Sunday, May 18, 2008

The ‘Chinese’ Hibiscus

This is definitely not an article on the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (Bunga Raya or "Chinese hibiscus") which is the national flower of Malaysia. The article is on the ‘Cantonese’ Hibiscus a small café by the river, situated at the Baga Creek which is slowly making a name for itself as a Chinese restaurant.

How did we come to hear about it? Ask Christine and Mark Pinto Rosario. Their experience, as they described it…was so heavenly…that they firmly recommend we try out each and every dish listed on the menu. And so here we were seated, the moonlight playing tricks on our senses, as we sat listening to Clifford Liu one of the partners in this enterprise.

But before we get to the dishes, first generation Cantonese cooking as explained by Clifford, there is something one needs to know about Chinese cuisine other than the chilli vinegar and the soya sauce that we so lavishly put into the dish the moment it appears on the table.

There is a big difference about the diets between Northern and Southern China, that is, the dishes made by Northern Chefs are in heavier taste and those are comparably light in Southern Chefs recipes, sometimes we say it is tasty as sweet and fresh in Southern Chinese food. In the Northern and Western Provinces of China like Lingxia, Hebei, Sichuan , Shenxi, and Yunnan, the diets are made hot and spicy.

What category of food does Clifford Liu prepare? The Food and Beverage expert who has worked with the Mandarin restaurant in Bombay and then with the Great Wall at the Leela’s and finally commissioning the Olive Restaurant…a haunt of the Bollywood set.
Well he has got an ace or two up his sleeve…he does not recommend the spicy variety. You see as per ancient Chinese belief, spicy food was cooked in the Northern and Western provinces because of the humid cold weather and high altitude. Chinese people believe that to perspire is a good method for preventing diseases caused by humidity and cold. Well, we Goan’s would definitely not want to perspire much…its far too hot, so while he does keep a few dishes to titillate those who would like to have their sweat glands work overtime, his food is milder…a la Cantonese.

The starters arrive. Spare ribs in BBQ sauce and mushroom in pepper salt. Did you know that as far back as 4000BC the Chinese were eating pork, since it was native to the country. I do not know if Mr Liu’s ancestors had taught him the importance of the balance of the lean meat to the fat…but he got it just right. The spare ribs were delicious.

The soups came next. Lung fung soup…a mixed cream seafood soup in egg cream with a hint of coriander greens and green chillies. By habit my hand reached out for the chilli vinegar. ‘Don’t,’ advises Clifford, ‘try it without adding the sauce.’ I do so. Delicious! But if your palate would like a hint of that spicy flavor…go ahead. ‘Try our clear chicken and tofu soup,’ he recommends. I make a face. I have this distinct misconception of clear soups being hospital food. As per ancient Chinese history the Buddhists, around the Sung Dynasty 100 AD, got Tofu or Bean curd onto the Chinese table. Forget about the Sung Dynasty. Clifford imports his is soft, creamy and a perfect complement to the spinach. It left a singing sensation in my mind…and no it was not the lovely one man band out there.

‘I will let you into a secret,’ he says, ‘in a thick soup the starch digests faster, so you feel hungry fast. I always recommend a clear soup.’

Well during the Han Dynasty 100AD, Chinese people began to make their wheat and rice into long noodles. Well the Homestyle Pan fried Noodles with chicken, the Steamed fish ‘white snapper’ in light soya sauce, and the chicken in a ginger sauce accompanied by Wok tossed Chinese greens using ‘pakchoi’ leaves and steamed rice made in 2008 AD, by the second generation Chinese and his partners Hayden and Mahesh, can be competition to the Ming, Han or Sung Dynasty. The ‘pakchoi’ leaves are crisp to the bite…a local farmer grows it for them, while the white snapper……do they fish in that creek? The meat was soft and flaky, the dish definitely to be recommended for sure.

And last but not least the dessert. When Clifford heard that I had worked at the Golden Dragon in Mumbai, and one of my worst nightmares was immersing hot caramelized toffee banana into ice water in front of the guest…and that too with chop sticks, he decided to relive old memories, but this time I was the guest. It is not very easy to get the sugar caramelize at that consistency and that golden brown color, believe me if the chef is not good your dentures could stick to each other. But the Toffee Banana at the Hibiscus was …Great. The banana soft on the inside, the caramel crunchy on the outside. Their Blueberry cheese cakes are also worth a mention…as this Garden Café is also open in between meals.

The five Hibiscus bushes stir in the evening breeze, the water of the creek laps gently against the embankment…..the secret of good food is now unfolded at the café by the river.