When Tony Tan’s cooking school opens in Trentham, Victoria, later this winter, the renowned chef will teach classes ranging from Cantonese and Malaysian to modern European cuisines.
His versatility in the kitchen is not new and can be traced back to his upbringing. His family comes from the Hainan province of China, but Tan grew up on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. His father first managed a resthouse, where his mother would cook trifle and lamb roast for British colonial officers. Later, the family moved to Kuantan, where they opened a Cantonese restaurant.
“It was easy for me to understand Cantonese, British, Hokkien and Malay cuisines. I immediately had these four food cultures to learn from,” says Tan. “When you’re from a food-loving family, you learn to appreciate what good food is all about.”
And it wasn’t only the parents. His older sister was also famous in their home town for her curry laksa made with fresh coconut milk. “I’d go visit her and help her shell cockles, kilos and kilos, usually the night before, or early in the morning. It’s nice eating them, but when you’re 10, 12 years old and you have to open hundreds … It stayed with me in my memory forever,” he says, laughing.
He can also remember spending long hours taking the straggly tails off freshly picked bean shoots and carefully peeling prawns.
In the following decades, Tan’s love for food only grew as he went on to train as a chef, and then cook, teach, and write the Hong Kong Food City cookbook.
“In Chinese culture, food plays such an important part in our lives. We have festivals celebrating different kinds of food: Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Moon Festival,” he says. “For that reason, I don’t take food lightly, I take it seriously.”
When cooking at home, one of his go-to dishes is a Cantonese classic: soy sauce chicken or see yow gai. “Wherever Chinese people go around the world, you’ll find Cantonese soy sauce chicken and Hainanese chicken. It’s our comfort food. Year after year, family after family and generation after generation, these two dishes will always survive,” he says.
Soy sauce chicken gets its colour from simmering in a light and dark soy stock spiced with ginger, cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns and mandarin peel. Once cooked, the chicken is chopped into pieces, drizzled with the poaching stock, sprinkled with spring onion, and served cold or at room temperature.
Making a dipping sauce is also a must. “In Malaysia and Singapore, it’s served with chilli sauce, because we love chilli. In Hong Kong, it’s served with a ginger and spring onion sauce. That sauce is one of the most beautiful things. Nothing but spring onion, ginger, vegetable oil, sesame oil, and a bit of sugar and salt blended or pounded together. It’s divine and beautifully green,” says Tan.
“Wherever Chinese people go around the world, you’ll find Cantonese soy sauce chicken and Hainanese chicken. It’s our comfort food. Year after year, family after family and generation after generation, these two dishes will always survive.”
For the best results, Tan recommends using free-range chicken and good quality soy sauce, as well as tailoring the number of aromates and sugar to personal tastes.
And don’t you dare get rid of the stock when you’re done; it’s the secret to even better chicken next time. “Don’t throw away the stock with all these beautiful flavours. Strain it and reuse it again. Keep it in the fridge or the freezer. When you want to make another soy chicken, you can refresh it again with aromates. The longer you use that stock, the more complex the flavour becomes.”
Cantonese soy chicken
Soy sauce chicken or see yow gai is a Cantonese classic. You often see it displayed in the glassed-in section at the front of Chinese restaurants in Chinatowns around the world. It’s made by a similar method to Hainanese chicken, except spices are used in the poaching stock. The key to the success of this recipe is to poach the chicken gently so the meat relaxes, ensuring a silky finish. And a good soy sauce makes a great difference to the flavour. Once you’ve eaten this succulent chicken in all its glory, chances are you’ll not buy it ready-made again.
- 1.8 kg free-range chicken, fat trimmed
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 8 spring onions, chopped into 5-cm lengths, plus extra, thinly sliced, to serve
- 200 g ginger, finely chopped
- 2 whole star anise
- 2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 250 ml (1 cup) dark soy sauce
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 125 ml (½ cup) Shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tbsp brown sugar or rock sugar (see note)
- 1 tbsp sea salt, or to taste
Ginger-spring onion sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 heaped tbsp ginger, finely chopped
- 60 g (½ cup) spring onions, finely chopped
- 1 tsp sea salt, or to taste
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
1. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Rinse and pat dry with a paper towel.
2. To make a soy stock, heat the oil in a wok over medium heat, add the spring onions and ginger and stir-fry for 10 seconds or until fragrant. Transfer to a stockpot that holds 8–10 litres and add the remaining ingredients and 6 litres (24 cups) water. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
3. Carefully lower the chicken breast-side down into the stock. Simmer gently for 15 minutes, ensuring the stock doesn’t boil, then remove from the heat, cover and leave for 40 minutes to finish cooking. To test if the chicken is cooked, pierce the thickest part of the thigh with a chopstick; if the juices run clear, it’s ready. Remove the chicken from the stock and leave to cool, reserving the poaching liquid. Meanwhile, for the ginger–spring onion sauce, blitz all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Season with salt and transfer to a serving bowl. Chop the chicken Chinese-style (see note) and arrange on a platter.
4. Drizzle with a little poaching stock, garnish with spring onion, and serve with ginger–spring onion sauce.
• Note Rock sugar is available from Asian grocers. It needs to be crushed before using; the best way to do this is to put it in a snaplock bag and whack it with a meat mallet. To chop the chicken Chinese-style, use a cleaver to split the bird down the middle through the breastplate and backbone, then remove the legs and halve them at the joint. Remove and halve the wings in the same manner. Halve the breasts lengthways and cut into thick slices.
Recipe and images from Hong Kong Food City by Tony Tan (Murdoch Books, $49.99)
A dim sum house favourite, radish cake are easier to make at home than you think. Keep some on hand in the fridge or freezer for frying into crisp snacks.
XO sauce only appeared in Cantonese cuisine the 1980s. It’s a collection of the most prized ingredients from around China, and it was named after XO cognac – the height of sophistication in Hong Kong at the time. The dried scallops are a little expensive, but that’s kind of the point. Destination Flavour China
This is a classic Hong Kong breakfast dish, however, you can have it for lunch and dinner too. It is usually accompanied with a smooth, rice congee.
Considered to be a legacy of the Portuguese and British, these ubiquitous Cantonese custard tarts have been around since the 1940s.
"Zong, or Joong in Cantonese, is a pyramid-shaped glutinous rice cake or dumpling with Chinese origins. This particular recipe was taught to Mum by my paternal Grandma Mary Siew Lan Yeow, who was an amazing cook. She was Nyonya, which means she comes from a Chinese-Malay heritage, so all the Nyonya dishes in my family come from her." Christina Yeow, Poh & Co.