Dine on gourmet fare amidst age-old rituals and traditional decor while learning about Chinese cuisine in the culinary capital of Hong Kong.
Across the world, from Edinburgh to Ecuador, Mexico to Melbourne, you will find a Chinese restaurant, or at the very least a take-away place, even in the smallest of towns. More often than not, the style of food originates from just one area of China – Guangdong Province. It was the first regional style of Chinese cooking to become widely known outside China. For centuries, the provincial capital, Canton, was the pivotal center for good food, but for the past 50 years or so, its neighbor Hong Kong has merited the right to that claim.
Although there are some stunningly equipped professional kitchens in Hong Kong, many of the smaller eating houses still use traditional cooking methods involving nothing more than a fiercely-fired wok. From this humble source, a number of lovingly prepared dishes have emerged and tantalized. Cantonese recipes use a wide variety of ingredients and not so much oil, salt, garlic or chili as the cuisine of other regions of China. Fragrance, crispness and texture are achieved by the lightning quick action of stir-frying.
Leaving aside chop suey and egg fu yong, which were “born in America”, people from other lands are familiar with sweet and sour pork, fried beef with ginger and deep-fried butterfly prawns, the traditional dishes of Canton that you find in many corners of the globe.
Food, Medicine & Health: Cantonese Classics
Until a mere half-century ago, recipes for other specialty dishes rarely traveled. Today, Hong Kong’s highly skilled chefs have no qualms about including them within their repertoire of culinary capabilities.
In Chinese culture, the common perception is that food, medicine, nutrition and good health are all intertwined. It’s no coincidence that the best growing times are precisely the “in” seasons for a curative or preventative diet; yin dishes for cooling the blood in summertime, cleansing the system at the changes of the season, or yang foods for warming the body during the winter.
Exotic ingredients are also considered to be delicacies and, for non-Chinese and sometimes even non-Cantonese, perhaps something of a mystery. Starting in the lower area of Guangzhou, as Canton is now known, and now to a certain extent also in Hong Kong, they have the reputation for using rare exotica as part of health-maintaining diets.
This probably accounts for the opinion in the northern part of the country, where they are prone to declare, “the Cantonese will eat anything that flies, except a plane; anything that swims, except a submarine, and anything that has legs, except the table”. They may be right.
Year of the Snake Brings Snakes to the Table
One item in particular is included in this concept are snakes. No wings, no legs but most can swim, and that makes them fair game, or should that be “fare game” for the Cantonese table. Since the time of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), snake dishes have had a place in Chinese culinary culture. The Cantonese, in particular, have made snake dishes their Specialty, using a variety of snakes, sometimes more than one type, to obtain a particular flavor in a dish.
Snakes are served beginning from around the end of September or well into October, depending upon the “sleeping” times of the reptiles, and right on until around the Lunar New Year. As the cooler temperatures of autumn set in, diners seek out the most accomplished chefs in the restaurants dedicated to snake cuisine. Most believe that snake meat has medicinal properties, including curing rheumatism, preventing excessive sweating during the night, increasing blood circulation, keeping the body warm, and perhaps the main claim to fame, that it is an aphrodisiac.
In Hong Kong, this specialty can be found in small neighborhood eateries. Establishments like these are mostly on the Kowloon side of the harbour. Only Cantonese is spoken and menus are a rarity, so a local friend is needed to steer the would-be diner towards the most suitable dishes. But locally based, international food critic and author, Eric W M Wong, swears the best snake dishes are made in the private kitchen of the Hang Seng Bank and in the dining room of the Gold and Silver Exchange Centre!
Dining On Snake Specialties
Frequent visitors to Hong Kong will need no introduction to the Yung Kee Restaurant (852/2522 1624) at 32 – 40 Wellington Street in Central. It is considered to be one of the finest in Asia. From 1968, when Yung Kee was chosen by Fortune magazine as the only Chinese restaurant to merit inclusion in their list of “The Fifteen Best Restaurants in the World”, Yung Kee has gained around 50 international accolades and many prizes, including a number of Gold and Platinum Culinary Awards. In June 2007, Yung Kee gained the distinction of serving dinner to Chinese President Hu Jintao. Director and General Manager of Yung Kee, Mr. Kinsen Kan, says: “Our all-year-round house specialty is roast goose. In the autumn/winter period we offer a variety of traditional snake dishes, some of which are exclusive to us, having developed my own methods of preparing and cooking them over the past 20 years.
To add splendor to celebrations, snake soup is listed on banqueting menus as “the Dragon, the Tiger and the Phoenix”. The “dragon” is represented usually by one or even three kinds of poisonous snake: the cobra (naja naja) the Indo-Chinese rat snake (Ptyas korros) and the banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus). Previously the ingredient representing the “tiger” was civet cat, which is illegal in Hong Kong. Lamb can be served instead, and the “phoenix” is actually chicken.
The 2,000-year-old recipe for snake soup advocates a stock of chicken, ham, sugar cane, ginger, dried longans, brown or red dates and mature mandarin peel. Peel that is 30-years-old is not uncommon. As an edible garnish, thin strands of shredded lemon leaves, chrysanthemum petals and flakes of a crouton-like pastry made from egg and flour are then added.
Red vinegar is also proffered at the Summer Palace Restaurant (852/2820 8552) at the Island Shangri-La Hotel on Supreme Court Road above Pacific Place. Their recommended seasonal menu offers a perfect introduction to snake dishes and other extraordinary items for diners unfamiliar with this kind of fare. Each year, Chef Lee Keung prepares a winter menu. Just as in other years, this year’s menu includes old-time favorites such as braised green turtle with black mushrooms and bamboo shoots; sautÃ©ed snow frog jelly with crab coral; snake meat soup with shark fin and five-kinds-of-snake-meat soup. Cooking methods used for snake dishes in the Summer Palace are braised, stewed, sautÃ©ed, fried and steamed. The chef especially recommends the braised snake meat broth with shredded abalone and fish maw.
Yung Kee Restaurant
G/F Yung Kee Bldg, 32-40 Wellington St,
Central, Hong Kong
Reservations: +852 2522 1624
Open from 11am-11:30pm
Dim Sum dining: 2-5:30pm, Mondays to Saturdays and 11am-5:30pm, Sundays and Public Holidays
Chef Lee Keung’s Recipe for Snake Soup at Yung Kee Restaurant
For each serving:
1 oz each of the following:
cooked snake meat
dried mandarin peel
Add all of the above to 5 oz of boiled snake broth (stock).
Summer Palace Restaurant
Island Shangri-La Hotel, Pacific Place
Supreme Court Road, Central, Hong Kong
Reservations +852 2820 8552
Open from 11:30am-2:30pm and 6:30-10:30pm
Deep Fried Snake Meatballs as served at Summer Palace
5 oz minced prawns
2 oz cooked snake meat
Add sliced Chinese brown mushrooms, stir-fry and serve.
This information was provided courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourist Association; www.HKTA.org
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