Sunday, November 9, 2003

A dumpling masterclass with Mr Po

A dumpling masterclass with Mr Po

If you like Chinese food, you have to go to Hong Kong. Jeremy Atiyah stuffs himself with dim sum, washed down with black tea and a spot of t'ai chi

Published: 09 November 2003

So keen is Hong Kong to get its tourists back after the Sars calamity that even a miserable hack like me is being picked up at the airport in a green Rolls-Royce. I'm being taken to one the best suites of one of the world's best hotels.

Of course this royal treatment won't fool me. On my last visit to Hong Kong in 1995, I spent two weeks in a guesthouse in the Chungking Mansions, in a room that had been designed, grudgingly, to accommodate one thin bed. The only way to get under the showerhead was to sit on the toilet. And I paid good money for it.

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 Hong Kong Island.

Out in the streets of Kowloon, later, I still feel a little dazed. The sky is oddly clean, not as steamy as it should be. Expensive, chilled air is pouring out of all the shopping malls. Even the pavements seem to be air-conditioned. I wonder where they've gone, the old stenches, the fish markets, the flabby-leaved creeping plants, the copy-Rolex sellers, the turbanned tailors, the swindlers, the rickshaw drivers, the old sea-dogs, all the fetid trappings of the land where East meets West. One obvious thing hasn't changed. Taking the dear old Star Ferry to Central, I notice the whole island being shaken to its foundations once every 20 seconds. A giant pile-driver is somewhere at work.

How could I have forgotten: Hong Kong would not be Hong Kong without its perennial engineering projects. Noise pollution? Town planning? Feng shui? Economic difficulties? Forget it. The construct- ion of flashy skyscrapers must go on.

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 Hong Kong's food is one thing, I am told, that Sars, Beijing, Tung Chee Hwa, typhoons and the property crash can never touch.

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 Nathan Road, I'm soon in the thick of it, surrounded by pigs' trotters, hearts, intestines and tongues. Men in singlets push barrows of greens, while old ladies sit behind boxes of meaty green crabs, salted eggs, live chickens, turtles, fresh fish, pickled bamboo shoots, green papaya, sheet bean curd, soy bean paste, and sticky rice puddings made with sugar.

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 America!"

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 Hong Kong market what WH Smith is to a British high street. "To contact your ancestors," explains the shopkeeper, "you need to raise smoke. Prefer- ably fragrant smoke." He shows me not only incense sticks and sandalwood, but also cars, shoes, beer bottles, Rolexes, houses, footballs, Armani suits, credit cards, bank notes, wallets and passports - all made of paper, to be burnt, for convenient collection by the ancestors. "To die," murmurs the man, "is a complicated business."

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 Japan. He is also the inventor of a sweet, penguin-shaped, family-friendly dumpling that may owe some- thing to Disney. "For
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 Hong Kong is," says Master Po, modestly, as we say goodbye. "This is what we are."

I know what he means. And right now, stuffed, I feel like sleeping. But this is industrious Hong Kong, and it's time to head off to the western district of the island, in search of dried goods.

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 China, I get the feeling that my own preconceptions are rather shallow.

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 Hong Kong. I arrive to find a queue of gleaming Rolls-Royces and Mercedes with beautiful bejewelled Chinese women stepping out of them in search of dinner. The place resembles the London Aquarium, with its bubbling tanks full of lugubrious-looking fish. In front, giant crabs and eels struggle to escape, despite being bound up like prisoners on death row. Their millionaire purchasers will have no pity on them.
It's time to head back to the Peninsula. But as darkness suddenly falls, somewhere on Nathan Road, I find myself jumped by a gang of men. Help! Except this is no mugging. These are restaurateurs from the Chungking Mansions, all competing to press their cards into my hand. For old times' sake, I settle on a dinner in the Delhi Club Mess, a dark room lost in a dark stairwell, somewhere in the dark heart of this appalling building, where the curries are hot and the beer is cold: just another corner of Hong Kong where the food will be for ever wonderful.

The Facts

Getting there
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; Double rooms at The Peninsula Hong Kong (00 852 2920 2888; start at HK$3,390 (£260) per room per night.

Being there
Super Star Seafood Restaurant, Basement, Wilson House, 19-27 Wyndham St (00 852 25259238)
Mr Ngan's Teahouse, 290 Queen's Road, Central (00 852 25441375).
Eu Yan Sang medicine shop, 152-156 Queens Road, Central (00 852 25443870)
Delhi Club Mess (00 852 2368 1682), Chungking Mansions, 3rd floor of C block.

Further information
Hong Kong Tourist Board (020-75337100;