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Active imagination

Columnist Benny Li shares the food, dishes and restaurants he cherishes most in the city, writes Bernice Chan

 

Whenever he gets a hankering for Shanghainese food, Benny Li Shun-yan heads for Liu Yuan Pavilion in Wan Chai. There, the newspaper columnist, novelist and TV host orders some of his favourite dishes.

The presentation of the deep-fried Mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce is impressive, drizzled with the orangey-red sauce with pine nuts. "With this dish, it's all about the chef's knife skills, because when the fish is deep fried, the slits into the fish all stand up," he says. One of Li's favourite dishes is the deep-fried pork knuckle with spice salt.

When it's cut into slices, there are layers of pork skin, fat and meat. The pork knuckle is boiled first to release the oil from the fat before it is deep fried. "This dish is very good with red wine. It goes well with beer too, but wine is better," he says.

Another staple dish for Li at Liu Yuan Pavilion is the stir-fried fresh shrimps with black truffle.

"Traditionally, these shrimps are either stir-fried on their own or with longjing [dragon well] tea leaves," he explains. "But one of the owners here loves to eat both Western and Chinese food, and she thought of adding black truffle to the dish. It goes very well with the shrimps, and this is the only place where you can eat this dish, because no one else has thought of this combination."

Finally, there's the small sugar snap peas, stir-fried with Chinese ham and "chicken heads", or spiked lotus seeds that look like small chicken heads. "You cannot get fresh 'chicken heads' in Hong Kong - the closest place is Suzhou," Li explains.

"You can usually get the dried ones in Chinese medicine shops, but this is the fresh one the restaurant sources from Suzhou. It's hard to de-shell them - they end up ruining your fingernails which is why they are so expensive. One 500g bag can cost 70 [HK$88], 80 or 100 yuan."

While eating is Li's passion, he stresses that he is not a food expert, and believes everyone is a foodie because everyone has his or her own taste. He claims to have an ordinary palate, so if he says something tastes good, most people will probably like it too. He also admits he can't cook, but can tell if a dish is missing something, thanks to his active imagination.

"From when I was young until I was about 20 years old, I had nothing to eat while growing up in Shanghai," Li recalls. "When you don't have anything to eat, you start imagining what you'd like to eat.

 

 

"One of my ideal meals would be braised pork belly with three bowls of rice, and not having to share it with anyone." he says with a laugh.

At the age of 22, Li came to Hong Kong. After arriving in Guangzhou by plane from Shanghai, he took the train to Lo Wu.

"At the time there was a small immigration room in Lo Wu where we waited for our names to be called. That was the first time I heard my name called in Cantonese. The paperwork took hours to process, so by the time I came out and met my parents, I was starving.

"They took me to a restaurant where I had beef curry. To this day, I cannot forget the taste of it. It was so good that I had another one. So I have an emotional connection with beef curry."

When visitors, including those from the mainland, come to Hong Kong, Li recommends that they eat four things in the city. "First [is food from a] dai pai dong, like Tung Po in North Point. The food there is good, but the service can be rude. If you ask them if they have a certain chicken dish, they will say, 'There's no more chicken. Go away and come back tomorrow'!"

The next must-try is seafood. "One of the best places to go is Sai Kung, because the area itself is nice to hang out in. At the pier you can see boats selling fish and the old ladies with wide-brimmed hats. At Tsuen Kee there is a large selection of seafood. Eating at one of these seafood restaurants probably costs one-third of what it would cost in China."

Another favourite Hong Kong dish is siu lap or roasted meats.

"There are many places to go to for this, including Joy Hing in Wan Chai. The char siu here is most famous."

But perhaps one of Li's favourite places to dine are the cha chaan teng, such as Tsui Wah and Tai Hing.

"Here they can make whatever you want to eat, whatever you can think up, they will make it even if it's not on the menu."

Li always orders milk tea - either hot or cold depending on the season. "The menu items at cha chaan teng are not special. But it's the milk tea that's different. Every place has its own recipe. Some disclose their recipe, but others keep it secret - not just the ingredients, but the cooking method too.

"While the English gave us the culture of adding milk to tea, it was the Chinese who improved it by making it silky smooth."

 

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