Friday, July 1, 2016

Home-style Chiuchow

A flurry of whatsapp messages later on a Sunday some friends and we gathered for dinner at Lok Hau Fook in Kowloon City, an old-school restaurant specializing in Chiuchow dishes, which is a branch of Cantonese cuisine rooted from the once-prosperous town of Chiuchow, or Teochew as pronounced in the local dialect.

Kowloon City has long been known as a foodie town of sorts on this side of Hong Kong, with scores of restaurants (particularly Thai and Chiuchow) and a few high-end bakeries and specialty grocery shops all lined in a few blocks of this old mixed business and residential neighborhood near the now-demolished Kai Tak Airport. Lok Hau Fook, with the name meaning "Pleasing to the palate" in Chinese, is one of the oldest, serving authentic Chiuchow dishes at the current location since early 1950s.

The restaurant occupied the first two floors of a building dated back to the pre-war period - the type completed with verandah extended above the pavement, an architecture style common in the old colonial days (you can still see plenty of those in Singapore, who obviously did a much better job in preserving the heritage buildings) The interior is in the same retro style, which looked like they haven't changed a bit since forever with old Chinese calligraphy paintings and traditional dragon and phoenix backdrop decorations on the wall, which once upon a time was the common décor in Chinese restaurants.

The menu here is strictly traditional Chiuchow with essentially the same set of dishes available day in, day out, as long as the ingredients were available - they are not the place coming up with new dishes every month and rotate their menus regularly to keep it afresh. We started with the cold grey mullet, which came in at just the right portion for the 8 of us. We often called eating out at a Chiuchow restaurant as "Da Lang" (打冷), and cold mullet has long been a stable of classic Da Lang dish, with the whole fish cleaned and descaled, slightly cured then slow-poached to cook, and serve chilled with a salty bean dipping sauce. It's well cooked and with excellent flaky texture.

We moved on to other home-style dishes. The pepper and pig tripe soup is always a popular choice at a Chiuchow restaurant and it was delicious. I personally thought the soup was not peppery enough, but the pickled cabbage giving the soup a complex, tangy, tart flavor and the pig tripes for the chewy bite. The pork ribs with mustard green is similar to the soup, but the vegetables were not pickled and has a fresh, sweet taste with the tender meat in a soupy stew served in a large bowl.

Many places now do the Chiuchow pancake like a regular egg omelet, but here the ones with pearl oysters and loofah has a more gooey texture and a crispy burnt edge, with more sweet potato starch added in and deep-fried in oil (instead of just pan-frying), just the way it should be done traditionally. The stir-fry goose intestines was another rich dish that we ordered, and I love the bite of the fatty goose intestines with crunchy onions and bell peppers sauteed in a rich black bean sauce.

The grilled eel was another of our favorite of the night. The chunks of eel were brushed with a sweet soy-sauce glaze on top the grilled, giving it a very enticing sweet-savory flavor with a hint of smokiness. I love the firm texture of the eels too. Our last two dishes were the oyster rice porridge and the traditional pan-fried noodles, to be eaten in slices with a spoonful of sugar and vinegar on top, giving the crispy noodles a caramelized and tangy taste.

Our desserts were taro done two ways, both being traditional Chiuchow sweets. First was called "Fan Sa Woo", or sweet-fried taro. Taro was cut like a “jenga block” (or like Pommes Pont Neuf) then cooked in low heat in a pan of caramelized sugar. The sugar slowly turned into syrup and coated the taro then turned back into solid form. It’s a time consuming dish to make. The second one was the taro paste with gingko nuts, one of my all-time favorite desserts, requiring a fine balance of oil mixed in with mashed taro to create the perfectly smooth texture. Both went well with the "kung fu tea", strong oolong tea served in tiny cups said to be good for your digestion after a big meal.

Water tumblers were all we got when we asked for wine glasses for our brought-in wines, but they didn't charge us corkage so we weren't complaining. We started with a champer, moving on to a couple white and red wines (white from Rhone, red from Tuscany), then finished with some sake and umeshu (Japanese plum wine) Most bottles were day-old, opened during the dinner party the previous night, but they were still very good for an easy meal like this.

In this town where restaurants and shops came and went, partly driven out by high rent, nostalgic places like Lok Hau Hook is hard to come by these days. Perhaps we should do our part to support by going there more often.

When? May 29 2016
Where? Lok Hau Fook Restaurant, 1-3 Hau Wong Road, Kowloon City
Menu Highlights? House specialty grilled eel
(Partial List)
Egly Ouriet Champagne Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV
Domain Hubert Lamy St Aubin Premier Cru "en Remilly" 2009

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