There is a saying in Chinese: Eat in Guangdong. Other parts of China may be famous for their beautiful women or breathtaking scenery, but when it comes to food, Guangdong reins supreme. Guangdong, or Cantonese cuisine is also the best-known Chinese regional cooking in the world. Because of the mass popularity, it is misinterpreted all the time. It is not unusual to find dishes prepared with expensive ingredients that do not complement one another, or others that are made from frozen ingredients and seasoned with artificial flavourings.
There are many Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong and unfortunately most of them offer bargain-priced dishes of compromised quality. Ingredients are a problem for Hong Kong restaurants. It is expensive, not to say difficult, to source the right ingredients for some of the dishes. Moreover, the traditional Chinese kitchen has been "westernized", and skills and techniques that used to be passed from generation to generation (father to son, chef to apprentice) have disappeared. For some dishes, the cooking process has been simplified; for others, short-cuts are taken.
Here are two excellent Cantonese restaurants in town that offer "fine-dining" Cantonese cuisine - delicate and superior traditional dishes that require decades of experience and first-rate ingredients.
Owner's son Maurice Lai grew up among chopping boards and woks, and used to follow his father to catering jobs. So it is not surprising that the restaurant would only serve the best to its patrons. Tim's Kitchen is famous for its snake bisque; over 100 bowls are sold each day during the season. Although snakes are available throughout the year, it is only served in the winter months because it is known to keep the stomach warm. The soup is made with shredded mushroom, premium fish maw, wood fungus, chicken and of course snake meat, which must be hand-shredded. Shredded bamboo shoots and ginger are finely cut into juliennes and added towards the end to add a crunch to the soup. This version of snake bisque is based on the classic recipe from Grand Scribe Jiang from Guangzhou and has more flavour than what some diners are used to.
Pig Caul fat, once a popular ingredient a few decades ago, is fast disappearing due to health concerns. A modern preparation is the Deep-fried King Prawn Roll with Liver Sausage and Spring Onion. The tiger prawns that are used in Crystal King Prawns are first seasoned with the outer membrane in tact. Rolling the prawn, liver sausage and spring onion in the paper-thin layer of caul fat is a painstaking process; it is then deep-fried for over 10 minutes in low-temperature oil so that the caul fat does not burn.
The result is a combination of firm prawn meat, luscious liver sausage and crispy spring onion, all wrapped in the caul fat that has now separated into a crispy outer layer and a velvety inner one. This dish might not be approved by your cardiologist but your taste buds would be in joy.
Sea cucumber is one of the four superior ingredients in Cantonese cooking. The Braised Sea Cucumber and Goose Web in Oyster Sauce is a dish that takes minutes to finish but days to prepare. An experienced chef would know how long the sea cucumber - which is dried - should be left to rehydrate. Because sea cucumbers are virtually tasteless, they must be cooked in premium broth so that they absorb a bit of flavour. Only good quality sea cucumber can withstand this step; others would shrink, affecting the presentation of the dish. Together with the goose web that has been braised for over 3 hours and the main piece of bone removed for ease of eating with chopsticks, this is a decadent and yet healthy dish.
Tucked away on the quiet Kau U Fong, The Chairman only opened a few years ago but has already established itself as the connoisseurs' choice. The owners understand that good ingredients are hard to come by, and so they personally visit the wet markets each day. In fact, the restaurant has its own dedicated seafood buyer and even a farm in the New Territories to ensure that no fertilisers are used. One of the classic dishes that the restaurant serves, and in many food lovers' opinion the best, is the Gold Coin Chicken.
Don't be fooled by the name; this is no chicken. Instead, chicken liver is used - only one half of the liver is qualified, which takes on a slight yellowish hue across the surface, a signal commonly known to signify a velvety texture of the cooked liver. Underneath is a disc of fatty pork - again, only the middle layer of the fat on the back loin is used. This layer of fatty pork must be thoroughly marinated in wine and sugar to ensure a crunchy texture in the finished dish. Finishing the meaty ‘sandwich' is charsiu made with the loin. Each Gold Coin Chicken sandwich is lined with a thin square of deep fried Chinese steamed bun, also known as Man-Tou. With similar texture like a melba toast, the crunchy fried bun contributes to enriching the complex texture contrast in each bite of the Gold Coin Chicken, finishing with the honeyed glaze that shimmers across the top of each of these richly-satisfying morsels.
One of the signature dishes here is The Chairman Soy Sauce Chicken, or better known as Eighteen-Flavour Chicken in Chinese. The chicken is first dipped into boiling marinade that is made with 32 types of Chinese herbs and spices for 20 minutes so that it is cooked, before being submerged in room temperature marinade for an hour or so, so that the flavour seeps in. When it arrives at the table, one might be mistaken it as ordinary soy sauce chicken, but the aroma tells you otherwise. Each herb or spice has its use in the dish and they all complement one another. The chicken is extremely tender and delicious and be sure to have a taste of the sauce. Not only a delicious dish, it also has medicinal purposes.
Another famous dish is the Braised Spare Ribs with Preserved Plums in Caramelised Black Vinegar. Mid-sections of pork ribs are marinated in vegetable juice, which acts as a tenderiser. The meat is tender but does not fall off the bones, so that the taste lingers in your mouth. The ribs are cut, marinated and deep fried until golden brown. A sauce is made by simmering preserved plums, Italian Balsamic Vinegar, pickled young ginger, and kaffir lime leaves until slightly thickened. The ribs are then quickly added into the thick sauce just to coat without losing its crunchy exterior that now takes on a sweet and astringent coat of vinegar sauce, which exudes a balance in fruitiness from preserved plum and a herbal aroma of the kaffir lime leaves.
Chinese fine-dining does not necessarily mean shark's fin and abalone. While these two restaurants may not offer the widest selection of dishes, they each pay strong attention in the dishes that are meticulously prepare. Something as seemingly ordinary as plain congee is taken seriously. After all, simplicity is the best, and also essence of Cantonese cooking.