23 Jan What is Hong Kong’s Soy Sauce Western Cuisine?
We know that American Chinese restaurants serve Chinese food that’s been tweaked to appeal to American tastes. But did you know there are Hong Kong restaurants that serve American/European food that’s adapted to the Chinese palate? In Hong Kong we call these restaurants Soy Sauce Western.
Tonight the Little Adventures in Hong Kong team–Daisann, Janice, Johannes, Charmaine and Daniel– had our pre-Chinese New Year staff dinner at one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most venerable restaurants: Tai Ping Koon. It’s got a Chinese name, but they don’t serve Chinese food, not exactly. Tai Ping Koon is one of the originators of “Soy Sauce Western” cuisine. It’s the inverse of American Chinese food: this is “Western” type food that has been modified to the Hong Kong Chinese palate. (As opposed to the chop suey “Chinese” restaurants geared to American tastes that you find in Chinatowns in North America)
From my born in NYC perspective, eating at Tai Ping Koon was like jumping into a time machine back to the food of my American childhood. The Waldorf-style salads are bathed in tangy, addictive Miracle Whip mayonnaise, and the chicken wings caramelized in “Swiss” sauce (actually a mix of soy, worcestershire, and ginger) taste like a recipe that might have jumped from the suburban housewifey pages of Good Housekeeping magazine circa 1965. This was when Chinese food began to mainstream with American home cooks, through packaged products like Rice a Roni and the La Choy canned chow mein. (“East meets west. La Choy makes Chinese food..Swing! American style!) Best of all was the giant dessert souffle, a real show-stopper and table pleaser (our newest LAHK team member Daniel and senior director Janice are suitably impressed, as you can see!).
We chose Tai Ping Koon for our staff dinner because we thought it would be a hoot, but we weren’t really expecting much of the food (especially after looking at their wine list, which included Gallo and Mateus Rose, that fave from high school!). Our bad; in fact the food was much more than an exercise in kitsch or nostalgia. It was delicious: full of fascinating and rich flavors, beautifully done, and great value too. The grouper baked with cheese over rice hit all the comfort food points of a Mac and Cheese, but it was lighter, addictive, and more satisfying…a casserole treat of layered fish, cheese sauce and perfectly cooked grainy rice. A surprise standout was the smoked pomfret, which actually resembles a dish you might see at a pricey fusion place like Nobu.
Now I understand why Soy Sauce Western is so beloved by Hong Kong people. It is a halfway house, not quite Chinese, not quite American or European, that hits a sweet spot in both cultures. You can feel the love in this food that is almost an homage to the Western cuisine of the 1950s and 60s. We’ll definitely be back to Tai Ping Koon. Note: if you go, try to get a group of at least four people and book the little booth in the back. Enclosed in low walls, it fits 5 persons, and it’s like having your own private room at no extra charge!