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.

Crave - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Words Tif­fany Chan Pho­tos Sa­man­tha Sin

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.”

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