My last meal in Hong Kong

I’m leaving tomorrow, and will miss this place. I’ve had a great time in both Singapore and Hong Kong, and my last 3½ days here were immeasurably enriched by local HK resident (but cosmopolitan traveler) Winnie Fung, a volunteer at the Literary Festival who offered to take me around the city. She also happened to be a serious foodie, so we had some fantastic meals.
Here’s the last meal of my stay, and it was a good one at a pretty fancy (but not über fancy) restaurant that’s included in the infamous list of the “World’s 50 best restaurants” for this year: The Chairman, a Cantonese restaurant which happens to be a block from my hotel. And here’s the menu that we shared. We had the prix fixe menu, which included a choice of appetizer, main course, and soup. We split everything, for, as I learned, the Chinese do not ever order individual dishes in a group meal. Everything is shared.

Long-boiled Soup with Dried Chinese Flowery Mushrooms, Sun-dried Oysters and Pork Loin. Yum!

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Double-boiled Cordyceps with 10 Bean Soup.

“Cordyceps” is a truly unusual Chinese ingredient; it’s basically a mummified caterpillar that has been killed by infection with the fungus, which grows out of the animal’s head. It’s then collected for food and medicinal purposes. As Wikipedia explains:

Ophiocordyceps sinensis is a fungus that parasitizes larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting body valued as an herbal remedy found in mountainous regions of India, Nepal and Tibet.

The fungus germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then the stalk-like fruiting body emerges from the corpse. It is known in English colloquially as caterpillar fungus, or by its more prominent names Yartsa Gunbu (Tibetan: དབྱར་རྩྭ་དགུན་འབུ་, Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun ‘bu, literally “winter worm, summer grass”), or Dōng chóng xià cǎo (Chinese: 冬虫夏草). Of the various entomopathogenic fungi, Ophiocordyceps sinensis is one that has been used for at least 2000 years for its reputed abilities to treat many diseases related to lungs, kidney, and erectile dysfunction. This fungus is not yet cultivated commercially, despite the fact that several fermentable strains of Ophiocordyceps sinensis have been isolated by Chinese scientists. Overharvesting and overexploitation have led to the classification of O. sinensis as an endangered species in ChinaAdditional research needs to be carried out in order to understand its morphology and growth habits for conservation and optimum utilization.

I don’t have a picture of the soup, which was brown like diluted soy sauce, but it had an unusual and lovely flavor. Here are the dried fungus-and-caterpillars, and a photo of a box of them that I saw in one of the ritzy casino shops in Macau. The combination of “animal and plant” (well, fungi aren’t really plants) is taken as very rare and efficacious by the Chinese:

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A box for sale in Macao. VERY expensive! (The yellowish bits are reflection from the overhead lights.)

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Two appetizers:

Smoked Baby Pigeon with Longjing Tea Leaves & Chrysanthemum. Here’s half the pigeon. It doesn’t look like much, but the smoking and cooking made it taste very special. With all the dishes we had both rice and congee (rice gruel):

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Wild Clams Stir Fried with Chilli Jam and Basil. Another fabulous dish, cooked with a complex mixture of ingredients that produced a wonderful sauce to mop up with rice:

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Two main courses:

Steamed Fresh Flowery Crab with Aged ShaoXing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Homemade Flat Rice Noodles. This dish, for which the restaurant is famous, was the highlight for me, and one of the best Chinese dishes I’ve ever had. The noodles (foreground), said cooked with chicken fat, were big, chewy, and delicious, and the fatty/winey sauce was perfect for dunking the fresh sweet crab.

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The Chairman’s Soy Sauce Chicken: free-range chicken from the New Territories, braised in a sauce of eighteen different spices and premium soy sauce. Believe me, you could taste all those spices. This dish again looks like a regular Chinese chicken dish, but it was absolutely spectacular. This is the restaurant’s other signature dish, and is justly famous. The restaurant had one Michelin star, but it was removed a few years ago. I think it should be restored.

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We eschewed dessert to go to the market for mango mochi, a sweet consisting of a big slice of fresh, ripe mango around which is wrapped a sweet glutinous rice shell. Terrific!

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After a bite:

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And as a postprandial treat, Winnie produced a bottle of Austrian Trockenbeerenauslese that a friend had given her. It’s made from two grapes: Welschriesling and Scheurebe, with the grapes not picked until they’re almost dried out by infection with Botrytis fungus. That concentrates the flavor to make a rich, honeyed wine (10% alcohol), similar to the great French Sauternes. We looked up this half bottle, which turned out to be worth $90 and was highly rated by wine experts.  Winnie discovered that she liked sweet wine; she’d never had one of this quality.

If you like wine, you’ll find that the sweet wines are terrific values (even though, like this one, they can be pricey): most Americans don’t like sweet wine and so it often sells for far less than it’s worth. Check out the Australian “stickies” and the many sweet sherries like Pedro Ximenez.

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A man full of good food and wine is a happy man:

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And, on the way back from the restaurant, we saw a beautiful kitty, which looked like an Abyssinian. Like “little bowl” whom I met the other day, it was friendly and meowy:

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19 Comments

  1. geckzilla
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Cordyceps are one of those things I will not willingly partake in. They fall squarely into the realm of environmentally harmful superstition. Can you believe that at least one species is endangered due to wild harvesting? It’s not much different from shark fins or rhino horns, just less charismatic.

    • geckzilla
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      (Of course you can believe it, you quoted a Wikipedia article that makes such a statement. Apologies for the oversight. I believe I learned about this a while back from some nature documentary.)

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that an enterprising person would come up with a way to culture the cordyceps by mass-rearing the host caterpillars that they infect. Money can be made, and, hypothetically, take pressure off of the wild population.

  3. Posted November 15, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    It is said that the Chinese will eat anything that walks,runs,crawls,slithers,swims or flies, provided it is not an aeroplane.
    From your far eastern culinary experience it would appear to be true.
    Very interesting and glad you enjoyed it.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    You’re killing me, Jerry. I had a turkey sandwich for lunch.

  5. Mark R.
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    What a meal!

    There is a famous restaurant in Munich called “Tantris” where I had my first taste of Trockenbeeren Auslese. It’s a remarkable elixir, and has a unique taste I still remember. I have a 1977 in my wine cellar waiting for a very special occasion.

    Other sweet wines like Gewurztraminer and Riesling go very well with Asian cuisine, including Indian, Thai and Vietnamese.

  6. KeV
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Why does someone as open-minded as Jerry Coyne eat meat? To put it another way, why hasn’t he been persuaded by the arguments for moral vegetarianism? Disappointing to see him delighting in baby pigeon.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure why you are talking about “open-mindedness” when you have already decided that there is only one right answer on the issue.

    • Posted November 15, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

      I’ve answered this question several times on this site and am not going to do so again. Why don’t you go into a steak restaurant (or McDonald’s) and hector the patrons? That way you can flaunt your virtue AND harass several carnivores simultaneously!

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Why are some cats so talkative? I think some breeds tend to meow a lot, and it is also the case for some individuals but i don’t know why. One of our friendly neighbor cats is like that.

  8. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Like “little bowl” whom I met the other day, it was friendly and meowy:

    And full-tailed.
    OTOH, I now realise that the “newly vague” description on wines might actually mean something. [Wikis] French 1950s film school – I doubt it. Several bands. An advertising agency.
    Ah, “The Nouvelle Vague wines are vinified and aged in barriques.”
    OIC. Aged in barrels. Well, that’s informative – now I know that some wines are not (by implication) aged in barrels. I’ll file that under “use in pub quiz”, and stick with “house red, white, or water?”

  9. madscientist
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Oi! I never had that rice noodle cooked in schmaltz. I grew up with a lot of Cantonese cuisine and think nothing of eating things like pig guts, pig lungs, cow brains, and chicken feet, but I don’t know if I’d have the stomach to try the cordyceps.

  10. byrdhousemedia
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    My adaptive abilities are not evolved enough to think of thriving on that diet. More power to you and kudos to your host.

  11. Posted November 15, 2016 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    For sweet wine elixir, try a British Columbia ice wine – mmmmm!

  12. Posted November 16, 2016 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    “Fungi aren’t really plants”? You are more closely related to a fungus than the fungus is to a plant, Jerry, as you well know! We are all opisthokonts! Bon voyage / bon retour – MC

  13. Mike
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    The Chicken, and the Crab look great, but the Caterpillars ? nope, I’ll give those a miss.

  14. Posted November 16, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Somehow the mango mochi looks like a bizarro version of a barbeque pork bun. (More than just the rice part.)

    “Sun-dried Oysters” – I like sundried tomatoes and I am ok with oysters from time to time, but *sun-dried* oysters?? That sounds … odd. (Also a bit dangerous if not refrigerated during the process!)

    • madscientist
      Posted November 16, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      It’s very different; the pork bun’s casing is wheat flour and has a texture like muffins while the mango thing has a casing made of glutinous rice flour and is a bit gummy.

      • Posted November 18, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        Yes – though I’m pretty sure I’ve had a pork bun made from rice flour too (non-glutinous, though).


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