Chasing Traditions With Pearl Kong Chen
With the current influx of borderline-hipster westernised Asian food pouring into Hong Kong – Fu Lu Shou, Ho Lee Fook, Little Bao, we’re looking at you– it seems as if the city’s dining scene has taken a mini vacation away from its purest roots. The spirit of traditional Chinese cooking, specifically Cantonese cuisine, is surprisingly difficult to come by, but Pearl Kong Chen, one of the most established Cantonese food authorities in Hong Kong who has dedicated years to studying Chinese culinary culture, offers some hope for the future of a venerable cuisine so reliant on the transmission of a heritage from generation to generation. Chen, who dedicates a lot of time to passing on her fundamental knowledge and skills, has previously collaborated with Kin’s Kitchen, and will be presenting a special menu at the Grand Hyatt later this month for the hotel’s 25th anniversary. Below, we speak to Chen about her relationship with Cantonese cuisine, and her upcoming special menu at One Harbour Road.
Hong Kong Tatler Dining: What is your relationship with Cantonese cuisine, and what got you into it? Who taught you the secrets of the Chinese kitchen?
Pearl Kong Chen: My Grandpa（江孔殷太史）was the recognised chief gourmet in old Guangzhou during the early 1900s. My taste buds were trained at an early age, when I would recite Chinese classics for the guests at Grandpa’s banquets in return for morsels. My real interest in cooking, however, came when I turned 40 and lived in the United States where there were few good Chinese restaurants nearby. I visited Hong Kong and spent a month learning the art of Cantonese dim sum making, and I began to teach myself Cantonese cooking. I taught Cantonese cooking in the US for many years before returning to Hong Kong. In most cases, I generate recipes by relying on taste-memory, imagination, and visualization, followed by real testing. I was also fortunate in having famed gourmet Chan Mongyan（陳夢因）as my mentor, and he would always provide his sound judgment on the actual taste of my food, challenging me to figure out ways to improve.
HKTD: What makes your cooking different from what is found at Cantonese restaurants in the city?
PKC: I believe my dishes can be prepared by amateurs in the home kitchen to produce professional results. Whenever I get flashes of insight, I share them with my readers.
HKTD: What are your most treasured ingredients to cook with?
PKC: I value using the freshest of ingredients, and I especially treasure wild fungi.
HKTD: What are your favourite dishes, and are there any interesting dining_stories behind them?
PKC: For the menu I created for the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, I decided to choose six unusually interesting dishes. Of these dishes, one in particular has a long story. For the past three-quarters of a century, Grandpa was known in Guangzhou and Hong Kong for his Supreme Scholar’s Snake Soup, which is prepared with the meat of five poisonous snakes. My favorite broth is Mock Snake Soup, which uses partridge meat instead of snake meat. The chrysanthemum petals lend a freshness that contrasts the hair-width julienned lemon leaves, and I served it with deep-fried crackling which, to me, creates a symphony of taste and texture.
HKTD: What do you believe is at the heart of Cantonese cooking?
PKC: Using appropriate preparation to capture food at its peak flavour.
HKTD: What direction is Cantonese food taking and, as someone who is trying to revive older cooking traditions, what do you see happening in the future of the cuisine?
PKC: A vast variety of new and imported ingredients (wild fungi for instance) will challenge the imagination of the creative chef.
HKTD: You recently collaborated with Kin’s Kitchen, and will be doing another one with Grand Hyatt Hong Kong in July. What do you like most about bringing your cooking to other restaurants?
PKC: The promotion of classical Cantonese cuisine to reach a wider circle of diners is always a joy.
HKTD: What is next on your agenda? Another cook book, perhaps? Or another guest chef appearance?
PKC: I will be leaving for the US, but I do hope that I have left enough in Hong Kong to help continue the glorious tradition of Cantonese cuisine. During my time across the ocean, I plan to share the appreciation of good food with my grand and great grand children.
Chen’s authentic and traditional Cantonese dishes will be served at One Harbour Road from July 10 to July 27.