A deep appreciation for Cantonese cuisine underscores chef ArChan Chan’s first ever cookbook, out this September 2020
After more than a decade spent working abroad, first in Melbourne and now in Singapore as the executive chef of LeVeL33, the opportunity to pen a love letter to her home town was one ArChan Chan could not let slip by. Completed in less than six months, at the same time her restaurant was undergoing major renovations, Hong Kong Local is a vibrant tribute to the iconic dishes the young chef grew up eating, from familiar dim sum classics like barbecued pork buns and har gao to esoteric and nostalgic foods like red bean pudding and the Chinese New Year sesame treats known as “smiley cookies”. Seen in its entirety, the cookbook, the chef’s first, evokes curiosity and joy through its vibrant, Sixties-tinged block colour layouts and high-contrast photography by the talented Alana Dimou, which paints the pages with a childlike innocence.
Chan, who fully understands Hongkongers’ knack for eating at any and all hours of the day, divides the chapters by times: you’ll find recipes for morning pick-me-ups like Hong Kong-style milk tea, satay beef instant noodles and rice noodle rolls in “Early”; “Mid” includes the obligatory wonton noodles; “Late” is for indulgences such as crisp Chiu Chow oyster omelettes and “stir fry king”, a dish of wok-fried garlic chives and both dried and fresh prawns. For Chan, this project has been an opportunity for reflection, to look back on what she has learnt about not only cooking but also her own culture as perceived through the lens of a world that is paying more attention to the city than ever before.
How would you describe Hong Kong in a few sentences?
Hong Kong food is actually, to me, like a spirit. It’s the hard-working mentality you see when someone spends so much time making a puff pastry egg tart, for example. If you knew how much work goes into it, the selling price is really ridiculous. I guess this is what influenced me as a chef—that overall hard-working attitude, in terms of the food and the culture.
What is your Hong Kong origin story?
I was born in 1985, which I think is an interesting time because we were in an era when we still had quite bit of cultural history—you know, you could still get street food really on the street. I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef, because in Hong Kong it wasn’t really a career or profession. But growing up I loved reading about psychology, and one concept that really stuck in my mind was “do what you like to do”. When I was asked to pick a subject in university, I asked if there was anything food-related and actually applied to study catering at Polytechnic University. I still remember that, out of 300 students, only two [including myself] actually chose to do their placements in the kitchen.
When writing Hong Kong Local, how did you curate your menu of featured dishes? What did you leave out and what did you fight to keep in?
There was the street-food aspect, the curry fish balls and the “deep-fried three treasures” (stuffed tofu, aubergines and peppers on skewers) that didn’t make it in. Because when I thought about it, yes, I can do a recipe for it, but what is street food if you’re not eating it on the street? In the same way: what is a dai pai dong if you are eating the food in an air-conditioned building? That is an important aspect of Hong Kong eating as well: how food is like really on the street. That is the part that I kind of left out, thinking, well, if I can’t put the essence in, then there’s no point.
I also really wanted to include things that someone who didn’t grow up in Hong Kong would not know. For example, most people know about the yau ja gwai (crullers). But ngau lei so (sweet Chinese doughnut)? Not so much. In the same way, everyone knows the egg tart but not everyone knows the coconut tart. I wanted to try to bring in something that people may have missed, to spark their curiosity. My intention is to bring some of the things that people aren’t familiar with, like double-boiled milk, and have them think: “Oh, this is a different aspect of Hong Kong food that I have never seen.”
When you next come back to Hong Kong, what will be the first foods you’ll eat and the first restaurants you want to go back to?
I always love to go to Tuen Mun Sam Shing Hui Seafood Market, where you can eat fresh seafood, cooked the style that you like—to me, this is heaven. When I was living in Melbourne, you couldn’t get fresh razor clams. You just could not. I love them steamed with garlic, vermicelli and soy sauce; I could eat two bowls of rice with it. Interestingly, in Australia there’s a dish that is very popular called XO pippies, but to me the best version is Cantonese-style clams with black bean sauce. Lin Heung is always one of the places I always go back to. You always have to queue, and you drink the tea in a special cup, but I think these are the aspects that make me miss Hong Kong so much.
Hong Kong Local: Cult Recipes From The Streets That Make The City by ArChan Chan features more than 70 recipes accompanied by photos by Alana Dimou and is being published by Smith Street Books on September 1. It will be available online and in all good bookshops. Click here for an exclusive preview of three recipes by ArChan Chan.
Want to see more from Tatler Hong Kong? You can now download and read our full August issue for free. Simply click here to redeem your free issue. Please note, the free download is available from 4 August, 2020 and is valid until 31 August, 2020.
Alana Dimou for Hong Kong Local