Wednesday 8 April 2009

A Long Ago Lantau Moment - 1981

We boarded the big green ferry and made our way to the top deck. The towering monolithic buildings of Hong Kong Island glided past in a kaleidoscope of futuristic shapes and structures, hazy still in the opalescent morning sunlight. Junks with their blood red sails taut in a brisk off-shore breeze, navigated their way past the great thrumming ferry with the skill and precision born of a life on the water. Little sampans criss-crossed the harbour like a busy swarm of water boatmen.

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.


Here is a recipe for a delicious veggie fried rice dish which is a huge hit when the girls and their friends come down from London for a weekend in the country. It doesn't take long and you can plonk it in a pretty bowl in the middle of the table for all to help themselves. Each person has their own little lotus bowl to pile the rice into and chopsticks are obligatory - which can lead to bouts of hysterical giggling as those who haven't practised only manage to pick up one grain at a time!

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!


angela recada said...

Thank you for this. I felt, for a few moments, as if I had escaped to this exotic place with you. Beautiful prose, beautiful images.

Polly said...

I loved this post. I've never been to China and your post is so wonderfully exotic. The photos are very atmospheric, as always... for a moment I was almost in Lantau.

Janelle said...

ah MAN! thanks for the journey..BEAUTIFULLY written...transporting...lots love XXX j

Debra Keirce said...

Is there ANYplace on this planet you haven't experienced yet? I think you and Guy need to visit one of the space stations - seriously! Your photos would rival Hubbel, I'm sure!

Delwyn said...

Morning Tessa,
this is a lovely story of Lantau - so beautifully told. I have been to Hong Kong many times, being in Au it was always the 1/2 way point to the northern part of the world, however I have never been to Lantau. I will if I ever travel via Hong Kong again. Now I prefer to go via Japan or Singapore.
Thanks for the trip.

sallymandy said...

That's a lovely account of your trip to Lantau. Thank you so much. I enjoyed your writing and photographs very much.

Irene said...

Tessa, you make any kind of cooking sound easy, whereas I'm sure that I'll mess up the most simple recipe. I'm most definitely not a kitchen princess.

I have to praise your photographs, they are lovely and very atmospheric. They give, what I think, is a good idea of the place you visited and makes you long to want to go there.

You would have to have a husband named Guy to have all these adventures with. It couldn't be a more perfect name.

I like your description of Hong Kong harbor. It´s easy to imagine the mayhem of the smaller boats around the ferry. I love the name junk to describe that particular boat. And sampan is also a very attractive name. I would love to travel on either one of them and see the red sails unfurl in the wind.

When is your book coming out, Tessa?

Ces Adorio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ces Adorio said...

I felt like I was reading Kipling. I enjoyed the journey with you. So many memories worthy of a painting. The rice planting shot is great. Do you know I have done that - helped my friend plant rice in their farm. I was more of a nuisance, having fun but it was serious business for everyone and boy, is it back-breaking. Every time I eat a spooful of rice I remember how they are planted, manually, up/bend/stick the sapling/step, up/bend/stick the sapling/step...

By the way, who are the beautiful and handsome mugs on the sidebar? Very good looking bunch.

karen said...

Now I'm dreaming of a wrap around verandah, and swirling saffron robes! lovely.. x

Renee said...

Darling Tessa:

I see I am already here today in the form of an award. I love where you placed me. xxxxx

Tessa on a more serious note I want to thank you for feeling me, for connecting to me, for knowing there is more than this physical.

I have printed the poem so I can remind myself to feel peace.

That was a fine gift to me.

Love Renee xoxoxo

Anonymous said...

FANTASTIC photos!!! Thanks for sharing!

Strawberry Girl said...

Fantastic, loved this. I will be back. ;D

A Cuban In London said...

As usual, I felt transported to the place. I coul dhear hte monks immersed in themselves whilst praying. I could smell the nice aroma of the food hitting your nostrils as you walked uphill. As for the food, this is one of those rare occasions on which I do not feel jealous after visiting a particular blog. Usually I do, including yours. But as I am in charge of cooking at home tonight, I have roast honeyed chicken thighs for dinner with white rice.

The painting in your previous post left me speechless. I have just come from the National Gallery where we took our two children and a friend of my daughter's and I had a glimpse of the Impressionists' room (I am a fan of impressionism and surrealism) and have come away so inspired and full inside. And to see your out-of-this-world painting and photos have just made my day even better. Now, let's get back into the kitchen, pronto :-)!

Many thanks. By the way your quote on my blog about chess was superb. Ta muchly.

Greetings from London.

kathy hare said...

a beautiful post Tessa, a real glimpse of China..

Caroline said...

Oh gosh - You've just transported me back to Hong Kong! I moved here to KL from there last year and still miss it!! Just loved it and all the outlying little islands - they were terrific to explore! Your photos are brilliant - a super post!

pRiyA said...

Hi Tessa, I think you are the luckiest woman in the world, getting to travel to so many wonderful and exotic places. The photographs are lovely.

I am glad to be reminded by the recipe that it's been a while since I made Fried Rice. I think I will follow this. It is a slight variation from mine but it looks delicious :-) said...

oh my! this recipe sounds superb. I can't wait to try it.
thank you!

Linda Sue said...

This was a real vacation- for me- i got lost in this post and enjoyed every mment- will be coming back this afternoon to escape again. I laughed out loud with a snort when I read your comment on my "nun" child saying "Quick here comes jesus" HAHAHA I am still laughing!
When my son first saw a jesus on a cross it scared him and he came home running from the neighbor's house saying "they have a shot up scare crow on a stick , a big one , hanging on their wall! I think it is God!"

Val said...

a DELICIOUS post! thank you. the journey, those photos, the recipe :-)

just wonderful

Beth Kephart said...

Oh my gosh, Tessa. Can this be the first chapter in a book you write that is precisely like this?

And that photograph of the sailed-out boat. It's breathtaking. All of it is. And while it is but 7 in the morning here, you've made me quite hungry.

How is it that you came to live this traveled life?

Renee said...

Tessa is there anywhere you haven't gone that you would like too?

You have lived a full and wonderfully adventurous life that I get to see through your story telling and pictures.

Thank you dear heart.

Love Renee xoxoxo

Lori ann said...

Thank you for sharing ALL this Tessa, it's a perfectly awesome post. Everybit, the words,photos,recipe. Thank you for filling my mind with so much beauty.

Tomás Serrano said...

Hong Kong is a wonderful place. I was there in my honey moon. Great pictures!

Reya Mellicker said...

Incredible! I felt like I was traveling through time as I read about Lantau - back a lot farther than 1981, should say.

The rice/tofu dish sounds delicious. I'm going to try it soon. Yum!

~Zurama Arencibia Nuñez~ said...

You have an award at Autismo por Inyección,


Eleonora Baldwin said...

as you always do, you've brought me to places of tranquility, quiet meditation and beauty. The journal of your monastery experience is enthralling, the photos are beyond words. Can I snatch that profile Buddha image? I need to look at it, touch it and heal by it on an hourly basis.

"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." I knew you had a way with art, but look what you do with words, my lady.
I'm overwhelmed with happiness.
Thank you

Eleonora Baldwin said...

...and I forgot to mention the recipe!!!!! Fantastico.