Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is a dish that dates back several centuries to the Qing Dynasty and is made in Cantonese and Min, or Fujian, cuisines.
The curious name comes from the story of a monk who walks by a home where someone is cooking a fragrant soup. It smells so good that the monk, who according to the dictates of his faith, should have a vegetarian diet, jumps over the wall and eats some of the soup. When he is caught eating a dish with meat, he replies it was so good that even Buddha would jump over the wall to eat it.
Kowloon Shangri-La Chinese executive chef Mok Kit-keung recalls that in his younger years of training in the kitchen, the soup was served from a giant tureen similar in shape to the Shaoxing rice wine jars that were traditionally used, where the opening was only large enough for the ladle to go in, which concentrated the aromas. But today, many restaurants prefer to serve the soup in individual portions.
"While a large tureen has more flavour because it has so many ingredients, it's harder for the server to make sure each person has each ingredient in their bowl," he explains.
The chef, who also oversees the hotel's Shang Palace, says the soup served in the restaurant features about 15 ingredients, including chicken, fish maw, abalone, sea cucumber, American ginseng, bamboo pith, deer tendon, wolfberries and mushrooms.
"We layer the ingredients and the top layer has the choice items such as fish maw, abalone and sea cucumber. Under that are items like mushrooms and bamboo pith, followed by chicken and pork. That's so that when the lid is taken off, guests can see the most expensive ingredients at the top," Mok says. He also adds a splash of brandy as well as huadiao wine, for a more fragrant flavour.
At Cuisine Royale in the Hopewell Centre in Wan Chai, the soup is presented in a tureen large enough to serve 12 people and it has a dozen ingredients in it including sea whelk, Chinese ham and fish maw.
Chef Frankie Tong Yat-fai says there are various prices of Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, most ranging from HK$800 to HK$1,200. Diners can pay HK$4,000 for the premium version.
At Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental Hong Kong, executive chef Lau Yiu-fai cooks nine ingredients in the famous dish, as the number is auspicious. He uses quality items as conpoy (dried scallops), abalone, fish maw and sea cucumber.
"We make the soup base first using black chicken, lean pork and ham and let it simmer for about four hours. We add the rest of the ingredients and simmer it some more before serving."
Lau says this method of preparing the soup ensures there is less fat, making it healthier for diners. "We make sure the skin is removed from the chicken because it's the skin that has the fat. That way the broth is very clear."
Lau explains that preparing the ingredients takes longer than the actual cooking of the dish, as each type of dried seafood has its own specifications in terms of how it needs to be rehydrated. Dried sea cucumber, for example, needs to be soaked for at least a week beforehand, while dried fish maw should be soaked in hot water.
"We use canned abalone because it's more convenient, otherwise dried abalone can take an additional 20 hours to soak and prepare," he says.
At Yan Toh Heen the soup's name has a more metallic ring to it in Chinese, as it translates literally to "house filled with gold and silver".
Despite the wealth of ingredients in the soup, chef Mok says it is typically consumed after Mid-Autumn Festival until the end of March as it helps warm up the body. And during the month of March, Shang Palace will have mini bowls of Buddha Jumps Over the Wall on offer to help diners stave off the cold.
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall must be ordered a few days in advance.
One Harbour Road
7/F-8/F, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2584 7722
Yee Tung Heen (until February 28)
2/F The Excelsior Hong Kong, 281 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2837 6790
4/F-6/F Kwan Chart Tower, 6 Tonnochy Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2892 2888
32-40 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2522 1624
Lower Level 1, Kowloon Shangri-La, 64 Mody Road,
Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2733 8754
Yan Toh Heen
Lower Level, InterContinental Hong Kong, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2313 2323
7/F Hopewell Centre, 183 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2804 1300
Shop 411-413, 4/F Landmark Atrium, 15 Queen's Road Central, tel: 2522 2148