Category: History


Dai pai dong.  Big license plate stall of goodness and cheap eats.  Where it used to be a ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong and Kowloon, these culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong is slowly and surely dying or moving indoors.  When I think of these food stalls, I think of my childhood where we would love to get the yau tieu’s [fried Chinese donuts, although they look nothing like it and they’re savory, not sweet] and congee.  Wonton noodles, rice noodles were other items we would get.

The rich history of these food stalls cannot go unnoticed.  After World War II, the Hong Kong government gave out ad hoc food licenses to injured civil servants so they can make a living.  These licenses had to be visible in public, and since they were food stalls, they were big.  Thus, the big license stalls.  Dai pai dong.  From there, the popularity and the quality of of food just took off.  But because of the amount of dai pai dongs sprouting, it was causing pedestrian and traffic congestion.  Additionally, because owners of these stalls started to “lease” their space out in the black market, the HK government no longer issued these licenses after 1956.  The licenses could no longer be inherited so if the owner passed away, it could only be transferred to their spouses.  If they didn’t have a spouse, the license would expire at the time of death of the owner.  Since 1983, the HK government, in order to promote healthier hygiene, began to buy back these licenses and push these stalls in doors in what could only be described as food courts.  Since the licenses could not be passed down, the owners were glad to be compensated in this way.  The number of dai pai dongs have drastically decreased over the years, much to the chagrin of people like myself.  Were they the safest place to eat food?  Probably not, but they certainly cranked out some of the best the city of Hong Kong had to offer.

It’s a rich food heritage that has come to a slow death in Hong Kong.  It wasn’t just a place to eat for millions of people.  It was a place where one might make their early morning stop to get a milk tea, a place where impoverished families could still go and get a decent meal for cheap.  A place where lower income couples could have their dates while whispering their sweet nothings to each other over a bowl of rice noodles.  But as most things in life, we learn to move on and change.  And while it lasted, the dai pai dong was good to the people of Hong Kong.  It became integrated in their every day lives as they provided meals for hungry souls in the city of fragrant harbor.

Diversity of Ethnic Cuisines

 

In this country, we often categorize different regional cuisines into different foods.  When I say “pineapple”, many instinctively relate to Hawaiian food while “avocados” are Californian cuisines.  While that clearly isn’t wholly accurate, that’s how we view different types of foods.  Certainly ingredients represent cuisines such as Italian [pastas and tomatoes], French [fish and duck], and Chinese [rice and soy sauce].  Even though those ingredients certainly represent those cuisines, the stereotypes break down quickly when you think of Peking Duck and chow mein as purely Chinese and not a hint of Italian or French in them.  And really, do we really think that ham and pineapple pizza is somehow truly Hawaiian?

Here in the US, when we think of Chinese food, we are really thinking of the Cantonese style dishes.  Over time, we’ve incorporated some Sichuan regional dishes [kung pao] into our taste palates, but really, we’ve limited ourselves to one regional Chinese food.  One can argue the same for Italian and French cooking, where different regions produce raw ingredients that are local to those areas, making dishes unique in styles and flavors.  Chinese food, it seems, have been reduced to chow mein, fried rice, sweet and sour anything, and orange flavored anything.  Let me just say, for the record, that PF Chang’s is not Chinese food.  It’s not even localized foods.  It’s just really bad food.

In many Chinatowns in the States, the majority of the immigrants are from the region of Guangzhou, or Canton.  Thus, the plethora of Cantonese dishes have become the symbol of Chinese food.  But there are others, many others in fact, that we haven’t even tapped into as a country here.  Shanghai cuisine tend to be about braises, stews, sauces, pickles, rich and deep flavors that ought to be embraced by the Western palates, but it’s often not found in the US.  Mandarin cuisine, or Beijing cuisine, in home to the famous Peking duck.  Instead of the bun, however, it is traditionally eaten with a flour-y crepe like pancake.  But it’s also home to such things as soup noodles, hot pots and because it’s closer to Mongolia, the influence of Mongolian Beef and pot stickers are also made famous by that region.  Hunan and Sichuan dishes are very similar, both focus on the chili, garlic, ginger stir fries that we’ve come to love as kung pao chicken and orange flavored chicken.  Additionally though, Sichuan is also about salt curing, stir fry vegetables, and tofu dishes.

Each of these regions, unfortunately, have fused into one in this country.  We identify all of these regional foods as Chinese food.  While that’s true, when you visit Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, you will never hear someone say, “Let’s have Chinese food for lunch”.  One will most likely hear, “Let’s have Shanghai-nese food” or “Hunan food” because these regional fairs are important to the country that borne these dishes.  Like Italian and French regional dishes, we’re missing a big part of the Chinese cuisines in this country.  We’re missing local dishes called “Chiu Chow”, which also has a distinct use of acid, such as vinegar.  One of the famous desserts of Chiu Chow is pan fried noodles with a coating of caster sugar glazed with vinegar.  While that might sound weird, it’s actually a perfect way to end a meal because the acid and sugar temper the oily dishes that one would eat.  And you would wash it down with some typical Chiu Chow tea, coming in a small teacup that is intense in flavor as it is suppose to help with digestion.

Next time you get a craving for Panda’s Orange Chicken, try to find a local Chinese restaurant that’s serving something a little different.  Try braised tofu or seafood hotpot.  See if they have oxtails, whole steam fish, and spiced dried tofu with sliced pork.  While still in the Cantonese style of cooking, it provides us with different tastes from a country so vast, you can travel for a week and not have the same style Chinese food.  And even though many of the dishes can only be found in China, we really should be ashamed of ourselves if we only go to PF Chang’s or Chin Chins of all places.  Chin Chin’s “world famous” Chinese Chicken salad is just ghastly.  It’s truly an awful way of saying that one “likes” Chinese food.  It’s like saying your favorite Italian food is the endless salad and breadsticks at your local Olive Garden, where the only Italian thing about it is that it contains bread and olives.  It’s really a hideous way of representing cuisines that have been perfecting for thousands of years.  So try something new, something weird maybe, because you never know when you’ll be surprised.  And that’s what experiencing food is all about.  We don’t have to be Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats, but we can start by trying something slightly different that will bring new experiences to our lives.  It’s worth it.

Ubiquitous Chinatown

 

Chinatown.  The last bastion of a seedier part of a western city where people come to experience a glimpse of “China” and when ready, walk or drive back to a place where picket fences and doorman await them.  Every major city in this world outside of Southeast Asia has a Chinatown.  London, Paris, Melbourne, Madrid, Milan, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York come to mind quickly.  It shows the vast distances that, for the most part, countries go to take part in trading and doing business in China back in the 1800s.  In turn, the Chinese would immigrate to these foreign shores to make money of their own, and as late as the 1970s in Europe, would go and seek higher education in countries like Austria and Switzerland.  Like many immigrants, they took on vocations that is not only practical, but necessary.  Laundromats and restaurants became typical business establishments.  As their business grew, the Chinese immigrants started to bring family members from home to live a life where opportunities, at least to them, are plentiful.  This was especially the case after Mao took over China in 1949.

In London, the Chinatown is not huge, but for what it is, it is quite diverse in its cuisine offerings.  Cantonese, Sichuan, and even Vietnamese to just name a few is quite a common sight.  For those of us who are Chinese, we participate in going to Chinatown to experience ourselves what it’s like for our community to be in a foreign place.  Our expectations of the food are tempered because of ingredients, more than talentless chefs.  You would think that with today’s shipping technology, ingredients would be plentiful.  That it can reach far and wide, and the Mongolian Beef you have in Los Angeles will taste the same as it does in London.  But it doesn’t.  There’s the cost of ingredients, the limited amount of purveyors who stock items like lemongrass and Thai chilis, the demand of those kinds of dishes in a western city.  As one restaurant competes with another on a simple dish like beef with stir fried vegetables, it’s tough to offer something drastically different to entice new customers.  But Chinatown is still a place that offers a different experience for locals.  It is a place they can go and experience food and community where they may not have the opportunity otherwise.  And in that sense, Chinatown is a good thing.  It’s a cultural awareness that needs to happen for us to live in a diverse society.  Like a Little Italy, Little Saigon, Little Ethiopia, and Koreatown in Los Angeles, we get to taste a little of each cultural without having to visit a country that we might not have the means to visit.  And to experience something new is quite exhilarating, even if there’s no replacing the real thing of traveling.  Because experiencing something new brings new perspectives and values to our lives that help us grow.  And that is always a good thing.

For those who know me, you know where I stand on proper English high tea.  It’s one of the most colonial and traditional ways to spend an afternoon – sipping English teas and eating finger sandwiches and scones.  And yet, there is something so homey and English about having Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.  I don’t know that it’s the best afternoon tea in Hong Kong, but it’s one of the oldest and one of the most sought after locations by tourists and locals alike.  This east meets west collides right along the Victoria Harbor, where the hotel has become one of the worlds most famous.

When you look beyond the classic “Peninsula green” color that is the signature of the hotel, the magnificent lobby, the luxurious shopping arcade, and the quartet playing high above in the balcony, lies a deeper story of colonization of the British.  The British, by all accounts, had a tremendous profitable trading partner in China in the 1700’s.  With China’s insatiable appetite for silver, Britain was feeling the pressure of supplying silver by purchasing it through other European countries.  When that appetite continued to grow quicker than the supply, Britain turned to opium, a poppy when cultivated, was used as a type of medical morphine.  In large doses and especially through smoking the poppy, it is an hallucinogenic drug.   China would ban the import of opium because its citizens became hooked on it as the main drug of its day.  And thus, the two Opium Wars came about between China and Britain.  We all know how that ended for China – it ceded Hong Kong Island first in 1845, then Kowloon peninsula in 1860.  For the next 137 years since the cessation of Kowloon, Hong Kong would become a financial center of Asia, an asylum of sorts for the Chinese fleeing Mao and Communism in 1949, and where Oriental and Occidental became one.  At least in a governing sense.

With the British sovereign rule came cross cultural blending where east not only meets west, but both started to fuse into one another.  And none of that became more evident then the British lifestyle – clothes, makeup, capitalism, ideas, and of course, food.  Afternoon teas were introduced and people in Hong Kong not only embraced English style tea [with milk and sugar], but they would, over the years, perfect a variation of their own English tea [with condensed milk and sugar through strained steeped black tea leaves].  Here at the Peninsula Hotel, is a world where the English clearly became the forefront from its colonization of a tiny part of China, and turned it into one of the most dynamic and multi-cultural cities in the world.  And yet, when you step inside the hotel, you are transported back to the 1930s and 1940s, where you can still hear the sound of old money in the lobby, talking about life, art, the economy, and the future, all through drinks and food.

When Britain finally handed Hong Kong and Kowloon back to China on July 1, 1997, I think we all feared the worst.  What will happen to this dynamic city where the west has so immersed itself into the culture of the east?  After 13 years, the Peninsula Hotel continues to be a vibrant landmark in Hong Kong, where important dignitaries, celebrities, and wealthy travelers stay as a way to experience something so European in a country so Chinese.  But then again, we’re talking about Hong Kong, where locals drink English tea in the morning, eat congee for breakfast, and have afternoon teas in the afternoon.  It’s a way of life that is still dear in its heart. The colony of Britain, for 137 years, has not changed much in the way of its roots.  One can only hope that the Peninsula Hotel continues to breathe its English history each and every day, while serving its magnificent afternoon teas to all.