“Porcupine” Milk Custard Buns
Tim’s Kitchen, Macau
If you’re the type that reads this blog with any regularity, then it won’t take much to convince you that there are some people who are born with a higher (indeed, abnormal) affinity toward food. In fact, I’m a strong believer that this predisposition is prenatal.
To wit: when my mother was pregnant with me – this in her third trimester – she developed an immense and intense craving for Chinese salted fish, a pungent (some would say, awful-smelling) preserved seasoning of sorts used most commonly in Cantonese cuisine. My mother is not Cantonese. Neither is my father.
So persistent was my demand for this stuff that my mother woke my father up at 3 a.m., demanded that he drive her to the airport – in a snow storm – so that she could board the earliest flight to Chicago where my aunt picked her up and took her to Chinatown, where she bought ten bags full of salted fish (if you know anything about this product, that’s enough to last a life-time).
And wouldn’t you know it? I happen to love the stuff.
As my story illustrates, the authentic stuff isn’t easy to find – less so in most Chinese-American restaurants, as the smell alone would turn away most customers. In fact, when were at Lung King Heen (report coming, I promise), our server had asked whether or not we would want to be moved to a separate area of the restaurant due to the salted fish dishes that were being served to guests nearby. My friend said he had not noticed the smell, so I turned to the hostess and told her that I was delighted by the smell and would think of doing no such thing.
So, imagine my delight when I saw “Salted Fish” on the menu at Tim’s Kitchen.
I guess it wasn’t so surprising, given that Tim’s Kitchen is devoted to showcasing home-style Cantonese cooking. Of course, this Michelin two-starred restaurant (the original location in Hong Kong has one star) in the grossly out-dated Hotel Lisboa in Macau doesn’t just make home-style cooking. For that, you can go to any one of a few dozen small eateries in the area. What sets Tim’s Kitchen apart is the use of top shelf ingredients, expert precision in preparation and, of course, a hearty injection of luxury here and htere.
That “Salted Fish” portion was large enough for six to share (it has a very strong flavor and is very salty). Best taken alone with fluffy white rice (you’d be surprised how naturally sweet rice is when paired with something this salty) my friend and I unabashedly downed the whole plate (an embarrassingly gauche thing to do, admittedly – it’d be the equivalent of eating a whole tin of salted anchovies). But this was a pleasure was so rarely had and the quality here was so great, I could not resist.
Indeed, everything at Tim’s Kitchen – from the simple, comforting packets of “Glutinous Rice and Chicken” slicked with chicken fat, secreting a salted duck egg yolk, and wrapped in a lotus leaf, to the slices of extremely fresh “Sauteed Pork Stomach” that had neither a trace of filth nor foul served with sweet pickled vegetables and bamboo shoots – was excellent.
The two of us ordered ambitiously and conquered most of it. CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal or click on the course titles for the individual photos.
Crystal King Prawn
(MOP $130 each)
Steamed Whole Fresh Crab Claw
With Winter Melon. (MOP$200 each)
Glutinous Rice and Chicken
Wrapped in a lotus leaf. (MOP$ 32)
Braised Fish Maw and Goose Web
In Oyster Sauce. ($480 each)
Braised Goose Web and Pork Tendon
In Oyster Sauce. (MOP$70)
Braised Sea Cucumber
With Shrimp Roe. (MOP$150 each)
Braised Pomelo Skin
With Shrimp Roe. (MOP$70)
Sautéed Sharks Fin
With Fresh Crab Meat, Bean Sprout and Scrambled Eggs.
Sautéed Pork Stomach
With Pickled Vegetables and Bamboo Shoots. (MOP$120)
Broccoli Florets with Garlic
Deep-Fried Water Chestnut Puddings
“Porcupine” Milk Custard Buns
Having arrived in Macau mid-morning, my friend and I took a quick run through the Wynn next door before dropping in to Tim’s Kitchen for an early lunch on a Sunday.
The place was shockingly empty. There were only two other parties in the restaurant’s small main dining, both of which cleared out shortly after we started our meal. There were also a couple of parties in the smoking room, which was separated from the main dining room by an open hallway. They cleared out halfway through our meal. We saw not a single soul thereafter, which probably contributed to the hyper-attentive service we received: no less than four ladies lined up in a row just a few feet from our table waiting on us hand and foot the entire two hours.
The attention was a bit suffocating, as we were essentially stared at and scrutinized the entire time. Thankfully, they all spoke Mandarin perfectly, which made conversing with them a cinch. It also prevented them from openly talking about us within earshot.
The restaurant is surprisingly Spartan. I’ve seen high-end fast food restaurants with more personality. The tables here were clearly not built for small parties. We were seated at a table large enough to accommodate six.
We each started off with what was the chef’s “signature” dish, the “Crystal King Prawn.” This prawn was as big as a small palm is around and incredibly thick. Scored and coated with mildly savory and starchy glaze, it was unexpectedly meaty and succulent. This prawn was sided by a slice of Macau’s famous salt-cured meat (this was a slice of cured beef) – a waxy jerky-like strip of salty goodness.
The prawn also came with two sauces, “sha cha” sauce (one of my favorites – basically, a Chinese garlic soffrito of sorts), and dark oyster sauce. There was also a soy sauce spiked with chile and two sauces that were left on the table as condiments for the entire meal: chile sauce and a yellow Chinese mustard sauce.
The “Steamed Whole Fresh Crab Claw,” which we each ordered, was about five inches across. It was beautifully de-shelled – the claw was still connected to the knuckle – and beautifully cooked. The fat round of claw meat sat atop a tranche of braised winter melon so soft that it barely could hold up its own weight. The clear “supreme” sauce was light on flavor but heavy on luxury – it was smooth and thick, coating each bite with a warm, slick layer of richness. I repeated this popular dish at Man Wah later that evening to compare. Each had its merits.
Moving on to even more luxurious items, we hit three of the four “treasures of the sea” according to Cantonese cooking: fish maw, sea cucumber, and shark fin (abalone is the fourth).
“Braised Fish Maw and Goose Web” came with one large, webbed goose foot per order and baby bok choy in a thick, collagen-rich, and beefy-tasting oyster supreme sauce.
The kitchen kindly split the fish maw in half for us. The texture of this thick, ivory-colored air bladder of a giant, deep sea fish was a cross between gelatinous and cartilaginous. The goose web was very good, nicely cooked until soft: the bones sucked right out of the skin. The oyster sauce here was decent.
Ordered separately as two dishes but sharing the same shrimp roe-infused sauce, “Braised Sea Cucumber” and “Braised Pomelo Skin” were combined by the kitchen for a prettier photo. I get a kick out of kitchens that volunteer to food style (or minimize dish washing?).
Sea cucumbers are one of my favorite things to eat. This one was done very well: not too soft, still a bit firm and bouncy (I hate it when it goes completely mushy).
The pomelo skin must have been boiled many times to remove the bitterness. The outside skin of the rind must also have been removed, leaving only the thick, fleshy pith. This was excellent – in fact, probably the most memorably delicious thing I ate on my entire trip to Hong Kong. The pith was saturated with and had completely absorbed the shrimp roe flavor in the braising sauce, giving it a rich, creamy, briny savoriness.
The braising rendered the pith so soft that it could be spooned. Though fibrous, the fibers in the pith had been completely broken down to an extremely soft state – it was almost like the texture terrine of foie gras, but with a fibrous constitution. I still dream about this dish. I have a friend in Kansas City that is from Hong Kong and does a lot of home-style cooking. While she knows how to make this dish (she has agreed to teach me), we are uncertain whether or not we can find shrimp roe; it is essential to its success.
A little spouted vessel containing red vinegar, arrived with our plate of “Sautéed Sharks Fin” – essentially an egg and shark fin stir-fry with mung bean sprouts and flaked crab meat.
This was quite good, although I did find the ratio of shark fin to other stuff a bit low; I wanted more shark fin. Of course, at this price, you really can’t expect that much. We all can’t be the Braised Shark’s Fin Soup at Lung King Heen. There also should have been a bit more crab meat, in my opinion. I tasted mostly egg.
Overall, the flavor was quite nice, and there was a generous amount of scrambled eggs. I do like this sort of food with vinegar, so I applied it rather liberally. Some might think that the scrambled eggs here are too dry. In fact, this is how they should be – almost like fluffy tendrils of spätzle.
The “Braised Goose Web and Pork Tendon” was identical to the fish maw dish save the presence of pork tendon in lieu of the maw. Like the other dish, the goose web was very good – the bones slipped right out of the skin. While I enjoy braised beef tendons on a regular basis, pork tendons are less common. The strands of tendon here had been been correctly cooked – rendered completely silky. The bok choy were crisp and emerald green. The oyster sauce, again, was decent – rich with collagen.
The kitchen did a good job of sending out plates in a thoughtful order: light to heavy, mild to rich. In fact, that salted fish and the pork stomach came last, along with a plate of “Western” Broccoli Florets simply sauteed with some garlic.
We ordered two desserts and the kitchen sent out a third.
Looking a lot like slices of pineapple, the “Deep-Fried Water Chestnut Puddings” had the consistency of Cantonese turnip cakes. Slightly sweet, these square cakes were flecked throughout with thin slivers of water chestnuts, which provided intermittent hits of crispy crunch (you can see the ivory colored pieces – they look like almond pieces). I’m not sure what the “cake” part of the dessert is made out of. It’s some kind of starch. Though they are deep-fried, they are not crispy on the outside. Rather, they taste like they had been pan-fried – some of the surface having taken on just a bit of caramelization.
I should have known that time was of the essence with the “Porcupine’ Milk Custard Buns.” We had been so avalanched with desserts that we decided to have these buns last. That was a bad move. The steamed bun dough has a very short shelf life. By the time we got to these critters, the white buns had already begun to get chewy (like bread gets if you microwave it – not that I’ve ever tried to do so…).
Still, the “milk custard” filling in these cute little “porcupines” (how DO they get the little bun skins to curl up like that?) was still tasty. Having the color and texture of salted egg yolk, the custard was rich, thick, milky, and slightly gritty with sweetness.
Our server also brought out two bowls of “White Wood Ear and Pumpkin Soup,” an off-menu dessert, as gifts from the chef (who happened to be cooking in the Macau kitchen that day). Apparently, he was impressed and pleased with the amount of food we cleared.
Served hot, these steaming bowls offered translucent frills of wood ear (or “snow ear” fungus) in a lightly sweetened broth with two pieces of bright-orange poached papaya. Judging by the color, I suspect that the broth was sweetened with Chinese rock sugar, a traditional sweetener.
Tim’s Kitchen isn’t likely to dazzle unsuspecting tourists or foodistas as much as it will immensely please and impress a true devotee of Chinese cuisine (even more so, Cantonese cuisine). The restaurant is refreshingly honest in its approach, breathtakingly exact in its execution, and proud of its ingredients. I walked away gratified, satisfied, and very thankful that I bothered to give the place a chance. In fact, Tim’s Kitchen was probably the most consistent and solid meal of my entire trip to Hong Kong.
I look forward to returning to (one of the two) Tim’s Kitchens later in wintertime to partake of the chef’s famous snake dish(es).
If you happen to be going to Macau, do consider this restaurant.
2-4 Avenida de Lisboa