December 27, 2008

Floating Things in Steaming Flavored Water

One of the tricky things about eating in a foreign place is the menu translation. You might be perfectly accustomed to a meal described one way in one language, and when it gets translated, it gets a bit garbled.

This was certainly the case for me in Paris, where I was loath to get an English menu instead of a French one -- not because of snobbishness, but for better understanding. With an English menu, it was hard to tell what I was supposed to eat because the translations were often nonsensical.

Saturday night we went for Sichuan hot pot, and it was the same thing. But this time, at the mercy of an English menu, and I suspect that no matter how long I lived in Hong Kong, I always would be. Hot pot is sort of like Chinese fondue. You get a big pot of broth on your table, and as it cooks (usually over a fire or burner) you add stuff. There is a large menu of things you can add.

We'd seen hot pot restaurants around. In fact, there was a very popular one across from our Tin Hau apartment. It was a hole-in-the-wall, with maybe three tables inside and about 20 tables outside -- all of which seated at least four people and more like eight. They encroached so far into the alleyway, that the apartment building put in a row of potted plants to keep them from crowding the front door. It doesn't look like fancy food -- you see bubbling pots of who-knows-what and lots of big beers and people having a good time. It looks like a lot of fun. And, I think if we had a bigger group it would be even better.

But we had just the two of us. We were tempted by some of the exotic-sounding items, but went, instead, with sliced American beef, mushroom dumplings, pork dumplings, baby bok choy and soba noodles. We opted for a fragrant clear mushroom broth (probably chicken-based) instead of some of the spicier choices. You also can choose Yin-Yang, which is half spicy and half not.

Some of the things we passed on, transcribed verbatim:
Dumpling materialed with fish skin
The front portion of plungh
Pork dumpling with stuff
Pilling ink fish
Sliced green carp breast
Flavored meat pill with mushroom

Usually, when you have a funny translation, you can guess. I think with Chinese items (as well as some French -- rognon anyone?) it's kind of brave. What is plungh, do you think? Ink fish may very well be squid or cuttlefish, but then it would be translated as cuttlefish. And who knew carp had breasts? This is rather like the fish lips we keep seeing on the menu (not to mention the pig chin).

That wasn't the only thing we didn't quite grasp. Each of us had a bowl of spices in front of us: coriander, peanuts, chili, chopped garlic. I figured you were supposed to put it into the soup. We had three kinds of mushrooms in ours already but sampling it indicated it was a bit mild.

One of the waiters rushed over when he saw me dump the bowl into the soup. He seemed almost horrified. Clearly I had done something wrong. It turns out you're supposed to spoon the soup into the flavors and not the other way around, which he demonstrated for us. And then you use the flavored soup in front of you for dipping.

We wish he would have offered more advice, in fact. Like, put the bok choy in earlier and order only one portion of dumplings instead of two -- at least for just two people. Portion sizes in Hong Kong are usually very small, so we had no idea how much to order. Four things, or five things including two vegetables, would have been sufficient.

In any case, our meal was delicious and I think we cooked everything long enough to avoid E. coli or salmonella. The one thing that baffled us to the end? When we were seated there were two bowls of snacks. This is not uncommon; often it's boiled peanuts or somesuch thing. These were peanuts sauteed in spices and someting pickled. It had the consistency of chopped, dried apples and was both sweet and savory.

We asked one woman what it was. She said something to us in Chinese, we nodded politely, and she brought back a take-away container! We asked another woman what it was, she circled it on the bill -- (you get charged for everything here, even if you didn't order it -- sort of like the bread and tablecloth charges in Italy) -- went to ask someone, presumably, and then passed it off to someone else. When the man came back with the bill, we asked him again what it was, and he just repeated whatever was printed -- in Chinese -- on the bill.

We left satisfied with the meal, but none the wiser.

December 26, 2008

The Hannukah Massage

I enjoyed a lovely massage today; it was my Hannukah gift from Paul. It was relaxing and effective, as all good massages should be. And it made me think of all the massages and styles I've enjoyed in different countries.

I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm a connoisseur of massages, but I have had a fair number of them. And it's a bit fascinating to go over in my mind the different social mores involved.

Here in Hong Kong, there are massages offered everywhere. I don't know if they differ in quality or style or only price. There are Thai massages and therapeutic massages and reflexology (foot) massages. So much choice! I had a body massage, and it involved my back and neck and shoulders. Heaven!

The office looked more like a therapeutic health office than a boutique spa. And the little massage room was wall-papered in fur. No kidding. It was bizarre (see photo, above). But the atmosphere was calm, with pop music -- love ballads, mostly -- on the stereo. I was the only person in the shop.

The young woman left me alone to change, and there was a Velcro-close bath towel for me to put on. This was kind of silly, though, because with the towel fastened that way, she couldn't really get to my back. Ultimately, it was just moved down and she covered the rest of me with a series of towels.

The gold standard for massages, as anyone who has had one in Paris knows, is Craig Dennis. His massages are beyond amazing -- therapeutic and relaxing -- and well-priced for a metropolitan market. He also does an American-style massage, with the attendant modesty issues taken care of. One is always covered by a sheet, which is nice.

My first French massage involved a bit of a stand-off between me and the massage therapist. She wanted me to undress and I wanted her to leave the room while I did so. I caved first. The room was well-heated, and there wasn't much covering involved. Maybe I'm a prude, but I found it hard to relax that way.

When I was in my 20s, I had a massage in a hotel room in Palm Springs by a big Russian woman. She wasn't clear on the modesty concept, either, as she remarked on the size of my breasts. ("How tiny!" she said.) She started to massage them, and I was horrified. Since then, my whole front torso has been a no-go zone. I always say I'm ticklish so it doesn't become an issue.

In Morocco, I went to a hammam (Arab sauna) frequented by locals. It's a woman-only spa, and any hopes one has of modesty goes right out the door because everyone is pretty much naked. I had my underwear on for my massage, which made the large Moroccan woman laugh. Then she pulled it right up my butt. Problem solved, for her. It's an interesting concept, to see a bunch of women in all their shapes and sizes and in all their glory, and then to watch them in the dressing room as they cover up and put on their veils and head scarves.

In Tunisia I passed on massage, even though I was in a fancy hotel. There wasn't much privacy -- just one big room with several tables.

Egypt was probably the weirdest -- and bear in mind that I mention it because it stands out, not because it was typical. I would say most of the massages I've had in my life are fine and enjoyable. And the Craig massages -- well, outstanding. But in Egypt it was a little weird.

I was on a Nile cruise and the women I was hanging out with all wanted massages. Suffice it to say the massage therapist was inappropriate with several of us and was kicked off the boat. That was weird.

Ultimately, though, I think it's rare to have a bad massage. Even a boyfriend massage (when the woman rubbing you uses such a light touch you might as well have your boyfriend do it for free) is better than no massage.

And a good one is definitely a treat.

December 25, 2008

Christmas in Hong Kong

I was worried today about running a few errands. I shouldn't have been. As far as I can tell, it's business as usual, unless you're trying to get something at one of the family-owned non-food specialty shops.

Everything is open.

But outside the MTR, there was this scene: