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Monday, 29 April 2013

Hong Kong Food: Mak Kwei Pui's Interview with Lianhe Zaobao (Tim Ho Wan Singapore Opening)

As Tim Ho Wan Singapore was officially opened on 28 April 2013, Lianhe Zaobao ran an interview with Chef Mak Kwei Pui, Executive Chef cum owner of the Michelin One Star dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan, the Hong Kong Dim Sum Specialists. 

Below is the translated article. 

As Hong Kong dockworkers' strike continues, the spiral effects can be felt to Chef Mak Kwei Pui, boss cum Executive Chef of one star Michelin restaurant, Tim Ho Wan. He could not ship the brand of flour that he adored to Singapore for the opening of his first overseas restaurant. Tim Ho Wan Singapore was officially opened on Saturday, 28 April 2013. 

In preparation of the opening, Master Mak was busy for the past few months as he trained chefs that was employed in Singapore and testing various food ingredients. All these steps are to ensure the food standard of the Lion City outlet, is to be either on par, if not, almost the same as the standard in Hong Kong. 

To Mak, flour is consider as the soul in the making of dim sum. He finds the flour supplied in Singapore has a  high percentage of protein content. That led to his initial decision to use this ingredient that is supplied in Hong Kong. But when the flour failed to deliver in time for the trial period (Blogger notes: from 10 April to 27 April 2013), he had to improvises the material by mixing low protein flour into the dough.

Another example of improvise the dim sum is the Char Siew Crispy Bun. He would dismissed the motion of altering the recipe as he feels, "If I had to change, I will have to concoct the formula which involves the adjustment of brand of soya sauce being used, sugar and water content. It is too cumbersome." This theory applies to the choice of pork as the animal sold in Singapore is not fatty enough.

Even the making of a simple dim sum, fried radish cake,  involves profound knowledge. Chef Mak commented that in Hong Kong, radish is best eaten in Winter as a steamboat ingredient. Its sweetness is brought out by placing in the steamboat broth. But as the climate differs in both cities, radish sold in Singapore has this sour aftertaste. Local dim sum restaurants will reduce the quantity of the radish and add in more condiments for modification purposes. The downside of such preparation method will be foodies may not able to relish the goodness of radish. Henceforth, Mak adopted a more complicated method. For example, he will drain the water before the radish is fully cooked. "There will be people insisted not to alter the taste, radish should have this tint of bitterness. Of course, different people have different taste. To me, I will prefer not to have that flavour."

It is a challenge to replicate another signature dim sum dish, Chee Chung Fun (Rice roll) with pork liver. One of the main reason is the quality of pork liver. Mak would choose the liver that  taste soft upon eating and do not weigh not more than 2 and a half kilograms. But he could not find such substitute in Singapore and will rely on improvisation to ensure the innards do not taste tough after cooking.

As the locals, especially the younger generation do not favour food with animals innards like the pork liver, it takes Chef Mak with lots of guts to roll out this dish in Singapore outlet. However, Mak express confidently that the star dim sum items that are included in the menu will bring in the dollars. It is a matter of fact that if the food is presented well, the dish will be widely accepted by the locals.

Born in the family of chefs (his father and uncle were chefs), Chef Mak started to learn the ropes of trade at the age of 15, rose to the rank of  supervisor in Hakka cuisine restaurant at 20. After being recognized by the Executive Chef of Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, he was roped over to manage the dim sum department of Lung Kim Heen. Under his tenure, he has the honour of Lung Kim Heen to maintain the 3 star Michelin rating.    

In March 2009, as the effect of financial crisis still being felt everywhere, Chef Mak decided to give up his high paying job and set up a restaurant that sole focused on dim sum. With his friend roping in with funds as co-owner, they opened Tim Ho Wan at Kong Wah Street in Mongkok district. The signature Crispy Char Siew Bun, had a sales record of 750 items in a single day, whereas Fried Radish Cake and Steam Cake are popular items. Less than a year later, Tim Ho Wan was accorded Michelin One Star Award. At that point, it was the Michelin star restaurant serving the most affordable dishes within the same category.

He expressed that producing dim sum in hotel is focused on getting high end ingredients like lobster and truffles, to produce elegant food items. Whereas ingredients like pork ribs and animal innards would not land in the menu. Henceforth, he wishes to have the full capacity to decide what to produce the value for items foodstuff for customers to savour.

Mak added that traditional Cantonese style dim sum do not focus on using the freshest ingredients. As in the case of Char Siew Bao, it was steamed using meat that was cooked the night before. When clients order it, the char siew will be reheat and served. His notion of "Self made dim sum to be steam upon ordering" becomes the signature of Tim Ho Wan.

To fulfil the notion, the ingredients must not be left overnight, it has to be done right after the orders come in. The pros of "Steaming upon ordering" is to allow patrons to taste the freshest dim sum. But the cons to this is customers have to wait for the food and will find out that the items they adored for is sold out for the day.

Mak denotes that what makes dim sum in Tim Ho Wan stands out among the rest, the key is how to maintain the freshness of the ingredients. He believes that even as the dim sum looks so ordinary, when it goes to one's mouth, the tiny gritty details of the food can be treasured by many. It is the same reason why people would queue for hours just to sample the food.

As Tim Ho Wan won the accolade of Michelin One Star Restaurant, many suggested to Chef Mak to set up overseas outlets. He turned such suggestions down as he feel the priority is to strengthened Hong Kong outlets. Mak also feel that his overseas venture would be limited to the business management sentiments in the cities he set up the restaurants. However, he chose to set up his first overseas restaurant in Singapore as he have find a trustworthy partner and many of his patrons are Singaporeans. This raised his confidence level.  

It is an art to produce Hong Kong style dim sum, creativity have to be build upon gradual modification of traditional technique. It is not to be add on top of the motion of dare to be different, majority of the time is spent on research, never to be give into circumstances, yet one must rely on expertise and technique, plus a never to say die attitude to produce the finest dim sum. From the story of Chef Mak bringing in Tim Ho Wan to Singapore, this is also a secret, challenge and revelation from a chef helming the world class dim sum restaurant.

Pork liver Chee Cheong Fun

Tim Ho Wan, the Hong Kong Dim Sum Specialists (Singapore)
Address: Plaza Singapura, The Atrium @ Orchard, #01-29A
Note: No reservations is allowed for the time being

The link for the article in Mandarin is here: http://blog.omy.sg/ming/archives/1361

The writer for the Mandarin version article, Ming Wing Cheong is born in Hong Kong and educated in Singapore. He is currently works for Lianhe Zaobao.com as Content Producer.