Taste of Tai Wai

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am

Tai Wai, a small town closely connected with Sha Tin, nestles in the shadow of Lion Rock. The hamlet's history dates back to the Ming dynasty when indigenous people built a cluster of fortified villages and called it Chik Chuen Wai. Owing to its close proximity to Shing Mun River, Tai Wai was a glorious sprawl of fertile paddy fields, with urban development slowly encroaching only in the past 30 years.

Today, the original walled village remains almost unchanged, but next to this historical monument is a sprawl of low-density residential buildings. And where there are people, there are restaurants. There's still an array of local independent eateries such as wonton noodle shops and dessert houses, and Shanghainese, Japanese and Thai are also popular choices.

But a couple of establishments have stood the test of time to become iconic destinations for foodies. Fung Lam Restaurant is the grande dame of Tai Wai. Established and run by the Pang family half a century ago, it started off as a family restaurant with six tables in the former Sha Tin old town. In 1977, it moved to its current 400-seat location. Owner Pang Chien-ting, 82, can be found every day holding court behind the cashier counter as he oversees a team of 30 familiar faces who have all worked for him for more than 10 years.

Dining there now is like taking a trip back in time to old Hong Kong. Sturdy teak fixtures such as the chairs, tables, staircases and panels, and the stone fish pond were built 30 years ago by local craftsmen, whose skills are now hard to find.

Signature dishes include chilli pepper prawns, fried stuffed tofu with shrimp paste and braised duck with yam. Don't miss the dumplings in sweet walnut soup, which is made every day with freshly ground nuts.

Pang says: 'My head chef has been with us for 40 years. Except for seasonal dishes, we don't change much on the menu. These are all traditional Cantonese dishes that my customers come especially to eat. Our raw ingredients are fresh and basic, but it takes the skill of a chef to mix them and create new combinations. This is what differentiates us from other restaurants.'

Fung Lam has built a reputation for its friendly service as well as its food. Regular customers are treated like old friends and Pang says his oldest guests are now coming in with their grandchildren.

Around the corner is a Hakka restaurant, Kong Hing. In contrast to the lavishness of Fung Lam, it's a small, no-frills outlet where the food speaks for itself. Owner and chef Lau Chung-kwong came from the Hakka village Hing Ning in Guangdong province and set up the restaurant with partners 20 years ago. Today, he's the sole owner, with family members helping to run the day-to-day operations.

'We're the only Hakka restaurant in this area and we serve traditional dishes such as salted chicken, sweet preserved vegetable and braised pork belly,' he says. 'We cook lesser-known dishes such as fish head steamed with tofu, which is a very traditional Hakka family dish but not many restaurants cook it now.'

Variety is key to the menu. For example, there are many ways that the restaurant prepares tofu: it's deep-fried, braised, steamed and pan-fried, and served with different ingredients and condiments. Lau says Hakka food is served in big portions and people regard it as good value for money.

With more than 40 years of experience in the kitchen, he's trying to accommodate the trend towards healthier dining. 'A strong, oily taste sums up Hakka cuisine but we tend to use less oil and [have a] lighter taste.' Although fewer young people are learning the dialect, the restaurant is regularly patronised by clients chatting in Hakka.

The new kid on the block is Calf Bone King which opened its doors last March. A hotpot chain store, the 150-seat outlet is tailor-made for those who treat hotpot seriously and have expectations for quality ingredients.

Manager Roy Chan Chin-pang says the restaurant offers about 100 selections of fresh seafood, meat and vegetables such as oysters, US beef, hand-made chicken balls, squid balls with pate and a wide range of wild mushrooms.

'Our signature product is the all important soup base for the hotpot which is our own secret recipe. We have chicken stock with shark's fin, hot and spicy Sichuan dishes and even fa diu [rice wine] with Chinese herbal medicine. We've also got a separate sushi counter to provide sashimi,' Chan says.

With winter coming, Chan recommends soup bases such as ginseng chicken with fish stock and fish head with beancurd sheet.

A visit would be incomplete if you didn't try a bowl of chicken congee and roasted pigeon - Tai Wai's most famous culinary attraction. This culinary experience is one reason why food lovers make regular pilgrimages to the area.

Sha Tin Chicken Congee restaurant (Keung Kee) is a legend in the district. Founded by Yip Tung-wo in 1980, the restaurant has won territory-wide praise for its chicken congee and pigeon. It's now run by the founder's son, Yip Wing-chi, who has injected some fresh ideas.

'I introduced fresh crab congee two years ago and it's proven to be a new signature dish. I don't use flavour enhancers and the crab is bought daily. We only make 20 bowls a day and they are sold before 10.30pm.

'It's important to keep things fresh and new. My chefs create three or four new dishes each season to woo customers. Competition is keen and we emphasise the quality. For instance, only Australian rice is used to make congee because of the smooth taste; our pigeon is prepared using our family recipe - they're soaked in hot stock for 20 minutes, glazed and then dried for later use. We deep-fry it before serving.'

In his search for quality raw ingredients, Yip makes daily trips to pick up fresh supplies. Despite the new dishes on the menu, the famous chicken congee remains popular, and Keung Kee sells more than 100 bowls every day. The restaurant cooks about 4,000 pigeons every month. Other hot dishes include chilli and pepper clams, and deep-fried oyster cake.

With the upgrade of road networks, Tai Wai is now even more accessible to lovers of traditional Chinese cuisine.

The delicious dozen: Tai Wai on a plate

1. Sha Tin Chicken Congee

6-12 Chik Chuen St, tel: 2697 9818

2. Delicious Thai Food

20 Chik Chuen St, tel: 2698 3304

3. Best Alliance Hot Pot Seafood Dining Room

38-44 Chik Chuen St, tel: 3426 9238

4. Calf Bone King

1/F, 16 Chik Shun St, tel: 2606 5111

5. Yeh Lam Kwok Restaurant

2-16 Chik Shun St, tel: 2681 1166

6. Master Fu Dessert Shop

1, 6th St, Tai Wai Village, tel: 2687 0668

7. Sun Tin Dat Kong Nam Kitchen

86 Chik Fuk St, tel: 3580 1608

8. Tian Yi Guan Dessert

76 Chik Fuk St, tel: 2602 7296

9. Haneda Nihon Ryori

78 Chik Fuk St, tel: 2602 0528

10. Fung Lam Restaurant

45-47 Tsuen Nam Rd, tel: 2692 1175

11. Shui Wah Restaurant

51 Tsuen Lam Rd, tel: 2606 7117

12. Kong Hing Restaurant

79 Tsuen Nam Rd, tel: 2697 6726