Today I went walking out by the big pond in Prospect Park, Brooklyn to watch the baby ducks, and I noticed something very cool. Ducks make a noise that sounds exactly like the word “duck” in Cantonese! Try it: ngaap! ngaap! ngaap!
They were cute to watch, but made me glum. I haven’t had a proper piece of barbecued duck, goose or pork in almost six weeks. It will probably be some weeks more before I can indulge one of my favorite Hong Kong pastimes: afternoon yam cha at Yung Kee.
Everybody in Hong Kong knows about Yung Kee,
and even tourists will find it hard to miss. The world capital of roast goose has been around since 1942, and since 1978 it has grown to a six story empire of a headquarters on Wellington Street. Lately, the Kam family, which owns Yung Kee, has been trying out new things–there are a couple of new restaurants, one private, on the upper floors, and there’s a private VIP haunt on the top, the Kee Club. But my advice is to stick to the original Yung Kee, on the ground floor.
The décor here is functional and cuts to
the chase: in the big front window hang rows of glistening red-brown barbecued
geese. Glass shelves hold dish after dish of glossy yellow, perfectly roasted
chickens, their hind ends tilted coquettishly upward.
Yung Kee has a full menu of
Cantonese specialties, and they do a big business at lunchtime and at yam cha. If you go at that time, you should remember to order one of the most sublime bites on the planet, Yung Kee’s goose liver sausage buns, ngo cheung bao. These are the buns of your dreams. The goose liver sausage is fatty and fragrant with sweet anise and other secret spices. They come two-to-a-bamboo steamer basket, and look like a pair of oversized cocktail hot dog canapes. Don’t let their homely appearance fool you–these bao rival in rich deliciousness any pan fried French fois gras you’ve ever tasted.
Most Hong Kong customers who go to Yung Kee go just for the
goose (my friend David likes to buy takeout containers filled with barbecued goose heads, a special treat). Yung Kee’s goose, most Hong Kongers will agree, is absolutely perfect (or, in Cantonese, yuen meih,
completely beautiful). It’s juicy inside, crispy outside, yummy with fat and flavor.
Last summer, when a magazine in New York wanted a piece on Hong Kong’s classic food, I jumped at the excuse to interview Yung Kee’s head goose chef, Master Fung. Sifu Fung, a cheerful middle aged man with pudgy hands, has been roasting geese for thirty years. Goose is his life. He described for me in loving detail how every day he massages each goose through the marination stage, and how he roasts the well-prepared geese every morning over a charcoal fire in specially built oven (Yung Kee is one of the last Hong Kong restaurant
kitchens legally permitted to use charcoal fire). “Consistency,” he smiled at me,
“That is what we are most proud of.”
He also told me that when bird flu broke out in Guangdong province in 2005 and Yung
Kee’s supply of special mainland “black-hair” goose (which must weigh exactly three
pounds) was disrupted, the restaurant did not scramble to find an alternative
supplier—they just stopped selling their signature dish.
I remember that bird flu period. It was a sad time in Hong
Kong. You’d enter Yung Kee, and before the grey-haired bespectacled waiter even
handed you a menu, he’d be apologizing: “Sorry, no goose today”. And then he would nod, understandingly, so that his customer would not feel any embarassment or qualms about walking out of the restaurant on the spot. Such honor and candor is rare among restauranteurs. But it is business as usual at Yung Kee. At a time when the restaurant business in Hong Kong is all about branches, and corporate “groups”, Yung Kee refuses to think about expansion. They won’t open a branch in Canada or the U.S. because you can’t get the right goose there. They won’t even open a “Yung Kee 2” in Hong Kong.
day that goose finally returned to the Yung Kee menu, it made the news in most of
Hong Kong’s 12 daily papers. I was traveling in the U.S. at the time, but Joyce called me that day from a taxi stalled in the traffic jam outside the restaurant on Wellington Street: “The goose is
back,” she said over the crackling cell phone connection. “ I thought you’d
want to know.”
She knows me well. I did want to know. And so did the hundreds of Hong Kongers who sent SMS messages to each other that day: Siu Ngo Faan Laih La! Hong Kong is a city that has almost
no architectural reminders left of its 150 year old history. The sound of
downtown is the relentless hammer of pile drivers, the crumble of
disintegrating concrete, the whomp of the wrecker’s ball. There’s a vertigo
that you get living here, under the tall bamboo scaffolding covered with green plastic veils that flap in the wind like some Christo art creation. Underneath that green plastic, anything could be happening. In Hong Kong, we live in an uncertain present
with nothing solid and comforting to hold onto.
Except a plate of roast
goose at Yung Kee, as completely yuen meih today as it was in
Hong Kong more than 50 years ago.