I have a new food hero. She’s Margaret Xu Yuan who is possibly Hong Kong’s foremost female celebrity chef, and a champion for delicious healthy eating.
Margaret used to run an ad agency before becoming a self-taught cook. Her excursions to the villages in New Territories inspired her to rejuvenate Hong Kong cuisine. She fell in love with the stone rice grinder, as well as wood and charcoal-based cooking. Then came Cuisine X, the one-table experiment there in 2003, using produce from her own organic farm in Yuen Long. Her roast chicken and stone-ground rice cakes became so popular, people soon needed to make reservations months ahead.
Her food is very much like Hong Kong condensed in a nutshell. She combines olden techniques she learned from the various Chinese dialect/cultural groups (Hakka, Chiu Chow, Cantonese, and boat people) with touches of British colonial influence, and presents it all with contemporary flair.
I admit I had not heard of her until getting the itinerary for our trip to Hong Kong by the SBA2010 and HKTB. But I soon found out her interesting story, and how sought after she is.
She now has a private kitchen (at 18 Ship Street, tel: +852 2866 0868) called Yin Yang – named after the coffee-tea drink that is so symbolic of Hong Kong. It occupies a refurbished preservation shophouse in Wanchai, and is kept deliberately small. There are only three tables, and it’s all reservations-only (at least one day in advance).
(I couldn’t get a photo of the entire building from the narrow street outside, so here’s what it looks like, from a scale model replica)
Here you feel more like a privileged guest invited into someone’s home, rather than a customer. The ambiance is old school casual but very warm and nostalgic.
I love the diffused light coming in from the tall frosted glass windows.
There are cute little decorations on the narrow window sills. Some baskets of limes here, a dim sum steamer basket of name cards, semi-precious stones and little plants.
A vintage thermos flask stands at the side of the room, a symbol of homestyle hospitality.
This is a cute quirky egg basket used as table decoration (and menu holder if not mistaken).
We were very fortunate that Margaret agreed to host us at short notice. Normally you’d have to make reservations months ahead. She specially opened her restaurant for lunch that weekday and prepared an eight-course meal for us.
Margaret’s signature “Yellow Earth Roast Chicken” with ultra crispy skin. I had been waiting for this, and it was the opening number! It certainly lived up to its repute. Everyone wanted seconds/thirds/more…
Oh I found her recipe online. I really must try this at home someday, even if I don’t have a terracotta oven!
Margaret presiding over the shredding of the chicken. She believes doing it by hand is better than using a knife to carve the chicken. Yes, I do prefer rustic hand-torn pieces myself.
Flower clams in delicious broth with thick tanghoon. I wanted this all to myself! Gorgeous aroma and stunning flavours. The clams were very fresh indeed.
This would inspire the caveman in anyone! This is the Red Hot Baby Pig. Roast hunk of pork with bone-in!
The roast pork is chopped up, and served with an unusual lychee jam. Juicy, tender chunks of meat capped by crispy skin…it was all very rich! The best, however, was yet to come…
When this dish appeared, it drew gasps of delight and wonder. Fleshy mud crabs in a complex yet beautiful sauce with spices and coconut – a bit like green curry but much more refined. We were moaning “oh my god” as we ate. It was so, so good!
Interestingly, the soup came in halfway through the courses. Seaweed eggdrop soup with okra or ladies fingers. I never thought about slicing okra this way. It looks like pretty little pentagonal flowers dotting the soup.
There is always a carb dish in Chinese multi-course meals. To make sure you are really well-fed! The olive rice with vegetables was beautiful to look at. Like something cooked with love.
Yes, your greens are important. But by the time this came along, I was too full to eat anymore.
But there is always room for dessert – in our case, a scoop of banana ice cream! You can taste that it’s made from real bananas, but not the overly sweet variety.
We washed it all down with some refreshing beer and soft drinks. Most of us were going for Tsingtao, but some changed over to the the Blue Girl instead when they saw it, because it sounded more…risque.
Her eclectic ground floor show kitchen has many eclectic pieces – modern and retro, East and West – all co-existing in style. I love the SMEG fridge!
Many strange things abound in this kitchen. Margaret likes to make everything herself, so you will see foods (and wines) of all sorts in various stages of preparation.
This is the terracotta oven that Margaret built herself, from two flower pots (one upturned). Terracotta helps distribute high heat very evenly, so the chicken she roasts in this gets crispy skin but stays juicy within.
After our meal, some of the bloggers were treated to a workshop on sauce-making. Margaret would demonstrate an absurdly delicious yet simple green chili dip. There are only five ingredients:
- a large mixing bowl of green chillies (stems plucked; see Darren doing that in the first photo)
- a hand-sized portion of ginger (sliced)
- two bunches of scallions or spring onions (chopped into 3-4 parts)
- salt (to taste – quite a bit; maybe a level tablespoon, depending on your quantity)
- oil for frying (I think she used more than a litre, but she made a big batch)
Sorry the quantities are all approximate, but the recipe is quite forgiving. I have since then made two batches (500g of chillies yield about 500ml) at home – and I can certify it’s idiot-proof!
The method is easy. Get the oil moderately hot and fry the ingredients.The chillies go in first, followed by the ginger and scallions at the very last few seconds.
It doesn’t take too long. How beautifully green and glistening everything is. The aroma of chillies, ginger and scallions warmed our lungs. Needless to say, all these came from her organic farm up north. The Hong Kong chillies don’t carry as much heat (although Margaret says you can never tell when you’ll get a rogue pod that’s superhot).
Margaret then gave it all a good whizz – oil included – in her industrial strength blender. It came out looking interestingly light green! She poured some out for us to have a taste.
Oh my, how could so few ingredients taste so good together? Just heat oil, fry and blend! Voila!
We were lapping this sample bowl all up! Could not stop spooning the creamy stuff into our mouths! This would be great as a dip for chicken or seafood. I even think it’s perfect with our chicken rice, or simply with bread or prata or nachos.
Fortunately, we each got a bottle to take home too! Hurray! We happily christened this the “Green Dream” – nice, right?
Photo by Alvin Lim
This was our last meal in Hong Kong, and one of our most memorable. I count myself very lucky to have had the chance to dine at Yin Yang, and to learn from Margaret (I really do hope she gets an English cookbook out soon, she has one in Cantonese).
I’m pleased to make this fabulous stop my final post of the Hong Kong series (sixteen posts in total). I hope you guys have enjoyed trotting around with me vicariously.
I’d really like to thank OMY and HKTB for making this four-day trip possible, and for showing us incredible experiences and gastronomical delights in Hong Kong. You can still view posts (more coming!) on the OMY joint travel blog – catch the different perspectives from the ten bloggers who went on the trip.