Can­tonese Pantry Ba­sics, Rein­vented


T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler - - V-zug Special - Pho­tog­ra­phy MOSES NG Styling CHRISTIE SIMP­SON

Hong Kong’s culi­nary mas­ters ex­plore the seven build­ing blocks that form the ba­sis of

the city’s great cui­sine

The city’s top Chi­nese chefs show­case the seven sta­ples that shape our tasty tra­di­tions.

Wil­son Fok ex­plores their cre­ations

For cen­turies, Chi­nese peo­ple have be­lieved that the key to life de­pends on seven pantry es­sen­tials: wood, rice, vine­gar, salt, soy sauce, oil and tea. Also known as the “seven sta­ples that run our lives”, not only are these the ba­sics in our ev­ery­day larder, we also make it our mis­sion to ful­fil these ba­sic needs in or­der to cre­ate a good life. Chi­nese culi­nary her­itage shares a sim­i­lar phi­los­o­phy of bal­ance— our es­sen­tials help shape who we are, and in re­turn we strive for more to cover the ba­sics. To hon­our of the sig­nif­i­cance of these pantry sta­ples, seven of the city’s best Chi­nese chefs present their ideal ways to show­case the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of each in­gre­di­ent.

There’s a good rea­son wood tops the list of pantry es­sen­tials—no heat means no cook­ing. From the dis­cov­ery of fire, food has never been the same. While tech­nol­ogy nowa­days usu­ally means the use of gas or elec­tric stoves, wood-based fire cook­ing main­tains a sig­nif­i­cant role, as Mott 32’s Lee Man-Sing at­tests. “We wouldn’t be able to roast our Pek­ing duck with­out some good old fire­wood,” ex­plains the restau­rant’s ex­ec­u­tive Chi­nese chef. “There used to be a time where wood was the only source for fire and heat used for cook­ing. Now it fa­cil­i­tates the process of a bet­ter roast. We use ap­ple­wood; when the wood chips burn, the smoke they gen­er­ate per­me­ates through the skin and cav­ity into the meat, adding a smoky yet fruity aroma—not to men­tion a won­der­ful tan to the glossy fin­ish of the duck.” Con­trary to con­ven­tional be­liefs, the key to us­ing wood in roast­ing is to gen­er­ate smoke over a slow burn, rather than a blaz­ing flame that would re­sult in over­heat­ing and burn­ing the meat. “You can also use wood har­vested from dif­fer­ent fruit trees,” adds Lee. “Ly­chee wood, for in­stance, is an ex­cel­lent fire­wood for roast­ing geese, while os­man­thus wood can be used for roast­ing pork and poul­try as well.”

While wood fa­cil­i­tates cook­ing, rice marks the true sta­ple of the Chi­nese diet.

The quin­tes­sen­tial grain of the East, a meal with­out rice can seem in­com­plete. As hum­ble as it is steamed and served in a bowl, there’s much to be learned about rice. Our taste for good rice has geared to­wards more vari­a­tions, so we have be­come more at­tuned to dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of rice and their spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics. Such is the ex­per­tise of Lau Yiu-Fai, Yan Toh Heen’s ex­ec­u­tive Chi­nese chef. “We rarely source rice from a sin­gle re­gion any­more,” he ex­plains. “In the old days, we were im­port­ing from north­east­ern China and Vietnam, but our palate and pref­er­ences have changed. Now it’s a tos­sup be­tween loose, fluffy jas­mine rice from Thai­land and the gluti­nous, pearl-like grains from Ja­pan. For the op­ti­mal tex­ture for our guests, we of­ten find our­selves test­ing each crop and cre­at­ing our own blend. Aside from re­gional dif­fer­ences, rice is also di­vided into the old and new crops, as the for­mer is more ab­sorbent for wa­ter, while the lat­ter is less so.” Lau takes pride in hon­ing his ex­per­tise in the grain over his many years of ex­pe­ri­ence. For decades, the chef would test out crops in or­der to cre­ate the right pro­por­tion of old and new rice, as well as har­vests from dif­fer­ent

coun­tries to reach a con­sis­tent blend. Here, he also takes the chance to shake down a few mis­con­cep­tions on rice’s prepa­ra­tion. “One must un­der­stand the qual­ity of the rice be­fore pro­ceed­ing to cook it,” he at­tests. “Fried rice, too, re­lies on a good pot of rice. When the grains are less moist, they fluff up on the hot wok as you toss and turn it with egg and other in­gre­di­ents, cre­at­ing the per­fect fried rice.” The chef pushes the en­ve­lope even fur­ther by deep-fry­ing cooked rice, and pair­ing it with crab claw and a rich fish bouil­lon. The alchemy is sen­sa­tional, as guests pour the hot broth onto a bed of crispy rice. “I love rice, which is why I take a lot of time try­ing to find a good bowl of it—just as I learned how to make one as well,” con­cludes Lau.

As preser­va­tion plays a ma­jor role in Chi­nese cui­sine, not only does vine­gar help ex­tend the shelf life of pro­duce in the form of pick­les, it also brings a dif­fer­ent spec­trum of flavours to cook­ing. With colours rang­ing from trans­par­ent to red and black, the tart­ness of vine­gar is be­lieved to quench thirst and aid di­ges­tion, as it of­ten takes a cen­tral role in sea­son­ing cold ap­pe­tis­ers. Chef Jayson Tang of Man Ho at JW Mar­riott Hong Kong has fur­ther thoughts on vine­gar. “Fam­i­lies with a new­born of­ten pre­pare a pot full of stewed pork knuckle with ginger and vine­gar as part of a post-par­tum diet,” he ex­plains. “The gin­gery stew of­fers ex­tra warmth from slow-sim­mered ginger root, as well as col­la­gen from the ten­der pork knuck­les and a mix­ture of dif­fer­ent vine­gars to bal­ance sweet­ness and tart­ness.” The acid­ity in the sweet vine­gar blend can pre­serve the stew from spoilage— and can be re­vis­ited when those crav­ings resur­face. Tang has re­vamped the tra­di­tional south­ern Chi­nese dish in his newly launched stewed pork knuckle with ginger and egg in sweet vine­gar; the col­la­gen-rich ten­don is ex­tracted to be stewed un­til gelati­nous, and it’s both sweet and spicy on the palate. “The dish pays tribute to our tra­di­tions, but is most of­ten over­looked as a dish only fit for new moth­ers,” says Tang. “It brings health ben­e­fits to all who en­joy the taste of vine­gar, too.”

Salt may be the most trea­sured pantry ba­sic in Chi­nese cook­ing. Chef Gor­don Le­ung of The Penin­sula’s Spring Moon takes the hum­ble item into the cen­tre of a Can­tonese clas­sic—salt-baked chicken. “The best thing about bak­ing the chicken in salt is that the salt in­su­lates the heat, steam­ing the bird un­til suc­cu­lent and juicy,” ex­plains Le­ung.

The key is to heat the salt in a wok un­til hot, then en­case the pa­per-wrapped bird within and roast it un­til the bird is fully cooked.

The chicken comes out per­fectly suc­cu­lent and ten­der, and as Le­ung at­tests: “The old­fash­ioned way to pre­pare a chicken is of­ten the best way.” It’s no won­der that the salt­baked chicken re­mains a best-seller at the es­teemed restau­rant.

The hum­ble soy sauce is per­haps the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive among the seven sta­ples when it comes to Chi­nese cui­sine—and an ul­tra­ver­sa­tile condi­ment in any chef ’s reper­toire. It can be a sim­ple top­ping on steamed rice, it can be a base for sim­mer­ing chicken, or it can sim­ply and mag­i­cally give seafood a lift with a burst of umami, as chef Wong Wing-Keung of Man Wah at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal shows us. “The most im­por­tant thing to un­der­stand about soy sauce is the dif­fer­ence be­tween light and dark va­ri­eties,” says Wong. “The lighter one in colour is ac­tu­ally saltier, while the dark, more vis­cous ones are fer­mented longer and are stronger-flavoured, but not as salty.” The chef demon­strates this alchemy

with his sim­ple stir-fried abalone with soy sauce. Pre­pared in mere min­utes, thin slices of fresh abalone are tossed in a hot wok with fer­mented black beans and a driz­zle of light soy sauce near the end, which siz­zles away within sec­onds, leav­ing a unique caramelised flavour that en­hances that of the shell­fish. Such is the charm of soy sauce—it not only adds flavours, but makes a dish bet­ter.

Oil is the most ver­sa­tile among the build­ing blocks of Chi­nese cook­ing. To search for a chef who’s mas­tered the art of fry­ing, you don’t need to look any fur­ther than Le­ung FaiHung of Hoi King Heen, where his four decades of culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence de­vel­oped his deep knowl­edge of the cui­sine. As a firm be­liever that sim­plic­ity is best, Le­ung thinks that a sim­ple deep-fried crispy chicken could put an ex­pert cook to the test. Us­ing few sci­en­tific read­ings, Chi­nese chefs rely pri­mar­ily on ex­pe­ri­ence in deter­min­ing their ideal style of fry­ing in oil—and Le­ung is keen to show­case his. As Le­ung holds the chicken’s neck, showering the bird with boil­ing hot oil that sears it in­side and out, the bird is then sub­merged into the oil bath, crisp­ing and caramelis­ing un­til golden.

With ad­e­quate con­trol and pre­ci­sion in time man­age­ment, the bird comes out per­fectly done, with a glossy skin that crack­les when cut this ex­pe­ri­ence, ac­cord­ing to Le­ung, is es­sen­tially what al­lows chefs to master the art of the sim­ple deep-fry and the best use of oil.

In­cor­po­rat­ing tea into the cook­ing of food may stray from its na­ture as a bev­er­age, yet to use it as part of the cook­ing process is a tes­ta­ment to how much one knows their teas. Jack Chan, the ex­ec­u­tive Chi­nese chef at the Sher­a­ton’s Ce­les­tial Court, is a tea con­nois­seur who prides him­self on mas­ter­ing the art and sci­ence of tea-smok­ing in cui­sine. “For meats, we smoke it with black teas such as pu-erh, a po­tent blend that brings a deeper chest­nut­brown hue to the meat,” ex­plains Chan, who enig­mat­i­cally un­cov­ers the lid­ded pot where the pork belly was be­ing hot-smoked; the di­min­ish­ing cloud of smoke re­veals ten­der strips of pork belly, tanned from the pu-erh and ready to be turned into din­ner. “The se­cret to good meat-smok­ing is to light the fire of the smok­ing agent, such as sugar or black tea leaves, and al­low the smoke to grow un­til it has en­cased the pork belly,” he adds.

It’s amaz­ing to see how the seven sta­ples of the tra­di­tional Chi­nese kitchen con­tinue to stay cur­rent and rel­e­vant, with the long­steeped tra­di­tions meet­ing cre­ative new ideas—en­sur­ing that these pantry ba­sics will never be­come stale or for­got­ten.

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