Dinner with a Hong Kong celebrtiy chef
Ihave memories of a cartoon in which an exasperated driver gets lost on the endlessly looping inner-city highways of Los Angeles, unable to get off. I’m in a taxi, but that’s a bit how I feel. In true Hong Kong style, the journey to Yin Yang Coastal private kitchen, in the New Territories, involves traversing some serious highways in majorly urban areas.
But just when I think we can’t possibly be in the right place, the taxi driver pulls into a deserted car park. With a nod of his head he directs my friends and I toward a pedestrian overpass, glaringly lit up in the night. It seems he can follow Yin Yang Coastal owner Margaret Xu Yuan’s directions, even if we can’t.
We cross the overpass. On the other side, a lift sinks us below the road to a footpath that leads into Ting Kau, a jungle-green village on the edge of the bay. It’s so quiet we tiptoe along a pavement lined with two and threestorey concrete villas. A couple of frogs brave my footfall and a cat slinks past in the dark, then the beach comes into view. Beyond it the red-lit spans of a bridge slip away into the inky night and the sparkling lights of highrises in unknown suburbs wink at us across the water. A couple on the sand prepares to light a lantern in celebration of mid-autumn festival. Beyond them, a shuttered older-style building with a flat roof and its toes almost in the water, is lit up from inside. We’re here.
Margaret Xu Yuan is a Hong Kong celebrity chef, but she greets us at the door like we are old friends. We four are the only guests tonight and the open kitchen with a couple of dining tables could be a domestic setting, if it weren’t for the enviable pro stainless steel Miele appliances, studio lighting and Ho Chi, Xu Yuan’s other chef and business partner, whose tattooed arms rattle the pans diligently in the background.
I first interviewed her in 2010 at her original Yin Yang restaurant in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. She was headed to Australia as a guest of the Sydney Food Festival, her pioneering use of homegrown organic produce and traditional Chinese cooking techniques having brought her instant recognition. She cooked me her signature Yellow Earth Chicken, roasted in an urn she made by up-ending two terracotta pots, and I can still remember reckoning that it was the best roast chook I’d tasted.
I’m rapt to see it on the menu tonight, but Xu Yuan assures me the Wan Chai days are behind her. When the lease expired three years ago, she grabbed the opportunity to escape the frenetic pace of the inner city and its rapidly evolving food scene. Her new focus would be this garden beach house and old Hong Kong fishing village cuisine “reborn with wild contemporary notes”.
Tonight, we’re having a ‘surf and splash’ eight-course dinner. As is often the case in private kitchens, you need to book well ahead. Her Hong Kong coastal cuisine, she tells me as she pours a glass of gewurztraminer (exceptionally well paired with Chinese cuisine), is a re-invention of older, traditional fishermen’s home recipes.
“Most pre-colonial coastal Hongkongers eat whatever their daily boat harvest is, Cantonese fishermen’s style,” Xu Yuan says. “A lot of fish and seafoods, mixed with dried fish, dried prawns and cuttlefish, preserved salted vegetables, salted seafood and basically things that keep on the boat without a fridge.
“This has filtered down into Cantonese culture today. The fish market is an everyday thing – most Cantonese love seafood in their daily diet.”
Xu Yuan’s cuisine is a re-invention of these recipes, retaining the traditional flavours and techniques and layering them with her interpretations. Her love of fresh, organic and sustainable ingredients (from her nearby farm) shines in each dish and her creativity (she was a designer in a former life) endows her food with an almost whimsical quality that is captured in the names she gives them.
Tofu Cloud, in a martini glass, is homemade organic tofu set with hand-filtered seawater and topped with fresh crabmeat. The bluetinged tofu is a conceptual take on the blue sea. Autumn Leaves is a platter of whelks prettily garnished with pickled pink garlic, chilli okra sauce and shiso leaves. The whelks are not as popular as conch shells, but are far more sustainable, she explains.
Night Fever is a wild-caught, lightly fried fish, served whole.
“Traditionally, boat people would marinate the fish in salt overnight for extra flavour,” she says. Instead Xu Yuan has added Sichuan peppercorns to the extra virgin olive oil marinade giving the subtle fish flavour a tingling chilli hit.
Lobster in Spa, Tiger Chasing the Dragon and Live Duet induce similarly intriguing historical and providential culinary anecdotes from Xu Yuan as she serves them. It makes dinner more of an experience than a meal.
Menus start from $HK880 (about PGK360) per person and must be pre-booked. See yinyang.hk.
Tofu Cloud, in a martini glass, is homemade organic tofu set with hand-filtered east coast seawater and topped with delicate fresh crabmeat.
Delectable dishes … Margaret Xu Yuan preparing her ‘Autumn Leaves’ (top); the ‘ Yellow Earth Chicken’ that the author rates as the best ever (above).