Everyone take note – the greatest gift anyone can give the parents of a four-month-old child is time to themselves. My dad and stepmum gave us the gift of three hours to ourselves on our trip to Hong Kong in April 2018, when K and I took time to go and have a fancy lunch at Bo Innovation to mark his birthday.
It had been some time since we had had a meal at a fancy restaurant like this (probably not since Nora), so it was a real treat! It was also probably the longest I’d spent away from Matilda since she was born, so there was significant separation anxiety on my part. “Is she okay? Do you think she’s hungry? Is she missing me? What if she doesn’t nap?” Not quite the same kid-free conversations we would have over fancy meals in the past!
So, my top three highlights from Bo Innovation:
The table set-up, with slide-out cutlery drawers, just like in traditional Hong Kong-style diners (cha chaan teng)
The appetiser starter – a classic eggette, but extra crisp and fresh with fragrant spring onion
Xiao Long Bao, molecular gastronomy style.
The whole meal really, was such an homage to classic Hong Kong flavours, dishes and culinary traditions that it really made me feel quite nostalgic. This is the food of my childhood, but up-scale and turned into an experience, rather than just everyday home-style comfort food. I would definitely recommend that anyone visiting Hong Kong with an interest in re-imagined Cantonese cuisine visit Bo Innovation.
It’s not somewhere I would take my 80-year-old uncle who refused to let me take him to high tea because “a cup of tea and an egg tart for $15HKD at the local diner will do me fine”, but for those 1.5 generation kids like myself yearning to celebrate a tenacious link to their cultural background? Bo Innovation is perfection.
Growing up, I always felt like an ‘other’, like someone who didn’t belong at the local primary school in her wealthy predominantly Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood. The only reason I was there after all, was because my parents ran a takeaway shop in the area, and we lived in a apartment above the shop…a far cry from my schoolmates who went home to sprawling four bedroom houses with three bathrooms, two living areas, large gardens and a pool in the backyard.
It’s only as I’ve gotten older and started seeking out stories from other migrant children that I’ve realised I wasn’t so special after all. Reading the work of authors like Benjamin Law and Alice Pung and watching shows like The Family Law and Fresh Off The Boat has made it clear that my experience and all the associated feelings of inadequacy are very common to the experience of Growing Up Asian in Australia (which coincidentally, is a fantastic book).
I’m starting to learn to embrace my Chinese heritage. I learnt Mandarin in university, I seek out books about Chinese history, I read articles about modern China. I’ve told K that I intend on giving our children Chinese names, and of course, they’ll also have to attend Chinese school on the weekends no matter how much they protest.
The most immediately rewarding aspect is of course, embracing all that’s to love about Chinese food in all its different varieties! Our whole family recently met up with my aunt and uncle in one of their new local favourites – Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe in Bentleigh.
Bentleigh may not be the first suburb you think of when you think of Chinese BBQ meats. Other suburbs like Glen Waverley, Box Hill or Springvale might pop into mind instead. However, don’t let its location f0ol you, there’s a reason this little BBQ shop is a new favourite for my very picky and discerning extended family.
My family are greeted by name as we enter the cafe, and my father promptly orders some serves of different roast meats for the whole table to share. The Crispy Roast Pork has a wonderfully salty and crunchy crackling, though I find the meat itself a bit too fatty. The standout here is the house-made Roast Spiced Sausage which is equal parts savoury, sweet and spicy, and the perfect weekend indulgence.
Forget the pork and the sausage for a moment. If you’re dining alone or as a couple and can only justify ordering one serve of roast meat, the Roast Duck is the way to go. We started off with a half serve as shown in the above photo, before quickly demolishing the plate and ordering another half a duck. My family rhapsodises lyrical about its virtues – the glistening succulent skin, the tender and juicy meat, the sweetness of the paired sauce. My aunt claimed that it was as good if not better than any roast duck she’s had in Hong Kong, so that’s pretty high praise indeed!
While we would normally a number of main meals and share them, the whole family was coming down with a cold and so we decided to order individual meals so as not to share the germs around. Dad chose the Dry Beef Ho Fun, complete with plenty of wok hei, fresh crunchy bean shoots, and smoky slippery rice noodles. A very simple dish that wasn’t particularly generous with its serving of beef, so it is worth ordering the roast meats on the side.
K ordered the Beef Brisket and Wonton Noodle Soup. The braised and slow-cooked brisket was particularly tender and tasty, clear evidence of the restaurant using a better quality of beef than you would normally find in a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant. The wonton too were nice and plump, with a hearty pork and prawn mix.
Recognising that I’d had more than enough meat with the roast duck, pork and sausage, I chose to have a vegetarian main – Vegetable and Bean Curd Noodle Soup. This proved to also be a good choice as I was nursing the start of what would end up being a cold that lasted a fortnight – the extra nutrients offered by the green veggies, mushrooms and carrots hopefully helped to give my immune system a boost! A simple noodle soup that was very satisfying.
My brother decided that he needed more roast meat, so he chose the BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice. The quality of this BBQ pork was just as high as the other roast meats, and I do have to give a special shout-out to the chef whose knife skills created these sliver-thin slices of BBQ pork. As my family debated at length, the thickness of BBQ pork slices does impact its overall quality. It’s rare to find BBQ pork sliced as thinly as this, and it really does make a difference.
My aunt chose the Stir Fried Rice Noodle with Beef…or more accurately, she had originally chosen the noodles with beef brisket, but it came out with simple beef slices instead. She was a bit disappointed that she didn’t get the tender beef brisket she originally wanted, but the thick and flavourful gravy of this beef noodle dish soon soothed any disappointment she may have had.
As I mentioned earlier, Bentleigh is not a suburb I would normally venture to for good Chinese BBQ. Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe is certainly strangely located in the Aldi shopping complex in a blink-and-miss-it location right at the end of the long Centre Road shopping strip. Do yourself a favour though – don’t blink and miss it, and instead, make a specific point of seeking it out the next time you’re in the neighbourhood. You’ll have some of the best Chinese roast duck you’ll ever have in your life!
Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe is located within the shopping centre at 285-305 Centre Road, Bentleigh.
Is everyone still talking about Tim Ho Wan? It feels like the opening of a branch of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in Sydney was all anyone (read – any food blogger) could talk about in April. Instagram abounded with glorious shots of their famous BBQ pork buns, and the prospect of waiting for up to four hours in the long queue wasn’t a deterrent at all.
I’ll admit that I fell prey to the hype. The Thursday before the Easter long weekend, K and I took the day off work to make it an extra long weekend. Ostensibly, the extra day was so that we could attend his cousin’s wedding in the late afternoon, but really, it was so that we could visit Tim Ho Wan in the morning before the wedding.
With a 10am opening time, K dropped me off at 9.30am so that I could start lining up while he looked for a carspace. We’d heard the horror stories about the queues so imagine my surprise when I found that I was sixth in line! I only had to wait half an hour until the restaurant opened and then managed to walk straight in for a table – so for those who are interested in visiting Tim Ho Wan without a queue, early in the morning on a weekday is definitely the way to go!
Unlike most yumcha establishments where you expect to see old Chinese aunties pushing dim sum trolleys around the restaurant, Tim Ho Wan operates on an order form system. Simply choose what you want, pass your order form over to one of the many young wait staff, and sit back as you wait for your food to arrive.
A lot has been written about Tim Ho Wan’s famous Baked Buns with BBQ Pork. As the signature dish, you’ll often see three or four serves of these buns brought out to tables of diners. No one walks away without eating at least two of these buns!
For all the hype though, how does it actually taste? It’s as good as you would expect. The top crust of the bun is slightly sweet, reminiscent of the Cantonese style pineapple buns. This enhances the smoky but sweet filling of the slow-roasted BBQ pork, making it a real sweet yet savoury treat. It’s so good that yes, we end up ordering another serve of the buns for takeaway as an afternoon treat!
Malay cake (ma lai go) was always one of my treats at yum cha when I was a kid. I’ve always loved the soft spongey texture with the brown sugar flavours in your mouth. Tim Ho Wan calls their ma lai go Steamed Egg Cake instead, which makes me think that they may have adapted the titles on their menu for a more Australian audience who aren’t familiar with this treat. Whatever the name of it, it was a real winner – almost as good as the ones I remember from my childhood. Soft, spongey, sweet, delectable.
I liked the inclusion of the goji berries on top of the Pork dumpling with shrimp (siu mai) – something a little bit unusual that you don’t always find with other dim sum restaurants. What I loved about these siu mai though, was the dedication to using quality produce, with the dumplings featuring huge whole chunks of fresh plump prawns. It certainly made a nice change to the nondescript pork and prawn mince that you normally get, where you wonder how much of what you’re eating is actually the real deal.
Surprisingly, the yum cha classic of the radish cake was called a Pan-fried carrot cake at Tim Ho Wan. Rest assured though – it’s certainly not made of carrots and is very much made of radish, or what some would know as Japanese daikon. While the radish cake was grilled beautifully, the mixture itself left a lot to be desired. Made up almost exclusively of grated radish (and slightly floury radish at that), it lacked the cornucopia of ingredients that marks an excellent radish cake – dried shrimp, lupcheong, shiitake mushrooms…there should have been a lot more to this radish cake. Alas!
Like the siu mai before it, the Prawn dumplings were absolutely chock-full with real chunks of prawn meat. There was no cheating by including bits of water chestnut or ginger in this dumpling mix! The only downside is that the skin was actually a bit too sticky as a result of having been over-steamed, meaning that the skin stuck to the bamboo steamer as you tried to pick up a dumpling. The structural integrity of the dumpling was less than ideal!
I absolutely adore lor mai gai – or as described in English Glutinous rice in lotus leaf. I remember my mother making lor mai gai when I was a child – making three or four dozen at a time to freeze for future meals, or to give away to friends or family. As I got older, I helped her with bits and pieces along the way but never learned how to make it from start to finish. I regret not having the opportunity to learn from her before she passed away, as I’ll have to cobble together tips from different recipes to come up with my own bastardised version now.
As my mother always said though, it’s all about the ingredients. “Mine are a lot better than what you would find at yum cha,” she used to say. “They overload theirs with rice, but I only use enough to wrap up all my ingredients – lup cheong, chicken, mushrooms, cabbage, a quails egg.”
While Tim Ho Wan aren’t quite as generous with their ingredients as my mother used to be, their lor mei gei is still well worth ordering. The chicken pieces inside are deliciously braised and tender, and they’re generous in their serving size.
K and I finished the savoury component of our brunch with one of the more disappointing dishes of the meal – the Vermicelli roll with shrimp. Even though we were one of the first customers of the day, the edges of the vermicelli roll had somehow dried out, meaning it wasn’t as soft and slippery as it should be as parts of it were much too hard and chewy. I think this negative experience was an anomaly though – we’ve been back to Tim Ho Wan since this first visit, and the sesame vermicelli roll was excellent!
I insisted on ordering dessert even though K had reached his limits, claiming that I had ordered too much food. You always have dessert though right? We shared a mango sago pomelo – sweet with a slight tart tang. It’s quite a refreshing dessert that works quite well as a palate cleanser to finish off your meal.
Since that first visit, K and I have been back to Tim Ho Wan twice – once with friends, and once with a larger family group. Most of the dumplings and dim sum are superb, but I remained unimpressed with the radish cake, and don’t even get me started on how terrible the braised chicken feet were. If I can make one recommendation, it’s to order carefully when you go to Tim Ho Wan – not all dishes are created equal. Still, you can’t go past those BBQ pork buns – I’ll be back for those at least!