Rediscovering Hong Kong’s Fisherfolk Flavors

Crab in Gold from chef Margaret Xu Yuan’s autumn tasting menu.

Crab in Gold from chef Margaret Xu Yuan’s autumn tasting menu.

At a private kitchen on Ting Kau Beach, the forgotten flavors of Hong Kong’s traditional fisherfolk are given a contemporary spin.

Photographs by Callaghan Walsh

Chef Xu in the garden of her beach house–cum–private kitchen.

Chef Xu in the garden of her beach house–cum–private kitchen.

Before Hong Kong had high-rises and glittering nightlights, expansive bridges and big-loop high­ways, grand hotels and fine-dining restaurants … before all this, there were fishing villages. And in those villages, there were fishermen with wooden sampan boats who would trawl the coastline’s sandy beaches, rocky shallows, and watery depths for marine life that was native and plentiful and a staple of the daily diet.

When you talk food with celebrity chef Marga­ret Xu Yuan, it is easy to imagine this bygone era, when the city’s extensive shores were still mostly wild and their inhabitants attuned to the ocean and its bounty. It’s easy to imagine because the neglected fishing-village cuisine from those early days is the inspiration behind Yin Yang Coast­al, Xu’s private kitchen in the beachside hamlet of Ting Kau.

Situated in the New Territories to the west of Kowloon, Ting Kau was once a weekend getaway for the city’s wealthy set. That all changed about 20 years ago with the development of Ting Kau Bridge, a six-lane, cable-stayed span connecting the mainland with Tsing Yi Island and Hong Kong International Airport beyond. Now in the bridge’s shadow and flanked by a multilane expressway, the vil­lage has been left to its own devices. And it’s here, in a flat-roofed beach house backdropped by lush jungle greenery, that Xu welcomes a handful of guests each night in as serene a setting as you’ll find in an urban environment. The combination of the village, where fishermen still throw their nets into the waters, and the bridge itself, which disappears tower by tower into the foggy distance, is the per­fect old-meets-new metaphor for her cooking.

Hong Kong coastal cuisine, as she refers to it now, is the chef’s reinvention of traditional fishermen’s home recipes. “Pre-colonial coastal Hongkongers mostly ate whatever their daily boat harvest was, Cantonese fishermen’s style: a lot of fresh fish and seafood mixed with preserved salted vegetables, dried prawns and squid, and other things that didn’t require refrig­eration,” she says.

Yin Yang Coastal’s beachside home in Ting Kau.

Yin Yang Coastal’s beachside home in Ting Kau.

Xu’s interpretation similarly relies on sourcing the traditional seafood and wild ingredients found in and around Hong Kong waters and cooking them using mod­est techniques—steaming, poaching, lightly frying—to maintain the delicate and subtle flavors that she says have been lost in the “tourist version of fishing-village cuisine, such as typhoon-shelter crab and deep-fried calamari, which developed in the colonial days.” Overlaying this is a contemporary emphasis on organic produce. Xu pickles her own garlic, stone-grinds her own spices, picks herbs from the pots on the house’s terrace, and plucks her own fruit and veg­etables from her nearby farm.

Xu opened her first iteration of Yin Yang in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island in 2011. Her focus on organic produce and her use of tradi­tional Cantonese cooking techniques brought her instant recognition and celebrity status. Last year, after the lease expired on the private kitchen’s beautifully restored tong lau (tenement building), she relocated to her Ting Kau beach house with a view to “new adventures with old Hong Kong fishing village cuisine, reborn with wild contemporary notes.”

“Wan Chai was only an interlude in my cook­ing career,” Xu says. “It was part of my efforts to promote any kind of Hong Kong food culture, but Ting Kau is where I belong now.”

The Opera involves layers of jellied sea cucumber consommé and organic “music” eggs from a local farm where chickens are raised to a playlist of Mozart and modern pop.

The Opera involves layers of jellied sea cucumber consommé and organic “music” eggs from a local farm where chickens are raised to a playlist of Mozart and modern pop.

Acknowledging that fishing-village cuisine in its original form is “too folksy for the inter­national dining table,” she imbues her dishes with creativity and playfulness. One that sums up her culinary prowess is Autumn Leaves, the seasonal starter in my eight-course set menu. Whelks, which have a similar taste and texture to octopus, are served in their spiky shells on a white platter prettily garnished with garden ingredients: pickled pink garlic and chili okra sauce, shiso leaves picked from the pots outside, and circles of pumpkin to represent the autumn moon. Around the whelks float little boats of okra topped with balls of plump orange salmon roe and squares of homemade organic tofu that the chef has set with filtered seawater.

Another standout is a course called Lobster in Spa, which sees the wild-caught crustacean poached whole at the table in a broth of chry­santhemum tea and native hibiscus petals. The medallions of sweet lobster flesh are plucked straight from the central bowl with chopsticks.

Though her tasting menus change with the seasons—sea urchin, for example, is available in spring, when it might be steamed with egg cus­tard—it is underpinned by sustainably harvest­ed seafood and “simple flavors and techniques that come together.” That, and a long-overdue nod to Hong Kong’s culinary roots.

“Hong Kong was a fishing village before it was colonized. No one seems to remember that,” Xu says.

Guided by her endeavors at Yin Yang Coastal, perhaps now they will.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Coasting Along”).

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