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Tuesday, July 8, 2014, 09:13

Losing taste for a classic dish

By Frannie Guan
Losing taste for a classic dish
Wonton noodle is a classic Cantonese food.

Behind all classic cuisine is a story, even a legend that finds its beginning in the pathways of days gone by. Take the humble wonton noodle — every bite likened to opening a box filled with delicacies. For Hong Kong people, a bowl of hot wonton noodles served with shrimp dumplings on the top of soup egg noodles is the taste of happiness. 

The popular Cantonese food, said to have originated south of the five ridges in Guangdong, was brought to Hong Kong in the 1940s when some noodle makers settled here and began doing business from open air noodle stands. The stands brought a taste of home to other migrants from Guangdong. They rapidly gained in popularity.

Wonton noodles have been part of Hong Kong culinary tradition for over half a century. While the dish remains popular, much of traditional culture, sadly, seems to be fading with changing times. It’s an oft-heard tale, recounting how Hong Kong’s traditional shops are forced to give way to high rents, the onslaught of urban renewal and the relentless advance of high fashion boutiques catering to tourists.

Wonton noodle soup is still available in Hong Kong. You can get it at restaurants. You can even order it in some hotel coffee shops. But it is not the same. It doesn’t have the same taste as the traditional noodles.

Most of the surviving traditional shops began doing business over a span of years during the 1950s and 1960s as dai pai dong (open air food stalls).  Some have legendary names that hark back to the beginning of the popular tradition.

There was Mak King-hung who came to Hong Kong with his family from Guangdong and opened his first open-air stall in Central in 1968.  Mak’s father, Mak Woon-chi, had won acclaim as “King of the wonton noodles”, an honor bestowed on him by then chairman of Guangdong, Chen Chi-tang. The younger Mak used the recipe that made his father famous.

“At that time, many people,  rich and poor, who came to enjoy wonton noodles were those who had just moved to Hong Kong from Guangdong,” Cheung Ying-si, a manager of Mak’s noodle said. “For them, Mak’s wonton noodles were a precious taste of Cantonese culinary tradition as well as a reminiscence of the past.”

The reputation of the eatery in Central spread by word of mouth and soon locals became regular customers.

Over decades, Cheung said the recipe for Mak’s noodles has never changed. The springy noodles are made of yolks of duck eggs, flour and kansui. The soup base, consisting of a perfect combination of flounder, shrimp roe and pork bone, has to be boiled for hours. “The best part of our wonton is what is wrapped inside. They are fresh sea shrimps, not river shrimps.” Cheung said. “The taste of sea shrimps is richer and tastier than that of river shrimps, giving a better eating experience for customers.”

For many Hong Kong wonton noodle makers, the task of maintaining the high quality of wonton noodles as a Hong Kong delicacy is an ongoing commitment. This is in order to keep the authentic culinary tradition alive and dynamic.

There have been a few changes over the years. The flour used in noodle making is now imported from Canada. Many shops no longer make noodles by hand but are using machines. 

Cheung explained that the quality of noodles made by machine remains as good as that of hand-made ones. “As long as the materials are of best quality and in perfect proportion, the noodle can still be springy and slick.” Cheung said.  

Wonton noodles will forever be a part of the Hong Kong culinary tradition but many Hong Kong people, especially young people are finding new menus, new tastes, but the fond memories of enjoying wonton noodles with family members at a dai pai dong remains forever etched in people’s minds.

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