Celebrity chef Neil Perry raves about Chinese produce on visit to Hong Kong market

Celebrity chef Neil Perry led Australian journalists on a tour of Central's street market recently. We joined the media circus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 June, 2015, 9:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 June, 2015, 12:25pm

For local shoppers the water spinach, yard-long beans and bitter gourds piled high on Graham Street market barrows are everyday ingredients, typical purchases of daily shopping. For the Australian journalists accompanying chef Neil Perry on a tour of the Central market, they seem quite exotic.

Perry is a good choice for tour guide - he loves the ingredients, uses them in his restaurants and is enthusiastic with his explanations.

"I don't know the Chinese name for this water spinach or morning glory - it's just about one of my favourite vegetables in the world. You cook it like you would spinach, blanched or stir-fried," he says, picking up a bunch of the fibrous, grassy local favourite. One of his preferred ways of cooking it is from Singapore and Malaysia.

"They stir fry with a bit of shrimp paste, bit of soy, bit of sugar; it's really beautiful. I use it in a lot of Thai cooking," he says before spotting some razor clams and dashing down to the next stall.

These are cooked with ginger and shallots at his Chinese restaurant Spice Temple and wood roasted in a herb butter at his Italian restaurant Rosetta Ristorante.

Watch: Neil Perry shopping in Central

Perry is in Hong Kong to showcase his consulting work for the Australian airline Qantas, but also to renew his acquaintance with local ingredients. He has visited Hong Kong 30 times or more since his first trip 1991. During that time he has not only expanded his knowledge of Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines, but also built a small restaurant empire and, with it, his reputation.

Eamonn Fitzpatrick is a Hongkonger and foodie who has been living in Australia since the 1990s and following Perry's career closely. Fitzpatrick would be happy if Perry turned his attention to Cantonese food.

"Cantonese cuisine has been the one he's not really had a decent crack at yet. Spice Temple does yum cha, but it really showcases his regional Chinese cooking, like a Hunan-style char siu bao. I'd like to see Perry dive in properly and do it full Canto-style. He needs to have a no-holds barred crack at char siu. I reckon it would be amazing. And imagine a Neil Perry beef brisket dry noodle - that would be special given his knowledge of beef," says Fitzpatrick.

As the tour continues we pass a pork butcher and Perry gives an authoritative explanation of the different cuts available. Looking at the fresh pork hanging outside in 30-degree Celsius heat and 90 per cent humidity, Perry says: "In Australia we over-sanitise everything and what happens? Everyone gets sick, they have no natural antibodies. Not everyone's dying here."

 So fresh, so vibrant, you just want to buy something and take it home and cook with it
Neil Perry

Is he planning to use more Chinese ingredients in his own cooking, then, to make Fitzpatrick's perfect char siu?

"I always find coming into Hong Kong incredibly inspiring - both at market level and looking at these incredible ingredients but more importantly eating in the fantastic Chinese restaurants that the city has.

"It just reminds me of how many different brassicas and broccolis and things that are there. I haven't been using water spinach for a while so definitely we're going to get that back on the menu and all the beautiful dried products that are around - I mean the red dates, all this stuff is just so inspiring because it's just in such fantastic condition. So fresh, so vibrant, you just want to buy something and take it home and cook with it," says Perry.

The chef's restaurant empire has grown from the Asian-influenced modern Australian cuisine at Rockpool in Sydney to branches of the more casual Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne and Perth, the Italian concept Rosetta Ristorante and the Cantonese-light regional Chinese restaurant Spice Temple in Sydney and Melbourne.

"The first time I tried the tea-smoked duck with pickled cabbage and Chinese mustard at Spice Temple was memorable. I love that dish to this day and always order it," says Fitzpatrick.

The former journalist and adviser to politicians such as Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, who is now the director of Hawker Britton Group, a public affairs and government relations advisory firm, says Perry has "the trifecta - Chinese, the grill and modern Western cuisine".

It's difficult to decide what Perry does best, but Fitzpatrick is impressed by the high standard of his Chinese cuisine.

"I keep meaning to take my mother, Belinda [a Hong Kong Chinese], to Spice Temple so I can show her how a Westerner has taken Chinese cooking to a whole new level. He's totally mastered it.

"Having said that, his understanding and preparation of beef is second to none.

"Also, you get the feeling he's had as many dai pai dong meals as three-Michelin-star meals over the years to keep himself grounded and in touch with the whole cuisine and dining spectrum," says Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick is free in his praise - is he a friend of the chef?

Coming from Hong Kong, where everyone is completely spoiled for choice, it was fascinating to watch how another world city was approaching food and fine dining
Eamonn Fitzpatrick

"I've never met Perry and don't know much about him other than through his food and restaurants," he says.

He has, however, followed his career since the early 1990s.

"It was a whole new fine dining experience back then. Perry was already riding the crest of a big wave in Aussie cuisine with the likes of Tetsuya Wakuda, Tony Bilson and others who were transforming the whole dining scene.

"He already has major success with a couple of places around town but, for me, I think with Rockpool he set a new level.

"Coming from Hong Kong, where everyone is completely spoiled for choice, it was fascinating to watch how another world city was approaching food and fine dining," says Fitzpatrick.

While Hong Kong has been an inspiration to Perry, a look at the market is also a reminder of some of the challenges he faces in bringing his take on Chinese cuisine to an Australian audience.

Some ingredients can be hard to find in Australia, where "the vegetables tend to be bigger and not as concentrated in flavour".

Perry also says that he has had to seek out specialist suppliers to bring in the quality of dry goods he wants.

"We use a good number of dried seafoods and salted and preserved things like the mustard greens. It's got great texture and flavour," says Perry, as the local shoppers barge their way past us in search of some lunchtime bak choi.