Posts Tagged ‘travel’

 

The most memorable hospitality I’ve ever experienced while traveling, was not at the most refined Kyoto Ryokan nor discreet old world small hotels of Europe, although they were all unforgettable places with impeccable service and care, the most memorable hospitality I’ve ever experienced was in a village about an hour drive outside of Fes in Morocco.

 

Fes is an incredible ancient city. Once inside the city walls, it seems like you travel back in time several hundred years. But before walking into the city, every visitor is greeted by a swarm of kids who offer to be your guide. There is no way around it, these kids are clever, and most of them know just enough phrases in many different languages to grab your attention. It seems the only way to have them leave us alone was to hire one, so we did.

 

Our guide Mohamed said he was 15 years old but I think he was more like 11 and after about 15 minutes of walking trough the maze like streets with him, he was joined by another boy (I forgot his name) who said he was 18 years old but did not look a day older than 14. They were mostly interested in taking us to the shops so they could earn commissions from the shop owners. After a         couple of hours, we grew hungry, so I asked them to take us to a good place to eat, a place where a local might go to have a good relaxing lunch. They took us to what seemed like a hole in the wall, but turned out to be very spacious and beautiful once inside, then told us they would wait outside while we eat. I was not having that so I told them they must join us and if they did not, I would not eat.  Reluctantly, they came in to the restaurant with us. Once inside, a gentleman who appeared to be the proprietor of the restaurant received us but said something rather sternly to the kids. The kids then told me that they should wait outside, or if they are going to eat at all, they could not eat in the dining room. I then finally understood why our guides were so reluctant to come in and eat with us. So I told the proprietor that these young men were my guests, and they will sit with me to dine together. The lunch was very good, well prepared, and we all had a good time, but what was most remarkable was in that moment, everything changed, our guides became our friends and we became their guests to the city. In the afternoon, they took us to see many interesting places, now avoiding the shops. They now wanted us to see their Fes. They even took us through some gaps and holes (a short cut) within the walls. They made us feel like kids again in this ancient city.

 

At the end of the day, I asked them what we were doing tomorrow? They looked puzzled but responded we could do whatever we wanted. So I asked them to take me to their village. I had learned during lunch that they were Berber and their village was about a 2-hour drive from Fes. “ Do you really want to see our village? They asked me, responding that no one had asked them that before.” “Yes, I would love to “I replied.

 

The next morning we drove out to the countryside. After about an hour I started seeing fields with peculiar dome like structures of about 2 feet high. The kids told us that they were bread ovens and since the farmers only have time to bake once a day, they have more than one oven so they can bake enough bread for the whole family. “Would you like to see one?” they asked me. “Sure” I said. “OK, then lets go to that house” as they pointed to a small house in the distance “That small one? I asked. Do you know them?” “No, but its ok, we will have some tea there.” “What?!?!?”   A little hesitant I did what I was told and pulled onto the dirt road and headed to the tiny house.

 

We were total strangers and we showed up at this house un-announced and empty-handed. At the door, we were greeted by a girl of about 8 years old who was caring for her little brother (5YO) and little sister (2YO) while her parents where out working the fields. The tiny house was humble and had a warm feel to it. It was one room home and had hardened dirt like clay floors with one very large piece of carpet on it. The girl, or I should say our hostess asked us to go and wait for her under the tree shade outside because it was getting very hot inside the house, and I will never forget what happened after that.

 

Our hostess dragged and carried out the only carpet in her house for us so we could sit under the tree in comfort. Of course I tried to help as the carpet was probably three times her weight, but she would have none of that. We were her guests and we were to sit and relax. She then brought us fresh brewed mint tea, home made bread, olives, home churned butter, home made yogurt, and honey. She basically brought out everything she had in her house for us to enjoy in comfort under this beautiful tree.

 

The food was amazing, simple, rich flavors of nature. But what made the experience so memorable was the hospitality. She was responsible for her guests’ comfort and nourishment while we were under her care, and she did everything she could to make sure that this was done. I was moved, beyond moved. I had done nothing to deserve such hospitality and we were total strangers to her. I asked my guides what I could do to repay her. The boys told me not worry, that this was their local custom, but I had to do something in return. I went to look for a store and bought a hand full of loose candies and brought it back to her. The look on her face when I gave her the candies was that of surprise, joy, and slight embarrassment.

 

What I took away from her and this experience was learning the most important thing about hospitality. That true hospitality is to touch the guest’s heart, and the only thing that can touch a person’s heart is the heart of another.

 

By Daisuke Utagawa

I am often asked to name my top favorite restaurants/eateries in the world. Or, at least I think about what the top 5 would be time to time. Broken Tooth Shing in Hong Kong has always been my favorite top 5 even though last time I dined there was 2005, and I’ve had plenty of amazing meals elsewhere since then.

Broken Tooth is not a real restaurant, nor is it the real name of the chef. The Chef’s name is Lee Shing, and “broken tooth” is his nickname since he has one of his front teeth broken. It’s not a real restaurant because the establishment is not licensed and is in their small apartment in down town HK. What it is though is an eatery that can take diners through an amazing journey and even back in time –so to speak.

Broken Tooth only takes one group a night. Up to 18 guests. It will cost about $2500 for the 18 people not including the drinks. (Its BYOB) The place is booked months in advance and they wont take any reservations if you were not recommended by someone they trust. The guests sit in Chef Shing’s small living/dining/bedroom of his one room apartment. Not much of décor or comfort; big round foldable table and some milk crates with cushions to sit on. (Although the second time I visited, they had invested in some foldable chairs)

But none of these things matter because of the sublime food he makes and all doubt will be blown away at once when you walk in to the kitchen. The first time I went to the kitchen, I saw this old man crouching on the floor (wooden slats over concrete) cleaning fish. He was Chef Shing. I looked around and noticed that there was not a single gas or electric cooker, instead, there were several coal cookers of various size! I asked about this and the Chef told me that he doesn’t know how to cook with gas and the coal fire gives his food the right heat, and for him, its much easier to control the heat with coal fire. The only difficulty for him is that no one makes the coal range anymore so he has to special order them for his woks of various sizes.

Let me give you some background on Chef Shing. He was 86 years old last time I dined there in 2005. Chef Shing studied under a private chef of a well-known Chinese opera star. This was about 100 Years ago, and back then, all good chefs worked for someone rich and famous privately. This still holds true to some extent in today’s HK, as eating is one of the most important aspects of life in HK and people believe through eating well, one can live longer or even have a great fortune. The teacher of Chef Shing was famous for his skills. For instance he was the chef who invented snake soup with dried citrus skin, now a classic dish. Having such a chef as your own private chef was also a status symbol in those days.

Chef Shing learned all the techniques and secrets from his teacher. He also kept ingredients that is no longer available today such as dried giant grouper skin (I was told this type of fish is not found anymore in the area.) or dried scallops and dried fish maw from the time the sea was not polluted.

If you are lucky enough to get a table at Broken Tooth, they will ask you for your budget and you work out the menu outline with them in advance. Of course you can ask for some surprise dishes, but for me every dish was a surprise even if I thought I knew the dish very well.

My first visit, the meal started with:

A big plate (its all family style here) of something that looked like wokked (Stir Fried if you like) thick cellophane noodles with finely julienned celery. But it turned out these bean sprout sized noodles were actually sharks fin! I’ve never even seen sharks fin that fat!

And it followed with:

A dish of brazed dried abalone and sea cucumber with Shitake. So delicately flavored , the texture and the taste of those chunks of giant abalone as I sink my teeth in to it was something I can still recall today.

And then:

The famous snake soup. Chef Shing’s son who was serving told us that dried citrus skin which flavored the soup was from 30 years ago.

After that it was:

Steamed whole grouper together with some braised fish maw (also very old). The combination of fish maw and the fresh steamed fish was so complementary to each other that one enhanced the flavor of the other.

And still going with:

Turtle stew. A delicate collagen rich dish. Flavored with dried grouper skin.

And of course:

Couple of vegetable dishes, such as braised yellow nappa cabbage with dried scallops, and stir fried fresh greens.

Not to forget:

The most deluxe fried rice with sausages, and various seafood,  dried or otherwise.

And we finished with:

Sweet Red Bean Soup and some exotic fruits.

While I was eating, I had a sense that I was tasting history and a culmination of ages of great Cantonese cooking culture. Perhaps a sense that maybe Chef Shing is the last of the Mohicans so to speak. I’ve asked as delicately as I can if there was anyone who can carry forward his skills. His son said he learned everything from his father. I genuinely hope he did…