Handcrafted cuisine accents the beauty in humble ingredients, but the time spent in its preparation means this link to our foodie past is dying out.
Three modern chefs bringing back handcrafted Chinese cuisine
The term “handcrafted cuisine” is a misnomer. After all, what meal hasn’t been crafted by hand, unless its only human interaction was in the transfer from freezer to microwave? There is an art to cooking but in Chinese cuisine, and Cantonese cooking specifically, handcrafted implies cooking of a higher level, near-otherworldly skill and a significant investment of time.
Chef K.K. Chan, chef-owner of Solo private kitchen in Wan Chai, has a special take on Eight Treasure Duck, a dish he transforms by using a pigeon. “I’m serving up a pigeon on a plate but what makes it handcrafted?” Chan asks. He begins preparing the bird by removing the bones without breaking the skin, he then removes the breast, fries the eight ingredients that comprise the “treasure” – including dried shrimp, mushroom and bamboo shoots – salts the inside of the carcass, turns it inside out before it is blanched for a moment to clean the bird, flips it back, stuffs it, ties it together with string to seal in the moisture before another blanching, stabs tiny holes with a needle to help release air bubbles from the cavity, fries the bird until golden brown, and then slow-cooks it for three hours at 72˚C. The process takes more than six hours – on a good day.
Head chef Mok Ming makes a similar dish at Tsui Hang Village, a Cantonese restaurant that has been in business for more than 40 years. His traditional Eight Treasure Duck takes all day to prepare. “It’s certainly much more work than cooking a plate of vegetables,” he says, with a smirk.
Man Hing at The Greater China Club is led by executive chef Will Chan. His version of lo mai gai, the steamed parcels of sticky rice and chicken that
are ubiquitous at dim sum, features chicken that is roasted and fried before it is stuffed with a rice mixture. He debones the bird from the back of the neck, gently carving around the body to make sure no holes are made. Even a small hole would mean he would have to start again. The chicken is air-dried for between six and eight hours and stuffed with sticky rice, fried and splashed with hot oil in the wok until golden brown. When it’s cut open tableside, rice spills from the chicken’s perfectly browned cavity.
“If I fry a chicken as it is, leaving all the bones in, chop it and serve it to you, there is no skill involved,” Chan says. “It’s about beautifying and elevating a humble ingredient.”
K.K. Chan agrees. “Handcrafted cuisine is about transforming an ordinary, cheap ingredient into something expensive and valuable,” he says. “Restaurants will use handcrafted cuisine to ask a higher price for dishes. Diners are buying the skill of the chef, not the ingredient. Another name for handcrafted cuisine is liu lung choy [complicated cuisine]. How do we take a French bean and make it expensive? Split the pod down the middle, stuff it with fish, then sauté it in the pan. It’s an art, transforming a bean into something expensive.”
The history of handcrafted cuisine in Hong Kong begins in the homes of the wealthy. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, two groups of chefs migrated to Hong Kong, big chefs from Shunde and from Shanghai,” K.K. Chan says. “Wealthy families needed to entertain guests, and they were rich and had high standards. There were no expensive restaurants in Hong Kong, so they hired these chefs to make this complicated, beautiful food for them and their guests.”
Mok says it was the combination of chefs with time and the wealth of their employers that led to expressive cuisine. “If the family wanted mui choy kau yok [steamed pork belly with preserved mustard greens], a chef would buy the pork, soak and steam it for at least three hours until tender. Not everyone can afford to do that.”
The handcrafted cuisine of today is no longer exclusively for the well-to-do. “People think you can only eat handcrafted cuisine at expensive restaurants and private kitchens, but I know friends’ parents, aunties and uncles who make complicated dishes at home every day,” Mok says. In the past, the complications were part of making something edible from cheap ingredients because it was what families could afford.
“For instance, how do you make a $20 fish head sold at the market, so cheap and unwanted, edible? How do you feed a family with kids a fish head?” says
K.K. Chan. “You soak it in water, in an ice bath, until it’s plump, pin bone it, one bone at a time, but making sure it stays completely intact, split the face in half so that it’s flat in the pan and pan-fry it. You serve it on a plate and, suddenly, it’s full of meat and it gets eaten, even with the eyes still on the plate.”
Why aren’t people working harder to preserve this slowly disappearing cuisine? “It’s a lot of work,” Mok says. “It’s too time-consuming and most restaurants simply don’t have time.”
“Think about it. It doesn’t make much sense,” Will Chan says. “Take our baked fish intestine with egg, minced pork and dried mandarin peel. We pay $45 for a set of three intestines at the market. How long does it take to wash a carp intestine? How long does it take to carve out all the fishy, unwanted parts? Then we whisk it with all the ingredients, slowly, and in parts, so it’s consistent. After all that hard work, how much do you get for it? We charge $188, which isn’t a lot considering the price of the ingredients and the time and effort that goes into making it. Restaurants prefer to use expensive ingredients, such as abalone, sea cucumber and shark’s fin, which will turn in a much higher profit.”
Profitability at a typical Cantonese restaurant is all about volume, K.K. Chan says. “They have fewer and fewer staff. Families eating at restaurants are only looking for a meal to fill them up, all they need is soy sauce chicken, steamed fish and a plate of vegetables. A lot of handcrafted dishes are slowly being lost.”
To preserve this colourful food tradition, K.K. Chan says he would like to see chefs, young and old, work harder to save these dishes from disappearing altogether.
“There are many dishes, that even when it’s down to my generation, they don’t exist anymore,” he says. “There used to be a dish I loved called tit wor dan [iron pan egg]. You take a fish cheek, add it to a quail egg batter, pan-fry like an omelette, garnish it with herbs and scallion and eat it like a pancake. Have you even heard of it? No? I didn’t think so.”