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What's Chinese Fine Dining?
Hold the caviar
In articles written in Chinese in Hong Kong, the English word “fine dining” is often used untranslated. They can do this because English is more or less understood here, but also because “fine dining” as a noun, is pretty much untranslatable. Plug it into Google translate and you get 美食 (mei sik), gourmet, or fine food, which is only one part of what fine dining is about. The other significant part – the formality, the sense of occasion that is understood as fine dining in the Anglophone/European word can sort of be covered by another word in Chinese, 宴 (yin) which translates as “banquet”. I say ‘sort of’ because a prerequisite for many “banquets” is that they’re 熱鬧 (yit nao, boisterous) – many Chinese people would not consider sitting quietly at a candlelit table with one other person, speaking in hushed voices, eating off their own plate of food in small, polite bites, as a “banquet”, even if the food was “gourmet” 美食.
There’s a striking chasm in how the two cultures perceive good, high-end eating, but in a place like Hong Kong, an ex-colony with an international mindset whose ethnic makeup is mostly Han Chinese, the aforementioned candlelit setting would be considered a good meal, and so would a room with a rowdy table of twelve, given, in both cases, that the food is high quality, and that it’s priced higher than your average meal. I know this sounds cynical, but the only clear common thread in this nebulous group of restaurants considered as “fine dining” is the cost.
If we played “Chinese fine dining” bingo in Hong Kong, there’d be a few obvious inclusions: individual servings, caviar, ikura, truffle, gold leaf – these are concepts that Chinese people have gleaned from their experience of non-Chinese “fine dining” (primarily French and Japanese), and have become justifications for charging more money. Let me be very clear that I’m more than happy to see these in Chinese restaurants when they actually make sense, but that is rare.
Please do not serve my stir-fry on an individual plate, especially if that plate is not pre-heated. There are few things more devastating than knowing that beautiful wok hei died while being portioned. Temperature is key. There are certain ideas in Cantonese dining, such as serving a whole chicken or fish to symbolise unity and completeness, that are in direct opposition with service à la russe.
Truffle, caviar, ikura – I don’t need it on my har gow. What I need is a perfectly made har gow with fresh prawns and bamboo shoots, lightly steamed and juicy inside, thin glistening skin out. Spend your shillings on hiring great dim sum chefs, paying them well for starting work at 5am every day, and buying the best damn prawns and bamboo shoots you can.
Gold leaf is interesting because putting gold in/on food has been around since the Egyptians, and in East Asian cultures, often stems from Buddhism, in which gold can mean enlightenment. That’s why gold is commonly seen in temples around these parts. Ironically, by and large, gold on food in Hong Kong has little spiritual value; it’s simply about vanity, which these days probably translates to an Instagram Story that will disappear in 24 hours. Fun fact, as I was looking up edible gold: gold is inert in our bodies – you’d poop out exactly the same amount of gold as you would have eaten. (Always a delight to read about excrement in a food newsletter, don’t you think?)
Cantonese food is often seen to be one of the most important cuisines in high-end Chinese dining, and it has a long history. As far back as the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the Guangdong region was already recognised as an area worth investing in as a port, so it’s always had an influx of ingredients and technologies from near and far, and been wealthy enough to indulge creative pursuits, including food. Plus, it has an extremely cuisine-friendly geography: both fresh and sea water from the multitude of rivers, lakes and estuaries, as well as the coast, arable land, temperate climate. All these factors led to a saying that is known till this day: 食在廣州 – literally, eat in Guangzhou, meaning that if you want to eat well, go to Guangzhou.
High-end dining in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, in the late Qing dynasty still informs much of high-end Cantonese cuisine today. Back then, the elite had cooks and entertained at home. By serving good food, people displayed their wealth and constructed goodwill. According to the late Hong Kong food columnist Chan Mong-yan (whose son and daughter-in-law wrote Phaidon’s giant tome of a cookbook, ‘China’), those with new money (but without a chef of their own) wanting to climb the social ladder would hire a famous chef from a different household, and send an entourage with a sedan chair (a chair in a box with windows, also called a litter in English, or 轎 in Chinese) to pick the chef up, which is like sending a Rolls Royce limo.
At a meal like this, dishes would have most likely included at least one thing from the classic quartet of expensive dried seafood ingredients: abalone, sea cucumber, sharks’ fin, fish maw (鮑、參、翅、肚). These were, as far as I can tell, mostly imported, then processed in China, and originally sent to the emperor as “tributes”, exotic gifts usually from abroad. I suppose most trends and traditions in high-end dining come from royal courts, whichever country it is. This is a topic for another time, but now that I know that shark’s fin, since antiquity, have never been fished in China, I’m hardly surprised that we’ve been eating these things with little regard for morality and sustainability. Something to think about for a future newsletter...
Showy ingredients aside, it’s clear that what people cared about in high-end Cantonese dining was the chef’s skills, not only in cooking, but also for procuring the right ingredients, designing a balanced menu, and assembling a team to execute the vast array of dishes needed in a banquet. I haven’t looked further back than the Qing dynasty, but from Qing onwards, banquets have had a set structure – the banquet must be eight, 10 or 12 courses (even numbers are seen as “pairs” and more complete), and have clear guidelines as to what can be served when, for instance, cold dishes before hot, barbecue at the beginning to go with pre-dinner drinks, soup before the main courses to prime the palate, and so on.
We certainly don’t need to be serving sharks’ fin, or eating eight or 12 courses in the name of tradition – all I’m saying is that it’s worth putting in the time and effort to understand where these traditions come from before conveniently tossing them aside and replacing them with foreign ones. And besides, putting caviar (whose ideal serving temperature is under 10°C) on my piping hot dumplings is an assault on my senses, and about not understanding the dish nor the ingredients, then making everyone pay too much for the privilege.
Thanks for reading. If, like me, you don’t believe in randomly placed gold leaf and truffle on your char siu, why not subscribe?
What I ate
I skipped a newsletter again, which means I have two weeks’ worth of meals to talk about, so I’ll just stick to the headlines:
Godenya – I can’t believe how long it’s been since my last visit (at least 3 years, I think) to this tiny, precious, back alley spot, but I’m glad to hear it’s still busy as ever. Goshima-san is an absolute flavour genius when it comes to pairing food with sake. Actually, calling it a pairing isn’t quite right – the sake needs the food, and the food needs the sake – sake is a key ingredient, not a nice-to-have. You can’t not drink here. (I took painfully small sips – no-one tell my TCM doctor please!).
CHAAT – This place is constantly booked out, and I can see why – it’s well-priced if you go as a group of at least four to share and try a whole range of dishes, and the food is largely very well executed. My favourites were the pork vindaloo and the mango kulfi, but everything we had was pretty flawless. Although I recommend reading this piece on contemporary Anglo-Indian food before you go/book. (Note also on the official website that word, “elevated”, and on the menu, it’s hard not to notice cringeworthy words like “roadside” and “street food”). This was decidedly not street food. This was (delicious) Anglo-Indian food in an exceedingly well-designed five-star hotel.
Hansikgoo – Another spot that I reckon is good value (under $800 for a tasting menu). Say what you will about the restaurant group behind it, but the chef here, Steve Lee, knows what he’s doing behind the pass.
Man Wah – A media lunch brought me to the temporary home of Man Wah, an elegantly decked out function room just next to the Mandarin Grill. The menu is reduced but the food is still superb. When I was thinking about a perfect har gow, unsullied by the likes of caviar, I was thinking specifically about the one I had here.
Xinrongji – I was recently asked what I thought the best Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong was, and my mind immediately drifted to Cantonese because that’s what HK does best. But forgetting XRJ is a sin. A sin I atoned for by eating my bodyweight in Peking duck (although don’t be fooled, the restaurant is not Pekingese), candied sweet potatoes, lard and red bean paste buns etc., and some of the best silken tofu I’ve ever had (topped with hairy crab roe).
Krug – On the subject of sinning, I have a confession to make. I used a spittoon at a recent Krug tasting of 2006 wines led by chef de cave Julie Cavil (Clos du Mesnil (I know, I know), vintage, and the Grand Cuvée), not because their quality, of course (which is, as always, excellent), but my Chinese medicine doctor has told me not to drink right now, and I don’t want to die painfully, donc voilà. The Clos du Mesnil has enormous ageing potential, but I reckon the 2006 vintage is ready to drink nowish – the characteristic brioche notes are raring to go, and the acidity is well integrated.
Things I think you should know about
Inter-island Festival – an arts and culture festival taking place in four locations on Hong Kong’s outlying islands (Peng Chau, Cheung Chau, and Lantau’s Mui Wo and Chi Ma Wan). It looks super fun (I have nothing to do with it, just think it’s a great way of celebrating our islands and their unique cultures). It takes place 4-6 December and you can help crowdfund it (with cool rewards).
Although I now only do a little consulting for Tong Chong Street Market, people still ask me for updates, so here’s an update: TCSM re-opened today, and it’s now on Mondays to Fridays. Follow the Instagram account for updates.
If you’re cleaning your hands a lot (I hope you are), note that isopropyl alcohol is made from petroleum, probably the most harmful substance to humanity today. Bio-ethanol is probably a better choice, so choose an alcohol spray that’s made from plant products (processing bio-ethanol still pollutes but at least you’re not continuing to support oil companies).
Announcement: Add Oil!
If you pre-ordered our fundraising cookbook Add Oil!, an enormous thank you for your support and patience (if you didn’t, you can still grab one of the 10 remaining copies!). Check your inbox because Victoria sent out an important email about deliveries just now. After many delays, we’re finally ready to ship in a couple of weeks!