Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lotus Root, Dried Octopus and Pork Soup

Dried Octopus

Whenever I prepare lotus root, dried octopus and pork soup I cannot help but think of Tai O and its stores displaying dried products: octopus, fish maws, shrimps, scallops, etc under rows of bright red lights. I already wrote about Tai O village in a previous post.  At week-ends tourists and locals alike packed the former fishing and salt-making village to enjoy its charm and fresh seafood.
Street hawkers selling live fish in plastic buckets from carts

Tangerine peel and fish hung up in the sun to dry


I have been enamoured by Tai O’s unique features since the first time I visited it, during the autumn of 1986. At that time there was no bridge across the creek to reach the other side of the village. For a small fee (I cannot remember how much it cost) we had to traverse in a small hand-pulled boat.
I also recalled the roasted chestnuts we had on our arrival after our hike from Po Lin Monastery. These reminded me of my parents who might also have been enjoying chestnuts at this time of the year in France. After leaving my country for almost half a year I was happy to find one of my favourite autumn foods right here in Hong Kong 
Today not only Tai O brings to me back these lovely memories but it is also one of our best hiking destinations. I have recently been asked why we (my husband and I) liked this walk. So before sharing with you the recipe of lotus root, dried octopus and pork soup I am going to tell you the reasons in case you would like to try it one day.

Tai O: old stilt houses and new buildings
It takes us only half-an-hour drive from our home to Tung Chung and it is easy to park there. The 3-hour walk is not all flat. Although the elevation is not great there are a few slopes and a few sets of stairs that are sure to make you sweat (excellent Sunday exercise!). Last but not least when we arrive there are lots a few places serving good local food (and fresh beers!) at reasonable prices. Actually we always go to the same place, a restaurant called  "Lihng Heung". 
Tai O’s streets are full of colours, smells and sounds. It is lively yet relaxing and I feel transported in another Hong Kong, a more laid-back and traditional place than the city we are used to during the week.

Tai O and the ubiquitous dried fish
The 3-hour walk can be divided into 3 parts, and each part into 1 hour (that I will call A, B and C) as follows:

A: After passing Tung Chung, its public estates, its rows of bicycles attached on railings, its clothes, bed sheets, and blankets spread in the sun to dry we turn left and walk alongside Sha Lo Wan’s soccer pitch (and get a glimpse of the temple on the right), then follow the sign “To Tai O via Sha Lo Wan” and pass derelict houses.
Detergent smells fill the air

Outdoor brick ovens (are they still being used?)
Walking along the coast we are accompanied by the continuous roars of plane engines until we reach a pavilion. There we rest for a few minutes looking at the planes landing and taking off at Chek Lap Kok airport on the other side.
It can be quite noisy...

B: as we walk away from the airport it is getting quieter. We pass old houses and stop a few seconds to admire some vegetable patches. The inhabitants of Sham Shek Tsuen who mostly work and live in the city come back at week-ends bringing energy to the almost deserted village. Further away, we push our way up the steepest climb of the trek followed by a sharp downhill slope. After going past many neglected lands and properties we finally see the first signs of existence. At the foot of the hill stands a religious retreat with a well tended park and a golden Buddha statue. A large red notice with a Buddhist salutation (南无阿弥陀佛 Amitabha) is attached on the metal gate. Further down there is a newly opened café promoting German beers and sausages. The pier of Sham Wat village is close by but Tai O is still one hour-walk away so we don’t stop and content ourselves with our bottled water and left over buns. In the village trekkers and cyclists sit at the terraces of the sidewalk cafés / stores (士多 - sih-dô - in Cantonese) facing the cove. I noticed that most often the tide is low and there are no tidal currents in the bay. In front of us is Sham Wat Road going up to Ngong Ping. We take the path with the sign “To Tai O” on our right hand side.
Fish in nets drying in the sun

Stores selling local bananas at Sham Wat village

Des Moments Café (before Sham Wat Wan pier)
C: The last part of the trek is the best. There is no village and no more unpleasant airplane engine noises. Now we enjoy the soothing sound of the endless roll of the sea.  We follow a set of cemented stairs, then a dirt path, and finally walk down a winding stone path.
Sometimes there are trees overheads shielding us from the sun but at other times we are in the open so you’d better wear a cap. We cross streams via low concrete bridges. The winding path carries us up and down and we admire the bay of Sham Wat Wan, behind us, and the Pearl River mouth, on our right. We finally catch a glimpse of the Yueng Hau Temple and about 15min later we enter Tai O. Mangroves and steel stilt houses line both sides of the creek separating Tai O in two parts. Exhausted but happy we cross the channel and go to our favourite restaurant Lihng Heung 莲香.

After lunch we stroll in the streets and go again to the other side of Tai O using the pedestrian bridge replacing the hand-pulled ferry. When we cross we are bound to be accosted by local tour operators asking us to join a boat trip to watch the pink dolphins (we have yet to do this!) in the Pearl River mouth. Sometimes we enjoy a sweet bean-curd soup before heading to the bus terminus. As it is still early in the afternoon there are not many people and we don’t have to queue up. The road winds its way up and down and we doze off during the 40min bus ride back to Tung Chung.

Fish drying in the sun in flat baskets

At last here is my recipe: lotus root, dried octopus and pork soup  

  • 1 lotus root
  • 2 small pieces of dried lotus roots (optional)
  • 1 dried octopus - jêung-yùh 章鱼
  • ½ lb pork shank
  • ½ rice bowl green beans
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 l water
  • Salt

  1. Soak the dried octopus until soft and skin it.
  2. Cut fat off the pork shank, scald it in boiling water, and rinse it clean.
  3. Wash the green beans and soak them for a while.
  4. Peel and wash the lotus root. Cut it into section (if the lotus root has 2 sections) and cut a slice off the end of each section head. Stuff the green beans into the holes of the root sections until full. Cover each section with a cut off slice and stick it tight with toothpicks.
  5. In a large saucepan bring the water to a boil. Put the lotus root, octopus and pork shank in. Bring to a boil again. Then reduce the fire to medium heat to boil for about 1 ½ hours.
  6. Add salt to taste.
  7. Spoon out all ingredients. Cut the lotus root into pieces and arrange pork, lotus roots and octopus on a platter.
  8. Serve soup (liquid) in a separate bowl.

Note: Green beans can be replaced by red beans and tangerine peel can be added.

My soup! Try it and let me know. ;)

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