A dumpling masterclass with Mr Po
If you like Chinese food, you have to go to
Jeremy Atiyah stuffs himself with dim sum, washed down with black tea and a
spot of t'ai chi
So keen is
09 November 2003
Of course this royal treatment won't fool me. On my last visit to
Not that I'm complaining. Here in the Peninsula Hotel discreet British snobbery may have departed, but naked Cantonese snobbery has picked up the baton with gusto. In the vast gilded lobby I arrive to find tables packed with Chinese indulging in that great British tradition of afternoon tea, exchanging tiny sandwiches and cakes for sheaves of money. Up on the 18th floor, my rooms have got floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the harbour and the skyscrapers of
Out in the streets of
How could I have forgotten:
But this is all incidental. I'm not here to admire the skyline or to browse in refrigerated shopping malls. I'm here to eat. Because
To get started properly, the next morning, I head for a free t'ai chi session before breakfast, by the harbour. It's dark and stormy, and I feel very superior about having my morning exercise regime led by a wise old Confucian called Mr Ng, rather than by some inane Californian with a grin and a leotard. "And this movement," Mr Ng cries into the wind, slowly raising one arm and lowering another, "is called White Crane Flaps its Wings!"
Having flapped my crane's wings, and touched my ocean's bottom, and held my angel's hands, I set off in search of a suitably colourful local market. I am pleased to notice that these are not hard to find. At Yaumatei, off
This being a Chinese market, medicinal concerns are never far away. Here are strange leaves "to rid the body of moisture". Here are giant root vegetables, larger than footballs, "to eliminate toxins". Here are rosebuds, "to cure bruises". A tiny thin charlatan is selling homemade herbal wine. "It's five years old!" he cries. "I sell it worldwide! Even in
I pick up a glass of cold soy milk from a café, attracted by the grimy fans, the overhead cables, the tiny stools, the soot, the bubbling cauldrons, the women in wellies, the floor running with water, the cats, and the parrot that speaks Chinese. Tanned men in shorts and vests and flip-flops are shovelling rice porridge with their chopsticks, surrounded on all sides by packs of noodles and plum sauces. Just look at the fruits and vegetables round here! They make me want to live in the tropics. The ripe smell of guava fills the whole street. Here are crates of woody, earthy mushrooms. Here are carrots three inches fat. Here are spring melons; here are bitter melons; here are lotus fruits; here are dragon's eyes; here are hairy squash and here are boxes of dates (or are they duck gizzards?).
Just next door is the incense shop. This is to any
By now I am hot and starved. I head for one of those air-conditioned shopping malls at the top of Tsim Shat Sui to find a place called the Super Star Seafood Restaurant, which sounds just the job. The first thing I see is a chef patiently pressing crabmeat with shredded ginger into roundels of soft pastry. "Hairy crab?" I ask. "Royal crab," he replies, shocked. Someone quickly whispers in my ear, as though I am in danger of embarrassing myself: "It's not the season for hairy crab."
Anyway, it's bright and crowded and public in here, as all good dim sum restaurants should be. You never take your mistress to dim sum. It is, though, quite a royal food, with its delicate but numerous portions. I've got a soup made from a suitably ugly fish, in accordance with the infallible rule that the uglier the fish, the better the dish. "Yes, the look is the first thing," says the chef, introduced to me as Master Po, who now joins me. "Then the dumpling pastry should be thin and the contents moist." He offers five basic types of pastry: rice, flour, bread, sticky rice and green pea. The rice pastry is softer and more transparent; the wheat pastry is more like bread.
The chef's challenge, in Master Po's view, is to be both traditional and modern. He is extremely proud, it turns out, of the peppery stonefish dumpling that he has pioneered. (Stonefish is poisonous to touch, in the wild, but it is also promisingly ugly.)
Tradition demands balance in your dumplings. In the case of a good old pork bun, for instance, this means a balance between dough and meat, between wet and dry, between sharp and bland. But novel, unorthodox influences are also permitted: Master Po has a Vietnamese-inspired dumpling containing pumpkin and fishmeat, for example. His sticky rice comes from
commercial reasons," he explains, cheerfully. "Children like it."
I take a walk through the kitchen, where muscular men are shoving entire pigs into the barbecue using forks with prongs two foot long. I stroll through to see chopping boards the size of tree trunks, and knives the size of helicopter blades.
Master Po has been working as a chef for 33 years, since he was 12. Have tastes changed in this time?
"Sure!" he cries. "Now we are much smarter in our taste buds, and we are much more health conscious! So the portions are smaller; it's quality before quantity." As he speaks, a delicate peach-shaped bun with rosy tints appears, containing a filling of lotus and salty egg yolk. Another novel-looking dumpling contains cucumber and barley and mangetout, wrapped in pea-flour dough. "You always know which filling to put in what pastry," smiles Master Po. "It's intuitive."
The most delicious things on this table, though, are some pieces of barbecued pork resembling an archaeological section, each piece comprising an identical spectrum of crackling, fat and meat, in that order. They melt in the mouth like butter. From the subject of fat, conversation turns to tea. To counteract the effect of grease, we should, in fact, be drinking an earthy-smelling black tea called bo lei. "Only hot people should drink green teas like jasmine," explains Master Po. Hot people? This Chinese notion translates, roughly, I think, into "people with high blood pressure".
Other hard-core delicacies from the menu include duck's tongues and bird's nest soup. (The "nest" comprises not twigs but the dried spittle of swallows and swifts. Everyone at the table agrees that it is good for you: a lady from the Hong Kong Tourist Board puts a tablespoon of powdered bird's nest in her cornflakes everyday.) Abalone is the latest craze - you have to order in advance, as they need to be simmered for up to two days before they can be eaten. A big one might cost £200. "This is what
I know what he means. And right now, stuffed, I feel like sleeping. But this is industrious
These never cease to amaze me. I'm soon looking at dried sausage, ham, squid, octopus, oyster, mussel, abalone, scallop - and these are just the mainstream items. That thing that looks like a sheet of tofu is, in fact, the dried lining of fish gut. That stuff resembling chopped cabbage is jellyfish (and has a crunchy texture). Heaped up around me, I survey ginseng, starfish, sea slugs, seahorses, fish bladders, giant conch, chrysanthemum flowers, deer tendons, turtle shells, dried flying geckos, cicada skins, tangerine peel, crocodile bacon (good for asthma), liquorice plants (good for Sars). Old men sit silently sifting through ginseng roots, sorting the thin bits from the fat bits. Twenty-storey apartment blocks loom up all around us.
Time for another cuppa? We enter the traditional teashop of one Mr Ngan, who brews and pours us some teas. Do I fancy yellow, white, clear, green, black or red tea? He talks of tea in the way connoisseurs talk of wine. He has old cakes of tea that will sell for thousands of pounds. He also has his "new arrivals", sealed in pewter jars. Green tea, he explains soberly, is like champagne and should be drunk young.
I find myself on a strong, semi-fermented tea called Iron lady. The tea stands for 30 seconds and then it's time to pour. First I must smell; then I must drink. And because we are drinking a black tea, which must be brewed very hot, the pot is made of purple clay from Yixing. Tea-drinking and Yixing pottery, says Mr Ngan, have been evolving together for 3,000 years. As always in
Back in Central, I am taken to a trendy organic food shop owned by one Belinda Wong. A young woman in her 30s, Ms Wong has been trying to popularise old medicinal products. She has published her own funky recipes, like organic sea slug on noodles or organic bird's nest and almond soup. A few western delicacies such as bison tongue are also on sale here. It may be trendy, but her shop has the same old smell of ginseng as all the shops in western district, a smell I am beginning to like by now.
Not far down the road, we come to a seriously upmarket Chinese medicine shop. This time I am able to read the alleged benefits of the medicines for myself, as the signs are all in English. Cuttlefish, I now see, "promotes the circulation of vital energy and blood" while pearls "tranquillise the mind and improve the complexion". Deer's tail pills are supposed to be good if you have a "yang deficiency" in the kidneys, while cinnamon bark "treats a decline of fire from the vital gate". Quackery? Who am I to judge?
The day is almost done and the lights are beginning to twinkle in the harbour spray, when I find myself at Wanchai fish market. A fish market may not sound the height of glamour, but this is
It's time to head back to the
Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of British Airways and The Peninsula Hotel.
In November return fares from London Heathrow start at £563 with BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Double rooms at The Peninsula Hong Kong (00 852 2920 2888; www.peninsula.com) start at HK$3,390 (£260) per room per night.
Super Star Seafood Restaurant, Basement, Wilson House,
Mr Ngan's Teahouse, 290 Queen's Road, Central (00 852 25441375).
Eu Yan Sang medicine shop,
Delhi Club Mess (00 852 2368 1682), Chungking Mansions, 3rd floor of C block.
Hong Kong Tourist Board (020-75337100; www.discoverhongkong.com).