Hunger Management

Salad a refresher course

Adding wasabi to the dressing gives the dish a kick.
Adding wasabi to the dressing gives the dish a kick.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

A cucumber and squid salad I had as a palate cleanser in Hong Kong makes me realise it is perfect during a heavy meal

This has been a year of re-discovering places close to Singapore.

I was last in Hong Kong in 2012 and, on a recent, too-short trip there, spend four glorious days doing not much else aside from eating. Food features even in shopping trips and I stock up on dried prawn roe, fresh and dried noodles, and French butter.

It is always a pleasure to rediscover a foodie city that has fallen off my radar and even better to have friends who know where to go.

After years of longing, I make it to Kimberley Chinese Restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui for its signature roasted suckling pig stuffed with glutinous rice.

I am finally part of a group big enough to polish off that pig, which is everything I have hoped for. The rice stuffing is not mushy and the pig boasts atomically crisp skin.

  • MAKE IT YOURSELF: CUCUMBER & SQUID SALAD

  • INGREDIENTS

    300g squid

    4 Japanese cucumbers

    75g Japanese mayonnaise

    1 tsp honey or to taste

    Wasabi to taste

    1 tsp toasted sesame seeds

    METHOD

    1. Bring a small half-filled pot of water to boil.

    2. Rinse the squid under running water, remove the head and the pen, the transparent strip inside the squid. Clean out the inside of the squid. If desired, pull off the purple membrane covering the outside. I find it useful to look for a tear and to use it to remove the membrane. Slice into 4 to 5cm-long and 0.5cm-wide pieces. Cut the tentacles into 4 to 5cm lengths.

    3. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the squid and cook for 30 seconds. Drain in a colander and run tap water over the cooked squid to stop it from overcooking. Set the squid aside in the colander.

    4. Cut the cucumber crosswise into 4 to 5cm lengths. Cut each piece into quarters lengthwise. Slice off the core, which is studded with seeds, and discard. Slice each quarter lengthwise in two. Place the cucumber in a medium mixing bowl.

    5. Place Japanese mayonnaise in a small bowl, add the honey and stir to mix. Add wasabi to taste and mix well. If using fresh wasabi root (above), grate it into the dressing.

    6. Add squid to the cucumber, followed by the dressing and mix well. Spoon into a serving dish or bowl. Place in the fridge for about an hour to chill and just before serving, sprinkle the sesame seeds over the salad.

    Serves four as a side dish

Another friend leads us all to one of his new discoveries, Hong Kee Congee in Tai Hang, on a Sunday morning.

It is packed, but somehow, the owner manages to seat all eight of us at tiny tables on the pavement. I watch in fascination as an elderly man makes sheets of cheong fun or rice rolls by hand, wrapping them around thick fried crullers or youtiao to make zha leong.

My pig offal congee comes with an extra order of blood jelly and although it is a hot day, I wolf it all down.

I find Nam Loong in Causeway Bay, a busy cha chan tang with good pork chop buns and ham and egg sandwiches, done in the way only cafes in Hong Kong can. The white bread is crazy soft, not the sort I would admit to eating, so it is truly a guilty pleasure.

There is also Danish Bakery nearby, an old-school - emphasis on the old - snack shop that does not seem to close. Pork chop or fish filet buns and fried chicken are the specialities.

There are also hot dogs, called yeet kow in Cantonese, a literal translation from English. I have to laugh out loud when the woman at the counter calls out my order.

And although it seems counter- intuitive to have Chiu Chow food in Cantonese Hong Kong, we have two very good Teochew meals.

The first is right after we arrive, at Chan Kan Kee in Sheung Wan. We order a large vat of porridge, full of plump, juicy oysters and shards of dried sole.

Pak Loh at Causeway Bay is another worthy stop, with silky braised goose, a fantastic cold flower crab and what I think at first is just a roast chicken. But instead of bones and a cavity, it is stuffed with glutinous rice. Quite a feat and delicious too.

But really, the best and most unforgettable meal is on the first night of the trip, at Tung Po, a tai pai tong in North Point.

The sprawling restaurant, if it can be called that, is located above a wet market and is decidedly grungy and no-frills.

Organised chaos reigns in there, with diners talking loudly and the crack team of service staff remembering to empty the metal bowl for shells and other discards regularly. They have thought of everything - the packet of wet towels at each table is cold.

Fluorescent lighting and disco music all add to the ambience and that meal will be etched in my mind forever as one of the best I have ever had.

Chilled mantis prawns, braised oysters, garoupa and scallops in a claypot, deep-fried intestines served with chunks of fresh pineapple and sliders with pork and salted fish patties were just some of the dishes we have, while drinking beer out of bowls.

Two dishes are slipped in without any of us noticing, but once we cotton on, we attack like piranhas.

They are simple, but effective palate cleansers in a meal filled with rich dishes.

Juicy marinated cherry tomatoes provide cool relief and the other is an even more effective cure for a food coma: cucumber and squid salad in a wasabi mayonnaise dressing.

It looks boring at first. Who would choose to eat cucumber over braised oysters or deep-fried intestines?

I take one bite and reel back.

The stinging bite of wasabi wakes me up instantly. It is only later that I discover the strips of squid. Like everything else, it is cooked perfectly, not rubbery.

I keep thinking this is something I have to keep in my repertoire, especially for a heavy meal.

The ingredients are dead easy to find. More supermarkets have sushi and sashimi counters and sell plastic containers of wasabi or Japanese horseradish paste. The Japanese section of most supermarkets will also have it in tubes.

However, most of the time, it is not the real thing. The pastes are usually made with horseradish, starch and green food colouring. They are inexpensive, however, and easy to find, so please feel free to use them in this recipe.

If going the extra mile, find the real thing in Japanese supermarkets or online gourmet grocery shops.

The roots are not cheap, but the heat is cleaner, sharper and brighter. Of course, you can always buy a wasabi grater, but for this salad, a Microplane with a fine grate works perfectly.

I have tried slicing the ingredients thinly and cutting them into cubes, but find that the Tung Po batons work best.

Some honey goes into the dressing too, only because I like the taste of rich mayonnaise with sharp heat and a little mellow sweetness.

Tinker with the dressing until you feel happy with it. We have different thresholds for pain and I know some of my friends will not stop grating wasabi into the dressing until the final product clears their sinuses.

It is an unusual dish for the upcoming festivities, but this will be my secret weapon in the fight against food coma.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Salad a refresher course'. Print Edition | Subscribe