A gloomy, damp day in Hong Kong. Legco is in session but I
don’t feel like going downtown to watch, so I fire up the computer, and point
the browser to RTHK’s marvelous utility, “Legco Live“. The video feed straight from the floor of the Great Council uploads, and at once my screen is filled with the visage of HK
Constitutional Secretary Stephen Lam. He’s the mop-up man whose job is to legally justify all
the HK government’s actions that don’t follow the letter of the Basic Law,
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
That is, they don’t, until Secretary Lam finishes
elaborately “explaining” them. “You can tell he’s hiding things from his
voice,” Longhair always says. “He speaks low and mumbles. It’s like
he knows the bad thing he’s doing and feels embarrassed about it.”
Modern technology is a wonderful thing. With a
click I minimize and mute Stephen Lam.
Back to work. I settle in to write an article.
When I look up again, it’s six hours later
And I’m hungry–for human companionship as much as
for food. So I send an SMS to Ah Go: Do you want to come over for dinner later?
I’ll make ngau pa and yi daai lei fan.
Ah Go is a busy guy. Like most Hong Kongers, he usually
works very late, and you have to twist his arm to lure him away from his
office. A dinner invitation alone might not work. That’s why I’ve upped the
ante and offered to cook his favorite meal: Steak and Spaghetti.
ngau pa...literally, “cow strip” and
yi daai leih fan, or “Italy noodles”. Yi fan for short (HK Canto-speakers love short). The upstart, Marco
Polo new world noodle, as opposed to the original Chinese classic.
Steak and spaghetti is Ah Go’s
favorite meal. Or I should say, his favorite of the meals I can cook. Confession: I love Cantonese food
but I can’t cook it well. It is one of my biggest frustrations in Hong Kong. The
worse part is, I’m good in the kitchen. You want Spanish, Indian, Italian,
French, even Moroccan and Middle Eastern, I can do it. Like most Americans, I can also whip
up a yummy vegetarian “Chinese-American” stir-fry, and even the occasional Ma Po Do Fu.
But when it comes to preparing a basic Cantonese dish,
even just chau faan, fried rice. I flop. The first night I tried out a few dishes on
my Hong Kong friends, they all asked for bottled sauce, which everybody dumped over the
rice. Still, my friends ate all the food I cooked, because they are very polite, very haak hei.
Hei is a pretty unforgettable Chinese character, easy to spot with its eight-pointed asterix. It has several meanings all by itself–air, atmosphere, breath, steam, gas. But hei mostly shows up in word combinations with other characters, because Chinese culture links many emotions and feelings to the element of air.
These are the emotions that, just like tin hei (weather), move in unpredictably and wrap us in a mood, like wind and fog. And so you have, for instance, saang hei (anger), and pei hei (temper). Hei can also be used to indicate a certain manner or sensibility. When he stands up in Legco to interpret the Basic Law and apply a veneer of credibility to the government’s legal two-steps, Stephen Lam mouh gwat hei, has no “bone manner.” In other words, he’s spineless.
And my dear friends who finished every last grain of my awful rice? They have haak hei, the air and manner of most gracious guests.
Back to my Cantonese cooking. The main problem is that it doesn’t have wok hei, which is the Cantonese
term for the steamy essence of sublime flavor that rises like a culinary spirit from the skilled cook’s wok
and lingers over the dish as you rush it to the table for your guests to enjoy.
What can I say? I lack wok hei.
For months I really felt low about my cooking
failures. My friends were always inviting me over for dinner at their places and I wanted
to reciprocate. But, besides Chinese food, I didn’t know what they’d like.
One thing I love about Hong Kong people is how blunt and direct they are when it comes to two subjects. The first is money.
Even a casual aquaintance will not hesitate to tell you how much he makes, pays for rent, or sends to his mother every month.
The other one is food. When I said to my friend Ah Lan, who’s a terrific cook and
hostess, “Look, I know my Chinese cooking is awful. But I want to have you
guys over to dinner. Is there anything Western that you like to eat?” she didn’t hesitate a second before replying:
“Can you make steak? And, mmmm,
Steak and spaghetti? I asked her. The combination seemed odd to my Western cook’s ears. Spaghetti–hey, I’m from New York and we call it pasta–is Italian food, and it goes with lots of other things. Meatballs, salad, maybe a course of grilled fish. But I’ve never served it with steak at the same meal. Likewise, steak goes with potatoes–baked, fried, or boiled. Some grilled french green beans, perhaps, or a fresh salad.
And then it hit me. The steak/spaghetti combo must be part of the famous Hong Kong Soy Sauce Western cuisine. (There was a good article about Hong Kong’s Chinese-ized Western food on the AP wire last week, that ESWN linked to) For decades, Hong Kong people have been borrowing from the Western cookbook, but shifting the recipes around to suit local tastes. It is the mirror image of what Americans did to Chinese food with products like La Choy Chop Suey, or Rice-a-Roni. In the article, my buddy, the Seun Bo food columnist Lau Kin-wai, calls it “Hong Kong’s first fusion cuisine.”
I’ve had a lot of these Hong Kong-Western dishes before. They remind me of the comfort food I ate when I was a kid in the U.S.–peanut butter toast (fa saang do si), cheesy lobster casserole (ji si lung ha). And steak and (canned) spaghetti. I’d guess that is because the strongest period of Western food influence in Hong Kong happened in the 1960s, coinciding with the worldwide spread of American packaged food products and condiments.
The big dinner party day arrived. I borrowed some chairs and asked as many friends as could squeeze into my little flat. I went all out, got really good Australian rib-eye steaks from Oliver’s, and fresh tomatoes and basil and real parmesan cheese for the pasta sauce.
Ah Lan and Jackie wandered into the kitchen while I was, simultaneously, firing up the grill pan and whipping up a salad dressing from olive oil, balsamic vinegar and garlic. They politely offered to help, but I realized they had come more out of curiosity about what I was doing. Just like I am always hanging around their woks and asking them the name of every dried mushroom and preserved vegetable when I “help” them.
Ah Lan seemed a bit puzzled by the fresh chopped tomatoes, the absence of canned spaghetti sauce and ketchup. Jackie, meanwhile, wanted to know what kind of jap, sauce, I was making with the oil and garlic.
“It’s not jap, it’s a salad dressing, ” I told her. She looked thoughtful for a moment, and then I heard her say to Ah Lan, in Cantonese, “I bet that jap on the steak would be really hou meih.”
Dinner was a real Soy Sauce Western event. I cooked the first round of steaks in my Le Creuset iron skillet. They were okay. But then David cooked round two in his special “steaks only” wok that he’d brought for the occasion. Amazingly, the wok-fried steaks were even better–crispier outside, jucier inside. “It’s because you can make the wok hotter than a pan,” David explained. “It sears the meat and holds the juices in.”
At the table, I noticed that Jackie was pouring the salad dressing over her meat. What the heck, I tried it that way too. And she was right–the combo is delicious–rather like the chimichurri sauce that you get with your sirloin in Argentina.
Together, through steak and spaghetti, my friends and I are writing a new page in the history of Chinese-Western culinary collaboration.
Well, okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I am not exaggerating when I say the meal was a big hit. The guests devoured everything, and this time not because of haak hei. And sitting around the table together, we were all very happy, very fun hei.
(That hei is a different hei, actually. But it’s a good hei to know, too. I’ll explain it sometime. After dinner.)