Introduction

Introduction

By
Jeremy Pang
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978-1-84949-992-7
Photographer
Kris Kirkham

In honour and remembrance of my beloved dad, Hiu Ming Pang, who had an undeniable love for Hong Kong, his true home. Also for my son, Theodore Monte Pang: once you are old enough to read, this book will tell you a lot about your Gong Gong, whom you never got to meet, but who spent his life making people smile with food just like this.

Both my parents grew up in Hong Kong; I, however, am what they call BBC – British Born Chinese – which has given me a unique perspective on both cultures. When my parents moved over from Hong Kong to the UK in the 1960s, Chinese food was already well established. In fact, many of the Chinatowns that we know today have barely changed since then. As I have come to learn from my own personal experience, we Chinese are true creatures of comfort. We love our traditions, and hold very close to them, especially in times of change; inadvertently adverse to any significant change in lifestyle. Even within my own city of London, I have met Chinese journalists who, having lived here for many years, have still never been inside many of the little hidden gem shops along the barely three-street-long stretch of the city’s Chinatown, instead staying within the comfort of the same old restaurants, just in case the next one isn’t quite the same. Creatures of habit indeed!

Although Chinese culture in general may seem to be adverse to immediate change, if I were to pick out what I believe to be the greatest asset to our successful immigration and integration across the world, it is that over time both we and our food are incredibly adaptable. Take the irreplaceable cha chaan teng for example: a unique combination both in cuisine and environment of the lasting influence of Western culture in Hong Kong, created as a response to British culture in the 1950s and now held in the hearts of Hong Kongers as a classic example of true Hong Kong cuisine. This is not to be confused with what we consider to be traditional ‘Chinese food’, with a menu that includes dishes like Macaroni Soup with Spam & Egg and Pork Chop Crusty Roll, not to mention classic Hong Kong Milk Tea. Never let it be said that Hong Kongers aren’t adaptable, because if this isn’t a clear example of adaptability then I don’t know what is!

Food, to someone with Chinese heritage, is both a source of happiness and a tool which we use to build relationships and trust with others. My own truest and deepest friendships always seem to start over a large table filled with food to be shared.

Hong Kong is famous for its metropolis status: it is home to some of the world’s tallest buildings and sky-high restaurants, serving some of the best food out there. The city is constantly in flux, changing, pushing the boundaries of modernity. But I believe that what lies at the heart of this shiny, small, but infinitely layered city is the epitome of Chinese comfort food: the Hong Kong diner. The long reign of casual, café-style and roadside eating is a culture both sustained and fuelled by the ‘no-change’ attitude I mentioned earlier; providing comfort, happiness and even stability to those nestled in this ever-modernizing Jetson-like city. This seeming juxtaposition of ever-changing and evolving city, continuing to build its towers higher and higher, block by block, but at the same time housing the never-changing street food culture; the same queues wrapped around local favourites, bypassing the trendy for the steadfast staples decade upon decade – from peanut butter French toast, used to mop up lashings of condensed milk, to a bowl of beef brisket noodle soup at any time of the day – this is the real beating heart of this fair city. In my view, Hong Kong diner food should be considered some of the best of world cuisine. From the fresh ingredients to the care with which they are used, to the comforting, flavourful, straightforward, unpretentious, interactive way in which they are served, I cannot help but think of my numerous experiences eating in Hong Kong diners without feeling as though I have been engulfed and enriched alongside being well fed. Despite such places becoming more and more buried beneath the concrete jungle, I hope that true ‘Hong Kongers’ out there will agree that their diner-style eating habits, in whatever form, will never be swallowed up completely by big buildings with fancy restaurants on top.

There are many different types of Hong Kong diner worth mentioning, each with their own style of cooking and varying menu sizes. Equally, each different style of diner also highlights a particular skill or technique that I find nothing short of astounding. From the dim sum chef to the man with his paper-thin wok on the side of the road, each hones a very specialized skill which I hope to, one day, find enough time and dedication to acquire. I hope that as you read this book not only will you try some of the recipes I’ve researched and created, but also you will become equally excited and curious by the snippets of history of the city’s unique eateries that I have included, along with some of my experiences, which have endeared this city to me, and inspired my cooking.

To many, Chinese cooking has always been a well-kept secret among those in the know. However, what many may not realize is that Chinese food, especially Cantonese food, most famously from Hong Kong and its surrounding region of South China, has been heavily influenced by the Western world. Even the specialist breads from the local bakeries bear a considerable resemblance to the French brioche, just with the addition of spam, barbecued pork or coconut custard on the inside or a good old British crumble on top instead! Hong Kong, once named the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, has had its fair share of Western occupation and influence. And when it comes to cultural invasion, interaction or occupation, no matter what part of the world it comes from, you can always trace back the history by means of the trail of food left behind.

With years of being a huge ‘commuter town’ from East to West, it comes as no surprise that Hong Kong has such a diverse, on-the-move culture and dining scene. From cha chaan tengs (tea house lounges), to dai pai dongs (street hawker stalls), dim sum houses with their moving trolleys of hot pick-up-and-stuff-your-face style dumplings, and one-dish specialist cafés, to the unique dessert houses and bakeries that line the city’s streets and hidden alleys, each one is able to tell one small but distinct portion of Hong Kong’s unique story.

After seeking out and trying many wonderful examples of each of these distinct types of street-style eatery, then standing back to marvel at how they all interweave and overlap with each other, it is no wonder that this culture and city serve as such an inspiration for me, and for what I try to bring to my own cooking: playfulness, simplicity, a sense of family and community and a nod to my own family’s history, all set against the backdrop of a cosmopolitan, diverse, historical and ever-changing community. This is the food I love to cook because this is the food I love to eat.

Experiencing hongkong food culture up close and personal

I’ve been travelling back and forth to Hong Kong since a young age, and although my most recent trip there was originally vaguely planned around my memories and eating experience as a ravenous teenager and beyond, this time around the pressure was on, as we had planned for at least three different groups of friends to be out there, all specifically for the hard task of eating our way around the city. Luckily, no particular dietary requirements were sent to me in advance – everyone arrived in Hong Kong at different times with an open food mind, and I knew that my business partners Nev and Max would be on hand to eat whatever was left on the table if the others weren’t up to the task. Adrienne, as contributing author of the book, had the sole job of tasting everything that was put in front of her and had to take note of anything that might inspire the recipes (outside of just my head), so she had to work out quite quickly how to pace herself through the Hong Kong tour.

Here’s adrienne’s experience of what it takes to eat like a hong konger

Having spent years learning about Chinese cuisine and its culture through work with Jeremy and School of Wok, I felt in a broad sense that I had come to possess a certain level of understanding and knowledge about the subject matter. But let it be said that nothing, NOTHING, can serve as a substitute for the real thing. Google and books are a great start, but can only take you so far. Since returning from Hong Kong I have been humbly reminded of the value of first-hand knowledge: taking in the sights and sounds, the atmosphere, and the flavours alongside the people who cook, create and serve, as well as those who eat and enjoy.

In the creating of this book a two-week, packed-to-the-brim, whirlwind, food-engorged, sensory-overloaded research trip to Hong Kong was both planned and led by Jeremy himself. A trip consisting of no less than eight meals a day, and a tour guide, both of which have since been infamously and lovingly dubbed #Pangtours by the merry band of men and women, growing in both number and waist size as the days went on. Jeremy, despite his stature, is the speediest of walkers, with boundless energy matched only by that of a two-year-old hyped up on candyfloss.

During our Hong Kong trip we were lucky enough to visit a wide variety of eateries: from tiny specialist cafés serving only a few well-made dishes, to street-side dai pai dongs; from entirely outdoor restaurants set up on unannounced roadside alleys, to 1950s style cha chaang tengs or tea house lounges, lined with gleaming sheets of Formica, towers of condensed milk tins for making copious amounts of strong milk tea, and some with the very first owner, pushing ninety, still working the till. Each eatery was equally captivating and inspiring but for very distinct reasons, none of which was a lengthy menu, a slick interior or a state-of-the-art anything.

Delving into Hong Kong cuisine and culture, I found it illuminating how each twisted around the other, making it difficult to tell which came first. The more days we spent following Jeremy on his expertly curated food tour, the more steps we took, the more samples we tried, the more cultural customs we began to understand and use; from how to order, to what order to eat things in, to the customary practice of washing our own bowls and spoons table-side. We began to pick up clues on how to distinguish the hidden gems (of which there are many) from the tourist traps (of which there are also many). The more information we gathered, the richer the experience became, and the more endearing the city, its quirky yet resourceful people and its abundance of truly spectacular dishes had become to each one of us. Why Hong Kong is not more well known internationally for its local eateries is beyond me, because they are far richer, more captivating, more spectacular and more revealing of true Hong Kong culture than any flashing skyscraper on its magnificent skyline.

Refer to our guide to help you retrace our footsteps on our whirlwind trip into discovering the intriguing gems of Hong Kong eating for when you next visit.

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