Feast meets West in Hong Kong

Chinese chefs with overseas exposure are breaking downthe boundaries between Eastern and Western cuisine, writes Janice Leung

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 9:09am

When Joseph Tse Kam-chung - executive chef at Above & Beyond, Hotel Icon's Chinese restaurant - first tasted the semi-dried tomatoes from the hotel's club floor buffet, he thought they were too salty. But the umami-like taste and smell soon had him hooked.

"The fragrance made such an impression on me, I couldn't get it out of my head," says Tse. That experience sparked rounds of brainstorming and finally led to a dish of wok-fried prawns with semi-dried Italian tomatoes. To prevent the dish becoming too intense, he added fresh tomatoes as well.

Having worked extensively overseas in his 39-year career, Tse stresses the importance of staying open to new ideas and learning all the time. "It's important to expose yourself to the different types of cooking and ingredients; that's how you can continuously add to your repertoire," he says. His rendition of the Cantonese classic sweet and sour pork consists of thinly sliced Iberico wrapped around batons of pineapple and cooked in a sauce of apple cider and red wine vinegars, besides the usual brown sugar, so the diner gets the entire experience of the dish all in one bite.

"We have guests from all over the world, so I started to experiment with ingredients that foreign diners would recognise, such as red wine vinegar," Tse says. Even local customers need something new: "Sweet and sour pork has been around for about 50 years, and it's time to present diners with something fresh," he says.

Tsang Chiu-king, executive chef at Langham Place's Chinese restaurant Ming Court, is also keen on innovation.

"We need to move forward to make Cantonese cuisine attractive to a younger crowd," he says. He believes that "young professionals tend to eat out more and make more frequent visits, which is good for business." While many regulars are families attracted by Ming Court's classic dishes, "the younger ones are keen to try new things, especially to pair with wine", says Tsang.

For special wine-pairing events, Tsang works closely with the hotel's "wine guy", Zachary Yu, and their collaboration often becomes a breeding ground for new combinations.

Inspiration also comes from travel. Tsang finds time spent as a guest chef in the group's London and Melbourne hotels equally inspiring. Although he's usually there to demonstrate his own dishes, "speaking to chefs there and looking at their ingredients means I learn something every time, too".

Tsang's dish of duck ravioli with duck consommé was inspired by a wonton he ate in Australia. "I'd always wanted to create a ravioli-shaped dumpling," he says, "but hadn't come up with the right kind of filling. After trying this duck wonton, I found a match."

For the ravioli, a small amount of minced duck and morels are encased by two wonton wrappers, instead of a single folded wrapper with traditional pleated edges. The dumplings are placed on top of Chinese steamed egg, and duck consommé is poured over the top. "The dumplings alone would have made the dish too plain. It adds another texture to the dish," Tsang says.

The focus of innovation is not only flavour and texture, but also takes presentation into account. Traditionally, Chinese dishes are almost always served in the middle of the table and shared, but newer Chinese dishes are more often served individually, as in Western restaurants.

Tsang's chicken consommé with matsutake mushroom takes the idea further, as it is served individually in glass teapots, with the liquid poured into a glass cup. Aside from looking dainty, Tsang says: "It keeps the soup warm for longer." His dessert presentation is more dramatic. His Sweet Wonderland dessert platter features bite-sized sweets placed on a tray with dry ice for added impact.

"Eye-catching dishes add excitement to the restaurant. People all around the dining room will want to know what they are," he says.

At Hoi King Heen, executive chef Leung Fai-hung presents his steamed grouper rolled around Yunnan ham, also in individual portions.

Cantonese dishes are often served with greens, and with this dish Leung adds a vegetable mousse made with spinach or pea shoots. Neither the plating nor the mousse are traditionally Chinese, but Leung says: "There are far fewer boundaries between Chinese and Western food now, especially with the internet."

However, it's not the only source of exposure to new ingredients, he says: "Suppliers used to split their stock into Western and Chinese, but that distinction doesn't exist any more. They show us everything, which gives us inspiration." In his dish of two prawns, he uses mayonnaise and wasabi for one, and black sesame and A1 sauce for the other. Having worked in Japan for five years, he became interested in wasabi as an ingredient. "It has a very nice flavour, but you only need a little," he says.

Chef Ngai Hong-kin at the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong's Sha Tin 18 starts with what seem to be European ingredients and methods and creates a dish that tastes thoroughly Chinese.

He takes cod, salts it overnight and bakes it, but then breaks up the fish by hand, "like hand-shredded chicken in Chinese cuisine", he says. Ngai serves it with two classic Chinese condiments, a ginger and spring onion sauce, and pickled young ginger. He also incorporates Japanese touches into his presentation: the cod is presented on bamboo leaves. "When I worked in Japan, I was inspired by their aesthetics," Ngai says.

Chinese chefs have been creative in their embrace of the black truffle.

In his dish of chilled silky bean curd, Tsang combines black truffle, sesame sauce and vinegar, and adds it between each layer of thinly sliced tofu.

"Western chefs believe heat shouldn't be applied to black truffles, but I think it brings out a different flavour," says Tsang. Clearly proud of his creation, he says: "A guest once told me that we Chinese chefs have uncovered new qualities in black truffles."

At Above & Beyond, Tse adds black truffle sauce to his pumpkin and crab meat soup. "The flavour of the black truffle gives an accent to the dish," he says.

One chef has been carrying the cross-cultural communication the other way, incorporating Chinese ingredients into Western-style dishes. Pastry chef Kelvin Lai Yiu-fai at Sha Tin 18 has become known for his cheesecake, which features fu yu, tofu preserved in brine and often chilli flakes.

As preserved tofu is nicknamed "Chinese cheese", Lai decided to put it into a cheesecake recipe. The popular dish is served in cubes, imitating cubes of tofu, and topped with wolfberry - a touch of red reminiscent of chilli.

"Back in the 1980s and '90s," Leung says, "some Chinese chefs might have gone a little overboard with experimenting with foreign products, but I think we've matured and learned not to stray too far from the foundations of Chinese cuisine. Flavour comes first."

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