Sunday, January 01, 2006

What I did on my winter vacation

If you bring your camera to Happy Seven on Spadina between College and Dundas, or to any of the restaurants in Toronto's Chinatown with specials menus written on posterboard on the other side of the restaurant from where you are seated, you can impress your dining companions by taking pictures of the menus and reading the offerings back--or passing the camera around--at the table. It was fun for a second but it didn't help us avoid the worst dish we ordered.

We took our chances on the shrimp in cream coconut sauce and it was dull, bland. If we had ordered crab or lobster in this sauce it would have been really sad. We've had a similar dish in Milwaukee with mayonnaise in the coconut sauce and candied walnuts alongside the broccoli and it's fantastic in an odd sort of way. Other Happy Seven dishes impressed us more, though, such as this chicken in black pepper sauce.

It was exactly as it looks and sounds: chicken, soy sauce, and lots of black pepper. It sizzled like crazy when it appeared on the table but as far as I can tell this is just theater. Perhaps you can set me right if I'm mistaken: does a sizzling dish actually taste any different from a non-sizzling dish?

This outing was part of the traditional Jewish Christmas Eve observance of going to the movies (Brokeback, thumbs way up) and eating Chinese. Our excellent Jewish Christmas celebrants, readers of this blog, were I & S of Ottawa, Ontario. Here's hoping 2006 brings you plenty of tasty treats, kids.

Christmas Day? More Chinese food and more movies. E and I talked my dad into dim sum and when our first choice place, Asian Legend, was mobbed with eager dim-summers (none of them Jewish from the looks of it), we decided we were too hungry to wait and wandered along Dundas and then up Spadina in search of a plan B. The Chinese in Toronto carry on on December 25 as though it were any old day. There were no people on any of the streets of the city except down in Chinatown, where everything was open. We lucked out by happening on Golden Leaf, just up Spadina from Dundas, for lunch.

The fried shrimp dumplings come wrapped in rice noodles. These alone might be worth a trip to Canada.

This appears on the menu as Jelly Fish. It was my idea to order it. I figured either it would be fish in jelly, which would appeal to my aspic-curiosity, or it would be jellyfish, which I figured would be worth a try if only as a future conversation piece. As you can see, it was the latter. It was served cold, dressed in sweetened sesame oil (from the taste of it). The texture was something like chewy noodles and any distinctive jellyfish flavor was totally obscured by the dressing. I would eat it again but I can't say the same for my wife or father.

One revelation was this fried rice in lotus leaf. When I peeled back the wrapping I was surprised to see that the rice was reddish. It had mushrooms, dried and fresh, tiny shrimp, and who knows what else in it. It had an unexpected sweet and savory flavor that at first I couldn't put my finger on, but after a few bites I decided that it must be tomato ketchup. This is now on my long list of things to put in fried rice (which includes suggestions, in the comments on previous entries, including lap cheong and kimchee).

Golden Leaf listed this as vegetable in oyster sauce and I don't know if the vegetable changes by season, but I would be disappointed if we ordered this next time and it wasn't bok choy. We loved this dish.

There were lots more items on the table that I could tell you about: sesame balls (wow), egg custard buns (wow wow wow), Malaysian satay (not so wow), BBQ pork buns (good), steamed dumplings (also good), fried squid fingers (zoinks). We ordered way more than three people should eat which is exactly how it should be. Then that night we saw Munich with Little Sister and I can't speak for her but neither E nor I thought it was "anti-Israel" or "making a case for moral equivalence between terrorists and Israelis" or "bad for the Jews." I don't buy any of these claims that have been made against the film which are, no doubt, a product more of the sensitivity of the Israel-Palestine issue than of the content of the movie. I should add that I really like Spielberg and think he gets a bad rap, so maybe it's just me. I found the film totally absorbing and not at all simplistic. The theater, one of the megaplexes that have been built since I moved away, was packed on the night of the 25th.

Eating out in Toronto is quite a bit better than eating in Milwaukee. This isn't to knock Milwaukee, which has plenty of interesting local things to eat. But Toronto is much bigger and way more cosmopolitan. The suburban shopping malls have bubble tea stands like the one above where they mix flavor shots (I had mandarin orange) with green tea, ice, and big black tapioca balls. (Bubbles? Not really, but the name is cute.)

And on Queen Street near John you can get a Nutella crèpe to tide you over until the next time you're in Paris. Maybe in the future there will be bubble tea and crèpes all over medium-size Midwestern American cities but I doubt it.

The display windows on Bloor Street were decked out for the holiday. You can't help but stare at these girly pink play appliances (I pointed these out to my brother and sister-in-law, also visiting for the week, which produced this post). The little man liked playing with these toys when we were in the store. They also carry a play kitchen in blue but it's not the one in the window. The pink one is called "retro kitchen" and the blue one "metro kitchen." The pink retro includes a sink, ice box--the catalog copy is retro too--and stove (and matches the pink washer/dryer) while the blue metro includes a kitchen island and fridge. None of this comes cheap, of course. At first I was pissed off by the equation of femininity with domestic work and it doesn't help any that they consider this "retro" as though now it's cool for women and girls to pretend like second-wave feminism never happened. But upon further reflection I kind of want one of these kitchens. They're so much nicer than the crap they sell at Toys R Us.

There was more spectacular food during our stay in the big city but some of it is trapped in my camera. I forgot to pack the cable to connect it to the computer, so only the shots I saved to disc before deleting a few days ago are available to me tonight. This means I have to stop now until I have my cable back, or until I break down and run to Radio Shack for a replacement. But before I do, the tastiest thing we ate in Toronto is right here:

This is my mother's Friday night chicken. She roasts it in pieces at 400 with lots of spices on the skin: sweet paprika, garlic and onion powder, black pepper, and salt. It's kosher poultry (and the label says "grain fed") and she always looks for the smallest pieces which, she says, are the tastiest. I cannot believe now that as a child I didn't like chicken skin and let my brother or father have mine every week, year after year. Perhaps they owe me something in return?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, mzn. The bubble tea craze invaded Singapore in the late 1990s. People were fascinated by the big back tapioca balls, which are called "pearls" here. Then there were bubble tea shops at every corner. Now the fad has passed. I think those tapioca balls are the best thing in bubble tea. And I really like crunchy jelly fish. We have it in packets in supermarkets here with dressing on the side.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

Jellyfish is one of those "texture foods" that the Chinese eat not for their flavor--which is usually mild or nonexistant, but for the interesting mouthfeel and texture. Jellyfish has really no discernable flavor to speak of, and is almost always served with a flavorful sauce, cold, as a contrast to something hot, flavorful and generally soft.

The first time I had jellyfish, my eyes few open when I bit into it, because it squeaked under my teeth. Uncle Ting, Zak's grandfather's business partner nodded and laughed when I blurted out, "It squeaks in my teeth. How neat!"

He said, "You get it right away. That is why we Chinese like jellyfish. Because it feels interesting in our teeth and squeaks."

At which point, I ate more of it, and the more I ate, the more I liked it.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the fried rice in lotus leaf had a little spicy zing to it, the ketchup-like ingredient might have been Phillipine Jufran brand Bananna Sauce, or some variant. Fascinating ingredient to toy with, that one. For instance, bake chicken wing sections at 400f for 20 minutes, brush them with the Jufran, and return to oven another 10 minutes.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I want one of those retro kitchens, too. And I am an old, old wave feminist. Pink is not just for girls, anyhow.
Shades of my unfulfilled childhood craving for an Easybake Oven.

You have inspired me to return to fried rice; possible combinations are now sorting and resorting in my head regularly.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

I love those super expensive PB kids kitchen toys, but I have to admit to a life-long dislike of pink. I think it has to do with the fact that my skin is pink, and my mother insisted upon making me wear pink when I was small, even though it made me look pinker.

I prefer blue.

But, in truth, I like the "retro" look better than the "metro."

They are great toys, in any case, and I can see both boys and girls liking to play with them.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Robyn said...

Allllhhgdhud dim suuum...damn, I wish I had that for Christmas. Not like I really celebrate it! :P

Fried rice sounds good. My favorite Chinese rice dish is sticky rice, but fried rice is verrry close.

Bring crepes and bubble tea to the midwest!

8:12 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Mumu: I agree that the tapioca is the best part of bubble tea. I'm sure you're sick of it if the fad hit Singapore years ago, but I've only had it a few times and I still think it's funny to chew while sipping a cold drink.

Barbara: Your comment makes me think that one should approach dim sum ordering more systematically than I have considered. The jellyfish was the first thing brought to the table and we had nothing soft and warm for contrast.

Anonymous (or anyone): does that sauce taste like bananas? Because I didn't think I tasted bananas but who knows.

Lindy & Robyn: fried rice is my favorite use for leftovers and it's remarkably versatile. But I've never tried making sticky rice so maybe that's the next step.

Glad to know that I'm not alone in my desire for PB kids toys. (Well, duh, they wouldn't put them in the window if they didn't think people would want them.) When I was in the store last week I wanted one of everything they sell, a marked contrast to the first time I was ever in there, when E was pregnant with the little man, when I wanted to run out of the place as fast as possible.

8:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like you enjoyed your trip, mzn. I hope there will be more highlights.

We were at Asian Legend in the afternoon on Christmas Day! Even though we celebrate Christmas, circumstances dictated that this year's family feast was held on the 26th. It was great to have Chinese food on Christmas! Next time you're in the city, try Xam Yu on Spadina - the freshest seafood in Chinatown. (Although, your mother's chicken is probably better.)

We couldn't get my son away from the PB vacuum cleaner for half-hour last week. At one point he said, "can I live in this store?"

10:03 PM  
Blogger the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

I have no comment; I just like to say Bloor.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That Jufran sauce has no discernable bananna flavor whatsoever. It's red and looks for all the world like tomato ketchup, tastes like a sweet, hot tomato ketchup without the vinegar component of ketchup. And oddly, it contains no tomatoes, bananna is the main ingredient.

11:23 AM  

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