Your insider’s guide to Hong Kong

Tour de Force

Asia’s newly crowned best female chef May Chow takes inspiration from her favourite Hong Kong neighbourhood, and an impaled salted duck

Words: Kee Foong
Photos: Calvin Sit

THE WEEK BEFORE Lunar New Year, I meet May Chow at a coffee shop in Sai Ying Pun district. Chow, crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017 by the publishers of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is supposed to walk me through her typical day. It’s not easy. “Unlike a lot of chefs, I have flexibility and don’t really have set routines,” she says. We settle for a meander around one of her favourite neighbourhoods before heading towards Central, and her popular restaurant, Little Bao.

“I’m a very social person, but I also like to spend a lot of time walking around Hong Kong by myself, to think and find inspiration,” says Chow. Sai Ying Pun, it soon becomes apparent, offers plenty on that front. Settled by mainland Chinese migrants and the British army from the mid-1800s, this bustling enclave about 30-minutes-walk west from The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, has a colourful history, which includes a period as a red-light district. Red plastic lamps can still be seen all over, but today they are usually associated with the dozens of dried-goods vendors that line the mercantile strip of Des Voeux Road.

The area, busy most weekdays, teems with shoppers rushing to buy ingredients to prepare for the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar. We have barely taken a few steps before Chow bumps into her local chicken supplier at Lin Heung Kui, a dim sum institution that also does a brisk trade in takeaway pastries.

  
  
May Chow inspects preserved sausages and salted duck along Des Voeux Road, before taking lunch at Chan Kan Kee in Sheung Wan

We continue past brightly lit stores selling all manner of exotic and unrecognisable commodities including, unfortunately, shark fins. Chow points out plump golden oysters and dried scallops at one stall, and legs of cured Jinhua ham hanging from another. We stop at a crowded shop where fat fingers of lap cheong (preserved Chinese sausages) are strung up close to racks of pressed salted ducks from Jiangxi. “Smell this,” she says, as she pulls a wooden skewer from one of the birds and thrusts it under my nose. “You can judge quality by the aroma, which needs time to develop if done properly.”

Chow makes a few purchases, including alien-looking duck tongues, which she drops off at her friend and fellow chef Max Levy’s restaurant Okra. After some quick banter with Levy, we sit down to lunch at Chan Kan Kee in Sheung Wan, a modest eatery lauded for its traditional Chiu Chow cuisine. The food is delicious though not for the faint of heart – pig’s lung soup, oyster omelette and braised goose among the delicacies on offer.

  
Chow searching for inspiration in Cat Street and Central wet markets 

We move on to the Yuan Heng Spice Company off Cat Street, where Chow runs her hands through sacks of fragrant pepper, orange peel and cinnamon, and then to the Kowloon Soy Company, a century-old maker of sauces and condiments hidden among Central’s wet markets. We conclude our visual, olfactory, oral and aural adventure at Little Bao, where her staff are busy preparing for dinner service.

Before we get there, however, Chow detours to her new venue, Happy Paradise, on Aberdeen Street, which is still a shell of dust and construction material on our visit. The restaurant will be an evolution of her modern Chinese cooking and her most ambitious project to date. And if the success of Chow’s other venues is any indication, Hong Kong’s foodies and cool crew will be queueing up here for dishes worthy of her new international culinary accolade, but made from ingredients right under their noses.

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