My Aunt Mary Would be Proud
5322 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA
(between 17th and 18th in the Richmond District)
When arrangements were being made for my Aunt Mary's memorial, her kids wanted to have an event on Aunt Mary's birthday to celebrate her nearly 100 years of life in the solar calendar (over 100 yrs of life in the Chinese lunar calendar), rather than harp on her death. I was instructed to wear festive colors, black would be acceptable if I usually wore black. This was going to be a fun, funny, food filled affair just as if Aunt Mary was throwing the party herself. So, going against all formalities such as wearing somber black or navy, I wore a red dress to this celebrate my Aunt Mary's life.
Also there is a thing about Chinese people when it comes to events, they know how to throw a food festival! Yes indeed, there is nothing like a Chinese Banquet. Many cultures events and celebrations revolve around food, as well as the Chinese. When there are guests involved, most Chinese hosts pull out all the stops and serve up the best foods they have for their guest. The memorial 10 course dinner banquet to remember my Aunt Mary was certainly following the traditions of fabulous and fabulously expensive banquet dishes.
The arrangers for Aunt Mary's memorial banquet opted for the Hong Kong Lounge in the Richmond District of San Francisco. This restaurant was close by to Aunt Mary's apartment, and is in "the New Chinatown" of San Francisco, which is Clement St in the Richmond District. In the late years of Aunt Mary's life, when she was not so mobile, the Hong Kong Lounge was her dim sum place of choice. The following are photos of some of the 10 courses we had for dinner at the Hong Kong Lounge. The only problem is that my little photos did not do the this grand banquet justice.
Course 1 started with octopus, char siu (real red pork), roasted pork and jelly fish. I took a bite of each one, and really was trying to pace myself as there were 10 courses to this meal. I made note of the both pork offerings because I really like both of these types of pork, if made correctly. These both were made correctly. The char siu was a little charry, with a tang and nice Chinese BBQ flavor. The roasted pork had a nice crunchy top with a moist meat layer. This is very hard to do when you want to crisp up one side, which means a lot of time with heat, which means the meat could dry out. This one was not dry.
The crab ball was the size of a baseball. I guess it is the San Francisco Chineses' answer to a crab cake. The crab ball was pure crab meat inside, and served with a Thai style hot, sour and sweet sauce. Very good, but a lot of food, and it was only the 2nd course.
Shark fin soup is a luxury, extremely expensive, and only happens at very special occasions. An average cost of one bowl of shark fin soup is about $40 in S.F. Chinatown. Offering this soup had great Chinese cultural meaning. It is a huge gesture of deep cultural respect from the hosts to the guests. The soup represents a deep cultural offering, it is like offering ones shirt off one ones back and having be the last shirt. It is an extreme high honor to receive this soup. Every sip of this soup was remembering my Aunt Mary, and honoring her life. This soup was offered to me, and I ate it all because of the deep respect to those who offered me this soup, and to the shark who's fin it was. It would have been an affront to my ancestors, Aunt Mary, the hosts of the dinner, and my family to not eat the soup. I normally do not eat shark fins, especially knowing how the fin is harvested.
It has been years, perhaps 10 years or more since I had real Peking duck. There is a whole thing about real Chinese food where salt, bitter, sweet, sour, umami, texture and fat are all considered to make a dish. Real Peking duck takes into account texture, fat and umami. This Peking duck was served with the traditional white flour steamed buns, not crepes. The duck skin was crunchy with a fabulous duck fat layer right underneath it. To get the duck skin this way requires days of air fanning the skin, and the texture really proves that the chef did take the time make the duck right. Oh, I really went to town on this dish, as duck is one of my favorite foods, and Peking duck is my absolute favorite of the duck dishes.
Abalone is another food I do not eat that often, and perhaps I have had abalone only 3 times in my life, and this is one of them. I ate a few pieces of abalone and tried to savor the flavor and texture. The texture is so smooth, with a nice al dente texture. This abalone was not fishy at all, rather it was 100% umami, making me want more. What a treat it was for me to be able to have abalone. I remember my mom serving abalone once when my parents had a special guest come to the house for dinner. I did not realize who expensive it was to buy and serve. The abalone costs about $60/lb at the fresh fish market. I attempted to try and buy a can of abalone at a local Chinese grocery here in Nashville last year. They only have a few cans kept behind the counter. The one I was looking at was $90 for a net abalone weight of 8 oz. There are "abalone like" canned fish that are cheaper ($25 - $50 per can), but I can imagine it being conch or other chewy type shell fish.
By this time, I was so stuffed from the 1st 5 courses, that it took all that I could do to eat a little of this dish. I was told that in a Chinese banquet and eating at a Chinese household, it is proper and polite to eat at least one bite of each dish offered. For Aunt Mary, I did eat one bite each of scallop, squid and sugar snap peas. They were delicious, and I was stuffed.
The lobster was made with the Chinese traditional flavors of soy sauce, scallion, garlic and ginger. I really love lobster, but I only ate one piece at this point because I was really stuffed! I was sitting next to my cousin and her kids, and she made the mistake of letting her kids have a french fry snack in the afternoon, and her kids were not hungry when they arrived. Her kids are really excellent eaters, they like duck, lobster, snails, scallops, etc. You name the protein, the kids have tried it and in general, liked it. It made me chuckle to hear her kids say, "Oh mom! Look! It is lobster! I love lobster! Oh, I am so stuffed, and can't eat it! I wish I didn't eat those fries!" Well, at this point in the banquet, it would not have mattered because I was stuffed, and I had taken 6+ mile walk over the hills of San Francisco with no fries before dinner, and I was stuffed.
At this point, watching a huge fish come to our table, I was afraid. I lost count and needed to just take one bite of this fish and hope the end of the banquet food was near. This fish dish was served traditionally with the head and tail intact. The fish preparation is one that I grew up with and really like a lot. The fish was steamed with the classic Chinese flavors of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, scallions, garlic, ginger and cilantro (aka Chinese parsley). The fish texture is so smooth, and melts in your mouth when prepared this way. The strong toasted sesame, garlic, ginger, scallion and cilantro flavors just are happiness in my mouth and nose. The aroma and flavor I adore. I don't make this preparation much because I don't have steam vessel big enough, and it seems that most people I know in Nashville are not used to the steamed fish texture and don't care for it.
I did not get a photo of Course 9 - sticky rice with char siu, egg and vegetables. I literally had one bite, and everyone else at my table did the same. I love sticky rice, but I just could not eat more than one bite.
The Chinese don't really do dessert besides fruit in most occasions. That is probably why I am not a dessert kind of gal. I was not raised eating desserts, I really don't like cake, I usually don't like pies, and I can't stand icky sweet desserts. In the past few years, Chinese banquets I have been to have ending the meals with a red bean dessert soup. I am guessing that it is served because red is a lucky color, and symbolizes the blood of life. When I was a kid, I remember being served a bowl of this red bean soup, and never touching it. I am sure it made my mom mad because I was not being polite about eating at least one bite of every dish offered to me. The 1st time I really actually ate any red bean soup was about 5 years ago to be polite and do the right thing at a Chinese Banquet. I really did not care for the sugary water and red beans then, but over the years, I have learned to not dislike it. This time, for Aunt Mary, I ate a few bites, and I can't say I liked it, but I certainly did not dislike it.