As a city where Chinese cuisine flourishes in both its classic and reinvented forms, Hong Kong cradles some of the best Cantonese cooking in the world, as served by chefs who have dedicated their careers to preserving its heritage. While connoisseurs consider it to be one of the most diverse regional cuisines of China, Cantonese cooking is also, frustratingly, often most misunderstood. Enter chef Man-Ip Fung, the newly appointed executive chef of Duddell’s, whose 35 years in some of the city’s best and most exclusive professional kitchens have made him a paragon of fine Cantonese cookery. Might he hold the key to unlocking the secrets of this age-old cuisine?
Throughout the decades, Fung has worked his way up the ranks, from Lei Garden to Renaissance Harbourview Hotel’s Dynasty. Before heading up the team at Duddell’s, Fung was head of the opening team at Mott 32. As part of his new role, he has shared his knowledge of Cantonese cuisine to create his new menu selections, pinpointing exactly what it is about the cuisine that makes the Cantonese so proud of their heritage.
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“The most important thing about Cantonese cuisine is freshness, and that means freshness in flavours,” says Fung. “We call it having a strong ‘base flavour’, and the only way to achieve that is using fresh ingredients.” More often than not, the magic often lies in the preparation of the simplest of dishes. “Cantonese cuisine includes that of Hong Kong, as well as Teochew and Hakka and much more. Take Teochew cuisine as an example: the best grey mullets are steamed and served chilled, allowing its richness to come through on its own, which shows you how significant fresh ingredients are in best Cantonese dishes. “
To preserve the taste of freshness, Cantonese chefs do not resort to condiments right away. Instead, techniques are used to preserve this elusive flavour. “Heat is your friend when it comes to Cantonese food. A hot wok and oil are used for everything, from searing meats to a quick toss of vegetables, drawing out moisture and amplifying base flavours. It doesn’t get simpler than that.”
Fung is proud of his freshness-preserving cooking methods such as pan-searing and steaming, the latter often considered the most difficult technique in the Cantonese repertoire. “Steaming involves surrounding the ingredient completely with hot air, protecting and locking moisture inside, hence preserving its freshness. Appearing in almost all banquets, the key to steaming fish is not to overcook it. It is important to steam it until slightly underdone, and allow the residual heat to finish the cooking.” As a result, the steamed fish remains tender and juicy, and cooked just to its optimum doneness.
The same is true for chef Fung’s steamed garoupa with tofu. Filleted from fresh garoupas every day, the boneless fish fillet is steamed quickly, topping tofu with a simple drizzle of soy sauce and julienned ginger. “When you have a dish simple like this one, embellishments are distractions,” explains Fung.
Freshness is not only preserved, but also enhanced in Cantonese cuisine. Such is the case with Fung’s shrimp dumplings, a best-selling dim sum at Duddell’s. Whereas conventional versions mix shrimp and pork for the filling, Fung filled his open-faced dumpling with only pounded shrimps, adding a jellied stock made from simmered shells of crustaceans. The jellied stock melts into the minced shrimp filling during steaming, adding intensity to the dumpling which also features a soft-yolk quail egg. “The idea comes from the famous xiaolongbao, or soup dumpling. By adding jellied stock, the flavours will intensify and can also keep the taste fresh,” says Fung.
With the rise of artificial flavour enhancers in the food industry, Fung is not shy to speak his mind. “At Duddell’s we do not use MSG. Back in the day, Chinese chefs have sworn by it, but we can use something much simpler that can be found in a home cook’s larder - soy sauce. It is an excellent lifter of flavours. The best soy sauce has an earthy touch from the top quality soy beans, which blends into the foods to build complexity in the dish,” he says. “A touch of soy sauce is all you need to make steamed fish taste wonderful, or for adding to the richness of a simple fried sunny-side up egg. The Chinese have tasted soy sauce for generations, there is no need for scientific explanation to why soy sauce is so great in preserving the fresh taste in food because we have our great understanding of soy sauce and its magic tasted and transcended through generations.” The same is true in preserving the essence of Cantonese cuisine—we only need the basics to keep it alive and fresh.
Duddell's, 3/F & 4/F Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central; +852 2525 9191