Chow down on nostalgia with early take on fusion

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am


Creators of so-called 'soy sauce Western food' were throwing East and West together on a plate long before it was stylish and became known as 'fusion'.

Perhaps the name soy sauce Western for the genre is little known, but the food itself has been widespread, in local fast-food joints and at cha chaan teng spots. As the West came to China and the southern Chinese came to Hong Kong, the hybrid of a local take on Western dishes was born.

'The Western foods of 1960s and '70s Hong Kong were based on very little real concept of what Western food actually was,' says foodie broadcaster Mak Kit-wee, who adds that some of the dishes and the restaurants that serve them are dying out. 'The style of food remains on the menu in cha chaan teng but many are closing down, such as the ones on housing estates.'

She gives the example of a dish called Russian-style beef with rice. 'The brown sauce was extremely good, with onions, mushrooms, bell peppers and brandy added to it.'

Staples of the style come in three categories: club sandwiches are most prominent in the sandwich class; oxtail, onion and borscht are the soups; and baked Portuguese chicken rice and chicken ? la king for the rice dishes.

Ice cream also plays a prominent role, both in drinks and desserts.

Tai Ping Koon (TPK) has all of these on its menu. But Andrew Chui, managing director of the restaurant and great-great grandson of founder Chui Lo-ko, shudders at comparisons of his restaurant's offerings to those of fast-food joints and cha chaan teng.

'We make all our food from scratch. We don't have a centralised kitchen that supplies us with ready-made food,' says Chui, adding that the restaurant has enough space that guests do not need to share tables, making a visit a genteel treat.

The borscht, often colloquially known as 'red soup' (HK$48), harks back to an era when Russian emigres formed one of the largest expat groups in Hong Kong. Typical of the genre's adaptation of Western recipes to local flavours, it contains no sour cream - an ingredient considered crucial to the soup's many Eastern European fans.

TPK chicken wings with Swiss sauce (HK$143) are renowned for being succulent. The story goes that a waiter misheard a diner's description of the dish as 'Swiss' instead of 'sweet'.

Chui shares the process: 'It's light and dark soy sauce cooked with carrot and bay leaf, and dry scallops, on a low heat for four hours, with rock sugar. The chicken is then submerged.' But he closely guards the recipe for the soy-based sauce.

Taking the restaurant above no-frills territory, there is Portuguese-style chicken (HK$370, whole; HK$170, half) in a princely cream and coconut sauce, and the baked crab meat in shell (HK$178), which is generous on the filling.

The banana pancake (HK$52) might round off the meal. The fat 'cigars' are jammed with banana slices and cream, on which the chef scrawls a strawberry 'M' with icing sugar.

Soy sauce Western food might seem a crude, though tasty, cuisine. But it's food with soul. 'People need this kind of taste culture in Hong Kong,' Mak says. 'It's not just about food; its about the past and childhood memories.'