Despite an explosion of kitchen wizardry worldwide, Cantonese food has stuck doggedly to tradition. Will it ever modernise? Three industry insiders consider the future.
Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Samantha Sin
Tremendous progress has been made in the Western culinary scene thanks to an explosion of shiny gadgets and groundbreaking techniques, but Cantonese cuisine has evolved little in recent decades. Why? We asked three industry insiders: Kin’s Kitchen director Lau Chun, Tin Lung Heen chef de cuisine Paul Lau and Mott 32 head chef Lee Man-sing.
Though not professionally trained as a chef, food personality and director of Kin’s Kitchen Lau Chun is constantly experimenting with gadgets, looking for ways to apply them to improve age-old recipes. He uses a Pacojet, for example, to make smooth, refined spinach and crabmeat soup. To preserve the colour, flavour and nutritional value of delicate vegetables, he freezes them before blending. “The beauty of technology is that it helps us access a lot of things, without the fuss of chopping an onion a thousand times,” he says.
Despite his aversion to modern technology, Paul Lau, chef de cuisine at two Michelin-starred Tin Lung Heen and a veteran of Hong Kong’s Cantonese dining scene, was the first to use Spanish Iberico pork to make char siu. Now we’re infatuated with its aromatically sweet, burned ridges, and perfectly alternating slithers of fat and lean meat.
“I thought if Spain is so loved for its ham, its pork must also be delicious,” he says. “I dissected every part of the pig, and roasted it piece by piece. Finally, I came across the shoulder, which is very small, but very tender. The ratio of fat to lean meat is so balanced, you can see just how beautifully marbled it is.”
For Lee Man-sing, it’s important to preserve the traditional flavours of Cantonese cuisine, but progress can be made with premium ingredients, such as the quail’s eggs used in Mott 32’s well-loved siu mai.
“When the siu mai first appeared, it had a quail egg on top,” Lee says. “We make it with the quail’s egg inside and control the temperature so it comes out a bit runny.”
While local chefs have begun to incorporate new and premium ingredients and develop cleaner presentation, they have been reluctant to depart completely from tradition. Can Cantonese cuisine modernise?
For Lau Chun, modernising means stepping into the brave new world of modern technology.
“I noticed Western chefs have been using sous-vide, which is basically low-temperature cooking. Why can’t we use it in Chinese cuisine?” Lau Chun says. “With all this new technology, they can achieve things that traditional skills can never achieve. Like making soup with a Pacojet, if you still use a knife to chop the vegetables, you will never be able to achieve such a result.”
Lee is also interested in experimenting with new equipment. “There’s the slow cooker, dehydrator, vacuum pack and other gadgets originating in the West. In the future, I think we’ll be heading in that direction,” he says. “This is a good thing, and we should apply it to Chinese cuisine, because only with good tools will we evolve and be able to improve our reputation. But some Chinese chefs might not have been exposed to such things.”
However, Paul Lau believes modernising is not just about using new tools but revolves around a chef’s innate creativity and desire to innovate.
“To modernise, we need self-reliance, self-confidence and creativity. We need to learn different things to increase our knowledge. Once we have that foundation, we can build confidence and be creative, developing new ideas, new products, new ingredients, new presentation and new flavours,” he says. “Of course, we can’t steer away from the essence of traditional Cantonese cuisine, which is the balance of flavours and the guarantee of wok hei.”
He says the problem with the Chinese dining scene, both past and present, is lack of creativity and commercial pressures.
“Currently, the overall trend is plagiarism,” he says. “A chef will see something sells well and copy it. That’s not a good thing. We can’t elevate our standard, confidence or knowledge and the whole cuisine can’t advance. A chef should express his own character. People have said to me, why don’t you try this from this chef? It’s not that other [chefs’] creations are inferior, but that your brain will always be revolving around someone else’s ideas. You’re not coming from your own style.”
Another challenge, Lau Chun laments, is Chinese chefs’ reluctance to stray from tradition and fear of foreign gadgets.
“The whole narrative of cooking is different here,” he says. “I have been talking to a lot of chefs and telling them to try sous-vide; it’s a much better way to cook proteins. But they are reluctant because they don’t understand the science. It’s a general problem within the industry. The equipment is not cheap and they may not be confident enough to invest in something they don’t understand. That’s why there’s not much advancement in Chinese cooking. We know how to use truffle paste or oil, but sadly that seems to be one of our biggest achievements – and it comes from a jar.”
Lee points out that many diners aren’t looking for change. “People say I’m here to eat Chinese food, I don’t care what ingredients you use. I want char siu, roast goose, suckling pig. So we can have changes, but we won’t leave the framework.”
As Lau Chun puts it, “We’re a long way away from a Chinese Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal.”