This is an homage to my time in Singapore,” says Daniel Cheung Tin-yau, as he brings out a bottle of cincalok, the Malaysian relish made of fermented shrimp, lime and chilli. “Once, at university, we were celebrating Singapore National Day, and there was a house party, so I made a Bloody Mary with this. It was a little funky, but unless people saw me making it, they wouldn’t have known that there were tiny, crushed, fermented shrimps in it.”
Cheung has called Canada, Singapore, Australia and Britain home since moving away from Hong Kong as a young child.
“Growing up, the fastest way for me to get to know a culture was through food,” he says. At home, though, “My mum cooked Cantonese food, so that was perhaps the only constant”. Cantonese-style steamed pork patties are still his favourite comfort food, and he’s a staunch believer in Chinese tonic soups, keeping a collection of dried herbs – lotus seeds and burdock prominent among them – in his pantry.
Cheung cooks at home two or three times a week, for himself, his partner and their whippet, Wagyu.
“There are quite a few dogs in the neighbourhood, so we all get together for doggy parties. I’m the dog cake baker for the group,” he says. Cakes for dogs, he says, are essentially the same as those for humans, except, “No chocolate, no grapes, no garlic, onion or ginger. Sugar is fine. Generally, a non-chocolate cake recipe will do.”
Although he now works in restaurant public relations, Cheung is a trained cook. He moved to London to pursue a master’s degree in food anthropology after graduating in Sydney, but ended up completing a full diploma at Le Cordon Bleu, in the British capital, instead.
“I really enjoy cooking, but maybe [it was also because] I didn’t want to go to school anymore,” Cheung says, jokingly.
He spent some time working in restaurants in London, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the kitchen, but found the culture was different in Hong Kong, when he returned. He decided to stay on the far side of the kitchen pass.
Working with chefs has allowed him to understand ingredients more deeply.
“Suppliers will usually want to peddle their most expensive products, but the chefs I’m friends with and work with prefer to seek out quality. It’s made me change my approach to cooking. I was always tempted to think that if I was spending more, I would be getting a better product, but while you need to spend a minimum amount [...] after a certain point, price does not equate to quality.”
He also tries to cook with as many local and regional ingredients as possible, and likes to work with chefs who feel that way too.
“The last thing I want is to have been in Hong Kong for 20 years and all that’s in my fridge is French cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I love cheese, but there are so many great ingredients here to explore.”
Cheung often uses small teabag-like packets of powdered dashi (a stock commonly used in Japan, usually made with dried kelp and dried bonito), bought in Japanese supermarkets.
“It’s great for adding umami to a dish, for instance, and it’s a good base for braising liquids, especially for seafood dishes, and not just Japanese ones. I’ve used it in Western cooking by adding it to aromatic vegetables, mirepoix [chopped celery, carrots and onions].”
If dashi is used on a daily basis, it might make sense to keep a pot of it around, but for the occasional cook, or someone who doesn’t have space for a stockpot (a common problem in both Japan and Hong Kong), packets containing enough powder for just one to two servings are more convenient.
Down the street from Cheung’s Wan Chai apartment is Goodies, a Chinese gourmet food shop.
“I’ve gotten to know the owner there, and she’s always telling me about exciting discoveries, like an artisanal cooking wine from Zhejiang; a huadiao from a brand called Song He.”
Also in the neighbourhood is Shing Fat Coconut and Spice Shop, a business his partner’s family started in the 1920s. Cheung keeps on hand a constant supply of canned coconut milk from the shop’s private labels Twin Eagles (from Indonesia) and Eagle Team (from Malaysia). “Twin Eagles’ is richer,” he says, and he’ll cook that into curries and desserts. Eagle Team he uses as a dairy milk alternative – “in breakfast cereals, granola, smoothies and so on”.
There’s no shortage of alcoholic beverages at Cheung’s house, served on an equally interesting bar cart – a retired airline trolley.
“Friends often drop in for a drink. I always have eggs and lemon and Amaretto, so I suppose an Amaretto sour is my house drink,” he says.
He has more unusual bottles, including snake wine from century-old Sheung Wan shop She Wong Lam and some of the more obscure sake labels.
“Apart from wanting to support lesser-known makers, it’s definitely more fun drinking unconventional stuff at home,” he says. “It’s almost absurd that all these fancy bars in Hong Kong have so many gins, whiskies and vodkas from all corners of the world but none from Hong Kong or China.”