Local Flavour, Global Spice
Before he moved to Hanoi, Vietnam from Abu Dhabi a few years ago, my friend Danny told me of a local delicacy (if I can use that term loosely) of his soon-to-be home that consisted of a cobra heart being put into a shot glass with some locally refined liquid and then drinking it, supposedly while the heart was still beating.

Full disclosure: while I have always been up for new cuisines and beverages from around the world, especially those of the local specialities, this one is still on my list of food and drink choices I’m not sure about. Truth be told I probably won’t have any definite answer for you as to whether or not I would drink it until that crazy glass is sitting in front of me while Danny ponders his own across the table, sometime in the future.

But cobra hearts aside, the more day-to-day culinary adventures of Southeast Asia are some of the best in the world. Li Jiang at the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi has taken the culture, history, and flair of this area of the world and given it a modern twist of sophistication and elegance. The spicy flair that is so much a part of each dish is what makes them standout as unique.

Spice for all your senses

As we entered Li Jiang on a Thursday evening, the restaurant was a flurry of activity. There were patrons at the bar enjoying lively conversation. The chefs behind the glass of the open kitchen shook and shuffled brightly coloured vegetables in woks that hissed and steamed. Diners at nearly every table were in some form of enjoyable conversation as the waiting staff hustled back and forth carrying plates and bowls of the night’s indulgences.

I would highly recommend tucking yourself away on the terrace amongst the olive trees during the cooler months, the al fresco atmosphere coupled with the views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque make for a magical evening

We, however, found a quiet table inside and started the long process of perusing through the menu. The succulent dishes of Southeast Asia often include a strong emphasis on lightly prepared dishes that have a powerful aromatic presence and feature flavors of citrus and herbs, and it appeared that Li Jiang specialized in all them all.

How hot Is It?

As we tried to narrow down exactly what we wanted from the culturally vast choices of the menu, Chef presented us with a small portion of Shrimp Crisps with a side of peanut sauce to help set the mood for the evening.

Some careful considerations were made and we finally settled on the Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls to set things off. Packed with chicken, shrimp and Asian herbs they were just the right amount of flavor-excitement to get things rolling. If you wanted to add a bit of heat, then the homemade chili fish sauce is all that you need. Balancing it out with some of the fried fare of Asia, we went with the Crispy Chicken Wantons that came with a creamy coconut and chili mango sauce.

Both offered that tantalising tingle on my tongue as things began to set ablaze. I do find that Southeast Asia cuisine is generally more enjoyable as substitutions such as soy sauce instead of fish sauce occur regularly. Cooking methods often, but not always, favor stir frying, boiling and steaming instead of frying, which make for some interesting contrast in combinations of the light yet fiery morsels that you get to choose from.

Feel the fire

The way I measure spice is not on how hot my mouth becomes, but rather the fear that I have before taking that bite. There was no “red pepper” scale on the menu, and by this time dinner was in full swing. I was certainly inclined to go out in a blaze of glory, or at least a mild smoldering of the taste buds. Presented with baby asparagus, chili, carrot, onion, and beach mushrooms first up was the Wok Fried X.O. Scallops. The delicate seafood morsels were better than expected. I’m not sure what the ‘X.O.’ stood for, the only thing I could imagine is that a splash of cognac was added to the wok during preparation. Regardless, they will be a choice you won’t regret and although not terribly large in portion, are more than enough to make the night memorable.

Alongside the scallops was one of my personal favourites that I almost regrettably get every time – Wok Fried Spicy Chicken. Served in a cast iron bowl, this was probably the closest I’ve been to ordering actual ‘hot pot’. I know it’s cliche, but I can’t help myself when it comes to the sweet and spicy combination. Lemongrass, spring onion and turmeric all infused together for a splendid journey to the furthest regions of Central China. I guess it could have been in part due to the Shanghai chillis that were also present, but I am not one to complain.

There were so many other items on the menu that we all wanted to try, it was almost to the point of making a reservation for the following night just to give it another go. Some of the other treats we didn’t get to were that of Szechuan origin or contained actual bamboo shoots and there were more than a few tantalizing Thai options.

It’s hot and it’s cold

To cap the night off we chose a dessert that has a lot of ambiguity of its origin; fried ice-cream. While most tend to think that it almost certainly has to be an Asian creation, there are stories that it comes from places as far from Southeast Asia as you can get; in the Americas. In fact, in the 1960s, food critic Cooper Adams refused to believe that it even existed until it was placed in front of him.

With this kind of unknown past, I think it was obvious that it needed to be the dessert of choice; we went with Raspberry ice cream instead of Vanilla. Sitting atop a more-than generous pool of Tainori Valrhona chocolate sauce, it was the perfect finish. The chocolate, albeit smooth and melted, had a firm bite and velvety texture.

It was an evening of sultry spice, everybody was absolutely satisfied by the time we left the restaurant. Southeast Asia, the collection of countries between the Indian and Pacific Oceans that offer a smattering of related cultures but are also worlds apart, come together seamlessly at Li Jiang; whetting the appetite for all things spicy, authentic and Oriental.

If you prefer a night where the stress of choosing dishes yourself is significantly reduced, then Li Jiang also has a specific spring roll night on Sundays, dim sum night on Mondays, and ladies night on Tuesdays – be sure to wear red for free flow bubbly.

For a little fun, I also suggest the No Mobile Challenge on Wednesdays, if you can lock your phone away for the duration of the meal, you’ll get 15 per cent off your bill – how hard can that be?
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