Soup as Tao in Hong Kong, and Other Oddments
by Fred Ferretti
We must take utmost care," Yut Wei cautioned, "to choose soups according
to our physiques. You, for example, are, in my estimation, not a yang. Therefore
you are a yin. But we must press on beyond this basic and discuss your physique
before we order your soup."
"Well, some people have suggested that I am a bit on the chubby side"
I began, thinking I might help.
"We know that. We are not talking about that. We must discuss your interior;
consider the construction of your yin. Are you yin weak or yin strong?
Is your yin one that is wet-cold-weak or dry-hot-weak, wet-hot-strong
Oh. "If you are wet-cold-weak you must drink a soup of heat and reinforcement.
If you are dry-hot-weak your body will welcome a soup that is humid but
cool. A wet-hot-strong physique needs to have its blood and other pressures
lowered, of course, and if you are dry-cold-strong you must drink a soup
that will protect you from strange and sudden sickness. Analysis is very
important before the soup. Don't you see?" Yut Wei asked.
I knew he was right. After all, hadn't he confided to me that infusions
of correct soups at correct times had kept him out of the clutches of
Western doctors for twenty years? Surely a record to envy. I resolved
therefore to yield to his analysis of me. Before my soup.
We had made our way, Yut Wei and I, one recent evening to a soup restaurant
called Ah Yee Leng Tong, in the Causeway Bay section of Hong Kong. A place
of spare, unadorned tables and chairs, Ah Yee Leng Tong has been a refuge
of solace and sustenance for Yut Wei, who is a food critic for Ming Pao
Weekly, one of Hong Kong's major magazines. Its only decorations are wall
signs proclaiming the efficacy of herbal soups made with the likes of
water convolvulus, stewed algae, couch grass root, and cordyceps. Delicious
prescriptions all, according to Yut Wei.
Soup by dosage, as medicine, is not a custom unique to China, a fact
to which those of us who have had persistent grandmothers can attest,
but the soups at Ah Yee Leng Tong, I was to discover, extend beyond the
concept of chicken soup as a cure for the common cold.
The restaurant's name translates literally as "Beautiful Soup from Number
Two" and arises from a bit of male Cantonese lore that suggests that mistresses,
"number twos," generally make better soups than do wives, "number ones."
Yut Wei explained. "Some Chinese men say that if you have a wife who cooks
soup at home you should go home to her. Others say that if you have a
wife at home it is better not to go home. I am not one of those, I hasten
to add. Some men, lacking mistresses, I expect, come here to Ah Yhee Leng
Tong for Beautiful Soup from Number Two, and perhaps they dream as they
eat their soup. What do you think of this?"
"I think I would rather discuss my personal yin," I replied quickly,
for the subject seemed the sort of social minefield through which I did
not care to tiptoe.
"Done," said Yut Wei. "Now, because I see your yin as wet-cold-weak,
I suggest some rice-field chicken soup."
"Rice-field chicken is frog," he continued. "A nice frog soup, tin gai
tong, removes wetness, strengthens the spleen, removes congestion, and
clears the stomach. It is a perfect wet-cold-weak soup.
"Are you sure it's not toad?" I asked. "Because I'm not sure whether
I'd like toad."
"Perhaps a snakehead soup." Yut Wei proposed, declining to answer my
"Snakehead is a fish," he said quietly, "and you make a soup of it with
mulberry tree fungus, barley, and red dates."
"And it's good for?"
"Rheumatism and stiff joints — both wet-cold-weak afflictions
— and it will also prevent gout, among other conditions."
"Aha! Let's have some of that," I said.
We sipped snakehead soup and had some sin yan sum wu guat gai tong as
well, a soup of ginseng root, gingerroot, and black chicken that Yut Wei
assured me would invigorate my blood and strengthen my metabolism. I expect
it did, for, well metabolized, I suggested to Yut Wei that we go out into
the night and find some lions to slay.
"Not before dessert," he replied.
Yut Wei led me a few blocks away into a narrow alley in the district
of Wanchai, to a tiny bamboo-paneled shop that is called Vassar Health
Dessert Specialist. It makes sweet medicinal desserts, Yut Wei said.
"Vassar?" I asked.
"It is part of the name of our Buddhist Vassar Chinese Medical College,"
said Simond Chan, the restaurant's proprietor and a former student at
the college. "Medicinal reinforcement of bodily health through eating
is taught there."
"I believe in that," I said.
"He does," Yut Wei informed Mr. Chan, and asked to sample a couple of
the sweet, medicinal soups the shop prepares. He pointed at me. "My friend
is yin, wet-cold-weak yin."
Mr. Chan nodded. "He must then drink some fig dendrobium. It removes
the heat from the lungs and strengthens the stomach." He brought out a
bowl of thin soup, dull gold in color, that was sweet but tart, and very
good. Mr. Chan brought more soups, insisting I try tastes of his prescriptions.
He noted that small tastes of many soups would not create within me an
imbalance, lest I feared that.
"I don't," I assured him.
First I drank a liquid he called "ramulus loranth" tea with lotus seeds.
A large bowl of this, Mr. Chan said, would strengthen my lumbar region,
which I agreed was a good thing. Next I ate some cream of peanut soup
with "moriuda root," then some cream of apricot soup with fritillary bulb
— both of which would guarantee unblemished skin. I drank some puréed
black sesame soup, which Mr. Chan said would, in time, if I consumed enough,
turn the gray streaks in my hair back to brown, dark brown.
I had some yam pudding with wolfberry; then Mr. Chan brought out two
bowls together. In one was a thick pink porridge, which he said was cream
of taro with coconut milk. In the other was a consommé of honey, ginseng,
and chrysanthemum blossoms. Though different, he said both soups would
help my "middle burner" immensely.
"Your middle burner," Yut Wei said.
"These two soups are designed to reinforce the operation of your middle
burner. A worthy purpose."
"Where," I asked discreetly, "is my middle burner?"
"It's here," Yut Weis said, touching an area just below my rib cage.
"Oh. There?" I said.
Nevertheless I drank all of my medicines that night, and the next morning
I telephoned Yut Wei to thank him for his prescriptions and to report
that my middle burner seemed to be humming along smoothly.
"Of course it is," said Yut Wei.
The China Syndrome.
Asia's economy may be ailing, but its tastes for fine wine is as healthy
Mr. Chui looked thoughtful, more so than usual.
"I am informed that people are drinking wine with their food now. Is
that so?" he asked.
"Yes," I agreed, knowing that I was on somewhat irrefutable ground and
prepared as well to have one of my periodic, occasionally elliptical,
chats with Mr. Chui. Chui Wai Kuan that is, Number Seven Big Brother and
proprietor of Fook Lam Moon in Hong Kong, surely the finest seafood restaurant
on the planet.
"And any restaurant of certain high repute should have a house wine,
a good house red wine. Is it not so?" asked this fellow whose restaurant
is considered Hong Kong's culinary academy, one that has over the years
provided executive Chinese chefs of virtually every major hotel in Hong
Kong; one that has one employee, "the Emperor of the Fish," whose sole
duty is inspecting, accepting, or rejecting individually the live fish
brought to him each morning.
"Is it not so?" he persisted.
"Most do," I replied, nodding.
"Then we must have my house wine," Mr. Chui said with a sly grin, beckoning
over his right shoulder with a forefinger as if to say, come.
At once a bottle appeared at his right elbow, a bottle of 1982 Château
Lynch Bages, a fifth-growth Bordeaux which, if not great, is certainly
grand. It is surely the best wine that has ever been suggested to me as
a house wine, particularly as an accompaniment to shrimp-filled dumplings,
yellow-oil crab and a steamed fat green wrasse.
Once this mischievous playlet would have been unique. No more. Or an
aberration. No longer. These days, all of Asia is bobbing on a swelling
tide of wines. Western wines, specifically, are the wines it demands,
collects and drinks without pause: the most glittery bottles of Bordeau
and Burgundy, the biggest of the big Barolos and Barbarescos, any wine
from Australia as long as it says "Penfolds" on the label, everything
that Robert Mondavi can ship west to east — actually anything red,
made from grapes, in bottles.
Cases of wines, no, not cases, but rather whole ship containers, arrive
in Asia stacked with red wines that are spoken for before they even reach
port. They become possessions, or futures to hold for eventual profit,
adornments that confer even more status than the ubiquitous gold Rolex
that circles the wrist of Asia's tycoon du jour. These wines are, it must
be said, also drunk.
Any red from Fat Guo, or the "Expanded Country," as France is known
in China, is snapped up sight unseen, usually on the basis of printed
vintage charts. The same goes for wines from Mei Guo, the "Beautiful Country,"
America; or Oh Jau, the "City" of Australia; or Ee Dai Lei, the charming
phonetic for Italy. Christie's auction house sells wines to Asians in
New York, while Sotheby's sells to Asians in Hong Kong. Both regularly
set records. Other auction houses from Singapore to Japan find that all
they need do is announce a wine sale and jack up the reserve limits, and
the money rolls in. And in Hong Kong, the Island Shangri-La Hotel, an
outpost of luxury consumption, has little trouble selling out $4,000-per-person
wine dinners, or an occasional $17,000 bottle of 1906 Pétrus (the
hotel stocks 44 vintages). Those are, by Mr. Chui, never far from any
culinary cusp, has a wine list which, though small, would surely engender
a lot of respect from the keep of Taillevent's Parisian cellars. In recent
years, over meals with him, he has produced for us several '82 Margaux,
a parade of '85 Mouton Rothschild, as well as a parade of Haut-Brions
and Cheval Blancs of impeccable pedigree.
"Good?" he always asks, despite knowing the answer.
"Come at Christmas and I will open some 1982's you haven't seen yet."
I've made my airline booking.
The Airline Syndrome.
Never, it appears, despite our pleas, will we be rid of culinary pretension,
particularly as regards airplane food. Our appeals for the simple in-flight
sandwich go unheeded still. Instead, at thirty-five-thousand feet we find
ourselves prisoners, subjected to cornstarch-thickened pseudo-French sauces;
warmed-over, Italian-sounding pastas; stateless dishes of Spanish intention;
and airborne ersatz sushi. Most of us, however, are relentless optimists,
and we keep flying, tasting, hoping.
Recently, aboard a jet over the Pacific, we were presented with a menu
that proposed to treat us to some of the tastes of that newest food fads,
"East meets West." This sampling was the work of a practitioner of the
genre, we were informed by the menu and in a brief pre-meal film, a fellow
who for our ultimate pleasure had cooked more than eight hundred dishes
in three days to come up with this carte. We were to be fed shrimp salad
dressed with a "Southeast Asian Pesto" (which by the way became, on the
return-flight menu, "Asian Pesto"), a "Chinese Ratatouille," "Hong Kong
Style Fried Rice," and "Pasta in Black Bean Sauce with Triple Tomatoes."
It is sufficient to report that not one of the above even approximated
its given name.
Perhaps, I wondered idly, we were being served rejects from that eight-hundred-dish
exercise? I asked our flight attendant at one point what "Triple Tomatoes"
were. She replied, "I don't know. Would you like to try some?"
I suppose so.
What was delivered to my flip-up table was a small oblong bowl of warmed
linguine dotted with a few black beans and fewer bits of chopped tomato.
"Are these the triple tomatoes?" I asked.
The flight attendant bent over the bowl and peered at the pasta. "Maybe
they're double?" she suggested.
"Or single?" I volleyed.
"Maybe. But they are tomatoes, aren't they?"
I guessed yes.
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