Chinese Whispers


Hong Kong is a city passionate about its food But, with an influx of international influences, is global cuisine killing off tradition? simon thomsen forgoes the new in search of authentic local dining.


The sweat of commerce perfumes Hong Kong. It’s a sweetly decaying scent that mingles with the muggy tropical heat, turning the air as thick as congee. Twelve years after the British returned their colony to Chinese rule, it’s as if the communist nation’s Special Administrative Region is trying to beat the West at its own capitalist game. The landscape is like an ageing starlet addicted to plastic surgery, constantly changing as it crams seven million people into soaring residential towers, and the fragrant harbour that gave the city its name is losing out to the need for more land. Along the way there’s a sense that Hong Kong’s heritage, including its cuisine, is being lost in the long modernist march of global capital. I’ve come here on a week-long quest to seek out the true flavours of the city. Like New York, Hong Kong never sleeps, but, more importantly, it never stops eating, either. People greet each other with, “Nei sik jo faan mei a?” – “Have you eaten yet?” Ever since the British seized control in 1842, Hong Kong’s food has been a melting pot of flavours. It basked in its close proximity to Guangzhou, China’s culinary capital, while absorbing the tastes of mainland refugees. As the city boomed over the past 30 years, it sought out the best ingredients from around the planet and experimentation with new ingredients is part of every chef’s imagination. In recent years, the city opened its collective mouth to a rash of stencilled French super chefs, while Japanese and Thai became the latest food fashions. The launch earlier this year of the inaugural Michelin guide to Hong Kong and Macau cemented the city’s gastronomic reputation on an international scale, but at the same time there’s a sense that the city’s culinary heart is being lost in a glut of globalisation. Dai pai dong, the street stalls that became an egalitarian post-war cornerstone of eating here, are now an endangered species. Even private kitchens, a bastion of guerrilla entrepreneurship in clandestine residential settings, have gone mainstream and legit. There is hope, I discover on my eating odyssey, with pockets of tradition, as well as contemporary chefs exploring their heritage, rediscovering what made Hong Kong one of the world’s great eating destinations. You just have to know where to look.

I first met margaret xu in 2006. It wasn’t easy. Her original private kitchen, Cuisine X, was a single table in her farmhouse in Yuen Long, a rural village in the New Territories. To dine there, she had to like you first. I passed, having been recommended by a Chinese-Australian friend. Xu worked as an advertising designer during the week, turning her passion for cooking into a weekend showcase of Hakka cuisine. Despite what seemed like simple directions, we got horribly lost and arrived an hour late, trudging through the dark, past swamplands hosting a loud chorus of frogs. What followed was one of the greatest meals of my life. Yellow earth chicken, baked in an oven fashioned out of Italian terracotta pots, couldn’t wait for us any longer and was served immediately. It rivalled the finest Bresse chook at 10 times the price. Two years on, Xu is feted by city authorities as a poster girl for the real Hong Kong. Cuisine X has morphed into Yin Yang and found a new home in a white, three-storey, 1930s heritage building with a slightly cramped tenement feel in Wan Chai, an old commercial area on Hong Kong Island. The restaurant’s name is a wink to one of the city’s culinary signatures, a drink of blended tea and coffee with sweetened milk. Xu is an impish ball of energy, wearing a kung fu jacket and white denim cap. Yin Yang’s nostalgic simplicity and focus on slow food principles stand out amid the city’s towering, glassed-in ambitions. Her cooking is a fusion of the food of Hong Kong’s traditional ethnic groups: Cantonese, Chiu Chow, Hakka and Dan fishermen, as well as British colonial influences. Many of the ingredients are drawn from her farm and the organic market in Yuen Long.

“My cooking philosophy is pretty simple: everything from scratch, back to basics. I learnt that living in the village, where people still live that way, yet people in the city consider that crazy,” she says. Yin Yang’s set banquet is a history lesson over more than a dozen courses. Dishes have poetically euphemistic names such as “moon river” (prawns cooked in chrysanthemum and honey tea), “drunken abalone” (baby abalone marinated in sake and shaoxing rice wine and ginger), “soup without water” (vege-tables and chicken steamed in an earthenware casserole until the liquid distils into soup) and “prawns in satin” (set in chicken’s feet jelly, with a splash of fresh passionfruit). The highlight is stone-ground bean curd duet with sea urchin custard, the latter inspired by the boat dwellers who once proliferated the harbour. The black-and-white tofu is made using mountain water from her farm. She hand-grinds the soybeans. “When I bought the stone grinder I didn’t know how to use it. My Hakka neighbour saw me struggling with it and laughed, ∫but taught me how it works. The secret was to follow the grinder’s pace,” Xu explains. “A stone grinder is something that existed in every province in China, and I love it because it keeps the natural taste and smell of different grains.” It features again in desserts, including stone-ground sticky rice balls and Hong Kong-style sago pudding with organic eggs. It’s another remarkable meal with a powerful, rustic honesty. Xu remains fascinated by the region’s culinary history and has been busy documenting it for an upcoming book.

If Yin Yang is the thoughtful Zen approach to Hong Kong’s culinary history, Bo Innovation is pure rock’n’roll. Cigar-chomping, sunglasses-wearing, self-taught chef Alvin Leung wears a cutaway chef’s jacket showing off his arm tatts. His day job was as an acoustic engineer until he began to dabble in a private kitchen six years ago. Leung’s cult status turned serious when the Michelin guide awarded two stars to his Wan Chai 58-seater, which sits just behind Yin Yang.

Bo Innovation is a polemic restaurant. Some will thrill to its daring and adventure as it fuses classical French with Chinese tradition, others will find it bombastic. Count me in the latter. There’s no doubt it’s clever, sizzling with ideas. The tasting menu is a 10-course rethinking of flavour that flirts with molecular gastronomy and shows moments of brilliance, including a lush foie gras pot-sticker dumpling. Mui choy kau yuk, a Cantonese peasant dish of pork belly with pickled vegetables, is lost in translation when transformed into a cup of pork custard with a milky white pickled foam. There’s a lot of head, but the heart of Chinese cooking seems absent and a bill topping $400 is a serious investment, even in a city known for its love of status symbols and obvious wealth.

If you’re feeling truly adventurous for the flavours of old Hong Kong, it’s not expensive. Seek out dai pai dong before they vanish and you’ll also score a free history lesson. These open-air food stalls were once the epitome of street-side cheap eats, but now just 28 remain. The last “big licences” (dai pai) were issued in 1956 and can only transfer through family. They’re slightly feral and grungy, yet invigorating and authentic. Grab a stool at a share table on a wet concrete floor and tuck into authentic Cantonese fare. If a meal for two tops $20, you’ve splashed out. I head to Stanley Street, Central, where Shing Kee has been dishing up pork ribs, steamed fish and some wicked offal dishes for nearly 60 years. Later, seeking out classic Cantonese in more comfortable surrounds, I make for Yixin, which Margaret Xu recommended as one of the few remaining practitioners of old-school Cantonese. It recently moved from Happy Valley to Wan Chai, not far from Yin Yang. The spacious new venue is adorned with old black-and-white photos of a life long gone. The bilingual menu helpfully signals signature dishes in red, from sautéed pig’s tripe to stewed fish maw with goose web. Not everything is as confronting to gweilo sensibilities, but the clarity of flavours, joy of texture and fragrant love of ginger are obvious. I begin with smoked pomfret, lacquered red cutlets of sweetly smoky fish on banana leaf. It’s accompanied by the questionable Cantonese peccadillo, sweet mayo laced with tinned fruit. The fish is fabulous, as is pigeon sang choi bau, but it doesn’t get much better than unshelled deep-fried prawns with ginger and spring onions. Yixin restores my faith in the beauty and eloquence of Cantonese cooking, which too often falls prey to flashiness. Here, flavour comes first.

For many, the apotheosis of Cantonese cuisine is dim sum. It’s certainly the greatest symbol of the Cantonese diaspora around the world, exporting a whole new way of eating. While Luk Yu Tea House in Central, with its unblemished 76-year tradition, remains one of the best and most prominent exponents, we head instead to Happy Valley, the well-to-do racing district, and the simply named Dim Sum, which strikes a balance between intimacy and style. The gormless service in this neat re-creation of a 1930s Shanghai teahouse with timber booths doesn’t hint at the exquisite food to follow. We trawl through the English picture menu of 70-plus morsels, then mark up our choices by number until we reach a point somewhere between contentment and greed. It’s not cheap, but this is refined dim sum, occasionally garnished with gold leaf and filled with exotica. We feast on baby abalone dumplings with prawn and pork, prawn dumplings topped with shark’s fin and gold leaf and scallop with crab eggs and prawn.

Chiu Chow cuisine originated in the coastal city of Shantou in Guangdong, about six hours by road from Hong Kong. It’s renowned for its light style, simplicity and preference for steaming and poaching in flavoursome broths. It’s an approach in sync with the times. There’s a strong emphasis on seafood, but unlike in Guangzhou-style Cantonese, there are numerous cold fish dishes. Leung Hing Chiu Chow in Sheung Wan won’t win any prizes for good looks, but it’s efficient and good value, and the menu is bilingual, with numerous pictures. The cold crab, chiu chow ngang hoi, is simply steamed, then cut up, yielding wondrously sweet meat. The duck and lime soup is fantastic, too.

Amid hong kong’s perpetual motion, there are two moments when everyone pauses from making money to return to the bosom of family for a meal: Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. The latter, also known as the Moon Festival, takes place during my visit. It’s a time of mooncakes – a dense pastry filled with yolks of salted duck eggs – and colourful lanterns festooning countless shops, awaiting new child owners. On the evening of the festival, we’ll join thousands on Stanley Beach to watch the moon rise over the bay amid candles, lanterns and glow sticks, but first Margaret Xu has promised me a Chiu Chow lunch in Kowloon City, Hong Kong’s original mainland settlement. Alas, our destination, Chong Fat – hailed by UK food writer Fuchsia Dunlop as the very best Chiu Chow restaurant – marks the festival by closing, so we head instead to Shantou Ting Hoi Lo Sze nearby. It’s a plain, functional space, notable for two giant pink-ribbon-adorned dried shark’s fins in a glass case at the back. Shark’s fin and bird’s nest are quintessential Chiu Chow ingredients, notable for the texture they impart, rather than the flavour. This is Cantonese-speaking-only country and Xu takes charge, ordering curls of gelatinous carp skin and spindly fried greens, bitter melon soup with pork ribs, a wonderful, slippery and salty oyster pancake, and smoky, sticky goose neck and head, the most prized part of the bird.

Xu is excited to find baby mussels on the menu, fried in garlic and strong, peppery, aniseed-flavoured basil. “It’s a very provincial seasonal dish. Only Chiu Chow natives and gourmets like it since there isn’t much meat,” she says. You work hard for each morsel, but they are delicious and this meal’s unusual, passionate flavours signal its truthfulness. We walk off lunch through the musty streets of the old city. Despite a plethora of new high-rise buildings, it doesn’t require much imagination to get a feel for the Hong Kong of old. Xu takes me to Shanghai New Sam Yung Market, a food store filled with bins of colourful rices, prosciutto-like Shanghai ham legs and preserved eggs. It’s hairy crab season and we’re drawn to the glass cases filled with the freshwater delicacy. A little further on is one of Xu’s favourite wet markets, Kowloon City, where she buys Chiu Chow delicacies and preserves. It’s a cornucopia of exotica, from organic vegetables to jellied squid and live fish, prawns and crabs splashing about in shallow pools and butchers full of confronting dangling carcasses. The sheer volume and variety of produce are testament to Hong Kong’s legendary willingness to eat anything with four legs, except the table.

We part, as she heads to family and I retreat to the relative quiet of Stanley, a picturesque seaside town that’s now a popular tourist destination. There’s a carnival atmosphere on the beach as everyone gathers to celebrate the Moon Festival. Thoroughly immersed in the spirit of Hong Kong, my thoughts soon turn to eating again. Next to the market, Calvin Yeung, who led Hong Kong’s retro-chic charge at the Aqua Group’s restaurants (most notably the highly successful Hutong), opened Shu Zhai, a teahouse serving dim sum and dan jia dishes drawn from the local fishing culture. The two-level, traditional-style restaurant works hard to evoke an earlier era with its terracotta tile floor, red lanterns, rosewood timbers and antique-style furnishings. It veers towards theme park, but just pulls off the retro vibe. We begin with dan jia, shredded fish meat, sprinkled with peanuts, beside unadorned glass noodles, followed by dan jia-style fried shrimp and eggs – large prawns and spring onions laced through rich, yolky scrambled eggs. Whole steamed Mandarin fish with preserved tangerine peel is light and wonderfully fragrant with citrus and sesame, the head and tail book-ending the deboned flesh.

No matter which direction Hong Kong cuisine heads next, a satisfied stomach suggests it’s in good hands.

When to go
The best time to visit Hong Kong is from October to April. From May to September it is extremely hot and humid as well as being typhoon season. The Moon Festival is on October 3, 2009.

Where to stay
W Hotel 1 Austin Road West, Kowloon Station, Hong Kong; +852 3717 2222; whotels.com/hongkong; doubles from $350. Hotel Jen 50 Queen’s Road West, Western District, Hong Kong; +852 2974 1234; hoteljen.com; doubles from $147.

Where to eat
Yin Yang
18 Ship Street, Wan Chai; +852 2866 0868; dinner for two, $200 (BYO).

Bo Innovation

Shop 13 2F, 60 Johnston Road, Wan Chai; +852 2850 8371; tasting menu, $112 to $300 per person plus wine.

Shing Kee
A traditional dai pai dong. 82 Stanley Street, Central; +852 2541 5678; lunch for two, $30.

Yixin Restaurant
G/F Shanghai Industrial Investment Building, 48-62 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai; +852 2576 2355; lunch for two, $150.

Luk Yu Tea House
24-26 Stanley Street, Central; +852 2523 5464; dim sum for two, $80.

Dim Sum
63 Sing Woo Road, Happy Valley; +852 2834 8893; lunch for two, $100.

Leung Hing Chiu Chow
Chiu Chow-style restaurant for goose and crab. 27-39 Queens Road West, Sheung Wan; lunch for two from $90.

Shantou Ting Hoi Lo Sze Restaurant
33-39 Lung Kong Road, Kowloon City; +852 2382 6899; lunch for two, $70.

Shu Zhai

80 Stanley Main Street, Stanley; +852 2813 0123; dinner for two, $80.

Where to shop

Hong Kong is not short of food markets. Try Shanghai New Sam Yung Market (49-51 Hau Wong Road, Kowloon City; +852 2382 3780) or Kowloon City wet market around the corner.

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