Why Margaret Xu thinks Hong Kong lacks a strong food identity

Chef/proprietor of Yin Yang, private kitchen that moved to Wan Chai and now to Ting Kau, talks about her 'mission' to define city's Cantonese and Chinese cooking styles, and her creations for Mid-Autumn Festival

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 9:01pm

Where do you think your perfectionism comes from?

Margaret Xu Yuan: I think it comes from my days as the creative director with various ad agencies. If you’re working in the creative field, nothing is ever perfect. I guess I’ve applied, perhaps wrongly [laughs], that mentality to my cooking as well. So even if a dish tastes fine, I’ll always push myself to improve it further so that none of my dishes lack excitement.

When did you discover your passion for food?

Xu: I  discovered it  when I was very young. My father loves reading Better Homes and Gardens and I used to collect all those recipes at the back even though I didn’t have the slightest clue about cooking. I actually loved to keep any recipe that came my way when I was a child. I still have one or two of them with me.

How was your first attempt at cooking?

Xu: I was 13 years old and I can still remember I made some borscht, but since I didn’t know that I had to keep stirring the pot, it tasted burnt. My mum still loved it, though. I also made some fun gor  [Chiu Chow-style steamed dumplings] using a recipe from a Towngas cookbook. I made the skin from scratch and wrapped the dumplings myself. Unfortunately I didn’t blanch the bamboo shoot because the book didn’t mention it.

You didn't start out as a cook, so what inspired your career change?

Xu: I considered studying the culinary arts as a teenager but at that time if  you were not from a rich family, you  wouldn’t consider going to a cooking school let alone starting your own restaurant. I chose to study communications at Hong Kong Baptist College. I moved into advertising because I loved conceptualising ideas and making things happen.

 I found out later that cooking works the same way although the reward is more instant. I can conceptualise a dish, cook and serve it, and get my guests’ response immediately. In advertising you always have to wait for a long time before you see your designs come alive.

What do you think is your biggest contribution to the local food scene since you founded Yin Yang, your one-table private kitchen in Yuen Long?  

Xu: I’m one of those people who encourages everyone to take organic and local produce more seriously. I’m exposed to different cultures and one thing I realise from my research is that Hong Kong needs a stronger identity when it comes to food. Our Cantonese food is so different from food from Guangzhou, while our Chinese food is worlds away from what you can get from mainland China. I have this mission to analyse and promote Hong Kong’s food identity; and one of the ways is through using local ingredients and produce.

What else could be done to strengthen Hong Kong's food identity?

Xu: Hong Kong is a bit like Singapore with a mixed culture, but we haven’t acknowledged it. Once you acknowledge it, you’ll find your own identity. We keep believing that what we eat is Chinese food, but cha chaan teng  food, for example, is not Chinese. The luncheon meat we eat with egg and instant noodles is American. Our identity will only come from honest acknowledgment of our strengths. No matter how long we have been cooking something, we should strive to perfect it.  

How has Yin Yang evolved since it moved from Yuen Long to Wan Chai and now Ting Kau beach?

Xu: In Yuen Long, I was very much influenced by Hakka cuisine; I love their raw and rustic flavours. I built my own clay stove to cook meat and the village ladies taught me how to use a stone grinder. Any vegetables I can’t get locally I grow on my own farm.  At our beach venue I’m looking at the old fishing culture and bringing back fishermen’s dishes, which  are heavy on seafood and preserved food. My parents are from Toi Shan, a mainland coastal area, and we eats lots of seafood at home.

Were you worried about Ting Kau being too remote?

Xu: I’ve wanted a space like that for ages. Wan Chai is so commercial like Lan Kwai Fong – that’s not what I started out to do – I missed my days in Yuen Long. I was so jealous when a Japanese chef friend told me about his plan to start a two-table private kitchen. Finally, after seven years in Wan Chai  the rent got too high. I’m back to doing things my old way. Call me a bad businesswoman but the slightly out-of-the-way location actually screens out all those who shouldn’t be there. Those who enjoy life and food don’t mind coming. And as there aren’t too many choices in the area, office workers from Tsuen Wan see us as a great alternative to Sham Tseng roasted goose.

What dishes have you created for Lung Mun Seafood Restaurant in Lei Yue Mun for this Mid-Autumn festival?

Xu: As a child I always thought the moon  was edible, so I’ve always wanted to create a dish using the lunar image. The result is Lemon Moon and Tide. I’ve used seafood soup and lemon to create the full moon, on top of which are some garlicky shrimps. Another seafood dish is lobster in its own bisque which you must eat with some deep-fried mantou (Chinese steamed bread). Of course, there’s always my signature chicken dish. I’m doing it with a twist this time – I marinate the bird with miso produced locally by an 80-year-old master in Kwu Tung. The natural sweetness and fragrance from the sun-kissed miso makes this dish shine.