Raising the bar
Taking children to the best places sets the scene for future culinary exploration, writes Bernice Chan
Actress, writer, radio and television presenter Michelle Loo Mik-suet turns heads when she walks into Kau Kee, the famous noodle shop on Gough Street in Sheung Wan, best known for its beef brisket noodles.
Dressed in a brilliant red jacket, T-shirt and jeans, Loo is keen to talk about her love of food, which she demonstrates on Junior Chef's Corner on NOW TV, where she takes children to various top restaurants to teach them about different cuisines, ingredients and table manners.
"I really enjoy going out with the children to different restaurants," she says. "When I brought them to L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, they [had] never tried Robuchon before, so when we got the chocolate ball dessert and they poured the warm caramel on top, I saw their faces and they couldn't hold themselves [back]. They were licking their lips.
"Not many parents take their children to places like Robuchon, the Grand Hyatt Steakhouse, Lupa for Italian and Mesa 15 for Spanish. "You have to bring them to try different kinds of food with standards, otherwise you start from a very low standard and you'll be lost. They have to taste good things and also taste bad food, then you know what is good what is no good."
This reminds Loo of growing up and learning about food from her parents.
"My father was a food lover, in particular seafood," she reminisces. "Every dinner, I could remember there was always a seafood dish. It could be a fish, clams, Babylon shells ... On the poor days we only had clams, on good days, lobsters. We had crabs, prawns, lobsters, all kinds of fish ... I can taste it easily because my father's only interest in life was food."
Loo admits she didn't like eating fish when she was a child but her parents wanted her to eat it because those who didn't eat enough fish would develop a goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland which is predominantly caused by iodine deficiency.
"I hated all kinds of fish, even fish soup. To me it was like taking Chinese medicine," she says, making a face. "Then one day they realised I ate fish. How come? Because it was panfried. So even the best pomfret, they would not steam it but panfry it.
"But now I love fish - I even eat the head. This changed when I met an auntie who taught me a lot about food and how to enjoy it. She cooked me home dinners and she knew how to prepare difficult things like abalone, fried rice and fried noodles. She made them all so well. She taught me how to taste. She would ask, 'how can you tell this is good or not? You taste it and tell me'.
"And she also loved fish like my father. And ironically, when I started to like fish, my father passed away. I didn't have the chance, like a father and daughter to eat a fish and share the passion. My father always said, 'if you know how to eat the fish, you really love fish, so you know how to eat the head'. At that time, I didn't understand what he meant. I thought he was crazy because it was so ugly watching him sucking the head, that I thought he had no table manners."
When she was a child, her parents brought her to Kau Kee, now run by second-generation owner Poon Kwok-king. "This place is quite special because they have very good beef brisket all the time," she says. "The meat needs to be very tender, not chewy like you're eating the sole of a shoe."
She says the soup base is very important and before she digs into the beef or noodles, she will sip the flavourful broth which Poon varies from time to time. "And then the soup base is really important and they do it well here. But they change it a lot. My habit is to drink the soup first and then eat the noodles or the beef. But the last time I came here, I sipped the soup [and] I thought there was something different, something wrong, or something [had] happened. I tasted a second, [and a] third time. The soup tasted differently. So I asked Mr Poon, 'did you change the soup base?' He said, 'oh you're amazing. You can taste it', because he varied the ingredients slightly so you can taste the difference. Loo also likes the curry here.
"Cantonese people love curry a lot. Curry is a very tricky thing because it could be very spicy, it could be very mild or it could be like Japanese curry and be very sweet. This one is all in the middle - it's not that spicy, it's not that mild, not that sweet, everything blended to keep the balance. Because the recipe is from his father, it has a long history. Keeping the standard for 80 years is not easy."
And to wash it all down, Loo likes Kau Kee's iced milk tea because of the tea's aroma, taste and silkiness. She appreciates the fact that although the shop specialises in beef noodles, Poon enjoys Hong Kong-style milk tea and decided to make his own blend.
For congee, Loo insists on going to Sang Kee in Sheung Wan - not its Quarry Bay or Yau Ma Tei branches. "I only like Sheung Wan because it is the original," she says. "When I'm there I order congee with the part around the fish fin. Any meat near the bone, including pork and beef, is tender because there is more oil there to keep the joints moving. I also order pork meatballs and intestines in the congee because of the taste and texture."
Loo says congee is very Cantonese because "when the weather is very hot you don't want to have rice so congee is a kind of liquid rice. And when the rice is boiling [for] two or three hours, it's no longer rice, it's just sugar, so it's kind of comfort food".
When it comes to wonton noodles, it has to be Mak's Noodle for Loo. "Size matters - the wonton must be small enough [so] that you can eat it in one bite," she says. "If you have to eat it in two or three mouthfuls, it doesn't meet the standard."
Another stipulation is that the wonton must be accompanied by egg noodles, not rice noodles. "We need the noodles to be al dente to pair with the soft wonton. It's only shrimps with a bit of pork or fat, but it needs the al dente noodle - it's the perfect match. So every time when I see people ordering wontons with other noodles, I think, 'oh my God. What a waste' because they don't know how to enjoy them."