From Spam To XO Sauce: Hong Kong Classics Reimagined By Four Top Chefs
The gastronomic landscape has shifted dramatically over the past 40 years. With restaurants opening (and closing) at an unprecedented rate, and the merry-go-round of fads ever spinning, it can be easy to lose sight of what gives Hong Kong its unparalleled and irreplaceable identity as a foodie’s paradise. To celebrate the city’s unique culinary heritage and the people who have shaped it, we set four chefs a challenge: identify a quintessential local food that encapsulates what Hong Kong means to them, and use it to create a dish that expresses their point of view. The resulting works of art manifest the compelling energy of Hong Kong in wonderfully delicious ways.
Vicky Cheng, VEA
The inspiration: Cantonese “white cut” chicken rice with ginger and scallion sauce
The dish: Cheng created a dish of sous vide marinated chicken breast brushed with a rice water glaze (reduced from strained congee liquid). “We have a lot of sushi rice in the house for different dishes, but I went out to get jasmine rice just for this—the aroma is different.” Alongside it is a crispy chicken thigh and a Shanghainese-style Chinese cabbage braised in cream, butter, milk and aromatics, and topped with a sheet of Iberico pork fat. The dish is finished with a chicken jus that is bolstered just before serving with a classic ginger and scallion oil. “I use Hong Kong’s yellow chicken. Anytime a chicken dish appears in my restaurant, it will be this local bird,” Cheng says. “For me, it’s one of the Hong Kong ingredients I am most proud of.”
The background: Vicky says his creation is not only a tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most exceptional local ingredients, but one that is personally very meaningful to him. “I was born into money on my dad’s side, but when I was five years old my parents divorced. I suddenly went from having everything to basically nothing,” he says.
His Shanghainese mother raised him single-handedly in Hong Kong, the two living in a tiny apartment where luxuries were few and far between. One day, he came home with top marks at school and was told he could choose a nice reward for himself.
His pick? A bowl of barbecued pork rice with white cut chicken, and copious amounts of his favourite ginger-scallion sauce. “It was a real treat,” he recalls. “It wasn’t something that was available to me every day.” Today, his mother runs a successful business in Canada and Vicky is one of Hong Kong’s most lauded chefs—but he never forgets how this period of his life taught him to appreciate the simple things in life.
Vea, 29/F-30/F, The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
Peggy Chan, Grassroots Pantry
The inspiration: Spam and egg macaroni in soup
The dish: Almond shell-shaped pasta with vegan Spam and pine nut yolk cream. “Everyone who has grown up in Hong Kong has probably had Spam and egg macaroni for breakfast, with the MSG-filled chicken broth and frozen pre-cut carrots, peas and corn,” says Chan. “I remember always having this dish doused with white pepper. So I wanted to recreate a dish that had all of these aspects, but is homemade and plant-based.”
As the chef-owner of innovative vegan and vegetarian restaurant Grassroots Pantry, Chan has always been a champion of nutritious cuisine that makes people stop and think. “Spam and egg macaroni is so quintessentially Hong Kong but it’s full of empty calories. It’s so good, but I started thinking about how we could make it more nutrient-dense.”
For her vegan-friendly dish, Chan created pasta using a mix of brown rice flour, glutinous rice flour and chickpea flour; a sauce of soaked and sprouted pine nuts blended with nutritional yeast, lemon juice and olive oil; and “Spam” formed from cashews blended with toasted and soaked black mustard seeds. The result is mind-boggling. The dehydrated “Spam,” which is crumbled over the final dish, has a great depth of flavour and meatiness, and even smells like the real thing.
“It was a fluke,” laughs Chan. “One day we were making cashew mayonnaise, which is all over our menu. Usually we use Dijon mustard and we ran out, so I used some black mustard seeds, toasted and blended. When it was done, it was just like Spam.”
Grassroots Pantry, 108 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Richard Ekkebus, Amber
The inspiration: Seafood fried rice with egg and XO sauce
The dish: Ekkebus combined seared Hokkaido scallops with finger lime, XO sauce sabayon, crispy Camargue red rice, dried seafood and salicornia, creating a dish that draws together flavours and ingredients from his adopted home of Hong Kong and his birthplace, the Netherlands.
The background: In the 13 years that Richard has called our city his home he has seen big changes in the restaurant sector. “When we started Amber, we wanted to use a lot of local ingredients but people just didn’t get it,” he recalls. “They would say, ‘If I want XO sauce in a dish, I’ll go to a Chinese restaurant.’ Now, I think if I put a dish like this on the menu, people won’t say a thing.”
He jokes that Amber is “slowly making its way to Sheung Wan” through this dish. “It’s testimony to my time in Hong Kong and a homage to the dried seafood vendors in that neighbourhood.” In this recipe, Richard takes the oil from the restaurant’s homemade XO sauce and whips it into a light, airy foam using a siphon.
The leftover seafood from the sauce is dried out until crisp and used, along with red Carmague rice that has been puffed, as a garnish. Slices of fresh lotus stem add fresh contrast. Instead of spring onions, Richard uses salicornia and oyster leaf as a hat tip to the ingredients he grew up with in the Netherlands.
Amber, 7/F, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen's Road Central, Central, Hong Kong
Uwe Opocensky, Beef & Liberty
The inspiration: Kau Kee’s beef brisket noodles
The dish: Beef brisket burger with Asian ‘slaw and fried noodles
The background: From running the Mandarin Oriental’s fine-dining operations to brainstorming creative fast food for Beef & Liberty, Uwe has experienced it all over his 13 years in Hong Kong. For his dish, he thought back to one of his first treasured memories in the city—sitting down to a bowl of beef brisket noodles at Kau Kee in Central, where he always opts for the plain, unadulterated broth as opposed to the curry-spiked version. “It’s so Hong Kong. What could be better than noodles with meat?”
For his Kau Kee-inspired burger, he slow-cooks brisket for 48 hours and tops it with his secret recipe “Kraft” cheese for the requisite melt. He then layers it with a slaw of cabbage, watercress, radishes and parsley tinged with XO sauce, and finishes it off with a tangle of fried pasta strands to include a noodle element in the burger. This playful dish is
This playful dish is testament to Uwe’s understanding of the shifting tides in Hong Kong’s dining scene. “When I arrived in 2004, everything was a lot more conservative, with fine dining in hotels and not enough funky and independent alternatives,” he says.
“Now, you see the dining scene shifting.” So he’s launching his own eponymous restaurant later this September, an intimate venue in Central serving a menu of seasonally driven food for 16 people each night. “The idea is that people come to my home, and I cook the best food I possibly can.”
Beef & Liberty, 3/F, California Tower, 30-32 D'Aguilar Street, Central