As I write the kitchen is suffused with the scent of fresh sesame oil from Derry’s baggage plunging me back into Jiang Tai market in Beijing where I purchased it from the spice counter on Monday of last week. In my minds eye I can see Claire and Shan at my side while Derry takes Dermot around to the fruit sellers and fish mongers, the butchers and bread makers. A child who loves every kind of fruit, he is mesmerised by the fruit stalls as he gestures at lychees and dragon fruit, peaches and blueberries and tries to reach the display. He comes back clutching a large plum given to him by a friendly stall-holder, deftly retrieved by Shan until it can be washed at home.
I was the first of the family to leave China this time and for the past week I’ve been in something of a jet-lagged fog, unable to sift the memories and write until all my family were restored to their appointed place in the world – Claire safely back in Sydney with Mike, Derry home from his special week of Ye Ye time with Dermot, Shane, Shan and Dermot briefly returned to nuclear family status until MaMa rejoins them again from Urumqi. Today Dermot has been checking the spare room in their apartment, wondering where his Grandad has gone, wondering where all of us have gone I’m sure and how come we are back behind a little rectangular screen again. At times when we are on Face Time he goes around to the back of the iPad in search of the back of our heads or tries to offer us some of his food, a book to read, his finger paints but gradually he is making some sense of the bizarre world he lives in where his extended family swoop in at intervals to bundle him up with hugs and attention creating a jumble of laughter and music and foot-stomping dancing to family favourite songs thrummed out by Shane on the guitar. And then it gets quiet again and it’s just him safe in the love of his MaMa and Daddy. He’s getting used to it I think. I’m not sure I ever will.
So many memories to sift. This last trip was all the more special because I got to spend time alone with my daughter Claire for the first time in many years and then to watch her fall in love with her nephew and god son all over again. She and I had just two precious days in Hong Kong together. She bounced into my hotel room at 6.30 on a Thursday morning fresh from a flight from Sydney, hauled me up to the roof-top gym and swimming pool and, over a breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit, planned how to pack the most into our time. She took charge of the sight-seeing of which more in the next post. I had food on my mind as usual.
I have to admit that I’ve been a bit dismissive of Cantonese cuisine. I associated it with the type of food we often get in run of the mill Chinese restaurants and take-aways here in Ireland – the westernised version of recipes carried by immigrants from Guangdong Province in the south east of China – cloying sauces, sometimes sickly sweet, heavy on sugar, vinegar and MSG, low on spiciness. In China the region is known for the variety, quality and freshness of its ingredients and for allowing the natural flavours of the food to come through rather than overwhelming them with oils or spices. When I first visited Shane and Shan in Beijing two years ago and asked Shan to introduce me to the food of a different Chinese region each night, we went to a very good Cantonese restaurant called The Canteen but after a week of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan food I found the meal a little too bland for my taste.
Claire shares my passion for food so I had fretted about how to make good dinner choices in a city that deserves its hashtag #WorldFoodCity but where it is all too easy to get it wrong. Although our options ranged from French to Japanese restaurants, we both wanted to set our prejudices against Cantonese cuisine to one side and give this one of the eight great culinary traditions of China another try on its home turf. We also wanted to get beyond local specialities such as dim sum and roasted goose and get some sense of how modern cuisine is evolving in Hong Kong.
The Chairman, No. 18 Kau U Fong, Central, HK
I decided to got with a suggestion via Twitter from Fuchsia Dunlop for our first night – The Chairman where she had eaten well on a recent visit. I emailed the restaurant to discover they were fully booked throughout our visit but the lovely Danny Yip came back later to say they could squeeze us in if we arrived at the very start of service that evening.
Our taxi driver spent many minutes in deep consultation with the doorman at our hotel poring over a map before whisking us across from Mongkok through a network of tunnels and freeways into the Central district of Hong Kong Island in search of Kau U Fong street. I decided to “help” with Google Maps on my iPhone while he regaled us with stories of the differences between Hong Kong people and mainlanders and the six phrases of Mandarin we needed to survive on the mainland. More like a Dublin taxi driver than a Beijinger he had many opinions on life in Hong Kong – too crowded, housing too expensive – and was more than willing to share them. Google Maps was having difficulties coping with the serried layers of this SoHo like part of Hong Kong and much recalculating was going on so he dropped us somewhere in the vicinity in a narrow, chaotic street and, after a few up and downs via side streets and steps we found The Chairman, a simple shuttered exterior with washing hanging above.
Inside this small restaurant was an oasis of calm, white tiled walls, white table cloths, a still and soothing space. We were the first to arrive and Arta the Maitre’ d took charge. Arta is a treasure. A native of Hong Kong, he has lived and worked in Australia not far from where Claire now lives and is passionate about food and wine. It took only a moment to decide to let him do the choosing for us from the a la carte menu.
After a little appetiser of cherry tomato with apple slices soaked in raisin wine we had starters of wild clams stir-fried with chilli jam and basil and squid in shrimp oil with mustard seed. These were beautifully executed dishes, the seasonings bringing out the perfect freshness of the seafood. Pairing wasabi with cooked shrimp was a revelation and one I will try at home.
Next came a whole steamed fresh flowery crab in aged Shaoxing yellow rice wine. Words fail me to describe the umami of this dish, lovingly prepared at our table by Arta to make it easy for us eat without making too much of a mess.
We had two meat dishes – The Chairman’s Soy Sauce Chicken and braised spare ribs which came with a a parcel of wild mushrooms – and a side dish of braised seasonal vegetables. I mix up all my Chinese greens but these had a slightly bitter flavour that balanced the sweeter dishes.
Dessert seemed beyond us but Arta insisted we try half portions of their specialities – homemade almond sweet soup, pickled ginger ice-cream and Osmanthus and wolf berry ice-cream. Light as air but tingling with flavour these gentle desserts were the perfect end to our meal.
The Chairman with its proletariat connotations is aptly named. This is essentially simple food using the very best of local ingredients, fish caught in the early hours in the South China Sea, great tasting free range chicken and pork, organic vegetables complemented by seasonings from old-style condiment stores. There is a premium to be paid for food of this quality and provenance – our bill came to 2,286 HK$ including wine and service or about €216 – but by Hong Kong standards was good value at that price. Oh and I believe Heston Blumenthal had eaten there a few nights earlier and was also suitably impressed.
Thank you Arta for some of the best service we have ever experienced and restoring our faith in Cantonese cuisine.
Ming Court, Level 6, Langham Place, Mongkok, HK
For our second night we had planned to eat street food at Queen Street Market in Kowloon but by the end of the day we had walked nearly 14 km sight-seeing in temperatures of 35 degrees and we were exhausted. I had spotted that there was a Michelin starred restaurant Ming Court in our hotel at Langham Place. As Michelin stars seem to be dished out like confetti in Hong Kong our expectations were not high but we were tired and very hungry. The restaurant turned out to be a delight and a surprise . It specialises in contemporary Cantonese cuisine artistically presented in beautiful circular rooms accented with replica Ming Dynasty pottery and modern Chinese landscape paintings. The service was impeccable and friendly and we opted for the Tasting Menu priced at 598 HK$ each (about €57) which included a glass of wine and featured Gold Medal winning dishes from the 2013 Hong Kong International Culinary Classic.
As light levels were low in this very beautiful space I couldn’t get good photos but our menu went like this:
Scallop, Prawn, Sea Urchin, Black Caviar; Pu-Er Smoked Fish; Osmanthus-scented Foie Gras, Lotus Root; Bean Curd Spring Roll, Assorted Greens, Peanut Butter
Bird’s Nest Soup
with Matsutake Mushroom and Bamboo Pith
Minced Shrimp and Chicken Thigh Duet
Pan-seared Chicken Thigh, Minced Shrimp, Black Truffle, Buttery Pumpkin, Chicken Liver Pate, Crisp Rice
Stir-fried Waygu Beef, Thai Basil, Cashew Nut
Lotus Leaf, Fried Rice, Roast Duck Meat
Mango, Pomelo, Coconut, Sago Cream
This was another exceptional meal of which the highlights for me were the Spring Roll filled with mushrooms and served with peanut butter sauce – who would have thought that combination could work so well – and the Waygu beef stir-fry which I will have to try with Pat Whelan’s Irish reared Waygu beef from James Whelan’s Butchers.
With a bottle of Chablis and service charge included our bill came to 2,183 HK$ or about €208.
Both these meals were expensive by Beijing standards but for a very special short break they were a fantastic re-introduction to Cantonese food.
Hengshan Hui, 1/F, Kerry EAS Logistics Building, 21 Xiaoyun Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing
They tortured me with the photos below while I had a lonely breakfast last Saturday and made me long to teleport back to Beijing to join them. Their meal, served with flat rice noodles, cost just 513 RMB or about €60 for the three of them and Dermot.
More on sight-seeing in Hong Kong soon.