Maria Cordero's tastes run from tiny local eateries to innovative cuisine

Joanne Lam

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 9:50pm

Maria Cordero wears many hats. When the singer, actress and TV host from Macau - lovingly known by fans as "Fat Mama" - isn't busy filming her cooking show or rehearsing for concerts, she can be found preparing meals for her husband, children and grandchildren.

In what little down time she has, Cordero likes to explore restaurants around Hong Kong, sharing the experiences with friends and family. And, with a plethora of cultures ingrained in our city, her choices are endless.

"Food is very convenient in Hong Kong," she says. "Whatever you want, you can find here."

Whether it's Chinese food - including Chiu Chow, Shanghainese and Cantonese - or Western cuisine, Cordero is impressed by the quality and authenticity of many restaurants in the city. But perhaps what she is most impressed by is the business-minded nature of some of the city's smaller cha chaan teng, which show how "Hong Kong is a place for survivors".

These local tea cafes, Cordero says, constantly impress her with their vast range of dishes. "One restaurant can serve traditional French toast and milk tea, but also sizzling steaks and Japanese-style noodles."

Such variety is available because "people develop very fast in any kind of foods here," she says. These eateries are quick to see trends and add new dishes to their menus, with a recent example being the addition of fried chicken at many cha chaan teng after a popular Korean soap opera sparked a craze for the food.

Yet, whenever Cordero has a hankering to indulge in local delicacies, she finds herself seeking traditional fare. She says there is nothing quite like a classic Hong Kong "stocking milk tea", fried flat noodles with beef, or Swiss chicken wings.

For authentic local cuisine, she recommends Tai Ping Koon, which originally opened in 1860 and has grown into a chain of cha chaan teng with outlets across town.

According to Cordero, the restaurant's long history and dedication to tradition make it special. Legend has it that Swiss chicken wings, a popular dish across Hong Kong, were invented at Tai Ping Koon. The restaurant's founder was the first to make the soy wings, and their sweet, sticky glaze was quickly adored by locals and visitors alike. When a tourist asked about the name of the dish, "sweet wings" was lost in translation, and thus "Swiss wings" were born.

The tale of this local favourite is ingrained in the ethos of the restaurant, and the authentic Swiss chicken wing recipe has "never ever, ever been changed [despite] so many years", Cordero says. Similarly, Tai Ping Koon's signature soufflé dessert, "made from all egg whites and hand-beaten", will also whisk diners back to yesteryear.

Niceties like these are what keep Cordero - and other loyal customers - coming back for more. "To create new dishes is so easy, [but] to maintain the taste takes years of experience."

However, she is equally excited by innovative dishes crafted by new chefs. Club Qing, a private kitchen in Lan Kwai Fong, offers just the right amount of creativity mixed with good culinary techniques.

Cordero's favourite dishes there include an iced cherry tomato appetiser infused with ground lychee juice - providing a "surprise element" when you initially bite into the chilled vegetable - and the chicken with black truffle.

"[The chef] uses truffle to fry mixed mushrooms, [which he then] inserts inside the chicken before it is slow-cooked," she says. "When you cut into the chicken, you can smell the truffle in the whole room."

These little touches in Club Qing's dishes show dedication and a clear thought process. "[The chef] is just a young guy who likes to create and invent," Cordero says, adding that you can truly see his passion shine through the cuisine. Whether traditional or innovative, Cordero says food should ultimately be about enjoyment and appreciating a chef's handiwork. "Cooking is an art," she says, and a good dish will showcase the chef's love for it.

But she laments that such dedication can often go unnoticed.

"Hong Kong people are too stressed-out. Even when they eat dinner, [sometimes] it is just to eat."

Cordero believes dining out should be a fun and adventurous experience. As an example, she points to Sushi Tei in Tuen Mun, which she recently tried. Opting for an omakase menu, she simply ate whatever items were available fresh that day.

"That's the way to enjoy food," she says - by savouring your time as well as the flavours.