As one of the eight primary Chinese cuisines, Cantonese food highlights the freshness and the original taste of the ingredients, with various cooking techniques involved. With a spatula and a pen on hand respectively, both the chefs and gourmands contribute to the eminence of the cuisine. In this series of eight stories, we tell the tales of the most celebrated figures in the Cantonese gastronomic world and the unforgettable episodes in its history.
You cannot talk about the development of Cantonese food without mentioning Jiang Taishi. He was not a chef, nor did he open a restaurant, yet he was surely a game changer in shaping the way modern Cantonese cuisine is.
Jiang Kong-yin was among the last candidates who qualified for the metropolitan exam in the Qing Dynasty, through which he acquired the "taishi" name. Born into a family of tremendous reputation, Jiang’s ancestors built their wealth on tea trading. He himself was a longtime representative for British and American tobacco companies in Southern China. Beyond his fortune, Jiang’s network encompasses contacts from both the East and the West. His knowledge of gastronomy was also well-documented, something that earned him the moniker of the “first man of the hundred Cantonese foods”.
Forerunner Of Farm-to-Table Dining
Jiang’s granddaughter Pearl Kong Chen wrote about her childhood in her book, describing it as such: “Besides the chef, our home had Western cooks, dim sum cooks, and a dedicated female cook for my several grandmothers who were vegetarians. There was so much good food to eat.”
It might be an understatement to describe Jiang as an epicure. For someone who lived more than a century before us, he was way ahead of his time as a forerunner of farm-to-table dining. The food ingredients consumed by his family was supplied by the farm he opened. Grown on a plot of land that spanned over a thousand acres, the fresh produce also served as premium gifts to Jiang’s guests.
Having a wide array of culinary ambitions, Jiang trained many family cooks and invented new dishes that would later enter the public domain and become the leading trends of Cantonese cuisine. The most famous original recipes by Jiang are his five-snake soup and deep-fried custard. During the 1950s, the last family cook of the Jiangs, Lee Choi, arrived in Hong Kong to escape the war and became the family cook of Rensuke Isogai, governor of Hong Kong during the Japanese Occupation. He subsequently joined the kitchen of a private club and took on the consultant role of the Penthouse, the exclusive dining hall of Hang Seng Bank, in the last phase of his career. These tenures gave him widespread acclaim in elite circles. “The last family cook of the Jiangs” are the only words that need to be said on his resume.
The Successor Of Jiang’s Legacy
Jiang Taishi’s legacy did not get the recognition it deserved until 20 years ago, thanks to the endeavours of his granddaughter Kong, who was invited to write columns for food magazines. In her writings, Kong did not just share the origins and backstories of her recipes; she also assumed the thorough attitude of a gastronomic scholar to list the steps and measurements in detail. This earned her the admiration of her readers, professional cooks and amateurs alike, who reported a nearly perfect success rate in following her recipes to recreate the dishes.
In fact, among the recipes Kong wrote, only a fraction belongs to the portfolio of the Jiang family. She came to Hong Kong in her teens, at a time when the war was raging and the fortune of the Jiangs had run out. The spectacle of the Jiangs’ family dinner was a faint memory which she had little experience of. Her journey of culinary exploration began late, at the age of 40. Chan Mong Yan, the first-generation gourmet in Hong Kong, was her first teacher. Her achievement has a lot to do with her natural talent and simply being a Jiang.
Led by the great Jiang Taishi, the Jiang School influenced and shook up the core of Cantonese food. It might not qualify as a full-fledged cuisine, but it was definitely a significant part of the regional culinary history.
A Working Relationship
Before her passing away, Kong collaborated with Hong Kong's One Harbour Road to devise a menu for the restaurant. The executive chef at that time, Li Shu Tim, had been friends with Kong for 30 years. He got the chance to learn from her up close and personal.
“I had been reading Master Kong’s recipes before I got to interact with her. I don’t usually read recipes, except for hers. I love to read, because there are a lot of intricacies in cooking which you can’t solve just by thinking. I would get inspiration whenever I read what she wrote. For example, lotus root pancake was something I couldn’t make well. Only after reading Master Kong’s recipe did I realise I didn’t grasp the details completely, hence the imperfections in the texture. She let us understand every small detail has a certain bearing on the final outcome of a dish,” Li said.
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“A block of The Taishi’s tofu costs $120. You might think it’s a mistake. In reality, we cook a whole chicken to get its juice for this dish! Tofu is nothing fancy, but this is the way of the Taishi’s cuisine: money is spent on things you can’t see. The extravagance is in the blood of the dishes,” he continued, noting that this type of food is not only generous; it further represents a mature level of culture. It is a school of food that allows the chef and the diners to find transcendence.
“Jiang Taishi didn’t really leave a lot of dishes to us, but the depth in those dishes is something the younger generation of chefs could benefit from.”
A Famous Protégé
Lai Yau-Tim joined the Penthouse at 17 to learn from the Jiangs’ last family cook Lee. He is arguably Lee’s finest protégé. With his mentor’s passing, Lai took over the reins as one of the supervising chefs of the restaurant. After 30 years at the Penthouse, he retired at 50 and founded his own joint, Tim’s Kitchen.
Thinking back on the old days, Lai said chefs from the generation of his teacher worked under the mantra of “scolding is teaching”. Comments from the old masters were harsh and sometimes straying into foul language. After all, the Chinese kitchen is not known for hand-holding. The training of culinary skills is inseparable from that of a tough mind.
“The so-called ‘teaching’ means when he sees you cut a bamboo shoot and doesn’t like the way you do it, he would swear at you before taking the knife out of your hand and showing you how to cut properly,” Lai recalled. However, when he joined the Penthouse, Lee was already past his prime, at least in terms of knife skills.
“Did he make really fine cuts? Not actually. He was old after all. His hand shook a little, which affected his accuracy. But the most important thing was his cutting technique. His placement and rhythm of cutting were much better than mine: how to raise the hand and draw the knife into the ingredients, and finally drag the knife back and forth before cutting off the piece.”
There is no better way to fully comprehend Jiang’s legacy than the famed Taishi's five-snake soup. Legend has it that while all other ingredients are chopped to hair-thin, it is required the snake meat be shredded by hand to give the soup some bite.
“That’s correct. The snake meat is shredded by hand. The main reason is the grain of snake meat is formed diagonally. It would crumble if it is cut by knife. We need to use scissors to cut a snake into about 10 sections of equal length, and then follow the grain to tear off strips of meat. Only in this way we can keep the shape of the meat consistent. If you use a knife, even though it comes off as shreds in the beginning, the meat would end up like dices after cooking.” In making the five-snake soup, two types of stocks are made: the snake stock and the premium stock. They are cooked separately and combined according to a specific proportion.
Refinement In Cooking and Appreciation
Just like how the five-snake soup has a complicated recipe, the way to eat it is equally complex. This was how privileged diners a generation ago would eat it: first, drop petals of chrysanthemum into the soup, and then pick up slices of shiitake mushroom, white flower shiitake mushroom, snake and the chrysanthemum petals with chopsticks and put them onto a spoon. Add two strips of lime leaf and chew the morsels slowly. After that, have a mouthful of soup, accompanied by a bite of the fried dough to add aroma to the liquid.
The routine is repeated until the soup is finished. It is an art designed to let diners taste every layer of flavour. Mixing everything into a lump to put in the mouth would have been an atrocity in the eyes of the gourmets of the past era.
“At the Taishi’s mansion, everything from cooking to eating is thought out in an exquisite fashion. But when the same dish reached the common people, its aura was changed by its new audience, who were more dominant. That’s when the preference to substance and big portions took over,” Lai remarked.
Taste is something that takes time to be cultivated. Living in a city always on the move, Hong Kong diners have become less and less patient to understand such complexities in food. Even if the cooking method is preserved, the way to fully appreciate the soup’s flavour is unavoidably fading away. The polished etiquette in eating even inspired how the soup is thickened. Unlike other Cantonese dishes, the soup should be thickened in a way which turns the liquid silky smooth and lets the sliced ingredients “stick” on it. Yet the thickener should be light enough that diners do not feel its presence.
“The texture of the five-snake soup should not be thin as water or thick as glue. It requires very good technique in incorporating the thickener into the soup,” Lai explained. He did not have an auspicious start in his first time running a business. The restaurant did not make a profit in the first few years. He jokingly blamed this on his background from the Penthouse and his mentor Lee.
“I had to choose the best ingredients available and stick with refined cookery. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself otherwise,” he said, explaining how, ironically, his rigorous training hindered him in the business world. His work over those few years was rewarded not with a single penny, but a lesson on balancing between the ideal and the reality.
“The Taishi’s cuisine might work only if you ran a private kitchen.”
Enriching The Food Of The Poor
As Kong mentioned in her food magazine column in 2008, among all her apprentices in Hong Kong, Theresa Mak had followed her for the longest time. That is the reason she is known as “dashijie” (a title junior pupils address their most senior counterpart). Having known Kong for three decades and assisted her cooking for 12 years, Mak is most likely the student that got the most knowledge out of the grande dame.
Mak feels the Jiang’s School instills the spirit of “enriching the food of the poor” into Cantonese cuisine, crafting a sense of luxury out of ordinary ingredients, making them match up to a prestigious dining setting.
“Stir-fried hog maw is a good example. Hog maw isn’t expensive, but the cooking technique has to be on-point. Other than Chinese olive kernel, the pairing ingredients like pickled mustard green are quite cheap as well. It is the breath of the wok created by stir-frying that makes a ‘rich poor dish’ possible,” she said.
“When Jiang’s family was haunted by the financial crisis, they couldn’t afford luxurious produce. But to make a simple leafy green soup, they still made the effort to remove the tough part of the stalk. Without premium stock in hand, they prepared a substitute stock with meat to add some umami. The choice of vegetable depends on the season. In my opinion, many cooks nowadays don’t understand how to use everyday ingredients to create a delicate dish. This is the element most worth promoting in the Jiangs’ family cooking,” Mak said.
By the same token, Kong’s recipes place a premium on elevating the produce, regardless of its market value. The journey of spreading this philosophy will continue onto another generation, now with Mak leading the charge.
This article is written by Agnes Chee and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to read the original story.