Speak to anyone who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years and they will tell you about glorious banquets that started with platters of golden strips of deep-fried intestines and nuggets of silky liver or pig's brain wrapped in caul fat - nature's own puff pastry. They may speak of tunnel-boned duck stuffed with lotus seeds and bulbs, glutinous rice, shiitake mushrooms, gingko nuts and salted egg yolk, then deep-fried and braised. Or perhaps they will reminisce about pillowy steamed buns filled with pork belly fat, char siu and chicken liver.
The nostalgia would be well placed - they would be recalling some of Hong Kong's most prized dishes, which are, in some cases, in danger of becoming extinct. A raft of traditional delicacies have become endangered and are virtually disappearing off menus. Fewer and fewer restaurants are serving them because, for restaurateurs, they can be time-consuming and expensive to prepare, while diners in the modern age are increasingly concerned about health (cue the aforementioned deep-fried intestines). But before we bemoan their growing scarcity, let's take a trip back to where they all began.
Hong Kong's dense skyline of high-rises makes it difficult to remember that, little more than 100 years ago, it was just another sleepy fishing village on the South China Sea. Mass immigration in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries brought hundreds of thousands into the then-British colony, mostly from the neighbouring province of Guangdong in China. Naturally, these immigrants brought with them their cuisines: the five spice and herbs of Chiu Chow; the Shunde obsession with bringing out the true flavours of an ingredient, by intensifying it with shrimp paste or steaming it for unadulterated retention; the rustic village cuisines of Hakka; and the perfectly presented, refined fare of the Cantonese. Yet, despite this relatively short history, Hong Kong developed a rich canon of dishes - dishes which in recent years have begun to fade from restaurant menus.
Fai-hung Leung, the executive Chinese chef at the Intercontinental Grand Stanford, cites health consciousness as the main reason these dishes - many of which are deep-fried and made using rich ingredients - are losing favour. "[Diners] won't eat them as often as they used to, even if they like them," he says.
Leung, who began his training at a Hakka restaurant, says that while these dishes aren't necessarily difficult to make, they take time and patience, which are often lacking in modern kitchens. "Some chefs do things just for looks, like deep-frying at high temperatures to make the exterior golden brown, but inside it mightn't be cooked properly."
The economic boom in Hong Kong in the late '80s and early '90s also saw many local and hence traditional restaurants squeezed by rising costs in food, labour and rent. This, coupled with new-found health concerns and time pressures, saw many of them scrap menu items that were laborious to prepare or high in fat. And there are, of course, economic considerations. Spending eight hours preparing an abalone dish makes sense, but one featuring intestines? Perhaps not.
Chef and managing director of Tai Wing Wah restaurant, Hugo Leung, emphasises that food must be "made from the heart", however humble the ingredients may be. "Great ingredients and proper technique are givens," says this fishmonger's son, "but people nowadays don't care enough about their food, and that's the main problem." He reopened Tai Wing Wah, once a typical neighbourhood eatery, in the north-western district of Yuen Long, and has turned it into a destination restaurant serving the rustic food of the old Hakka walled villages of Hong Kong.
The news, then, is not all gloomy for fans of authentic Hong Kong cuisine. Daniel Chui, executive director of high-end Cantonese restaurant Fook Lam Moon, says that recently he has noted "younger, curious food fans hunting down forgotten dishes". As Hugo Leung says, "What goes round comes around." Here's hoping they stick around this time.
Overlord's duck At Fook Lam Moon, grain-fed ducks are used for this dish of boned, stuffed duck. The birds are tunnel-boned - the frame removed through a small incision in the neck without having to slice the duck down the chest, and the bones in the thighs and wings kept intact. Through this small opening the duck is stuffed with lotus seeds, lotus bulbs, glutinous rice, dried shiitake mushrooms, ginkgo nuts and salted egg yolk. The bird is quickly deep-fried to brown the skin, then slow-cooked in a soy-based sauce for about two hours.
Eight-treasure duck A classic banquet dish said to have been popular since the Qing Dynasty. This is similar to overlord's duck in that it is also stuffed and braised, but differs in two main ways. First, barley rather than glutinous rice makes up the bulk of the stuffing. Second, the whole duck is used, bones in. The bird is cut open at the chest, stuffed with the various ingredients, and sewn back up before it is deep-fried, then braised in soy sauce and sugar.
The cooking takes about two hours, with another hour or so for preparation, so it needs to be ordered ahead in most restaurants. At Fook Lam Moon, however, it's so popular that it's always on the menu.
Revered food writer and gourmand Kin-wai Lau and his son, Chun Lau, also a food writer, are behind Kin's Kitchen and private kitchens Kin's Terrace (Cantonese) and Yellow Door Kitchen (Sichuanese). The time needed to prepare salt-baked chicken means the Laus only serve it at Kin's Terrace, where advance bookings are necessary. To make it, a wok is filled with salt, which is then stir-fried until it's scorching hot and slightly golden. The chicken is first hung to dry for at least an hour before being wrapped in baking paper (Kin's Terrace uses a kind of thin crêpe paper that is used for Chinese calligraphy), and then buried in the hot salt. The heat is switched off and the salt cooks the chicken, which takes about 40 minutes, but the stove time is more than an hour - heating the salt takes 20 minutes - a luxury most restaurants can no longer afford. While many about town still offer this dish, Chun Lau notes that often the chickens are brined and steamed for quicker results, rather than genuinely baked in hot salt.
Golden coin chicken Some dub it the "cholesterol sandwich": individual sliders made up of pork-belly fat, char siu, and chicken liver, all squished together in a steamed bun. The fat and liver are barbecued the same way as the char siu: marinated in a combination of Chinese rosé and at The Chairman - a Cantonese restaurant that champions the locavore ethic - the sifu's barbecue sauce, and finished with a maltose glaze. Although they go through the same cooking method, each layer has its own distinct flavour. It's a textural rollercoaster, especially at The Chairman, where the steamed buns are replaced with halved mantou buns, deep-fried to a glistening gold.
Chive and crab pastries A meal at Shung Hing, known for its classic Chiu Chow dishes, often begins with their signature platter of starters. Sitting on a diminutive corner are flaky chive and crab pastries, which require far more effort than their real estate on the plate would suggest. The pastries are made with chive juice, freshly squeezed on the day, as well as crab meat - the chefs de-shell the crab meticulously to make sure none of the meat goes to waste. The coveted roe and the shells are put to good use in other dishes.
Pan-fried stuffed mud carp Cuisine from the Shunde area in Guangdong, known for its preference for freshwater fish, has gradually come under the Cantonese umbrella. Fung Shing is one of the few restaurants in Hong Kong that specialises in Shunde food, and still makes one of the quintessential Shunde family dishes: stuffed mud carp. The fish is boned and most of the flesh scooped out, leaving the head, tail and skin intact. The flesh is minced and beaten into a paste - a step that must be done by hand to give it its distinctive bouncy texture. A little white pepper and chopped spring onions are added, and the paste is returned to the body of the fish, which is then pan-fried. It's finished off with a simple soy and sugar dressing and served in thick slices.
Wild chicken rolls Despite the moniker, there is no chicken in these deep-fried pork rolls. This classic Shunde dish is said to have come about because of a shortage of chickens. To satisfy people's cravings for poultry, chefs contrived a mock version with pork, which was relatively cheap and widely available. It is made by rolling together thinly sliced layers of pork fat, lean pork and ham, each of which has been dusted in cornstarch. The rolls are coated in eggwash then steamed before being deep-fried. The cornstarch not only keeps the layers together but also gives the pork a slippery texture that, together with the fattiness of the rolls, mimics chicken thighs.
Baked fish intestines You'll often see this dish presented in a stout round, dark-brown clay dish. The crockery, as well as the food cooked in it, is typical of Hakka villages. Tai Wing Wah specialises in Hakka cuisine and preserves this method and presentation. Fish intestines are cleaned and steamed in the dish along with ginger, garlic chives and dried mandarin peel, and then, when almost cooked, beaten eggs are poured in, and the dish is finished off in the oven, where the eggs set like a frittata.
Deep-fried pig's brain wrapped in caul fat These crisp, golden nuggets piled into a haphazard pyramid could be mistaken for pastries. They are in fact bite-sized portions of pig's brain wrapped in caul fat, the lace-like sheet of fat that surrounds the intestines. This is carefully washed and marinated in rosé wine and white pepper, then wrapped around the brains. When deep-fried, the fat between the layers melts, forming crisp, golden layers around each rich layer of brain.
Steamed rice with lard It was once a treat to be able to afford the extra lard to toss through one's plain bowl of white rice. When Cantonese people talk about rice, they judge it by its fragrance, faan heung. The lard only serves to emphasise that quality even more, especially when it's steamed, Hakka-style, in individual clay dishes along with first-press soy sauce, like it is at Tai Wing Wah.