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Then & now: flour power

A surge in 19th-century North American wheat production helped shape many of the snacks we consider 'local' treats, writes Jason Wordie

 

For a culture generally - if somewhat erroneously - regarded by the rest of humanity as rice-eaters, the Chinese consume an enormous amount of wheat-flour products.

Wheat, barley and millet flours have been dietary staples in northern China for millennia. These ingredients are used to make a wide variety of unleavened and partially leavened breads and pastries, but the main foodstuff made with wheat flour has tended to be noodles. These have long been eaten in southern China, too, but due to the relative cost of importing the ingredients noodles were an occasional luxury for most people, rather than an everyday staple.

This situation changed dramatically in the late 19th century, as improved steamship transportation, and the massive rise of wheat production in Canada, the United States and Australia, caused prices to plummet. As a result, availability increased exponentially. And as with other technological advances during this era, Hong Kong, with its excellent harbour and infrastructure, was well placed to take advantage of emerging consumer demand.

From the 1860s onwards, North America was a significant supplier of flour to the China market. American flour had a higher gluten content than its Chinese equivalent, meaning noodles made from imported flour could be drawn longer and finer. Pastry crusts and dumpling wrappers could also be rolled thinner, and the taste was generally superior. Yau ja gwai and other popular dough-stick products, wonton wrappers and dumpling skins are all made from wheat flour.

Still, rice flour was milled locally as a village product, and certain recipes - lo bak gao (turnip cake) is one obvious example - only work well with rice flour. Both standard and glutinous rice varieties are turned into flour.

Local industrial flour production started when Canadian businessman Alfred Herbert Rennie's Hong Kong Milling Company established the Junk Bay Flour Mills in 1907. Rennie's partners in this venture were a couple of prominent local business figures: the Armenian Paul Chater and Parsee H.N. Mody. The venture ran into serious trouble in 1908, following the worldwide economic crash of the previous year. Rennie later committed suicide by drowning - he threw himself off his launch with a weight tied around his neck - as his business interests collapsed. His name was perpetuated in Rennie's Mill, the squatter area that once formed part of Tseung Kwan O. For many years after 1949, this area was a diehard Nationalist stronghold.

Changing consumer tastes in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, among the Chinese diaspora, drove a steadily rising demand for flour. Western-style bread, cakes and pastries gradually became commonplace, albeit largely as novelty items for special occasions, which they still are for many people.

Bakery products that developed in Hong Kong as a result of the European presence gradually evolved into something distinctly "local". And the cakes and pastries sold in Hong Kong-style cha chaan teng in Chinatowns from San Francisco to Sydney are much the same as those sold in such outlets in Kennedy Town and To Kwa Wan.

Ingrained Cantonese culinary conservatism ensures that rice remains Hong Kong's primary dietary staple. Nevertheless, cheap mass-production in recent decades means noodles are also now commonplace. Imaginatively flavoured instant noodles are a standard daily item for most Hong Kong people.

 

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