street where the dance had been and all he could say was "drums drums drums."


Year of Asian Cinema : 3

Since last I posted we've developed quite a list of titles, thanks to your comments and emails and Matt's movie-watching colleagues. I'll try to compile them someplace so you can watch along with us ...
Now, onto no. 3.
  • Secret Sunshine - Lee Chang-dong, 2007
  • viewed on Monday night, September 28, 2009
  • Korean, with English subtitles
Our new movie rental store, like most movie rental stores here in Hong Kong, is tiny and packed to the gills with dvds and vcds. Not arranged or organized in any manner I can discern, finding a particular movie and then figuring out what it's about is tricky, to say the least. Last week I was in there with Finn, trying to get in and out as quickly as possible, and this movie had an interesting cover and had won some awards. It was almost dinner time and Finn was cranky, so even with no plot synopsis, that was good enough for me.

Well. Secret Sunshine is quite a movie to just happen upon. And though I heartily recommend it, I also think it's fair to know what you're in for. That two-sentence plot synopsis I didn't find would have read something like this: "A recent widow moves with her young son back to her husband's hometown to start a new life. Her plans shatter when tragedy strikes, and she turns to religion in her grief."

That tells you right there that any parent is going to have a hard time watching this, and any person of faith is going to be challenged by questions about God's will, forgiveness, grace, and hypocrisy among the faithful. It's intense and emotional, yes, but with a long slow burn rather than a punch in the stomach. We're still thinking and processing, a week later.

Perhaps it's not as gut-wrenching as it could be because it's a Korean film instead of an American one. The slow pace and lack of music just make it feel very real ... and grief, in real life, often takes time to erupt, with plenty of long pauses at the kitchen sink where you forget what you're doing. Matt pointed out that the Asian films we've seen thus far are even lit differently than American ones, with a cool, blue-gray realism, rather than golden-hued sentimentality. (Have you seen The Secret Life of Bees? A beautiful movie, and we love the book, but really, did the entire movie take place at sunset?)

Secret Sunshine's portrayal of Christianity is a fair one, I think. Not entirely flattering, it's not mocking or ridiculous either. The woman, Shin-ae, becomes a Christian as a direct response to her grief, and it's clear she has a lot of work to do emotionally to synthesize her grieving process with her newfound faith. It's not clear, however, that the Christians she knows will be able to help her move beyond simple answers to a more mature understanding, and I kept wishing I could tell her that doubts, struggle and anger with God are as much a part of faith as that blessed assurance is.

The scene that has provoked the most conversation between Matt and I is about forgiveness, and I should warn you now that if you plan to watch Secret Sunshine and you hate spoilers, you should stop reading. Come back after you've seen it and tell me what you think. Really, I don't want to ruin the impact of this scene, and the review digresses into theological ramblings at this point anyway. It's clear that I really just need to talk about this film some more, so please---go watch it and respond!

For the rest of you, Shin-ae decides to convey forgiveness to the man who has harmed her, and said scene is of their conversation. (Alright, so question no. 1 is---did she really need to convey the forgiveness? Could she just forgive him privately but not face him or tell him? She thinks she does need to tell him, at least in part as a witness to God's love, and maybe, deep down, out of a desire for some level of power over him, the power of offering or withholding forgiveness.)

To her surprise, she finds that he too has become a Christian, and that he has received absolution from God and feels at peace. She has the response that any of us would have, I think, and resents this. Clearly she's not ready for him to feel peace, not when her pain is still so raw. Nor is she thrilled to have even this power taken away as well.

If we are to take him at his word that he has truly become a Christian, which is really all we can do, then we have to accept that he's in the same position that she is, spiritually speaking. Both in psychological torment, both need immediate relief, both find relief in religion. And as she feels a need to forgive, he feels a need for forgiveness. After their conversation, we are left wondering if the forgiveness was real---both what she offered and what he felt from God. Did the fact that she still wanted him to feel some pain mean she wasn't really ready to forgive? Did the fact that he already seemed free of pain or guilt mean that he hadn't really faced what he did, and thus maybe God's forgiveness of him wasn't real?

I see forgiveness as more of a process than an event, and this understanding shapes my view of this scene. Her forgiveness was real, just not complete. When anger or pain is still fresh, even the desire to forgive counts. And even though it wasn't too early to want to forgive, it probably was too early to see him. She'll need to forgive again and again, as new layers of anger and grief emerge. And as for the forgiveness being mixed up with some superiority or desire for power, that's pretty real for us humans.

Likewise, his absolution and peace are real (again, if we take him at his word), much as I hate to admit it. I may think this guy eventually deserves forgiveness (or at least I can accept God's forgiveness of him) but I certainly don't think he deserves peace ... not yet, anyway. God, however, extends grace to all of us, deserving or not. I'm trusting that as time passes and he grows in faith, he will grow in compassion. His understanding of his sin will grow, and he will likewise need to seek forgiveness over and over again. Not because God's forgiveness wasn't complete, but because his own repentence wasn't. Again, forgiveness is more of a process than an event, and God forgives to whatever extent that we can repent. Just as Paul tells us to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling," (Philippians 2:12) we work out our forgiveness, in just as much fear and trembling.

In Secret Sunshine we get to watch some of this working out, and it's not at all clear where Shin-ae will end up. Our preacher this past weekend reminded us that the larger meaning behind the cliche "Amazing grace" is that grace puts us in a maze. It is bewildering, it makes us feel lost and unsure where to go. The lame walk, the poor are fed, and yes, the undeserving get forgiven. Of course, Shin-ae is already in a maze, put there both by random bad luck and intentional violence. She thinks Christianity is her straight path out of that maze, but it just doesn't work that way. As a believer myself, I have every hope that somehow God's peace will sustain her through the coming hard days, and will be there, waiting, when she is ready for it.


Health Care: a quick update

A quick update regarding maternity care in public vs. private systems in Hong Kong.

Were we to have a baby here, a priority for us would be to have the best possible chance of a natural delivery, with few medical interventions. (And lest you think I'm just trying to be a super-woman, this is as much because I'm a total scaredy-cat when it comes to hospitals, needles, IVs and the like as it is anything else.) What I've heard lately, in several conversations with women who've delivered here, is that for my goal, the public hospitals are the way to go. This is entirely anecdotal, and our speculations about why this is so are just that: speculations. But for what it's worth, here they are:

1. Cost. C-sections are expensive, flat-out. So in the public system there's no incentive for doctors to push for one unless truly necessary. Of course the fear is that doctors might encourage against one even when necessary, but nothing I've heard would suggest that happens here. They also don't hold out on medication for women who want it.

2. Doctors. In public hospitals, you see a team of doctors for pre-natal care (called ante-natal care here, but that always confuses me) and whoever is on call catches the baby. In the private system, you pick a doctor for all the prenatal care and the delivery, and so they have every incentive to encourage scheduled c-sections and to speed up labor that isn't fitting well into their schedule.

3. Population. Rates of scheduled sections are very high in the private hospitals, and this likely has something to do with both the doctors who work there, and the women who use the private system. Have to be wealthy, likely to be busy, working at an executive or managerial level, have a short maternity leave, etc.

4. Trickle effect. When the majority of women get scheduled sections, nurses and doctors don't get as much practice at helping women have natural, non-medicated births. They don't know what positions to suggest, they don't have as many tricks for helping with pain relief, and they don't always see or have experience with the wide range of "normal" in labor and delivery.

Let me be clear that this isn't to suggest that birth in the public system is always rosy ... laboring in the ward sounds horrendous to me, and I've heard very mixed reports on the amount of labor support you get from the nurses and midwives. But still, I was surprised to hear that for a natural delivery, the public system can be a better option.