Many people arrive in Hong Kong, considering it a temporary place to work and live, and find themselves still living in the city after decades have passed. Hong Kong has been, and continues to be, a vibrant meeting point between China and the West going back to the 19th century. Hong Kong is a culinary hub that attracts talented chefs who cater to some of the most discerning palates in the world. Its open and dynamic atmosphere embraces all cultures and encourages many to establish their roots here, resulting in a diverse, fascinating and ever-changing dining scene.
OVERVIEW OF CANTONESE CUISINE
The predominant cuisine in Hong Kong is Cantonese. The term derives from Canton, after the former name of China’s Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong. It is generally less spicy, with a strong emphasis on fresh produce, live seafood and a variety of meats. Unusual items in Cantonese fare include chicken and duck’s feet and snake. There is also an appetite for rare and endangered species despite trade bans. The mastery of this cuisine appears to be the combination of fresh ingredients prepared in a way that is light yet flavourful. This is often achieved by stir frying in extremely high heat, which requires expanded gas pipes in commercial kitchens. Wok chi, or wok qi in Mandarin, is considered one of the key methods for preserving the freshness in the food while coating the ingredients with just enough sauce to give them flavour. Steaming and roasting, again to enhance the flavours inherent in the ingredients, are equally common.
Hong Kong’s main culinary influences originated from three distinct southern Chinese groups and were defined as much by their dialects as their origins: Hakka, Chiu Chow and Dongguan. Styles and flavours varied among the three clans: Hakka’s meals were focussed around tofu, salted and preserved meat and vegetables. Chiu Chow dishes used more spices and soy sauce to slow cook their food. Dongguan style, similar to contemporary Cantonese cuisine, used stir-fry methods, with emphasis on fresh seafood and vegetables, without excessive spice. Many of Hong Kong’s culinary influences originate from Dongguan such as the short, flavourful sausages, which have become a part of the local diet. From Chiu Chow, the bird’s nest soup and soy goose are now local favourites. From Hakka, salt-baked chicken and offal enjoyed in various ways are mainstays of the Cantonese menu.
Although seafood is a popular ingredient in Cantonese cooking, barbecue and roasted meats feature highly in the city’s dining repertoire. Hong Kong is one of the highest meat consuming cities per capita in Asia, with a particular penchant for roasted and barbecue pork as well as roasted goose and duck. Chicken is a staple of the diet and is often included in double-boiled soups, which are an integral part of nearly every meal, regardless of the season. It is a common practice to add herbs and ingredients that increase the soup’s health benefits or nutritional value. Dim sum is uniquely Cantonese. These bite-size treats literally mean “from the heart”, signifying the care with which they were made. Although Cantonese food may be the most popular, nearly all the major regional Chinese cuisines are well represented in Hong Kong, notably Shanghainese, Chui Chow, Sichuan and Beijing food.
FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
Hong Kong is home to Cantonese cuisine, considered by many as the most refined Chinese food. The very best Cantonese chefs are fanned throughout Asia, leading the culinary brigade and spreading the philosophy of freshness and quality ingredients combined with a light, deft touch in the kitchen. At one end of the restaurant scene are noodle or rice porridge shops, cha chaan tengs (Hong Kong style cafés) and dai pai dongs. Cha chaan tengs are fast-food cafés that have Western items like French toast as well as Chinese snacks. Dai pai dongs are open-air food stalls that provide a variety of inexpensive, stir-fried seafood and meat dishes. Many of these humble eateries have evolved from dingy places with plastic fold-up tables and chairs to clean, air-conditioned cafés that compete with MacDonald’s. Others like Yung Kee have transformed into famous fine dining Cantonese restaurants for the elite.
At the middle and top end of the spectrum is a wide variety of restaurants that reflects the large immigrant population as well as the foreign expatriates living in the city. Mid-range restaurants have revolutionised the concept of dining outside the home by providing affordable and accessible culinary experiences. The best chefs have moved from private homes to popular restaurants, catering to the need of the growing affluent middle class.
A phenomenon unique to Hong Kong is the increasing number of private kitchens, or speakeasies, which add to the vibrancy of its dining scene. These are unlicensed restaurants in office buildings or private residences that often offer interesting, innovative dishes. Behind the successful private kitchens are passionate home chefs who love sharing their creations and can be found toiling in the kitchen or mingling with the diners. They provide a wide array of cuisines, from innovative fusion, traditional French to authentic Shanghainese, Cantonese and Sichuan food. As unlicensed operators, many allow wine and other beverages to be brought without corkage charge and food prices tend to be fairly competitive. Numerous private kitchens have come and gone, or have evolved into officially licensed restaurants, but the very best remain frequent destinations for local food lovers.
BEVERAGE & FOOD CULTURE
Historically, alcoholic beverages made from grains and various fruits have long been a part of the Hong Kong Chinese dining table. Yellow wine, huangjiu, made from grains such as glutinous rice, wheat, corn or millet is a very famous traditional beverage with Shaoxing being the most well known. Less expensive versions are often used for cooking and for medicinal purposes, while top grade Shaoxing matured for over 50 years competes in price with fine wines. Besides alcoholic drinks, the two most common beverages to accompany meals are warm water and hot tea. Cold beverages are common now, but traditionally, cold drinks such as iced water were considered impediments to digestion. Tea is believed to aid digestion, especially of oily foods. Beer continues to be a popular choice, but its role, especially in more upmarket restaurants, is declining. Grape-derived wine continues to increase in popularity. Wine is no longer viewed as the territory of European restaurants and even simple seaside eateries replete with plastic chairs and matching tables on the outlying islands now have wines by the glass and by the bottle. With fierce competition among the numerous wine importers in Hong Kong and no duty or sales tax, a good selection of wines from all over the world can be found at very competitive prices.
WINE & CANTONESE FOOD
The best way to approach a traditional Cantonese dining experience with wine is to first assess the array of dishes and identify the strongest flavours, consider the amount of salt and oil content in the meal and the methods of cooking. In classic Cantonese cuisine, it is rare to have dishes that are very sweet or very sour. A quick review of the main dishes and seasonings provides guidance on identifying the strongest flavours. In general, Cantonese cuisine includes lots of stir-fry items and restrained use of sauces based on soy, oyster and the more pungent and salty, black beans. Not only do these sauces increase the umami content of the food, but they can also clash with very tannic or oaky wines by accentuating the tannins and detracting from the wine’s core flavours; however, tolerance and thus, preference for tannin levels in red wines vary widely, especially to those from locales where tea is part of the everyday diet. Refined meals devoid of aggressive flavours are best suited with subtle, complex wines that have beautiful palate texture that mirrors the texture of the food. The delicate flavours of local favourites such as shark’s fin and abalone are usually served as a single dish within a banquet-style meal where small dishes arrive in succession. However, banquet meals often start out with strong flavours and heavy dishes such as roast suckling pig or Peking duck. The lighter-flavoured dishes like vegetables and noodles are served at the end. The food sequence does not match the normal progression of enjoying light wine first before moving on to heavier, fuller-bodied wines. Thus, the best option for Cantonese banquets is to serve two wines at one time: a red and a versatile white or sparkling wine. This also offers the diner the opportunity to experiment matching the two wines with different dishes.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR CANTONESE CUISINE
- New World Pinot Noir
- Premier Cru Burgundy Red
- Loire White Wines
- Burgundy White
- Non Vintage Champagne