FAMILY flavours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2012, 12:00am


Lau Chun, chef and television presenter, whose family owns Yellow Door and Kin's Kitchen, has just learned how to make the Cantonese dish of baked fish organs with egg - from his 80-year-old uncle. After the lesson is over, he worships his ancestors.

That would resonate with Professor Sidney Cheung, from the department of anthropology at Chinese University, who is writing a paper on family recipes as intangible heritage. He has just returned from a trip to New Orleans, where he discovered that, having lost so much following Hurricane Katrina, people are producing books of family recipes to preserve what history and tradition they can.

'One argument is that people like us, in our 40s or even 50s, don't know how to cook family food, we don't inherit the family recipes,' Cheung says. 'There's a lack of inter-generational communication. We don't know how to buy food, we don't know how to cook different vegetables, we don't understand different ingredients in the market.'

This loss or diminishment of culinary culture is deeply affecting Hong Kong - and much of it has to do with money.

Lau Kin-wai, who gives his name to Kin's Kitchen, cites a dish such as salted chicken, which takes too long to prepare, and then occupies an entire oven. Or something as simple as stir-fried vegetables. 'Every housewife can do it - but the restaurant cannot.'

He explains how restaurants steam the vegetables first, then reheat them in the wok - to save a precious 30 seconds. Even chefs who do have time cut corners. Lau says 30 or 40 years ago everyone could do everything - but that changed when rents rocketed, and government policy caused the disappearance of dai pai dong culture.

At Fook Lam Moon, the longest-surviving traditional Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong, Daniel Chiu, whose grandfather established it in 1948, initially as a catering business, also cites rental hikes as a big problem.

If it did not own both branches, he says, the restaurant would be in trouble. It can make a good profit on, say, fish maw, but almost nothing on dim sum or a seasonal vegetable dish. The restaurant pays handsomely for experienced dim sum chefs, where many Hong Kong restaurants today have their dim sum prepared in Shenzhen; and even have vegetables washed and prepared there.

Quality of produce is foundational for traditional cooking and flavours. 'You don't need to use MSG when you have quality, such as our stock,' Chiu says. The stock, and everything else here, is made from scratch.

He buys pork from Yuen Long, which is three times the price of standard pork, organic rice from the north of Thailand and may source vegetables from Kunming to assure consistent quality.

Critically, his grandfather and then his father, go to the market to buy the best on offer, such as dried seafood goods in Sheung Wan.

Such practices are rarer than we might think. Lau Kin-wai mentions yellow fish noodles, a popular, traditional Shanghainese dish, that no local Shanghai restaurants serve. Why?

'The big problem is that no chefs go to the market any more. You need wild yellow fish for that, otherwise the taste is totally different. Chefs order by telephone, now.'

He says chefs no longer have the right to choose food, or determine food quality, unless perhaps they are in a family-run establishment.

Cheung would love to see Chinese restaurants bringing in old stories, and traditional recipes; to be able to think about what kind of food they want to present to different kinds of people. Again, so much more likely in family-owned restaurants.

One area of traditional food, which is thriving in Hong Kong, is nostalgic food, harking back to colonial days. There are challenges in its preparation, however, compared with 'modern' food.

'Because it is as old as the hills and everyone's mother has a version of it, expectations are higher,' says Thiky Nguyen, of Alfie's where the lamb is from Wales and the fish from Scotland. 'So you have to get it right and be consistent.'

At Dot Cod restaurant, 'Fish Pie and Simply Dot Cod [fish and chips] are our two biggest sellers,' says executive chef Jeffrey Lebon.

Are such items cooked the traditional way? Lebon places a heavy influence on the quality and freshness of ingredients and uses highly-tuned cooking skills: 'We use special oil for frying our fish and chips to give better quality of taste, a more crispy texture and a less oily finish.' He painstakingly prepares potatoes to ensure they are not too 'runny' for fish pie.

'The traditional dishes really cannot be changed too much without upsetting the expectations of our regular clientele,' says executive chef Uwe Opocensky, who takes care of the kitchen of The Chinnery at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, and says that fish and chips, 'bangers and mash' and colonial curries, such as lamb Madras, have all stood the test of time.

'We have not changed the technique of our chicken tikka for many years - though on the other hand we now cook our fish pie using the sous vide method, which keeps the fish moist and very flavoursome.'

Chiu says some people might criticise the Fook Lam Moon kitchen for not creating new dishes or changing cooking methods or enhancing presentation.

Changes have been in renovation, training and embracing red wine culture, he says, adding: 'I say to be able to maintain 20-odd dishes over 60 years is already an amazing achievement.'