The evolution of Hong Kong's restaurants

28 Jan 2006 by JR
On the verandah of the third floor of the China Club, the restaurant at the top of the old Bank of China building in Hong Kong's Central District, it seems almost physically possible to reach out and touch the IM Pei Bank of China building that has replaced it and Lord Foster's HSBC towers.

Looking around, Paulo Pong, a friend who belongs to one of the families that dominate Hong Kong society and whose wine company supplies numerous restaurants, commented somewhat wistfully: "These buildings are the closest my city now comes to attractions. Other than that it's just shopping and eating."

This close connection between money and eating in Hong Kong manifests itself most conspicuously in the plush hotel restaurants, all of which carry imported names: Petrus in the Island Shangri-La; Caprice in the new Four Seasons; Amber in the Mandarin Landmark, which is in turn next to a new branch of Harvey Nichols, the high-end department store.

There are more restaurant imports to follow, with outposts from Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon, Nobu, a second branch of Alan Yau's Hakkasan and the first-ever Armani Bar due to open later this year.

But I was searching for something more deep-rooted, the tastes and flavours of the Chinese food I first enjoyed in Hong Kong 30 years ago even if there will never again be the chance to savour the fragrance of an almond soup sold to me by a street hawker in Kowloon (although the double boiled milk dishes at the branches of the Yee Shun Milk Company are a good substitute).

Over dinner at Tien Heung Lau restaurant in Kowloon, I talked to the son of the man who had been responsible for the nurturing of many Chinese chefs in Hong Kong 40 years ago, and it came as no surprise to hear that the connection between money and good food had been close even then.

I can refer to this gentleman only by his initials, 4H, because "my family has never sought publicity". His father was a banker with the Hang Seng Bank and at that time there was an influx of very talented chefs from China, particularly three Lee brothers.

"My father realised their potential to further the bank's name. There was always a huge number of customers who wanted to be invited to his bank for lunch, particularly for their snake soup during the winter. It was a symbiotic relationship. The chefs taught my father how to eat and along the way he helped them to refine their dishes."

This relationship became more commercial as 4H's father became an investor in Hong Kong's emerging restaurant industry but his son has recently brought this to an end.

"Two factors made me do this", 4H explained. "The young Chinese here seem only interested in new things, there's too much fusion. But also now that there is much easier access to China, where restaurant prices are cheaper thanks to lower wages, rents and cheaper ingredients, many are going there to eat what we used to look for in Hong Kong."

As I waited for 4H in Tien Heung Lau, I could see why he had agreed to meet there. Little seemed to have changed in 30 years: the décor is nondescript at best. The restaurant had been family-owned until two years ago when it was bought by a customer who obviously does not want anything to change, judging by the enthusiasm of the staff for the horse racing on the TV by the kitchen on a wet Wednesday evening.

But it is worth putting up with it all for the food, which comes from the region around Shanghai and Hanzhou and is fresh, clean and stimulating enough to appeal to any old China hand.

Quickly sautéed prawns to be dipped in vinegar; deep-fried frog's legs with salt and ginger and steamed, smoked yellow fish were just a prelude to the restaurant's speciality, the hairy spider crab, which comes from Lake Yang Cheng. Initially this appeared in the shape of a hamburger mixed with fatty pork meat and topped with crab roe alongside some extremely tender, young beansprout leaves and then, most memorably, as an ever-richer combination of crab roe and noodles.

Tien Heung Lau is a place where one can eat very, very well and quickly - the staff retain the habit of starting to play mah-jong as soon as they think their shift is over, so you are unlikely to linger too long.

The mention of snake soup and Hong Kong's dank skies prompted me to ask Susan Jung, my counterpart on the South China Morning Post, to introduce me to this winter delicacy. When we arrived at Ser Wong Fun in Central District I found myself agreeing with the opinion of a senior Hong Kong government official: "In Hong Kong people go out for the food or the décor. Nowhere offers both."

Ser Wong Fun, which translates as Snake Master (Fun is the family name), began about 70 years ago selling snake soup and snake meat from the roadside. Today, its repertoire is much wider, most notably a range of double boiled consommés, of which we tried three: pigs' lungs, dried figs and almonds; shark cartilage; and dried lychees, dates and ginseng. The snake soup which followed had the strongest concentration of all thanks to the addition of mushrooms, bamboo pith and tangerine peel and was definitely more memorable than the fillets of snake with pea shoots which fell between chicken and fish on the flavour spectrum.

But best of all was a dish Jung had ordered in advance, thick pomelo skins that had been slowly braised and then gently cooked in stock and topped with shrimp roe. In its ingenuity, simplicity and use of inexpensive ingredients, it typifies what has always been the most exciting aspect of Chinese cooking in Hong Kong.
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