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Monday 28 September 2015

Celebrating Mooncake Festival at Royal China Queensway

Words and Photography by Caroline Ghera and Luiz Hara

Name: Royal China Queensway

Where: 13 Queensway, London W2 4QJ, http://www.rcguk.co.uk

Cost: The à la carte menu at Royal China Queensway contains a comprehensive variety of appetizers priced £5.50 - £9.20 while most main courses range from £10 - £26.50, with vegetables, noodles and rice dishes varying between £3 - £11. However, a few signature and seafood dishes can climb up to £45. The dim sum menu, which is served daily up to 5pm, features an excellent choice of dumplings, cheung fun, rice and noodle dishes ranging from £3.30 to £10.20.

Royal China Queensway also serves a good selection of cocktails, Chinese teas and soft drinks. The wine list is very reasonably priced with a 175ml glass ranging from £5.80 to £6.95 and most bottles priced  £19 - £45. 

About: Founded in 1996, Royal China Queensway was the first of what is now a very successful group of 6 restaurants in and around London. Widely regarded for its traditional dim sum creations and great Cantonese cooking and with branches in Baker Street (Royal China Club reviewed here and Royal China Baker Street reviewed here), Canary Wharf, Fulham and Harrow, the Queensway site remains the flagship of the group (reviewed here), always buzzing with members of the Chinese community, locals and food enthusiasts from further afield.

The restaurant has a spacious, elegant interior decorated in black and gold which during the month of September is further embellished with lanterns hanging from the ceiling to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival also known as Moon (or Mooncake) Festival, this year celebrated on the 27th September 2015.

What We Ate: Over the years, I have been to Royal China Queensway on countless occasions to savour their afternoon dim sum which I consider one of the best in London, but my latest visit was on a weekday evening when the à la carte menu is available. We started our meal with the deep fried soft shell crab with spicy salt (£8.50 for a portion of two). The fleshy soft shell crab was coated in a crisp thin layer of batter and topped with salty flakes of garlic, chilli, ginger and spring onion which provided a delicious contrast of textures.

To follow, we tried the deep fried baby squid with spicy salt (£6.80). Prepared in the same fashion as the crab (we were in the mood for some deep-frying that night), it was perfectly cooked and equally delicious.

Moving on to the main courses, I could not help ordering one of my favourite Royal China specialities, the baked seafood rice with creamy Portuguese sauce (£12.00). The exact ingredients are carefully guarded by the chef but this is a delightful dish of egg-fried rice with generous pieces of fish, scallops and whole tiger prawns topped with a creamy béchamel-like coconut and evaporated milk sauce, delicately flavoured with what might be a light curry or even semolina. This is a dish only available at Queensway and it is sadly not included in their printed menu so if you would like to try it, please ask your waiter for it.

From the Chef’s specials we opted for the pan-fried stuffed aubergine with minced shrimp paste and black bean sauce (£11.20). A traditional Cantonese dish sometimes served with stuffed tofu and peppers, these were wonderfully soft aubergine pockets filled with a generous layer of shrimp paste, another excellent dish.

In order to add a bit of spice to our meal we ordered the sautéed prawns with red chilli sauce “Szechuan Style” (£13.50). This dish was however disappointing - the fleshy prawns were let down by a gloopy and sweet sauce that lacked any heat or depth of flavour usually the trademarks of Szechuanese cooking.

Our last meat-based dish was the chicken with chilli in “Chiu Chow style or Teochew Style” (£10.80). These were stir-fried strips of chicken breast with red and yellow peppers, chillies and sesame seeds. Chiuchow or Teochew cuisine, from Guangdong Province is well known for its seafood dishes, braised pickles and light flavouring and freshness of ingredients.

To accompany our main dishes we had stir-fried choi sum with garlic (£9.80). The crunchy green stems were delicious and added some lightness and freshness to our meal.

To wrap up, we shared some seasonal mooncakes, a delicacy gifted between family and friends to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese holiday dedicated to viewing the moon at its fullest and brightest at this time of the year. Royal China Queensway will be serving these beautiful treats decorated with symbols of prosperity and friendship during the whole of September. Our first mooncake was made of a thin layer of reddish-brown pastry encasing a deliciously sweet and dense lotus seed paste filling. A whole salted egg yolk is placed in its centre to symbolise the moon. The cake is rich and you will only need a small wedge to savour with tea (£4.00 for 2 types of cakes).

Our second mooncake was a smaller version made with a white crumbly pastry filled with egg yolk custard. If we weren’t so full already we could have eaten a few of these!

What We Drank: Our choice was a bottle of Domaine Rene Monnier, Bourgogne Chardonnay, 2013 (£26.00) which was a rich and rounded wine with a lovely hint of vanilla and a touch of acidity on the finish – a fine chardonnay at its price.

Likes: The delectable soft-shell crab with salty and spicy flakes was a dish I would happily order again, as well as the baked seafood rice with Portuguese sauce which is an perennial favourite and worthwhile asking for despite it not being on the menu. The mooncakes were rich but a perfect afternoon treat or dessert with a lighter meal. Good wine selection and very well priced. Excellent dim sum.

Dislikes: The service at Royal China Queensway is efficient but can be less than friendly at times, which is a pity for a restaurant of this quality. The prawns with red chilli sauce were sweet, lacking in heat and not representative of Szechuan cuisine.

Verdict: The Royal China has been one of my favourite Chinese restaurants in London since its opening in 1996, and continues to be so nearly 20 years later. London restaurants come and go, but over the years, Royal China has been consistently reliable in what they offer – great dim sum and Cantonese fare. Recommended.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

The London Foodie Goes to Peru - Machu Picchu

For most people who come to Peru, Machu Picchu is the highlight of their trip, and it is a stunningly beautiful and evocative place to visit. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, it is not as old as many people believe, and is thought to have been built in around 1450 AD, only to be abandoned a century later during the Spanish Conquest.

Machu Picchu

Located on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley, 50 miles northwest of Cusco, it was built in classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls that were cut to fit together perfectly, without mortar.

The three main structures are the Inti Watana  (believed to have been an Inca astronomic clock), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Scattered around the site are larger buildings thought to have been used by the nobility and religious leaders, as well as smaller dwellings and storage houses for the rest of the Inca population.

Just as striking as the architecture is the stunning setting, at the top of a mountain, hundreds of metres above the Urubamba River in the valley below, and surrounded by lush tropical jungle replete with hummingbirds.

Amazing views of the Urubamba River

The views are spectacular, and justify at least a full day to catch sunrise and sunset. Machu Picchu is the number one tourist destination in Peru, but it is large enough not to feel crowded except perhaps around lunchtime when day trippers from Cusco arrive.

This is a good reason for staying locally either in the little town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) in the valley as we did, or in the eye-wateringly expensive Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (of the Belmond Hotel Group) right next to Machu Picchu.

The most panoramic views of Machu Picchu are from the top of Huayna Picchu, the mountain which towers behind the structures of the citadel. Access to Huayna Picchu is now limited to 400 people per day, 200 being allowed up at 8am, and another 200 at 10am. It takes around 1 hour to climb at a fairly brisk pace, and there is a well marked and mostly paved path so it does not require any special equipment beyond the avoidance of flip flops.

Climbing the Huayna Picchu

The mornings are often cloudy at Machu Picchu, so it is worth staying up on top of the mountain until the early afternoon to get the best chance of a crystal clear view of the site below. It is officially discouraged to stay on Wayna Picchu beyond 12 noon, but actually lots of people do as the views are better in the early afternoon.

Some of the best views of Machu Picchu however are to be found not from Huayna Picchu itself, but from the much smaller peak known as Huchuy Picchu that you will walk past on your way back to Machu Picchu.

On our trip, it was almost deserted because very few people who have climbed Huayna Picchu make the effort to climb another peak. However, it is actually very easy to ascend, much less strenuous than Huayna Picchu, and is the perfect spot from which to contemplate the ruins of Machu Picchu in peace, and to take photographs from one of the best locations in the area. 

How to Arrive and Leave Machu Picchu

There are only two ways to travel between Machu Picchu and Cusco - either on foot along the Inca Trail in a journey lasting two to five days depending on where you start from, or by train, and we chose the latter. We travelled to Machu Picchu on the splendid Belmond Hiram Bingham train (formerly Orient Express) - you can read more about that here.

Great views from the Vistadome train service from Cuzco

We travelled from Machu Picchu to the Sacred Valley town of Urubamba on Peru Rail's Vistadome service.  Surrounded by glass in the roof as well as the windows, there are spectacular scenic views on the journey as it passes alongside the Urubamba River. The Vistadome has air conditioning and very comfortable leather seats.

The excellent Vistadome train service to Aguas Calientes

The journey to Urubamba took 3 hours, and the time flew by, partly because of the wonderful scenery en route, but also because the attendants on the train worked very hard to provide the best service, and even an Andean fashion show and dancing. Highly recommended.

Where to Stay

Hotel Sumaq

The Hotel Sumaq is an elegant hotel situated on the banks of the Vilcanota River, a few minutes walk from the Aguas Calientes train station. Surrounded by lush vegetation, in the midst of mountains and valleys, it is a tranquil place to prepare for a visit to Machu Picchu, or to reflect afterwards.

With a bar serving excellent Pisco Sours, and with complimentary afternoon tea, it offers a great opportunity to unwind near the historic sites of the area.

The hotel offers, for additional fees, a range of activities including cooking classes, a hike to the valleys and waterfall of Mandor, or a bird watching tour. We had a short but informative class on making ceviche and mixing the perfect Pisco Sour.

Our room was comfortable and spacious, decorated in vibrant but harmonious colours and local artefacts.

It had a balcony with great views overlooking the tumultuous Vilcanota River and the surrounding valleys.

The views from our room at the Sumaq Hotel - the mighty Vilcanota River

Breakfast was served buffet-style, and included a good range of tropical fruit, yoghurts, cereals and cooked options.

The hotel has a well-equipped spa and sauna room and offers a range of treatments and massages, ideal after a day’s trekking to Machu Picchu.

Sumaq is the top hotel in Aguas Calientes, and whilst there are a number of budget accommodation options in the town, we found Sumaq was good value and well located for the local bars and restaurants and for a taste of local life.

Where to Eat

Hotel Sumaq

The town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) exists solely as a base for tourists visiting the nearby ruins at Machu Picchu. There are numerous cafes, bars and restaurants, but none that offers anything outstanding. We chose to have dinner at the Qunuq restaurant at Hotel Sumaq.

Our meal at Qunuq was delicious – we started on a good note with a delicious platter of appetizers including trout ceviche, a causa “maki” of chicken and avocado (causa is a Peruvian dish of mashed potatoes filled and/or topped with other ingredients) and a black quinoa salad with a tangy vinaigrette dressing. The appetizers were delectable, well made and bursting with flavour.

As mains, Dr G and I shared a grilled alpaca fillet steak served with mashed potatoes and grilled mushrooms. We got a real taste for alpaca on this trip – when well prepared (as in this case), it is succulent, meaty and surprisingly un-gamey.

Our second main course was a slow-braised veal stew served with a Peruvian pumpkin risotto. This was also delicious – a refined version of the classic adobo Arequipeño, a soupy pork stew, slow-simmered with chicha de jora (a corn beer), spicy rocoto pepper, aji panca, garlic, onions, oregano, cumin, and other herbs and spices.

What to Do

Although there is a range of activities in the area, including walks along parts of the Inca Trail, learning about local trees and vegetation, as well as birdwatching, the overwhelming reason why people come to Aguas Calientes is to visit Machu Picchu.

Arrival at Aguas Calientes also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo

It is a tremendous site which will take at least one full day to explore, but it would be good to have the chance to stay 2 or 3 nights in the area.

On our trip, we wanted to experience Machu Picchu from daybreak, and so arrived in Aguas Calientes the afternoon before, and checked into the Hotel Sumaq, strolled around town and had dinner at the hotel, before an early night to allow us to get up before dawn.

It is possible to walk from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu, but it is a fairly strenuous journey up a dirt track which takes 60-90 minutes at a brisk pace.  That is one way to arrive at the summit before dawn, and requires sturdy walking boots and a torch.  Alternatively, shuttle buses start ascending to Machu Picchu from 05.30, in a journey that takes around 15 minutes.

Once at the summit, the main question is whether to wander around alone, perhaps with a guidebook, or to engage one of the official guides. We took the view that most of what a guide told us about the site would be conjectural, and that we would rather be alone for the hours we had to soak up this amazing place. You might feel differently, but we did not think we were missing out.

Machu Picchu

Travel Essentials

Hotel Sumaq 
Av. Hermanos Ayar Mz 1 Lote 3 
Machu Picchu

Double rooms are available from £225 per night. 

Tickets for the Vistadome and Hiram Bingham trains are available from purchase online direct from Peru Rail at: www.perurail.com

Prices vary somewhat depending on the time and day of travel, but a one-way journey on the Vistadome train costs in the region of £45 pounds per person. 

It is advisable to book tickets for access to Huayna Picchu in advance, and this can be done from home via the Peruvian government's website www.machupicchu.gob.pe. This website does work, and you can print off your entrance tickets from home, but it is not the easiest website to use. Although it can be read in English translation, the ticket-purchasing function only works if accessed via the Spanish site.  Full details on how to use the site can be found here: 

Do remember that you MUST take your printed entry tickets AND your passport or a photocopy of it to the site, otherwise you will not be allowed through the security gates.

Friday 11 September 2015

Nikkei Cuisine – Japanese Food the South American Way

Chef Tsuyoshi Murakami hands me a small plate – in it are two slivers of salmon sashimi, lightly blow-torched, in an amber-coloured sauce. I am sitting at the sushi counter of this elegant Japanese restaurant taking in the muted chatter of diners and the delicious smells around me.

This might have been one of the many fine-dining establishments in Ginza or perhaps Shinjuku in Tokyo, but as I take the first slice of salmon, the flavours of butter, Tahitian lime and soy sauce linger on my tongue. So wonderful, and yet so un-Japanese, for I am at Kinoshita Restaurant in Vila Nova Conceição, one of the swankiest districts in the city of São Paulo, Brazil.

Chef Murakami is one of millions of Japanese men, women and children who, over the last 100 years, have crossed the oceans to Brazil in search of a new life. Today, Kinoshita is regarded as one of the top restaurants in the country.

Chef Tsuyoshi Murakami at Restaurant Kinoshita, São Paulo, Brazil
On June 18 1908, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil after a 7-week journey from Kobe on board the Kasato Maru. Immigration was encouraged to help solve the farming manpower crisis in the Brazilian coffee plantations caused by the abolition of slavery in 1888. Most of these early Japanese immigrants imagined their trip as a temporary endeavour – a way to achieve prosperity before returning to their native country. However, the advent of the Second World War and the demise of Japan resulted in most of them considering Brazil as their permanent home, including my grandparents.

Fast forward 100 years, and today the Japanese community in Brazil is the largest outside Japan, with most people of Japanese descent (known as Nikkei) living in São Paulo. Peru is home to the second largest Nikkei community in South America, where Japanese immigration started 9 years earlier in 1899.

An old family picture in Brazil, 1930s

I was raised by my Japanese grandmother, who unknown to me or anyone else at the time, was a true pioneer of what has lately become the fashionable Nikkei cuisine. This is the cooking of Japanese emigrants who, out of necessity, adapted local ingredients to the cooking techniques of their homeland.  

My grandmother's passport used when she immigrated to Brazil in 1927
Nikkei cooking is an integral part of the culinary heritage of countries like Brazil and Peru, and more recently in the USA and Europe, it has gained popularity due to the influence of chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa. Several Nikkei restaurants opened in London including Chotto Matte and Sushi Samba. In Barcelona, Albert and Ferran Adria from the late El Bulli opened their own Nikkei restaurant Pakta, earning rave reviews.

‘In Peru, Japanese immigrants must have been shocked by the enormous difference between the diets they were so used to and the new products they were consuming. They were forced to adapt in a thousand different ways’, explained chef Mitsuharu Tsumura. We were chatting over one of the signature dishes at his restaurant in the upmarket district of Miraflores in Lima –Maido is currently number 7 on San Pelligrino’s 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America, and is also considered the best of its kind in the city.

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura at Maido Restaurant, Lima, Peru

To many Peruvian Japanese, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Nikkei ceviche is possibly the dish that best conjures up the marriage of these two culinary traditions. He says ‘It has Japanese ponzu and dashi to counter the intensity of the lime and the aji [Peruvian chilli]. Two attitudes meet and complement each other here: serenity and spice’. And indeed they did - it was a delectable and well-judged dish.

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura's Nikkei Cebiche

Japanese Chef Toshiro Konishi, regarded by many as the father of Peruvian Nikkei cuisine, is a national treasure. Arriving in Lima in the 1970s to work alongside Nobu Matsuhisa at Matsuei, Konishi-san fell in love with the Peruvian people and the wonderful native ingredients of the land and sea, never returning to live in Japan.

Chef Toshiro Konishi handing me a plate of tiradito at his restaurant Toshiro's, Lima, Peru

I met him at Toshiro’s in San Isidro, Lima, to talk about Nikkei cuisine and try one of his creations – tiradito. Today, one of the national dishes of Peru, this is the Nikkei answer to another local favourite, ceviche. Tiradito was invented by Chef Konishi who decided to slice the fish thinly, sashimi style rather than cubed, and serve it raw with leche de tigre, not marinated in lime or with red onions and corn. Much as I love a well-made ceviche, Toshiro’s tiradito was truly sensational –lighter, more delicate and the excellent quality of the local Peruvian fish really shone through.

Chef Toshiro Konishi's Tiradito (Peruvian-Nikkei Sashimi)

Back in São Paulo, at Momotaro restaurant, third generation Japanese descendent chef Adriano Kanashiro served me his most popular Nikkei dish – a sushi of tuna, foie gras and figs that is one of the finest I have tasted. Perhaps the most avant-garde of Nikkei chefs in Brazil, Kanashiro explores the fruits of the Amazon for culinary inspiration.

Japanese immigration, although in smaller numbers, still takes place in South America. In São Paulo, I was charmed to meet chef Shin Koike at his restaurant Sakagura A1 and learnt of his arrival in the country as early as 20 years ago. “Brazil is my adopted home; I embraced its culture, people and food wholeheartedly” he said. His kids were born there and as their parents, are truly integrated in Brazilian society – “I will never live in Japan again” he concluded.

Chef Shin Koike at Sakagura A1 Restaurant, São Paulo, Brazil

We shared a splendid Nikkei meal at Sakagura A1 ending it on a high note with his Rapadura ice cream with Cachaça and coffee jelly for dessert. Here, Chef Koike pays homage to two of the most popular of Brazilian flavours. Rapadura is Brazilian unrefined sugar cane in solid form, much akin to his native kokutō (Japanese muscovado sugar) it was the perfect base for his Nikkei creation together with Cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil, enjoyed in many Caipirinhas across that nation and beyond.

My grandmother was no Nobu, but she used what she could find in Brazil to create the most delicious Nikkei dishes. I was lucky enough to grow up in her house eating this style of cooking, and am pleased to see it reaching out beyond South America. Until now, Brazil and Peru were perhaps the most unlikely places you would visit for top-quality Japanese food. But if you would like to try Nikkei cooking, Japanese food the South American way, head down to São Paulo or Lima and check out some of these dazzling restaurants for yourself.

A day in São Paulo zoo with my o-baachan (grandmother)

Alternatively, why not experiment cooking Nikkei dishes at your own home? My cookbook ‘Nikkei Cuisine – Japanese Food the South American Way’ will be published on the 22nd October 2015, it can be pre-ordered on Amazon here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nikkei-Cuisine-Japanese-South-American/dp/1910254207

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