Cover Man Wah's Matsutake mushroom guo zha (Photo: Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong)

Chef Wong Wing-Keung is determined to uphold the pillars of Cantonese cuisine for years to come

It looks deceivingly simple, the guo zha. A golden-brown, diamond-shaped nugget with telltale curls of crisp batter around its edges, this is no ordinary dish but one that is testament to the level of technical difficulty required to master it. The outside is light and shatteringly crisp, quickly yielding to a soft, creamy centre that dissolves upon the palate, releasing waves of the rich, earthy, savoury notes of Matsutake mushroom. It’s a dish that chef Wong Wing-Keung, a disciple of the great chef Theresa Yiu—better known by her deferential moniker Dashijie—has sought to master for years under her tutelage. Everything must be in fine balance, Wong says, from the thickness of the batter to the consistency of the mushroom custard mixture, the quantity and the temperature of the oil. “Making it is only possible if every step is carefully done. Too hot, and the guo zha dissolves immediately into the oil,” he explains. “Too cold, and the batter will fail to crisp up.”

Above Discover the new Man Wah

To walk this tightrope is something ingrained from decades of fine-tuning his craft, says Wong, the executive Chinese chef of Man Wah at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. He references a Chinese saying that a chef is a novice for the first ten years—“I can finally say that I am no longer a novice,” he smiles. “Being a Chinese chef is simple,” he continues, somewhat enigmatically. “All it takes is hard work day in, day out—and you’ll already be halfway on the road to success.” To this veteran chef (Wong has been working in kitchens since he was young), the process of learning is never-ending, and the fact that he is in a position to spotlight the myriad complexities of Cantonese cuisine at one of Hong Kong’s most iconic hotels is a torch he will fight to carry for the rest of his career. Having worked with the group for more than ten years—he first joined Man Wah in 2011 before leading the kitchens at Yat Tung Heen in the now-closed Excelsior Hotel—Wong has slipped into the role of champion for traditional Cantonese cuisine for a new era. With the extensive renovation of the Mandarin Oriental’s flagship Chinese restaurant, comes also new opportunities for reimagining the trajectory of Chinese gastronomy for years to come, as the master chef returns to an entirely new restaurant. 

At Man Wah, there is an effortless blending of nostalgic and modernist touches that extends from the design of the dining room through to the format in which dishes are presented to the guest. “When people think of traditional Chinese cuisine, it’s often about sharing dishes together,” says Wong, with reference to village meals and epic feasts. But in today’s Hong Kong, there is an expectation for individual servings delivered course-by-course, much in the style of western tasting menus, for high end Chinese restaurants. But no matter the format, Wong’s mission is to faithfully tell the story of forgotten Cantonese flavours through his own perspective.

Being a Chinese chef is simple. All it takes is hard work day in, day out—and you’ll already be halfway on the road to success.

“Our menu is all about finding original tastes and uncovering the roots of classical flavours,” he explains. Dishes such as guo zha are one such example, with other creations such as sautéed lobster in superior fish broth—an umami-packed, delicious elixir redolent of the sea—that are also presented with unexpected elements including sake-marinated salmon roe and dehydrated caviar.  Other under-represented dishes from the Chinese culinary canon include duck feet rolls, which Wong believes is rare even today. “It used to be a commoner’s delicacy,” he says of the tedious recipe, which involves wrapping multiple ingredients—from deboned duck feet to barbecued pork, pork belly, marinated chicken liver and taro—in duck intestine before it is roasted and sliced into thick medallions. At Man Wah, it is turned into what the chef believes to be the most exquisite version you’ll find anywhere—and that is just one of many reasons why a meal here is never going to be quite what you expect.

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