WITH ITS PROPENSITY for using fresh ingredients and gentle cooking methods such as steaming and double-boiling, Cantonese cuisine should appeal to healthy eaters.
In restaurant kitchens, however, Cantonese chefs are also known for their love of oil, using it to par-cook ingredients, deep-fry or just make stir-frying easier as the ingredients don't stick to the wok.
But Siu Hin-chi, the executive chef of Duddell's in Central, says one should not worry about that with an experienced chef.
"How much oil a chef puts into a dish of stir-fried rice, for example, is dependent on their skill. You can use less oil if you make sure your wok is scrubbed clean and heated to the right temperature. A good chef's food will never be greasy."
Cantonese chefs often use a technique called zau yau - par-cooking meat or fish in warm oil - so the ingredients hold their shape.
While Joseph Tsang Pik-keung, head chef of Cuisine Cuisine at IFC Mall, knows that oil at the right temperature means the food won't be greasy, he takes the extra step of rinsing the par-cooked ingredients in boiling water. "Our customers have high expectations, and it's a company goal to offer healthy dishes," he says.
There are a number of classic Cantonese dishes that require deep-frying, such as sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken and braised duck. Siu says that when deep-frying is done correctly, it isn't as bad as you'd think. "You start with the oil on lower heat and finish on high heat. The higher heat forces the oil out," he says.
Tsang still tries to avoid it when he can. To keep his dishes healthy, he uses a range of other techniques, from baking to pan-frying. But he's conscious of the preconception that healthy food is boring and bland, so he needs to make sure it looks and tastes just as good as the regular version. With duck, for example, he browns the skin in hot fat before putting it in the oven to finish cooking. The oven helps render the fat out of the duck, leaving a light, crisp skin. "It's a lot more work. We could make three dishes in the time it takes to make one [healthy one]."
Another ingredient Chinese chefs have a reputation for using in excess is monosodium glutamate (MSG), but this flavour shortcut has fallen out of favour in recent years, for the same reason that salt usage has been reduced.
For Mok Kit-keung, executive Chinese chef of Shang Palace at the Kowloon Shangri-La, that means making more complex sauces. "It used to be just oyster sauce gravies on everything. Now we make more interesting sauces from ginger, pumpkin, beetroot, chilli and bean paste," he says.
Keeping dishes low in sodium, oil and MSG are not the only ways Hong Kong's Cantonese restaurants are lightening up their menus. Mok has noticed diners requesting dishes with healthier ingredients. "People used to love foods that were fatty and heavy, like offal, but that's changed. A lot of people have even been opting to go vegetarian, especially on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month," he says, referring to a Buddhist custom.
Mok offers an abundance of vegetarian items on the menu, many of which use organic vegetables. "They're much easier to come by nowadays. Some of them can be a bit expensive, so we can't buy everything organic, but I prefer them for their flavour and the fact that they don't use pesticides."
When speaking of health, these chefs often cite traditional Chinese medicine.
Tsang has created a range of fungi-focused dishes because according to TCM, fungi such as wood ears and morels are nutrition powerhouses. His chilled whole tomato is stuffed with five types of mushroom, and for a more complex flavour, he adds a rich sauce made from chicken jus (a reduced stock from chicken and vegetables). "It's not vegetarian, but it's still light and healthy," he says.
Mok says tonic soups are important for followers of TCM philosophies because they are supposed to restore the body. For his double-boiled soup of fish maw, silky fowl and ginseng, Mok adds a rare Chinese herb - dried dendrobium flower. "In ancient times, it was known as 'nature's gold', and is a powerful anti-ageing herb," he says.
Siu also has a fish maw soup on his menu. "It's very good for your skin and it helps with regeneration in the body."
The chefs are careful not to play doctor, however. "When we make soups out of Chinese herbs, we have to make sure they're well balanced, and are suitable for everyone. We don't target specific ailments," Mok says.
Nutritional benefits put forward by Western science aren't ignored, either. For example, in his dish of stuffed bamboo pith, Mok adds red amaranth for its high iron content, while Tsang opts to serve his stir-fried garoupa with pears, which have lower sugar content than other commonly used fruits, such as mangos.
When devising new dishes, health is central to the decision-making process, and these chefs are always learning new things. "You can get inspiration from everywhere. On my days off, I don't do much else than walk around supermarkets, markets and bookshops," says Tsang.
Mok adds: "I like to talk to the stallholders at my local market to find out what's new, and how they recommend cooking their products. As chefs, we're responsible for the health of our diners."
Lower Level 1, Kowloon Shangri-La, 64 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui East, tel: 2733 8754
Healthy choices: double-boiled silky fowl broth with dried dendrobium flower, American ginseng and fish maw; poached spotted garoupa fillet with preserved vegetable in organic soya bean milk; braised bamboo pith roll stuffed with organic red Chinese spinach
3/F Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central, tel: 2525 9191
Healthy choices: braised bird's nest, fresh crab and egg white; double boiled fish maw, Chinese cabbage and black mushroom soup
Shop 3101, 3/F, IFC Mall, 1 Harbour View Street, Central, tel: 2393 3933
Healthy choices: steamed whole tomato stuffed with assorted fungi; sautéed fillets of fresh spotted garoupa with pears and red wine; steamed sliced bean curd with assorted mushrooms
Sha Tin 18
4/F Hyatt Regency Hong Kong Sha Tin, 18 Chak Cheung Street, Sha Tin, tel: 3723 7932
Healthy choices: marinated radish with black vinegar; steamed scallop with green mango and preserved shrimp paste; Momordica fruit, bamboo pith and chrysanthemum jelly
4/F Exchange Square II, 8 Connaught Road, Central, tel: 2525 1163
Healthy choices: braised bamboo pith with assorted fungi; steamed tofu with diced vegetables and aloe cubes
Above & Beyond
28/F Hotel Icon, 17 Science Museum Road, Tsim Sha Tsui East, tel: 3400 1318
Healthy choices: steamed lobster with egg white and black truffles; braised pumpkin soup with vegetables; stir-fried fresh yam, lily bulb, lotus root and celery
Celestial Court Chinese Restaurant
2/F Sheraton Hong Kong, 20 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2732 6991
Healthy choices: wild mushroom quintet; double-boiled porcini mushrooms with pigeon egg