Billy Ha On Why Wok Hei Is Essential In His Favourite Cantonese Dish
As part of our series celebrating the vibrancy and community within Hong Kong’s dining scene, we spoke to several of the industry’s leading lights about why they love the city’s unique food culture. Here, Billy Ha – Instagram street photographer, co-founder of coffee-wine bar Dio and veteran F&B marketer for the likes of Shangri-La Group, Épure and Aqua Group – tells us about his secret ingredient for cooking with shrimp paste and his go-to spot for beef chow fun.
Tell us about some of your favourite Hong Kong food moments.
While there are too many to list, I especially enjoy and respect the work that goes into some of the simplest Cantonese dishes that we see daily. One that I think is often overlooked is beef chow fun – it’s a dish that you see everywhere in Hong Kong, but many restaurants screw it up. The most important element of the dish is wok hei, which literally means “breath of the wok”; it’s totally dependent on the skill of the chef to preheat the wok to the right level, control its high heat and how much contact the wok and noodles have while tossing them, and use just the right amount of oil… too greasy means a failed beef chow fun! The result should be a uniquely wok hei-umami dish that condenses all the fresh flavours of beef, spring onions, ginger and bean sprouts.
There are only a few old-school places in Kowloon that I trust to make it properly now. My go-to is Fuk Kee Congee in Mong Kok; pretty much all their dishes are the bomb, especially their stir-fried items like beef hor fun. Their fresh boiled porridge – where customers can order whatever combination of ingredients they want, which the chef then tosses into a pot of plain porridge – is also great.
What are some of your favourite local ingredients to use?
For me, soy sauce is the pinnacle of Asian cuisine. I’m always fascinated by how this cheap and simple seasoning can change the whole dynamic of a dish, plus the number of varieties that are used in Cantonese cooking – such as light, first, second and third extracts, and sweet soy sauces. I’ve loved soy sauce chicken wings since I was little and there are so many ways of preparing the sauce to give it a whole new taste profile, for instance, making them sweeter “Swiss”-style, adjusting the ratio of dark and light soy sauce, or by adding star anise – the combinations are endless. You can’t beat the traditional quality of Kowloon Soy, one of the oldest local soy sauce brands.
I also think shrimp paste really represents the flavour of Hong Kong, with its humble beginnings as a small fishing village, and it adds so much flavour and fragrance to any dish. Some might say it’s too stinky, but it’s similar to uni – you either love it or hate it, as the flavour of the sea is so strong. My personal favourite dish to make with it is wok-fried water spinach with shrimp paste; my secret ingredient is a teaspoon of Chinese cooking wine! Cheng Cheung Hing Shrimp Paste Factory is probably the most famous homegrown brand; you can buy it online these days, but if you fancy an island day trip, head to their shop in Tai O.
If you could only visit one restaurant in Hong Kong again, what would it be – and how does it sum up what you love about the city’s food scene?
I’ve always loved the vibes of the dai pai dongs here. When I was younger, I couldn’t afford to properly explore the city’s cuisine so when I returned to Hong Kong in my 30s, having spent my formative years in California, I was dying to finally eat out like a true Hong Konger! I researched and asked around for the city’s best cha chaan tengs and dai pai dongs, and Yun Kee Kitchen in Sham Shui Po won my heart time and time again with their signature sizzling dishes, with most of the items on their menu being their own original recipes. My favourite dish is their barbecue pork belly – the skin is insanely crispy and delicious. It’s traditionally served with Cantonese yellow mustard but here, it’s served with an amazing secret wasabi sauce instead.
This is the spot I usually take out-of-town friends for excellent Cantonese cuisine with the chef’s own twist, and I have so many fun memories here from over the years. Having worked in the F&B industry for over a decade, I know how difficult consistency is to achieve, especially in an environment where hungry customers do not like to be kept waiting. I love how efficient the aunties at the door are, trying to seat everyone as soon as possible while also delivering dishes as quickly as they can, never missing a beat – and every plate tastes perfect every single time.
- Fuk Kee Congee, 104-106 Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok, Hong Kong, +852 2385 1230
- Kowloon Soy Company, 9 Graham Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2544 3695
- Cheng Cheung Hing, 17A Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O, Hong Kong, +852 2985 7347
- Yun Kee Kitchen, 112 Fuk Wa Street, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong, +852 2387 1051