Chef Ming Tsai: A Three-Generational Eating Adventure

A dining diary of chef and TV star Ming Tsai, off to Beijing and beyond with kids and parents. Our photographer catches up with them in Hong Kong. By: Ming Tsai 
Ming Tsai

On to Hong Kong

The place where we ate our first meal in Hong Kong was a first for my family: an "eating club" called Ning Po Residents Association. No squash courts, no pool, no workout room. Just a restaurant with more than 20,000 members. One joins by invitation only, for as little as $25 or as much as $2,500 a year. VIPs pay the big money for a guaranteed table. Prestige is a factor, but the real point is guaranteed access to a dish like the impossibly delicious 1,000 Sliced Braised Pork. My mom, dad, and I argued about how exactly this dish was cooked, and the waiter would not or could not divulge. (As a side note, the only time I have ever seen my parents argue is in the kitchen: They would go back and forth on a technique or process, and I would eventually jump in and tell them to sit down, have a glass of wine, and I would cook. It took me about 10 years to finally realize this was an act designed to get me to cook!)

My best guess is that pork shoulder is fried, then braised, then frozen for slicing, then steamed. At any rate, these were the thinnest, most tender, most delicious pieces of pork any of us had ever eaten. We also had crispy and moist sesame pie, sautéed eels, perfect bean sprouts, amazing tea-smoked duck eggs, pot stickers for Henry, and the stinkiest of stinky tofu. Fermented tofu is the Limburger of soybean products, and when it hit the table, Henry, who has the superpower nose, turned away from the table and begged to have it removed. Pops gobbled it with glee, while the best I could do was "like" it out of respect. The remaining two pushed it around their plates with a pained look on their faces. Our verdict on Ning Po Residents Association: We would join in an instant if we lived in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is famous for its dim sum, little plates of delectable bites, traditionally wheeled around the restaurant in carts for the diners to choose. But at Jumbo, you actually order and it is delivered fresh and hot (perhaps a better system for quality).

Jumbo Kingdom is the most famous dim sum restaurant in the middle of Hong Kong harbor, built on huge barges, a floating amusement complex that is swarmed by tourists and locals alike. It's a little cheesy to eat here, and a lot fantastic. For sheer variety of tastes, dim sum is our family's favorite way to eat—everything plunked on the greatest restaurant innovation, the lazy Susan. If you don't like the sticky rice, Henry, no big deal: Here come the steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, soup dumplings, pork buns, crispy shrimp flowers, spring rolls, crispy Shanghai sesame cakes, crispy pork belly, twice-fried noodles, wok-tossed pea tendrils, and, my own favorite, braised chicken feet—slippery, knuckly, delicious. Now, my mom and David love chicken feet as well, but Polly and Henry can't quite get past the visual of those chickens strutting around the farm, stepping in their own stuff. We were eating, laughing, talking with our mouths full, and just loving life. There is nothing better than a family dining with this much joy.

Hong Kong markets burst with fresh seafood, mountains of produce, dazzling arrays of dried foods. Pops, David, and I went on a market walk that was also a hunt for the city's best bowl of noodle soup. We arrived at Bowrington Market, already packed on Saturday morning, and gawked at the produce, meats, and seafood, the latter live, of course. It was a culinary zoo of squirming creatures, fascinating to David: funky-looking shrimp, all types of fish, crabs, eels, frogs, snails. Pops kept picking up the creatures to show David, getting chastised by the vendors, but he didn't care. He would show us another strange bit of sea life and explain how he would cook it. The striking thing, in contrast to an American market, is the abundance of foods that are dried, both for cooking and medicinal purposes: fish, scallops, shrimp, oysters, fish maw, mushrooms, seaweed, roots, bird's nest (nature's Viagra, the Chinese believe, fashioned by swallows from their saliva, and one of the most expensive foods in the world per pound). The street butchers were hard at their open-air work, breaking down whole sides of beef and pork, selling everything: heart, liver, kidney, intestine, penis, spleen, the whole show happening in 85-degree heat. The smell of roasting ducks and pigs was in the air, gloriously attacking our nostrils as soon as we started walking around, eventually breaking our will. Sure, it's a touristy thing to do: Most locals would not be eating roast pig out of a plastic bag on a charge through the market. Did we care?

Now it was time to hit three noodle shops, each with its own noodle focus. Kau Kee featured only beef brisket noodle soup, with or without curry. Incredibly rich and thick broth with tender brisket, potatoes, and onions. I preferred the curry; Pops and David liked the plain. All three bowls were cleaned. Next was Soho Noodle Shop: plastic chairs, authentic and cheap. Pork wonton noodle soup was their signature, and we also ordered double crispy chicken noodles, which David devoured. The soup was delicious with gingery, tender wontons. This was heaven for Pops, as he loves all types of noodle soups, but also for me: Three generations were happily slurping away (slurping with gusto is the polite way to eat in Hong Kong), a magical moment. Last and best, though, was Mak's Noodle. Very famous in Hong Kong with an amazing following, this small chain features a clear, pure broth over wonton noodles that were cooked twice, once for 5 seconds, followed by a plunge into ice water, then another 10-second boil. This yields incredibly tender noodles that still have a "toothy" goodness. The shrimp wontons were light and airy and full of seafood umami. Pops, the soup expert, kept asking how they made their broth and eventually pried from them a formula of pork bones, shrimp powder, fish bones, and white peppercorn. Simply the best broth ever in a part of the world where soup broth is as much a matter of obsessive particularity as barbecue is in the American South.

We were then off to Ocean Park, the amusement park where the Hong Kong equivalent of elephant ears and turkey legs included crispy sweet fried dough balls, hot rice sticks, corn on the cob, and grilled squid. There is a restaurant with hanging roast ducks and chickens, dumplings in chile-garlic oil, beef noodle soup, and stir-fried noodles. Even the arcade prizes were edible: Knock over a milk bottle with a baseball and win a little bag of rice, an egg custard, a spring roll, or a large, fluffy pork bun.

Family-Style Meals Inherent in Culture

At this point you may ask why we are not a family the size of elephants. Or, for that matter, why a people as obsessed with eating as the Chinese have not traditionally suffered from obesity. For one thing, taking deep joy in eating involves a respect for food—and for sharing it with family—that I believe is inherently healthy. It is why we were in Beijing and Hong Kong, to show that respect, to understand our roots, and to share. For another, a whirlwind food-lover's tour—a dive into the greatest pleasures a great food city has to offer—isn't everyday eating. We don't have three bowls of noodle soup on an average Saturday afternoon back home! We don't eat Peking duck two days in a row, normally. Chinese cuisine traditionally pushes those treats to the side of the meal, to the edge of the week, while vegetables, noodles, and rice form the bulk of the diet. This is how I cook at home, as well: tons of vegetables and salads, whole grains like brown rice. (I do a 50/50 mix with white rice for the kids. And I do the same at Blue Ginger and don't even tell the diners.) We always share a large rib-eye steak or rack of lamb: The protein (as chefs call meat) is just not the focus; it's the flavor. But going even deeper is this: In my experience, it is the cultures most deeply immersed in food that seem to suffer the least from their diets, at least the traditional versions of their diets: the Japanese, Chinese, Indians, French, Italians...

Chinese culture also associates medicine with foods, herbs, and balance, and these values persist today, even as a city like Hong Kong charges into the future. And it was interesting to see modern ideas of a healthy diet popping into view: There was an active organic market in the ferry station. Modern grocery stores are lined with organic produce, sauces, and whole grains, right next to shelves of Chinese medicines and tinctures. Billboards preach "healthy and natural foods." I also ran into one very cool old-meets-new concept, called Herbal Tea and Soup Square, a kiosk that combined Chinese medicinal philosophies with the convenience of frozen meal kits, bottled herb teas, soups, and "power" bars to prevent disease—very tidy, modern packaging using ancient ingredients, prepared in the traditional manner! There is something here.

Our trip was ending, so many delicious highlights. But I was scheduled to eat a meal alone—another great pleasure. This would be lunch at the Michelin-starred restaurant Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental Hotel. It proved to be the best dim sum meal I have had in my life, and a top 10 meal ever (which is saying something!). Thirteen courses of sheer bliss: braised abalone on crispy taro net, baked chicken and truffles, golden prawn and turnip puff pastry, stuffed crab shell (an indulgence consisting of three crabs' worth of meat in one shell), frog legs with spicy salt, and a most delicate mushroom and string bean dumpling.

And then it was over: Time to go home. On the plane, I reflected on the fact that I am often asked what I think success is. My answer: "If I can give my kids at least what my parents gave me, I am a true success." So far, so good—and so tasty.