Lantau is twice the size of Hong Kong Island, yet it has only a tiny fraction of the population. Most of the island has been preserved as a national park and is a perfect escape from the pandemonium of Hong Kong. The valleys are filled with lush tropical forests and there are winding dirt roads through the mountains and tiny fishing villages with wooden houses built on stilts above the water.
The ferry bumped to a halt on the ramp in the small harbour and we hitched a lift from a cheerful, wizened old man on his tractor trailer across the island to Cheng Kau Bay. He dropped us outside Charlie Foong’s little waterside restaurant just across the paddy fields from where we would be staying. With its shady terrace festooned in dense clusters of bougainvillea, the rickety wooden building also doubled as a supply store, its shelves stacked high with pots and woks, coils of rope, fishing line and, bizarrely, a matching pair of porcelain lavatory bowls.
Old Charlie was a legend in Lantau. He had been a sous chef at the Ritz in Paris but grew so homesick for his island that he left the glitzy glamour of the City of Light and returned to Lantau to open Tong Fuk - a grocery and hardware store with a small open-air restaurant - where one could dine on incomparably prepared seafood and delectable Chinese dishes. We stopped there and had a plate of dim sum – those tiny steamed parcels of deliciousness – and a pot of green tea before making our way along a rickety, planked boardwalk across the rice paddies to a little wooden cottage on the beach.
While Guy opened the shutters to let sunlight chase the cool shadows from each room, I sat on the wrap-round veranda and watched the waves slap onto the gritty white sand and then swirl away in foamy languor. A water buffalo moved slowly through the rice paddy next to the house, chewing the cud with a lethargic bovine demeanour. When Guy had finished exploring the cottage, we walked back across the paddy field and up a steep, winding road to the Po Lin monastery which stood in isolated splendour on a rocky outcrop right at the top of the hill.
As we puffed our way to the top of the narrow path, there was a strong, spicy smell in the air and we could faintly hear the melodious chant of monks at prayer.
After reaching the imposing gates, we walked slowly across the cobbled terrace with its staggering views over the South China Sea. Across the hazy blue expanse, a tiny junk sailed towards the horizon leaving only a thin, wavy line of white to mark its passage.
Turning, we followed the wonderful spicy aroma that we’d noticed as we’d climbed the hill. We stepped into the cool shadows under a series of archways and I think it was here that we both felt an overwhelming sense of peace. As we stood in the cavernous dining room with it’s rows of plain scrubbed wooden tables and long benches, and looked out through sweeping arches at the courtyard where an enormous 100 foot tall bronze Buddha gazed benignly down on us, a young monk, who looked no more than twelve, came through from what must have been the kitchens and started putting bowls and chopsticks on the tables in neat lines.
‘You eat?’ He made the motions with his fingers. Guy looked at me and then smiled at the youngster. ‘Yes,’ he said, nodding vigorously, ‘yes, please.’
The monks filed out from prayer in swirling rivers of red and saffron and silently took their place at the tables. The young monk who’d invited us to eat with them beckoned us over to a table at the back of the room, smiling and bowing with evident delight. Guy and I ate our vegetables and rice in the tranquil silence and I can still clearly recall the moment; the muted click-click of chopsticks against the green porcelain bowls and the lustrous colours of the monk’s robes, all caught in time like butterflies in amber.
4 cups pre-cooked long grain rice, chilled
3 tbls vegetable oil
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
2 cups finely chopped vegetables (red bell pepper, chives, fresh shitake, extra firm tofu, frozen peas/carrots, cabbage, etc.)
1 tsp + 1 ½ tbls soy sauce
pinch of sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
salt & pepper to taste
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil on medium-high heat. When hot, add tofu cubes and brown on all sides. Remove, set aside. If you aren’t using tofu, then skip this step. Tofu is browned first, removed and added in later so that the delicate cubes do not get crushed in the frying process.
Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and heat on medium. When oil is hot but not smoking, add ginger and garlic, stir fry for 15 seconds until fragrant. Turn heat to high and add vegetables - one kind at a time - in order of what takes longest to cook. Season with 1 tsp of the soy and a pinch of sugar to bring out the flavors of the vegetables. Fry until the vegetables are just cooked through.
Add the COLD rice. Then add remaining soy sauce, sesame oil, salt & pepper. Fry on high heat until the rice is heated through. Add tofu cubes back in. Taste and add a touch more soy if needed.
Do pop over to Shan’s blog where she hosts the What’s Cooking Wednesday for more delicious recipes from bloggers at every point on the compass!