Nouvelle Chinese revolution in Hong Kong restaurants

by AFP/Rosa Jackson , Dec 19, 2003 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

HONG KONG, Dec 14, 2003 - Three generations around one table, the two-year-old wielding chopsticks with aplomb; a group of Westerners ordering in fluent Cantonese; a row of television screens playing Chinese pop videos -- so far, this could be any dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong. But the menu of stone fish dishes and the lurid green and pink desserts whizzing past on the trolley tell you that something different is going on in the kitchen.

Super Star Seafood belongs to a generation of Hong Kong restaurants that is not afraid to tinker with traditional Cantonese recipes, creating a "nouvelle Chinese" style which fuses Eastern and Western flavors or simply dips into China's seemingly bottomless hotpot of regional cuisines. Hong Kong has always been known for its sheer number of restaurants -- few people cook at home, since apartments are so small and eating out so easy and cheap -- but now quality and originality are coming to the fore.

At Super Star, the white flesh of the fearsome-looking and potentially lethal stone fish (it contains a poison, similar to the Japanese blowfish) is combined with mango in a sweet, mayonnaise-like sauce and rolled in a wheat-flour wrapper which is fried until crisp. A classic Hong Kong dish, crispy-skinned roast goose, is updated here with the addition of Shaoxing wine -- subtle, perhaps, but potentially shocking to the purists who gather on a Sunday at the Sham Tseng Yue Kee Roast Goose Restaurant, where until the SARS epidemic geese were killed on the premises for optimum freshness.

Now a common sight in Hong Kong restaurants, neon-bright desserts were launched by the popular chain Healthy Desserts, which has eliminated most of the fat, and nearly all of the guilt, from Chinese sweets. Based on fresh fruits and plant jellies, its desserts, such as bright green aloe jelly with mango and coconut (whose colors suggest yin and yang) or red rice with taro and coconut milk, still claim health-giving properties.

Veering more towards Western tastes is Water Margin, a hair-raising glass-elevator ride up a tower in Times Square. It might be part of an anonymous-looking Food Forum (as are many great Hong Kong restaurants), but inside the restaurant is classy, dimly lit and hushed, with screened-in tables and waiters to rival the best in France. Crispy de-boned rack of lamb, one of its specialties, is a clever take on roast goose, with crackly skin and a slightly sweet, soy-and-spring-onion sauce. Prawns with Sichuan pepper reflect the growing popularity of Sichuan's bold, mouth-numbing cuisine in Hong Kong.

Lesser-known regional cuisines are also thriving, partly due to an influx of mainland Chinese following reunification with China in 1997. Now, Hong Kong can satisfy even the most obscure food craving -- such as Jin Hua ham from the Yangtse delta town Hangzhou, three hours east of Shanghai. The Chinese equivalent of succulent Spanish jabugo, this ham is always served cooked rather than cured. Hangzhou's cooking is said to be more refined than that of Shanghai; Hong Kong food-lovers seek proof at the shiny shopping-mall restaurant Cheung Sang Kee in toothsome dishes such as Jin Hua ham in honey sauce, dong po pork (pork belly in a dark vinegar sauce), and boiled duck.

Spice fiends in the know feast on the fiery dishes at Yunnan Rainbow, a regional restaurant which might have struggled a few years ago but now has a loyal following of homesick immigrants and adventurous locals. From a full page of dishes made with mushrooms from this funghi-loving province, peacock mushrooms in a not-too-spicy chili sauce make a meaty and satisfying choice. There can be no questioning the freshness of the chili frogs' legs when you have seen the live beasts go under the cleaver at the Graham Street market. The most intrepid eaters can go for the deep-fried bees (with wings and stingers still distinguishable) and bamboo larvae, delicacies which are shipped in from Yunnan.

Though their tastebuds are wandering, Hong Kong people retain a respect for tradition and a love of seasonal dishes. Autumn is the time for hairy crab, with many restaurants offering multi-course hairy crab menus, and it's also the season for invigorating snake soup at the down-to-earth soup shop Ser Wong Fun. Frightening as snake might sound, it's easy to swallow when cooked in a double boiler (to prevent the soup from overheating) and served in thin slivers with plenty of finely shredded kaffir lime leaf. Other soups on the menu -- pig's shin with papaya and apricot kernel, stewed pig's lung with dried figs and sweet dates -- might sound like the most elaborate fusion dishes, but they are in fact ancient medicinal recipes, proof that Hong Kong remains firmly rooted in the past.

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