26 Nov My Life in Pork: A Memoir of Sweet and Sour Hong Kong
Gu Lou Yuk–sweet and sour pork–was one of our biggest culinary surprises when we moved to Hong Kong more than 10 years ago. Who knew that the gloppy, cloying dish we’d suffered for ages in NYC’s Chinatown is actually a delicate and delicious masterpiece of #HK cuisine?
I’ll never forget the evening that food historian and restaurateur Lau Kin Wai invited me to dine with him and some friends at one of his favorite old time Cantonese eateries: the private alumni club of Hong Kong University. I jumped not only at the opportunity to eat at a place reserved for alumni and guests only, but also because Mr. Lau is one of the city’s top authorities on Cantonese food. He writes a column for Seun Bo (Hong Kong Economic Journal) and he started the private kitchen movement in Hong Kong with (late, lamented) Yellow Door Kitchen tucked above Graham St Market. Now he owns one of our favorite fine dining spots in the city, the innovative modern Cantonese restaurant Kin’s Kitchen. Eating with Mr. Lau isn’t just eating–it’s a master class in the connoisseurship of Hong Kong food.
Sitting down to our humble table in the brightly lit HKU alumni canteen, I couldn’t wait to see what Mr. Lau was going to order for his guests. My heart (and appetite racing), I heard him speaking in Cantonese to the waiter, asking questions before finally choosing the kitchen’s signature dish of almond pig lung soup. Yum! But then I heard him say something in Cantonese that stopped me in my tracks:
“Gu Lou Yuk,” said Mr. Lau
For an instant, I was crestfallen.
Why? Well Gu Lou Yuk–or sweet and sour pork–is something that my newly minted cool Hong Kong foodie self wouldn’t never dream of ordering. At my Cantonese classes in Chinese University we students even had a joke about the dish. We called it “Gwailo Yuk”–gwailo being the not too nice word for clueless Westerners in Hong Kong. Growing up in New York area, I ate my share of sweet and sour pork–along with other Americanized Chinese food like egg foo yung and chow mein. These dishes, created for the American palate or so I thought, were a culinary travesty. One of the big reasons I studied Cantonese, moved to Hong Kong, and spent my spare time scouring back alleys looking for noodle shops is to try to erase all that bad Chinese American food from my past!
I wondered: Why did Mr. Lau order such a gloppy, bland Americanized dish? The only reason I could come up with is that he’d ordered it as a polite gesture to his American guest, me.
Ha! Little did I know.
Soon after we inhaled the last drops of a silken, aromatic Almond pig’s lung soup, a dish arrived on the table that looked like a plate of edible jewels: ruby colored chunks of fried pork, in a jumble with golden yellow pineapple pieces and jade green and shiny lacquer-red peppers. I cleared my throat, “Um, Mr. Lau,” I said, “It was nice of you to order this dish, um, to be honest I haven’t had sweet and sour pork for at least ten years….”
Mr. Lau looked at me like I was completely nuts. Then he laughed. “Cantonese sweet and sour pork is one of the specialties of the HKU chef. Actually his version is quite famous. I never eat here without ordering it!”
I grabbed a piece of the pork with my chopsticks, popped it in my mouth, and instantly understood why. It was nothing like the Gu Lo Yuks of my New Jersey shopping mall Chinese take out childhood. The fresh and tender pork morsels were coated in the lightest of batters to form a pleasing semi-crunchy texture. To each piece clung a sauce that had a rich, deep complexity, and not a hint of glop. It wasn’t sugary sweet, nor vinegar-y sour–the flavors teased away from those too-obvious polar opposites. First a sour zing faded to a hint of sweetness. It was not cloying, but tempered by a tingly, citrusy note. There were aroma notes of intense fruit — plum?–that I’d never noticed in my previous encounters with sweet and sour pork.
“Here in Hong Kong the sauce is made with dried hawthorne, which is an expensive ingredient overseas so in most Chinese American restaurants they skip it. The hawthorne adds the deep red color. We also use real fresh sour plum sauce, not the tomato sauce–or ketchup– you usually find in the American version,” Mr. Lau explained.
I tried not to appear too greedy as I snapped up every last bit of Gu Lou Yuk that I felt I could grab without embarrassing myself. Mr. Lau had given me two treasures that evening–the first was a connoisseur’s introduction to one of the unexpectedly great Hong Kong dishes. But the second treasure was the more important and more lasting one: From that meal forward, I knew I had to get over my preconceived notions about “cool” and “uncool” food in Hong Kong. Lesson learned: Keep an open mind, and an open palate, because you can and will miss something delicious if you don’t
Part of what we love to do here at Little Adventures in Hong Kong is spread the delight, and the food knowledge, much in the same way that Mr. Lau did for me at that dinner 12 years ago. Our Guided Dim Sum and Dining programs are designed to help you follow, more or less, the path that I started more than a decade ago with Hong Kong cuisine. We’ll help you order outside your comfort zone (and your linguistic zone) then help you taste, and learn, the flavors, history and philosophy of our food. We’ll even take you for Gu Lou Yuk–like the delicious one in the photo above made in Mr. Lau’s own restaurant, Kin’s Kitchen. Contact us today and we’ll help you jump start your own Hong Kong culinary journey. Believe me: it’s a great ride–and full of surprises.