HK’s pragmatic gastronomic response to Xmas
The thing I’ve always liked about Christmas in Hong Kong is the way that the religious aspect of this festival has been, so to speak, surgically expunged. In the interests of full disclosure I should state that, like most people in Hong Kong, I am not a Christian. Yet even non-Christians have the good sense to like a festival that involves lots of eating and drinking, not forgetting present-giving. One big downside here is what is politely called Christmas music but that’s a whole other story, probably not best tackled right now, suffice to say that every time I hear tunes with words like “jingle bells”, my worst homicidal tendencies rise to the surface.
At this point another declaration of interest needs to be made because when I am not engaged in the dubious trade of journalism my time is occupied running various food businesses and we food folk just love Christmas because it is the most profitable time of the year.
It is music to our ears when we hear people saying things like “go on, eat more, after all Christmas only comes once a year”, or, “have another drink, after all it’s Christmas”. Yes, this is the perfect excuse for over indulgence and long may it flourish.
All Chinese festivals come replete with specific traditions about festive meals, and that too is music to the ears of us catering folk. But Christmas is better because the highly adaptable people of Hong Kong are not stuck on specific menus and show a remarkable willingness to try out all manner of so-called Christmassy foods that they would not think of touching at any other time of the year.
My company has a division that supplies catering for big parties and events so we get a fair idea of what Hong Kong people want from Christmas. Most of our clients order turkey in some form or other. This is a rather British Christmas food, other Europeans favor certain types of fish, or goose and a whole host of other foods. Turkey, however, is generally considered to be bland meat by Chinese people who simply will not eat it at any other time of the year. But turkey is a caterer’s dream because these are big birds that are easy to cook, easy to carve and easy to use not just in roasted form but in a number of other ways.
Then there is the complex matter of Christmas puddings — a very rich, dried fruit-based concoction that is brown in color and does not look too appetizing to the Chinese eye. So, we don’t get many orders for that; actually I love it but find it is too rich to consume with any kind of frequency.
However there is greater enthusiasm for mince pies, a name that suggests a savory meat dish but is a dessert pie, with origins in the Victorian Briton’s love of sweetmeats, which are not meats at all but another mixture of dried fruits.
Once you get past the core dishes there are any number of favorites that get ordered for Christmas parties. Hong Kong people really love all forms of seafood so this tends to be on the menu and then there’s rice, which Southern Chinese believe is essential for any self-respecting kind of meal, so we produce all manner of fancy rice dishes. Steak also looms large at this time of year, presumably because it is seen as a luxury European food and thus highly valued when throwing a Western style party.
Frankly, most of the above never sees its way anywhere close to a Christmas table in countries with a strong tradition of celebrating this festival but, hey ho, if that’s what people want, that’s what we are more than happy to supply.
Hong Kong has demonstrated a distinctive ability to absorb Western and Eastern influences and make them its own. A good example is how the influx of émigré Russians from Shanghai introduced Hong Kong to the delights of lemon tea, now universally served. But this is far less remarkable than Hong Kong’s distinctive Yin-yeung coffee and tea mixture combined with sweet evaporated milk. Here we have the ultimate pragmatism of Hong Kong cuisine, combining Western and Eastern influences tailored for the local palate.
Hong Kong Christmas food combinations are a bit like that, they reflect the people’s famous pragmatism that allows them to pick and choose what they like without worrying too much over questions of authenticity or tradition.
I am quite sure that there are wider political and sociological lessons to be drawn from all this but as the festive season is about to burst upon us these more weighty matters can be held in abeyance.
Meanwhile, I’m off for a festive drink and wish those who have no better plans, a happy Christmas; may it be profitable for all of us. That last bit is very Hong Kong too, in case you haven’t noticed.