Three chefs on dishes inspired by their grandmothers – grilled fish, minced pork rice, and pâté
- ‘She’d look at an egg and know it’s going to hatch in a few weeks. She’d make pickles in a huge bathtub,’ says Ho Lee Fook chef Jowett Yu of his grandmother
- Another Hong Kong chef, Arlyn Mendoza at Brut, recalls being sent up trees to pick tamarind, while Nate Green at Henry remembers lunches that lasted all day
Johanna English died in 1991 at the age of 96 after a life well lived. The resilient, no-nonsense mother of five – a primary-school teacher from County Tipperary in Ireland – was a classic Irish matriarch with certain culinary quirks, like holding a loaf of bread tightly under her arm before buttering and slicing it.
She was also my granny – and whether you call her nonna, po po or abuelita, chances are that your grandmother’s cooking will also have left lasting memories.
In Hong Kong, three chefs from different cultures told the Post about how their grandmothers were instrumental in their love for food, in their becoming chefs, and how they inspired dishes in their restaurants.
“There was always something to eat, always an abundance of food, especially during rice harvest season in autumn. She was like an encyclopaedia. She’d look at an egg and know it’s going to hatch in a few weeks. She’d make pickles in a huge bathtub by filling it with veggies, taking off her shoes and stepping on them to draw out the moisture. Some she’d leave in the sun and some she’d put in the urn to ferment.
“She always smelled like wood because you needed firewood under the giant woks and she’d always be cooking, breakfast, lunch and dinner for a big household, while at Lunar New Year you could have 30 people eating dumplings, fish, chicken, goose or duck.”
Her lu rou fan – minced pork rice – is a dish that Yu prepares at Ho Lee Fook. “There was always a pot of braised pork that she’d spoon over rice. It’s a dish that you find on roadside stalls [in Taiwan]. It’s much sweeter in the south of Taiwan and they use minced pork, fry it in lard and season in soy sauce.
“We’ve had it on and off the menu since we opened [in 2014]. It’s not actually that popular, but it has a very loyal following, once people order it. Cooking it feeds my soul. Sometimes in life, you need to cook the things you’re passionate about and that you want to eat.” As to what his grandma would think of the dish, Yu says: “She’d be pretty happy. Happy that I grew up to be OK.”
“My mum had to work in Manila cleaning houses, so she’d send money to her mother – my grandma Zenaida, also known as Zeny – to take care of us. We had no electricity so she cooked over wood. She’s strong and can still hold an axe and chop wood.
The quality of Zeny’s food was well known to the other villagers, Mendoza says. “When I was in school she’d make simple desserts and snacks, pancakes or suman – sticky rice and crushed coconut, then pull out a table and sell them.”
“She’d do a whole fish, marinate it for 24 hours, smoke it over a grill and cover it with banana leaves. There would be soy sauce with calamansi or vinegar, maybe with a bit of salt or spiciness if you want. She was originally from the island of Bicol, where they like chilli.
“At Brut, I changed the recipe to [be more like] Hong Kong cuisine with Filipino influences. Here, we’re very much allowed to bring new tastes and flavours, so anyone can suggest ideas on a dish.
“I’m still so attached to her. If I could go back in time I’d love to see her cook dishes again – and maybe write the recipes down! A grandma’s love is something very special.”
In Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, Nate Green – despite being from Britain – pays homage to the smokehouse food from the southern parts of the United States at Henry, at The Rosewood hotel.
“Both my grandmothers were phenomenal cooks. In post-war London with rationing, everyone was thrifty. They knew what good food was because they had allotments [where they grew vegetables], raised animals and nothing went to waste. That meant there was good food at home, while they also had the butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger – things which have now mostly died away.
“There was a love of cooking in her house. Lunch would start at noon and finish at midnight. Pâté with Melba toast, beef bourguignon, poached salmon, roasts, game, that’s what Grandma loved, and what was put in front of you, you ate. She was hospitable and everyone was welcome – friends and neighbours would pop round, you looked out for each other. She was happy when it was busy – and it’s the same for me in my restaurants, that stems from her.”
Green’s love of charcuterie stems from Rhoda, he says. “The reason I love rillettes and cold cuts is due to her. She and Grandpa Fred would go to France and bring back tins of them. She made pâtés at home from an old-school French 1970s cookbook, so I grew up eating terrines because of her, watching her make them.
“Our terrine at Henry uses everything, the whole pig from Wicks Manor in Essex, England. We brine and slow-cook belly, dice it up, then the loin and shoulders and legs are minced and mixed; sometimes we include the pluck [offal] if we can get hold of it. It’s mixed with parsley, shallots, four-spice, salt, pepper – and brandy – then we serve it with our house chutney, pickles and grain mustard.
“I’m pretty sure Rhoda would approve!”