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Through Bun House, Wun's Tea Room and Pleasant Lady, Guandong-born Z He has brought her love of Hong Kong cuisine to London. Here she explains why she fell in love with its unique gastronomy
Food was always of at the heart of Z He’s close-knit family. So much so, that the passion she developed for it at a young age, growing up in the small town of Xiaolan – in China’s Guangdong province – was so great it even took over from her initial careerplan in interior design. 'I think thereason I do this,' explains Z, who runs London's Bun House, Wun’s Tea Room and Pleasant Lady with husband Alex Peffly, 'is because everyone in my family is so big on food. We grew up eating so much – everybody was always fighting to cook. In most houses, when it’s your birthday somebody makes something nice for you, but in our family, it meant you got todo the cooking.'
It was in Guangdong, in the courtyard of her family home, that Z learnt about food. 'There are a lot of family recipes. My grandpa, who was a chef in the police, did lots of pickle-style dishes,' she explains. 'His most famous is called wind fish, which means it's wind-dried. He had a special marinade in a giant urn that he used, then he’d hang it up in the courtyard in the autumn days. Once it was ready, he’d wrap it up and we’d all be waiting to receive the delivery of a Grandpa special – that recipe was handed down to us, but it never matches up to when he used to do it.
'We recently did a dish [at Wun’s Tea Room] that was inspired by my grandparents. It was sour plum duck – my grandparents would always fight over which of them the dish belonged to. Grandpa had a plum plant at home and he would pick the plums himself, then pickle them in sweet vinegar and wine with oyster sauce, soy sauce, star anise, bay and lots of sugar – the sour plum at home is always pickled for years. Then Grandma would use it to braise the duck and the pickled plums would just melt into the sauce. 'I spoke to my whole family about this dish and really tried to make it work and improve it for the restaurant, but we didn’t have my grandpa’s secret recipe, so it didn’t work – we took it down. I really wanted it to be our signature dish.'
Living in apartment buildings, the outside courtyards were where families gathered, people cooked and even ate when the weather allowed. When it didn’t, and the weather turned, it was inside for the warmth. 'There was a lot of outdoor eating,' Z says, 'but one of my earliest memories is of being sat around a giant wooden table, in a very cramped kitche. 'It’s my favourite thing,' she continues, 'and when it’s Cantonese, it’s usually got a seafood base – my home town was big on river fish.
'You’d put anything into it. It could be thin slices of river fish, raw corn-fed free-range chicken – and they’re so free range, they’re literally everywhere. We had quails walking around my grandma’s house, too – you got to play with them, and then eat them afterwards. Basically, we’d chop up every kind of meat – chicken, rabbit, fish – and put everything into a hot pot.'
Everywhere Z went, food was centre stage – she even looked forward to school dinners. 'Schoolmeals were like a Chinese buffet,' she says. 'Every braised vegetable you can think of; all sorts of meat – chicken, duck, lamb – and this wasn’t a fancy school, everybody had a giant food hall like this. It was such a yummy set-up. There were different meat braises, broths, congee, beef noodles, in fact any noodles you wanted.
'I love food-hall food in China,' she continues. 'My first communal dining experience was in Father’s factory, in Xiaolan, where they had something like 5,000 employees in a big food hall. I ate there once a week and it was just as good as my school meals – every week a different stew was on the menu.' The family later moved to the city of Guangzhou, but there was one destination that Z loved visiting the most. Just as many of the best Cantonese chefs find themselves gravitating towards Hong Kong, so too did Z He, although it was an education that began very young. 'We used to go Hong Kong every Christmas and New Year,' she says. 'I loved going, because it had all the nice food and the nice clothes and the Westernstyle everything.
'I remember when I first went to Hong Kong because we had to fake my brother’s age,' she laughs. 'For the visa, you had to be six or seven, Ithink, and he was a year or two too young, so we had to teach him to say "I’m six".' It was in Hong Kong where Z discovered cha chaan teng. 'These are where I had all my favourite food memories,' she says. 'These were cafés and canteens that specialised in Hong Kong-style Western food. As a child born into the colonial time, these were quintessential Hong Kong – I loved the flavours. They basically recreated colonial China with a twist in the Hong Kong environment.'
Cha chaan teng are found across Hong Kong, but also in Macau and Guangdong, where people have discovered them in Hong Kong and moved back to the mainland. During colonial times, Western food, mostly British, influenced the cuisine that flooded Hong Kong. 'That was mostly served in a restaurant setting, a highend food,' explains Z. 'Most people couldn’t afford that but wanted it, so the British food got "commonised" and it gave birth to these cha chaan teng where you’d drink milky tea. The Chinese don’t drink tea with milk, but because of British influence, Hong Kong people started putting milk and sugar in their tea. The milk tasted different, and the tea was brewed in a large sock, so it was known as ‘silk stocking tea’.
'The food would be Western-influenced canteen food, so we’d have Hong Kong French toast, which was basically deep-fried French toast, but with syrup on top and maybe cheese and peanut sandwiched in between. 'Western food basically meant anything served on a plate, so you might have rice or noodle plates with some sort of steak or deepfried thing on top. Literally, it would just be a flipped rice bowl on your plate with a hot dog on top.
'Another famous Hong Kong favourite is yuenyeung, which is basically a mixture of Hong Kong milky tea and coffee – it’s so good, I can’t believe it’s not a thing anywhere else in the world.'
While Z also points to the main different types of authentic Chinese cuisine you can get in Hong Kong, with people moving from all regions of the country and bringing with them their own flavours, she firmly believes that its the region's cha chaan teng that make it stand out. 'It’s completely unique,' she says, 'it’s very much integral to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage. We’re still influenced by it now – we have egg tart and pineapple bun on the menu that originates from this.'
Z and her family love Hong Kong, not just for the food, but also the accessibility. 'You can fly everywhere from Hong Kong,' she says, 'we once flew to Japan for the day because it was so close and my dad really fancied sushi.' Just the sight of Hong Kong is enough to impress, though. 'Basically, Hong Kong is in the mountains,' she says. 'It’s woven into hills and mountains and when you look up, it’s so futuristic. You just wonder that a city can be built like this – modernity intertwined with nature. There’s no other city that has been able to achieve this kind of design.
'It’s very developed as a city, but it’s also very local, too. You still have the food markets, the fruit and vegetable vendors, all weaving through these cracks of alleyways. It might be high-tech, but the local culture has not disappeared. It’s the very essence of everyday life in Hong Kong.'
On every corner, says Z, there’s another food experience to be found in the restaurants cooking up the freshest fish from the Sai Kung floating seafood market. 'My uncle would buy from the little boats, hailing them down, haggling for the goodies while they were still jumping around,' says Z. 'Or we’d go to these restaurants with giant tanks and no menu and we’d just pick from what we saw and my dad and uncle would say how they wanted them cooked. Even now, this is still how they do it.'
More experiences to savour: Kowloon’s ‘super-famous’ beef noodle soup; the dim sum – ‘each district has its own flair or speciality'; the ‘authentic’ street food that comes from all parts of Southeast Asia. 'Walk as much as you can when you go to Hong Kong,' says Z. 'You need to get out of the malls and explore the streets, the local eateries, the markets, wander down little alleyways, try the vendors’ food, find the places with just three tables out on the street.'
But, as it has experienced some unrest of late, her best piece of advice she saves for last. 'Definitely go now,' she says, 'because it is changing rapidly, but there is still so much to explore and discover.'
Chiu Chow Delicacies One of my favourite daa laang [serving Chinese cuisine local to Hong Kong since the 1950s], where the classics like braised goose slices and baby oyster congee are consistently well executed. Ngan Fai Building, 84-94A Wharf Road, North Point
Kau Kee Food Cafe Expect long queues at this small eatery. The beef brisket and broth is heavenly. I always go for the traditional clear broth brisket with ho fun noodles. Try adding beef tendon to the mix. The curry beef brisket noodle is also amazing. Ground Floor, 21 Gough Street, Central District
Kam's Roast Goose This 70-year-old restaurant knows a thing or two in creating that perfect bite of roast goose – the birds they use the crispy skin. It is the most moreish in Hong Kong. 226 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai
Mido Cafe A typical cha chaan teng that opened in the 1950s and which has remained unchanged ever since. The food is great, but even just for the classic design of the place, I think it is worth a visit. 63 Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei
Words by Alex Mead.
This interview was taken from the January/February 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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