HONG KONG, July 29 — Everyone’s speaking the same language as I am but this is a foreign land to me.
I grew up speaking both English and Cantonese at home, but the English and Cantonese spoken here in Hong Kong are of a different strain. More cutesy, more earnest maybe. As it stands, how odd that we should speak the same tongues and have them divide us? My Cantonese ensures that I am welcome here but also marks me clearly as a stranger.
Being a stranger has its benefits, however. We see with new eyes, we savour with innocent tastebuds. We are visitors here in Hong Kong and we must not miss out on the best Cantonese food in the world. There is more to Cantonese cuisine than dim sum and gong sik chow fan (Cantonese style fried rice), after all.
We make a pilgrimage to T’ang Court, one of only five 3-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurants worldwide. Located in Tsim Sha Tsui, not far from the waterfront, T’ang Court is aptly named, evoking the grandeur of the Tang Dynasty, a period considered by culinary scholars to be the Golden Age of the Chinese cuisine.
The décor is lush: burgundy draped ceilings with crown-shaped chandeliers; white tablecloths and golden lighting; Sancai ceramic ware — trays, jars and horses — in a trinity of amber, green and creamy glazes, typical of the Tang Dynasty. It’s as though we have been transported to an imperial court in the Middle Kingdom.
There is a timeless beauty here, perhaps a hint of the timelessness of the dishes to come. We imagine a decadent and over the top banquet to come, the way it was in ancient times. What the Cantonese can conjure up is no less impressive than French haute cuisine or Japanese kaiseki ryori.
T’ang Court’s kitchen is headed by Chef Kwong Wai Keung, an acclaimed master of Cantonese cooking who first joined the restaurant in 1988. He is known for his focus on seasonality, a reflection of his profound understanding of authentic Cantonese cuisine.
The philosophy is simple: with the freshest ingredients, be it lobsters or crabs (two of Chef Kwong’s favourite ingredients, incidentally), the cooking itself doesn’t have to be overly complicated; the skill and precision and timing must all lend to showcasing the ingredients at their best.
Chef Kwong’s signature dishes include the popular golden-fried T’ang Court crispy chicken, braised dried abalone with fish maw, and stir-fried diced wagyu with spring onion and wasabi. Classic dim sum are also available during the day; we are told that his pan-fried cheong fun (rolled rice noodles) doused in house-made XO sauce and fried glutinous dumplings stuffed with pork, shrimp and leek are highlights.
So many choices, what with the venerated siu mei (roast meats) and extensive seafood menus also beckoning us. We decide the best way to experience the breadth and depth of Chef Kwong’s flair with Cantonese cuisine is to sample T’ang Court’s tasting menu.
Why isn’t a rich si maht nai cha (stocking milk tea) or well-turned har kow (shrimp dumpling) — the food of common people — enough, we had wondered. Now is our chance to find out.
Our banquet for two begins with a trio of appetisers: chilled South African abalone with jellyfish, at once bouncy and succulent; fried diced cod glazed with honey, its skin crisped up till it almost shatters when we take a bite; and good old-fashioned char siu, my favourite barbecued pork caramelised to perfection.
A Cantonese meal is never complete without soup, or so my father never fails to remind me. We are served imperial bird’s nest soup stewed with crab meat and bamboo fungus, smooth and crunchy, savoury yet light. A dash of white pepper gives it the faintest hint of spice; no harsh flavours are tolerated.
Service is a refreshing change from the frostiness of a Parisian maître d’ or the ritualised formalism of a kimono-clad nakai in Kyoto. The lau min bou zheong (floor captain) had greeted us politely but also with great warmth, as though we are one of his regulars, many of whom have favourite tables. His casual charm and twinkly eye wit reminds me of what I love about Cantonese service at its best: we are put at ease immediately, all the better to enjoy our meal.
Next comes an exemplary display of Chef Kwong’s way with seafood: fresh lobster baked in chicken broth. The crustacean is caught in shallow waters locally; its size may be smaller than imported lobsters but its flesh is also sweeter. As we dine, the servers ensure our tea is continually refilled, never allowing our cup to go cold.
The stir-fried wagyu with kailan, coriander and spring onion looks simple enough when our plates are laid before us but we’ve since learned that simplicity here is the very essence of exquisiteness. The beef is cooked just right, still tender and moist; the fried alliums adding heavenly aromatics.
Well wishes for longevity arrive with our bowls of e-fu noodles, chewy and slick with gravy. Seasoned with conpoy and black mushrooms, these make for silken slurps. Life is good. Long life, and live well, we say.
As our meal comes to a close, I notice the trio of dips placed earlier on the table: a fiery red chilli paste (more sweet than spicy), pickled green chillies in soy sauce and some brined olives. What we’ve enjoyed is so good on its own that these aren’t even necessary.
We end with some fresh fruits and a pair of T’ang Court petit fours: a cube of gojiberry jelly and a pear-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste. On a whim, we decide to order a couple more desserts and are justly rewarded; T’ang Court’s light as air egg tarts and subtly nutty pistachio rolls are simply divine. This isn’t gluttony, we tell ourselves, this is a bit of pampering.
And indeed, we had imagined a luxurious banquet when we first stepped into the restaurant. An opulent meal harking back to the Tang Dynasty. Yet what we’ve just experienced isn’t about opulence; this is about honest, simple food elevated through deep craft and decades-long dedication. Genuine pride in food done well, done very well.
In Hong Kong, everyone’s speaking the same language as me but this is a foreign land to me. Locals I’ve had the fortune to chat with tell me they feel the same sometimes; increasingly like strangers in their own home.
All the more reason to exult in the very best their culture and culinary heritage has to offer. Every bite of a perfectly roasted siu mei is a nod to decades of training and hard work, a celebration of those whose finest hour may have yet to come.
We have just shared a meal flavoured by the hopes of a people. This is the food of the common people, raised to the highest bar. Now that’s a taste worth remembering, that’s a dish worth preserving.
8 Peking Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Open Mon-Fri 12-3pm & 6-11pm; Sat-Sun 11am-3pm & 6-11pm
Tel: +852 2132 7898