The extraordinarily wide and wonderful world of Chinese cuisine has rarely been held in such high global esteem by diners and chefs alike. Ferran Adria told a World’s 50 Best seminar that “It's China, in particular, that excites me with its millennial gastronomic tradition, its minute attention to the health value of each dish”, while Dan Barber has argued that Chinese dishes represent “The future of what we should be eating.”
It’s surprising then that arguably the country’s best-known cuisine, Cantonese, has somewhat lagged behind other Chinese regions when it comes to recent recognition. That is changing, however, with a new-found confidence and pride in familiar, classic dishes, as well as innovative takes and spins on old favourites.
Man-Ip Fung's Innovative Classics
One man celebrating this renaissance is Man-Ip Fung, recently appointed as Executive Chef at Duddell’s in Hong Kong, a two Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant. The veteran has 35 years in kitchens behind him and understands better than most that ingredients and freshness are everything in delivering the finest plates to the city’s notoriously discerning diners.
His inventive version of sweet and sour pork is a million miles from the sticky bright orange sauce seen around the world. He takes thin slices of Iberico pork which take on the same flavour profile through the clever use of balsamic vinegar. Likewise, his take on the classic dim sum dish of shrimp dumplings sees the traditional filling, minced from more than thirty shrimp, paired with a soft-boiled quail egg for brilliant textural contrast. “Precision is the key and it requires rigorous control in the steaming process and layering of ingredients to balance the liquid from the quail egg.”
Many classic Cantonese plates are known as ‘Kung Fu’ dishes as, like the martial art, they require patience, dedication, control and ultimate technical proficiency. Chef Fung is keen to pass on these techniques and his experience to help preserve the traditions of Cantonese cuisine. Broadly speaking, in Chinese cooking there is not the same apprenticeship model as in western kitchens, but he is seeking to change that.
Neo Cantonese Restaurants
Alongside the traditionalist sifu or masters come a new guard of Chinese restaurants, many from chefs who are ethnically Chinese but lived in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and more. They spin the tried-and-true old school favourites, adding modern twists and humour while staying respectful of classic techniques.
Design plays a huge part in this new wave of restaurants, largely in retro homage to the 1970’s heyday. That’s certainly the case at Ho Lee Fook, a restaurant mentioned frequently by Alain Ducasse as one of his favourites in Hong Kong. To reach the basement dining room named after the Cantonese for ‘good fortune for your mouth’, you walk past the open kitchen and down a staircase flanked by hundreds of maneki-neko lucky gold cats. Chef Jowett Yu's dishes celebrate Cantonese but also Taiwanese, Japanese, Thai and other ingredients and influences.
‘Mom’s “mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork” dumplings’ come with a sacha soy dressing, while the Cantonese favourite of cheong fun (rice noodle rolls, usually steamed) are wok-fried with XO sauce, white garlic chives and toasted sesame. Grilled golden threadfin fish comes under a Jamaican-Chinese jerk rub with grilled lime, while ‘Jack's salt and pepper grouper’ is paired with silken tofu and lemon.
Elsewhere May Chow, winner of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017, continues to grow her impressive portfolio of neo-Cantonese restaurants with her latest edition, Happy Paradise. Dishes such as ‘pan-fried pig’s brain with burnt pear juice and white soy’ show the creativity at play but also the respect for ingredients in Cantonese cuisine that is rightly famous for its love of textures and nose-to-tail eating.