HK’s prag­matic gas­tro­nomic re­sponse to Xmas

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - STEPHEN VINES The au­thor is a for­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor who now runs com­pa­nies in the food sec­tor and moon­lights as a jour­nal­ist, writer and broad­caster.

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.

Stephen Vines

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