Hong Kong Home Cooking

By John Willoughby

Published on August 1, 2009

The early morning sun throws muted shadows from bamboo and pomelo trees through the windows and across sculptor Van Lau's Hong Kong living room. From the basement kitchen comes the faint, repetitive thunk-thunk-thunk of cleaver against chopping block as his wife, Kwok Kim Ming, shreds carrots, minces garlic, and slices bean curd for a breakfast stir-fry. "In China, we sometimes say that for breakfast you must have good food, for lunch enough food, and for dinner little food," says Van. "Today, that is what we will do."

Cosmopolitan and well traveled, Van Lau and Kwok Kim Ming are keenly aware that they live in one of the world's premier restaurant cities. But given the choice, they eat at home—which is exactly why I've come to spend time with them, at their kind invitation. On three previous trips to Hong Kong, I'd found that its restaurants—a fantastic array, from haute to street—easily live up to their worldwide reputation. But I'd always wondered if I wasn't missing something. I yearned to see what the cooks of this frenetic British crown colony really make in the privacy of their own kitchens.

On my most recent trip, I finally got the chance. Photographer George Chang was raised in Hong Kong, and it occurred to me to ask if he could arrange a visit to local residents to see how they eat at home. Chang introduced me to his friends Van and Kwok—and, as the saying goes, fortune smiled.

Within minutes of my first meeting with them, Van and Kwok are talking enthusiastically about food. With his thick cap of graying hair, expressive brown eyes, and bemused air, Van is at once calm and engaging as he discusses the virtues of long-cured ham and young bamboo shoots. Kwok has a gentle demeanor, earnestly explaining cooking techniques with deft gestures, then leaning forward with a quick, soft laugh. She talks with obvious pleasure about taking a fish just minutes out of the water and steaming it whole and unadorned, to retain its sweet tenderness; of quickly stir-frying bok choy with peanut oil and browned garlic, so that the vegetable's crispness is not destroyed. She describes dishes for cold weather—rice cooked with Chinese sausage and fresh herbs; rich soup combining hearty pork with delicate lotus root. In summer, she says, she serves shrimp quickly panfried, sprinkled with coarse salt, and garnished with cashews and slices of mango. Or she might steam duck and then panfry it with pickled ginger shoots, pieces of fresh pineapple, and slices of red bell pepper.

Here, I realize, as I listen to them talk, is an aspect of Hong Kong cooking rarely experienced by visitors: a cuisine based on simple ingredients and time-honored techniques—dishes that have been cooked so often that they've become as familiar as old friends.

The dynamics of dining in Hong Kong are upside-down: Eating out is the rule, and entertaining at home is reserved mostly for the well-heeled. This is due to the fact that Hong Kong is one of the most crowded cities on earth. On the narrow foreshores of Hong Kong Island and the 3.75-square-mile peninsula of Kowloon, where more than half of its 6.1 million inhabitants live, the population density is a stunning 42,223 people per square mile. (New York, America's most densely populated city, has a mere 23,671.) Even in the New Territories, which sprawl north of Kowloon on the main-land, an average apartment measures only about 12 by 13 feet. There simply isn't enough room to entertain in such cramped quarters.

Though Van and Kwok are not extravagantly wealthy, they are prominent members of the Hong Kong intelligentsia, and live in a house they've owned for more than 20 years. Van is an internationally recognized artist (his monumental sculpture Thank You stands on Nathan Road, one of the city's most renowned thoroughfares). He was born in mainland China in 1933, but his family moved to Vietnam when he was two. In 1960, Van returned to Hong Kong, and quickly became a leading light in a patriotic movement aimed at bringing overseas Chinese back to Hong Kong. In this vibrant city, he felt, they could use their varied experiences to help blend modern sensibilities with the magnificent Chinese heritage.

Today, Van is chairman of the board of the Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture, president of the Hong Kong Institute for Fine Arts, and a member of a consultative committee of the People's Republic of China concerned with the future of Hong Kong. He has lectured throughout the West as well as in the People's Republic, spreading the message of artistic innovation within the framework of tradition. Kwok, who met Van when she was a student in one of his classes, is an accomplished potter and painter. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is immersed in the city's artistic traditions, and also in another central aspect of its culture—its cooking.

Van and Kwok live in the Ma Liu Shui district of the New Territories, in a rather modest house filled with Kwok's paintings-in-progress and models of Van's work. Though it is only a few feet from a busy highway, inside all is serene.

When I arrive, I discover that Van has waited to prepare the couple's "first breakfast" of coffee and warm chestnuts (which he usually makes right after their habitual six o'clock walk around the neighborhood) so they can share it with me. Van acquired the habit of drinking coffee in Vietnam, where the beverage is a legacy of French colonial rule. As with everything he does, his coffee ritual is carefully considered and precise. In an old-fashioned metal drip pot, he brews a blend of two parts Jamaican Blue Mountain to one part Brazilian coffee—a mix he favors, he says, because "the Jamaican has the aromatic quality and the Brazilian has the strong flavor." The chestnuts, already roasted, come from a street vendor; Van heats them in a dry pan.

As we sip coffee and break open chestnuts, our talk turns to the subject that dominates many conversations in Hong Kong these days—the return of the colony to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. "Much depends on the people of Hong Kong, but I believe strongly in their abilities," Van says thoughtfully. "We in Hong Kong are a bit different from mainland Chinese, because we have learned how to work together and still achieve our will. So we can take ideas from Beijing and change them a bit and still work with them." But soon, inevitably, we circle back to food. "One thing you know is that, after 1997, the quality of the food will stay the same."

We have just begun a discussion of Chinese regional food when Kwok emerges from the kitchen. An avid cook, she is well acquainted with each of China's major cuisines. Even in Hong Kong, she explains, these styles have remained distinct. What might be called Hong Kong cooking is basically Cantonese, which is the most varied of Chinese cuisines—nothing like the shopping-center version Americans are familiar with—and the one most wholeheartedly devoted to the pure pleasure of eating.

The Cantonese culinary tradition dates back centuries. But Hong Kong has long been a great port and a major financial center, and has been open to influences from all over the world—with the result that its cooks have become inspired innovators. Fish sauce from Southeast Asia is now a familiar sight in many home kitchens, and chiles borrowed from Sichuan cuisine are slipped into dishes that previously had none. These new accents and undertones grafted onto a Cantonese base distinguish the best Hong Kong cooking.

Like her fellow Hong Kong cooks, Kwok is willing to borrow and adapt when it suits her, bending the rules without leaving the fold. An example of her inventiveness: In the midst of our discussion, their maid arrives to serve our "second breakfast" of stir-fried vegetables and congee, the simple rice porridge that is daily fare all over Asia. Kwok has modified the recipe, adding barley and wheat to the rice to bring more texture and color to the dish and to increase its nutritional value.

I wasn't able to accompany Kwok on her daily round of food shopping, so I asked George Chang if he could guide me through her local market before I joined Van and Kwok for dinner.

The cavernous covered market where Kwok shops is located in the depths of a modern housing development a few miles from her house. The place is alive with color. Row after row of wooden stands hold greens of every hue, from the delicate celadon of Chinese cabbage to the dark blue-green of Chinese broccoli. Stacked next to them are cascades of sleek purple eggplants, knobby brown ginger, near-fluorescent oranges, and plump yellow pears brushed with pink. Barrels and sacks of rice are lined up for what seems like half a block. At one stand, I count 11 varieties, in shades ranging from ivory to nut brown.

The sounds of the market are as intense as its colors. Porters shout high-pitched warnings as they push carts and carry giant woven baskets of produce through the aisles, and buyers and sellers bargain and banter in the sharp, staccato rhythms of Cantonese.

I ask Chang to steer me to the seafood section. We negotiate a barely controlled chaos of wire-mesh pens filled with live ducks, counters stacked with pyramids of eggs (everything from raw ones to the preserved "thousand year old" variety) from all sorts of fowl, and butcher shops where entire goat and pig carcasses are hacked apart to the customer's order.

We arrive at a row of stands selling fish of every variety and stop to watch a transaction in progress. "Of course you must buy shrimp live," says Chang, as if that fact were obvious to everyone, "but you must always watch carefully, because the seller will throw in a few dead ones if you look away." Sure enough, we see a fishmonger distract one customer with a gesture towards a vat of writhing eels, then deftly slip some shrimp from a different pile into the bag he is weighing. (David Copperfield could learn a thing or two from this sleight-of-hand pro.)

At the next stall, a woman chooses a fish, and the proprietor dismembers it with a few strokes of his cleaver, so swiftly that the heart is still beating. He urges the woman to buy the filets. Instead, she points to the head and tail. He quickly turns to us to see if he can sell us the rest. George demurs, and we wander on.

The benefits of intense shopping forays become apparent when I return to Van and Kwok's house for dinner. Despite what Van had said earlier about "little food," they are preparing the sort of generous array of dishes they might serve when entertaining a group of friends.

In the kitchen, my eye is immediately drawn to a brilliant blue parrot fish, revealed in all its glory as Kwok lifts the cover from the wok. A double clay steamer on the next burner contains a rich chicken broth, fragrant with the appealingly bitter medicinal root known as tin chat. The broth will be served, Chinese-style, as a beverage throughout the meal. From a clay "sand pot" on the counter comes the sweet, spicy aroma of slow-cooked pork spareribs. In another corner of the kitchen, the maid cuts paper-thin slices of cured Hunan ham.

I'm politely shooed upstairs to the dining room to await the meal. It soon arrives, and we begin. With chopsticks, I separate a morsel from the whole parrot fish and pop it into my mouth; it is succulent, scented with ginger and sesame oil and enhanced with meaty shiitake mushrooms. Next, I pick up a sparerib and strip the meat from the bone with my teeth, savoring the sweetness of honey, the mellow bite of ginger, and the complexity of the spices against the lingering richness of the pork. I sample cabbage, its bitter edge offset by the salty, smoke-infused flavor of the ham. I sip the impossibly rich, satisfying chicken broth. I am surprised, though, at the other beverage of the day: a Paul Masson cabernet.

When I ask Van about the wine, he says that it is a recent discovery for him, a new addition to the family table. "I like to try everything," he continues, "because the best often turns out to be something that you have never had before." Reflecting further, he adds, "I would say the most important thing is happiness, and that is what I like: food eaten with happiness." Whether in Hong Kong, Paris, or Detroit, that's just about the perfect definition of home cooking.

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