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Showing posts from 2006

Mogador Cake and Pear Charlotte

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My friend Yvonne took a summer course in French pastry at the famous French culinary institute Le Cordon Bleu Paris. And we got together to make some of the beautiful classic cakes -- Mogador cake and pear charlotte. A Mogador cake has a chocolate sponge cake bottom, imbibed (a culinary term I just learned, meaning saturated/soaked) with raspberry syrup, topped with a layer of raspberry jam, then a layer of chocolate mousse, and finally a glossy raspberry jam glaze. A pear charlotte is mainly a pear mousse cake, consisting of whipped cream, pureed poached pears, and dissolved gelatin and surrounded by freshly baked lady fingers. We made several mistakes and learned some interesting baking lessons. The Mogador cake came out tasting and looking great regardless of the errors. We were afraid the pear mousse was not going to solidify, so we reconstructed it into a multi-ramekin dessert. Important notes:

1. The sponge cake batter for the Mogador cake required first whisking eggs and sugar o…

Comfortable and relaxing dining environment

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This is one of many unique and fun restaurants in Taipei. Tables are low on the ground, and diners sit freely around it on cushions. The cuisine is Chinese dishes with a modern twist. But this place is also famous for traditional Chinese pastries. The price is pretty cheap -- around $10-$15 for a meal set, which includes some salad, small appetizers, the main dish, and dessert. What I like best is its relaxing environment, perfect for private conversations or group gatherings. Why couldn't there be more of this kind of places in New York?

Chef sizes

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I thought it would be fun to take a look at the celebrity TV cook show chefs. Oh, be warned, this is a gossipy entry with my personal opinions. Don’t take it too seriously :-)In the last post I praised Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe. Her show Everyday Italian is a very entertaining show. Her techniques are sound (she went to culinary school) and she has a well-meaning approach to introducing each dish. And all the food looks very very tasty. But I just have one problem with her – she looks so pretty, and she is very skinny. I know I should not be one to judge, me being very thin on a very fat diet after all. But I just can’t help but suspect that she might have food issues. I wonder if she just doesn’t eat very much. Another skinny chick is Sandra Lee, whose show is just god-awful. Crab bisque with canned crab meat? Chili made with boxed chili mix dumped into a crock pot? This woman is a hack! The name is terrible too – semi-homemade. Why not just call it Mostly Industrialized Crap Slapp…

Fish Soup

After several bizarre 70 degree December days, the Northeast finally settled back down to its normal chilly wintry self. It is so satisfying to listen to the wuthering winds and watching bare tree branches swaying to and fro, knowing that you are kept safe and warm within the nicely heated apartment. And you can spend the rest of the day curling up on the couch in your PJs, reading a book with a cup of hot cocoa in hand. But to make dinner you have to brave the freezing windchill to buy food! Don’t fret. Soup is the answer to a day like this, warming you from the inside out, even if the bitter cold has chilled into the bones.Giada De Laurentiis on the Food Network made a wonderful Italian fish soup, not unlike the famous French Bouillabaisse. Following her recipe, we built the soup base with onions, fennel bulb, and tomato paste. Earlier, I simmered a fish stock with a piece of freezer-burned fish filet and a bag of shrimp shells from months ago. Like chicken stock, fish stock benefit…

Kitchen Myths

There are many kitchen myths. Here are some:

- I am so sick of these cooking show hosts saying that by measuring oil (or spraying non-stick cooking spray) first before measuring honey or corn syrup, the greased surface of the cup or the spoon will make the honey/syrup come out completely non-stick. This is just simply not true, and can be easily experimented by anyone.

-when making blueberry cakes, toss the blueberries with some flour so that their coated surfaces will make them stay suspended in the batter while they bake. NOT TRUE! They will sink if they have a higher density than the batter because the flour coating easily incorporates into the batter anyway.

-A piece of steak nicely seared with a crust will seal in the moisture and become more juicy -- also not true. Honestly, who thought that a crust, which is merely made of proteins, carbohydrates, and fat, can form a water-tight barrier? The key to a juicy steak is to undercook it and let it rest before cutting. A brown crust adds…

Tarragon

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Do you like the anise flavor? Many people frown upon hearing the word "anise." They are probably thinking about the licorice. As with many flavor molecules, a family of complex phenolic compounds is responsible for the anise-like flavor. There really are a lot of anise-flavored ingredients and processed foods and drinks: anise, star anise, fennel, fennel seeds, pernod, five spice powder. And then there's tarragon, or French tarragon. The other kind of tarragon -- Russian or wild tarragon -- does not taste the same and is not really used in cooking. Tarragon has a wonderful mellow flavor. After cooking, its anisy character takes on a smoother feel. This dish is a salmon filet, braised and covered in a mixture of diced onions, carrots, and celery that have been cooked with butter and tarragon. The flavor is wonderful. Now we just need to perfect the timing for cooking salmon – it so often comes out on the dry side.

Lacquered Pork Shoulder (紅燒蹄膀)

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My friends John, Andrea, and Jess held a farewell party for our friend Alexis 2 weeks ago. This is not your traditional gather-around, look-at-pictures, and open-some-gifts type of farewell party. No. My gourmand friends turned their lovely apartment into a French bistro, open for one night only, serving 20 guests 6-course dinners. From the opening act asparagus quiche tartlets to the finale custard-filled profiteroles drizzled with chocolate, my friends created such a special evening. What I liked the most, however, was the entree -- a pork shoulder braised in a mustardy and aromatic broth. The meat was tender and flavorful, juicy with bits and pieces of pork fat. It was heavenly.

Pork is a stable item in Taiwan. Pigs can eat many sources of food and grow at a much faster pace than other domesticated animals. They are an economical protein source. The pigs in Taiwan are bred for pork fattiness and sweetness. The "black-hair" pig variety is especially a gourmet grocery item, …

Thanksgiving came a little early

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I think everyone would agree that the best thing about Thanksgiving is not the Turkey or the pumpkin pie. It is the side dishes. The stuffing that soaks up all the turkey juice and fat; the sweet potatoes and winter squashes; and the maple glazed carrots. These make our tummies go umm-umm. So that kind of obsession compelled me to make a 3-dish dinner after a long day's work on a Friday night. Compared to my weeknight routine of 1-hour dinners (ok so Rachel Ray can make two 30-minute meals while I cook just one. But she sucks), this is actually more work!!!

Martha has been publishing 15 years of readers' favorites in all the magazine issues this year. And in this November issue, she reviewed our favorite holiday side dishes. I am really grateful for this, for I had been kicking myself for not saving a creamed spinach recipe from 2 years ago. So on this night, I savored the silky spinach yet again, for the 3rd time, mixed with sweet and crunchy pearl onions and smoky bacon. I a…

Halibut with fresh polenta and pepper oil

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This is one of the best and easiest recipes from Jacques Pepin's book "Fast Food My Way." Halibut is poached in salted water. Fresh corn is shaved off the cob, pureed, and cooked in butter until thick and creamy. Red bell pepper is pureed with olive oil and cooked in a MICROWAVE! And that is basically it! It looks gorgeous, and it tastes fabulous!

Stuffed

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Why does food become more fabulous when it is stuffed? Starting with stuffed whole chickens and turkeys, stuffing evolved into a stand-alone dish on the Thanksgiving dinner table. There is the chicken cordon bleu, rolling cheese and ham inside a chicken scaloppini. A common buffet item is stuffed peppers – bell peppers filled with cooked rice and beans. Calzones are basically well-stuffed two-sided pizzas. At dim sum, you can order eggplant and bell peppers stuffed with shrimp paste. A classic Chinese dish uses hollowed-out daikon cylinders and stuffs them with re-hydrated scallops.

Even doughnuts get a makeover when stuffed with jelly. And who can resist the temptation of a custard-filled cream puff? The contrast of the crispy shell and the silky filling makes it a delectable item. ( I’m so happy to have Beard Papa in NYC!) If we expand our criteria a little bit, any dumplings or buns are also “stuffed.” This kind of stuffing takes care of “scrap” meat. Ground pork and chopped shrimp …

Two Lamb Meals 一羊兩吃

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Dinner leftovers usually just end up as my next-day lunch. I think it is not very appetizing to eat the same things for dinner two days in a row. With a little twist, however, leftovers can get a little beauty makeover. For example, I grilled several boneless chicken thighs marinated in a coconut milk-fish sauce-garlic-cilantro sauce for dinner one night. The leftover thighs ended up in an instant "ragu" in which I also added some cucumbers and canned tomatoes. I served this with plain omelets.

In the first picture, I grilled a butterflied leg of lamb, marinated in a herb yogurt sauce. The meat was sliced thin and served with a couscous salad (recipe from Ina Garten's book). The juice that accumulated around the meat during resting was the perfect sauce for it. The next night, I chopped up the rest of the lamb, and fried them up with a little oil, cumin, and black pepper. I also made a yogurt sauce by simply adding sliced cucumber, minced garlic and mint to greek yogurt. …

Iceberg Lettuce with Oyster Sauce 蠔油生菜

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This is one of my favorite dishes at cantonese restaurants -- cooked iceberg lettuce with oyster sauce! It is super easy to make at home too. Boil a huge pot of salty water and blanch the iceberg lettuce for 30 seconds to a minute -- just enough to wilt the lettuce. Drain it. Toss a little bit and press down on them to squeeze out extra water. Saute some minced garlic in vegetable oil (I think lard would be better) in a small pan. Add a few tablespoons of oyster sauce, a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a tablespoon of sugar. Whisk to combine really well and let it thicken a little. Pour it over the cooked lettuce and serve!

Macerated Cling Peaches with Iced Chamomile Milk

New York Times is getting really stingy with their online content. First they made all the good Op/Ed columns subscription only. Then they limited all the contents more than 7 days old also by subscription. I used to be able to get around this by using Google's "cache" page. Now that won't work anymore either. WTF? BBC is free all the way!

Anyway, the point is, I was going to hyperlink the recipe of this dessert to NYT's own article. Now since I can't do that I have to type it myself. I guess there isn't copyright issues with recipes. (You can chime in anytime Charles) because I see them reproduced all the time. I'm not making money from posting it, so it should be alright.

This dessert was of the cooling nature too. The iced milk doesn't linger and lather the tongue like ice cream. The chamomile is so fragrant. Its mintiness adds another cooling effect. I used fairly ripe peaches and I didn't use any additional sugar or lemon juice. I also skip…

A Light Chinese Summer Supper

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Left:Nine Veggie Delight; Far right: Shredded Chicken with Wide Mung Bean Noodles in Sesame Dressing; front: Poached Park with Garlic Sauce
One of my fondest memories of summer was my family’s afternoon naps when I was still in the elementary school. We lived in a small apartment, and it was expensive to have the AC on all the time. My parents would lay down a straw mat on the floor in the living room for the three of us to nap on. The afternoon golden sun rays trickled into the room through gaps between the vertical shades, making wobbly light and shadowy patterns. The warm afternoon breeze traveled through the back balcony, past the kitchen, kissed our faces, and then made the shades clap against each other gently as it exited the front balcony. The picture in my head makes me want to take a nap right now. After the nap, my mom may start to prepare for dinner. It is hard for me to remember what we ate back then. But the dishes must have been cooling, for the summer heat in Taiwan was…

New kitchen!

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Apartment hunting in a popular city is an agonizing experience. There are too many renters chasing after a trickling supply of vacant properties. Mike and I spent pretty much the entire month of June to find a place. I will spare you the details, but we pretty much went through all the possible worst scenarios: stood up by agents; incompetent agents who have no keys, no knowledge of the apartment, and no idea of the ADDRESS of the building; flaky agents who try to force bad properties down our throats; sleazy agent who reminds me of the devil's advocate; scary neighboods; freaky landlords; and bait-and-switch Craig's List ads. In the end, we did find the gem we looked for. The bitter process made the sweet ending ever so satisfying.

Honestly, I had little expectations for the kitchen during our search. When we went into an apartment, I paid attention to closet size, storage space, floor condition, layout, and lighting. Most landlords sacrifice the kitchen space to make room fo…

I don't want smoke in my kitchen

Mike and I finally found and moved into a nice two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Two nice features are the HUGE kitchen and an outdoor deck. We have already grilled bratwursts and tuna steaks for dinner in our first 9 days in the new “crib.” We are using a countertop electric grill because legally we cannot have an open flame BBQ on a roof deck. Also we don’t want to burn down the building in case the burning ashes are blown onto the deck or something. The electric grill does get very hot. Of the many stupid things we bought from HSN and QVC, this is the only one that lived up to its value. I guess Wolfgang Puck did get it right. In our previous apartment we could have used it more often, but the smoke from indoor grilling is just so unbearable. Our unfortunate attempt at grilling salmon steaks left us in a weeklong fishy atmosphere. That’s when we said “No” to indoor grilling – at least not until we can install an industrial exhaust hood fan.
I really cannot understand ho…

Thoughts on Diffusion and Stews

I am not sure if anyone has written on this subject. A quick search on google using "stew diffusion" came back with mostly unrelated stuff, so I thought I would give my perspective on it.

One of my favorite kinds of dishes is stews. It's a very general category, but I am referring to large chunks of meat and veggies simmered in a somewhat thickened and heavily flavored sauce. I like the Chinese style beef in brown sauce (紅燒牛肉), which is flavored with star anise, chinese cinnamon, ginger, scallions, szechuan peppercorns, and soy sauce. I claim to know nothing about Indian food, so I feel no shame in admitting that I like the Japanese curry one can make from a box of Vermont Curry. It is especially good if one uses pork spareribs cut into 1" pieces. And then, there's of course the all time classic Boeuf Bourguignonne, made incredibly rich by the wine, stock, aromatic herbs, and the buttery fonds.

All stews require long periods of cooking at simmering temperature. Ac…

Conquering Salad Dressing

I don't believe that some people are born with natural talent. I do believe in inborn inclinations. You can't be a naturally born cook, but you can certainly be more inclined to learn cooking. I've always thought this was why I was the top of my class in my "Housewifery" class (yes, that's the official name on the English version of my junior high school transcript). Whether it was sewing or cooking, it just wasn't difficult for me to learn at all. Over the years I learned how to cream butter, knead a dough, make a roux, julienne carrots, emulsify mayonnaise, and of course roast a chicken. But there are still a few things I just could not get right. One of them is making a pie dough. No matter what I do, my pie dough always comes out on the dry side. Obviously I need to add more water (duh!) But I usually end up using double or triple the amount of water indicated in the recipe and the dough remains dry. It's very strange. I decided to put this off un…

I only like the right kind of breast

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Don't get the wrong idea. I meant a piece of nice duck breast, cooked to medium rare for that juicy gamy taste. When I used to buy duck breasts in Boston, I went to Super 88 for frozen, vacuum packed breasts imported from France. Each pack has a pair of breasts from one duck, measuring about 6"x8", and about 1/2" thick. These days I can buy spend almost the same amount of money to buy a whole fresh duck from the NYC Chinatown!

But when Mike and I made our duck dish, we were too lazy to go all the way to Chinatown and to do the boning for the duck. We went to a decent grocery market and bought two pieces of vacuum packed duck breasts. These were individually packed, and each pack has only one breast. Each one is much bigger though, almost the size of a very large chicken breast. They were much thicker too, almost an inch thick!

We sauted the breasts skin side down to render the fat, and cooked them on both sides. We also made Mike's favorite "duck sauce"…

Food photos

Good food photos entice us. They sort of let us fantasize about the food regardless of whether we have the chance to sample it. To this day I still have difficulty buying any cookbook without fancy photos. But I have been reading a bit more about taking good food photos, and I am starting to look at them with a pair of more skeptical eyes. Typically, professional food photos are taken with at least three people -- the chef, the food stylist, and the photographer. Since the finished product only has to look good, its taste or smell doesn't have to be perfect. So during the shoot, the dish may be brushed generously with oil to brighten its sheen; a piece of cake or pie can have its filling "supplemented" to look for sumptuous; even the heat of the dish can be faked with dry ice "steam." Then there's also lots of post-image processing to enhance the color contrast and balance.

The book "Digital Food Photography" by Lou Manna is a great guidebook. Obv…

Another kind of food guide

It just occurred to me tonight that another kind of food guide could be in great demand.

After flipping through the pages of the Zagat Survey, I was getting suspicious at its 25-point review system. According to its introduction, point 0-9 means a "poor" restaurant. But I couldn't find even one restaurant that was rated below 10. What is the point of the 25-point scale if points 0-9 are skipped? We might as well just go with a 0-15 scale. I guess the Zagat Survey will receive threats and blackmails if it makes public those who well deserve 0-9 points. Its purpose is to tell diners where the good eats are. Its current system is a win-win situation for itself and the restaurants it recommends. But there is real value in publishing a list of bad restaurants. Seriously, I wouldn't mind doing that. It serves two purposes. One, it helps fellow diners avoid bad food. Secondly, it serves as a wake-up call to those restaurants to make improvements. But of course, I don't …

Restaurant report -- Bouley

Mike and I went out on Sunday night for a really big splurge. We decided to dine at Bouley, a French restaurant owned by David Bouley. Many may argue that it is one of the finest dining destinations in NYC. David Bouley studied under some of the most revered French culinary stars like Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon. Strangely many online sources warned us about having to make a reservation like a month in advance. We went on OpenTable.com and made a reservation 6 hours before our 8pm dinner. That's not exactly difficult I suppose.

The meal was really good. Both of us ordered the tasting menu (within which there are about 2-3 choices for each course). We started with chef's canape -- cubes of mozzarella cheese in cucumber gelee, topped with tomato sorbet and pesto mousse. This classic combination of flavors got a clever makeover. The added texture and temperature contrasts made it a great conversation piece, and it teased us about the coming courses. The rest of the menu reflects…

Egg Custard King Cafe

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clockwise from the right: original, egg white, Portuguese, banana, almond, strawberry. Middle: Honeydew


Egg custard tart is one of my favorite items at dim sum. I've always been fond of eggy desserts like creme caramel, creme brulee, flan. It's especially good when it is fresh out of the oven -- hence dim sum is a great place to get it. It's not always easy to get it so freshly made at bakeries.

The concept is quite easy. An egg and milk based custard is baked into a tart shell. There are about three different tart shells. One is a puff pastry, with layers of thin and crispy crusts. Another is made like the sweet tart dough (Pate Sucree), which is crumbly and sweeter. A third kind of dough is more like a pie dough (Pate Brisee), not sweet, and the sides are braided. The filling contains mainly eggs, milk, flavoring, and sugar. Yolks contribute creaminess and richness. The albumin in egg white and proteins in milk help the custard set (solidify). There is always a risk of ove…

Chikalicious!

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My friend Ada and I also went to a dessert bar last Friday. It's called Chikalicious, but chicken is not on the menu. Apparently, it's a name made with the chef's name (Chika) and the word delicious. For $12, you are served an amuse (like an dessert appetizer), the actual dessert (which you get to pick), and some petit fours. Our amuse was honey parfait in a pear soup. This was good, since I really love pear. But the other table got the same parfait with cranberry soup. I thought it would be better with cranberry since the tartness would cut into the honey sweetness. My dessert was almond cake, toasted almond ice cream, and apricots cooked in amaretto. I guess I have been using almond extract for too long. I had forgotten the real almond essence is derived from the variety of bitter almonds, which really has a discernable taste from just almond extract. Ada had a molten chocolate tart served with pink peppercorn ice cream. Mmmmm, so good!!! And in the picture we were serve…

Downhill alert!

So I have officially begun my adventures into the NYC Chinatown. When it comes to choosing ethnic restaurants, there isn't any source that is truly reliable. I have long given up on Citysearch, a website that seemed to have been sold to the other side. Zagat usually isn't very helpful, and can be outdated due to its long delay between its reviewing and publication times. Michelin, useless to say, is more geared towards fine cuisine. Chowhound is a pretty up-to-date and honest (though very subjective) information pool. But with the mind-boggling number of restaurants in NYC, the chance of finding current information on one particular small place is pretty slim. In Taiwan, going out to eat with this lack of information is often called "watching out for landmines (踩地雷)." The landmines refer to those restaurants with bad food that cannot be easily detected by a casual passerby.

Anyway, the downhill alert is not for a new place. I went to Joe Shanghai (鹿鳴春) for crab soupy …

Dinner with Albert#2

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Albert#2 is also from Taiwan. We met when he was a visiting scientist in my lab at MIT. Now he is back in Taiwan, he and his wife played host and treated me to this Shanghainese restaurant (紅豆食府). We had a really good time. The food was very good, except they all got cold really quickly. The portions were little, so we got to sample many things. The service was really thoughtful and timely without being intrusive.

Dessert: "Too-soft-hearted" (left, 心太軟) and red bean pancake (right, 豆沙鍋餅). The dish on the left is dried jujube, a kind of red date, stuffed with chinese rice cake, cooked in a syrup flavored with osmanthus flower (桂花).
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Stir fried rice cake with blue crab (青蟹)
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Daikon puff cakes (蘿蔔酥餅): shredded daikon is cooked with scallions and Chinese ham, and then wrapped in Chinese puff pastry. The puff pastry is cut against its "grain" and opened up to create the surface pattern.
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Pork rib stewed with rock sugar; soupy buns with Chinese okra and shrimp
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My favorite: Lacquered pork (東坡肉). Pork belly stewed with scallions, spices, rice wine, soy sauce, and sugar
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Marinated brocolli stem; bamboo shoots stewed in sweet soy sauce and oil; stir fried river shrimp (served with Zhen-Jiang vinegar)

Nan-men Market

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Nan-men Market is arguably one of the best managed traditional market in Taipei. Most traditional markets have no organization whatsoever. Anyone can rent a stall and sell anything. You can buy shoes and skirts right next door to a pork butchershop. But in this setting you establish a relationship with the vendors. In supermarkets most items are mass produced and packaged, and the quality may not be as fresh. In Nan-men Market, produce and raw meat/poutry/seafood are exclusively sold in the basement, while the street level sells freshly prepared dishes, candies, dried goods, and dumplings, cakes, pastries, etc. Seafood is very fresh here. Live fish can be bought here. Clams are kept alive in shallow pans with flowing water. Peas just shelled from the pods can be easily found. No wonder I miss my mom's dishes -- anything made out of these excellent ingredients can't be bad.

When I lived in Taiwan, every Sunday morning ritual was to go to Nan-men Market and buy freshly prepared …
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Tofu "flower" in gingery syrup with boba/pearl seeded with red beans
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Crabs galore!
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KeeLung Temple Entrance (night market)