Chinese scholars have long employed regional distinctions to classify the cuisines of China, a vast country with myriad geographical and cultural influences. These days, they seem to have settled on either a system of four or eight categories. Cantonese cuisine, namely the cuisine of the Guangdong region (once known as Canton) and the cuisine with which Hong Kong is synonymous, is recognized in both of these formally accepted systems.
Chiu Chow (also known as Chaozhou or Ciu Zau or Teochew) is a city that also shares its geographical location in the province of Guangdong with Hong Kong. However, mention Chiu Chow food in Hong Kong and most locals would say that it’s a different cuisine altogether, despite the fact that both traditions belong to the same classification in scholarly circles. Hong Kong is largely a Cantonese city in terms of language, food, and culture, yet, to this day, people of Chiu Chow descent in Hong Kong still retain both their own dialect and their own cooking traditions. Mid-Autumn Festival mooncakes made using the Chiu Chow techniques and styles as well as Chiu Chow dishes such as lou seoi ngo (goose poached in spiced soy) and zin hou beng (omelets studded with fresh oysters) are examples of the resolutely Chiu Chow culinary heritage that stands out from the traditional Cantonese cuisine of Hong Kong.
“A lot of Chiu Chow people, including chefs, left their homes around the 1950s and 1960s because of the political instability in Mainland China at the time, and many settled in Hong Kong,” says Mei-tak Hui, who is originally from Chiu Chow and is the executive head chef at Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant, which has been around since 1967. Hui observes that there are three schools of Chiu Chow cuisine. The first is the Chiu Chow home cooking, which is what the inhabitants of Chiu Chow traditionally make for themselves. The second, Hui points out, is the Chiu Chow cuisine of Southeast Asia, which is home-style Chiu Chow food that has been adapted both to suit changing palates and to accommodate the availability of ingredients in the different areas of the region to which Chiu Chow people immigrated. “Chiu Chow people have been traveling outside of the Mainland for a long time. As we say back in Chiu Chow—we’re all born to swim,” says Hui.
Lastly, the third type is the Hong Kong-style Chiu Chow food, which is home-cooked classics of Chiu Chow that have been modified to be more refined and luxurious, in line with Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan East-meets-West mentality and suitable for large banquets de rigeur in its booming economy.
In Hong Kong, such large Chiu Chow banquets often end with sugar and vinegar noodles, a dish of bright orange noodle pancakes fried to a crisp on one side, served with a garnish of Chinese chives, and eaten with Zhenjiang or Chingkiang vinegar (Chinese rice-based black vinegar) and a sprinkling of white sugar.
Hui thinks that the dish wasn’t invented in Chiu Chow at all, as it can no longer be found there. “I can attest to that from personal experience. I took a job in Shantou [a neighbouring city to Chiu Chow] in 1993, and no one there was making this type of noodle. I had to carry 20 to 30 catties [26 to 40 pounds] with me from Hong Kong every time I went,” he says.
According to the legend with which Hui is familiar, a Chiu Chow chef was making Cantonese dumplings, siu mai, and thought it would be a waste to throw out the trimmings from the dumpling wrappers. He then decided to cook them like noodles in a wok with some so-called “superior stock,” which is a Chinese stock built on chicken and Chinese ham (jinhua in Mandarin, or gam waa in Cantonese). Walking away to attend to something else while keeping the stove going (“I suppose back then it would have been wood fires, not gas stoves that you can just turn off,” says Hui), the chef returned a moment later to find that the wrapper trimmings had absorbed all of the stock and a crust had formed underneath. The result was a crunchy and rather delicious pancake that eventually made its way into restaurant menus as a noodle dish.
Regardless of the legend, it’s interesting that a similar dish of crispy noodle pancakes isn’t found only in Hong Kong but also across Chiu Chow or Teochew communities in Southeast Asia. Therefore it’s possible that the dish could have been a recipe that was retained outside of the region from émigrés of an earlier time.
When ordering the dish, many people in Hong Kong call sugar and vinegar noodles loeng min wong, which means “golden on both sides,” implying that both sides of the noodle pancake are crispy. Hui says that it’s a misnomer since Chiu Chow chefs in Hong Kong only fry the noodle cake on one side. He explains that loeng min wong is another dish altogether, in which the noodle pancake is fried on both sides, and usually served with a stir-fry on top, such as shrimp and Chinese celery, with a heavy gravy.
To make sugar and vinegar noodles, restaurants in Hong Kong use noodles that have an orange hue so intense that it’s reminiscent of an energy drink—an auspicious color, according to Hui. Because the length of the noodles symbolizes longevity, it makes for a popular food of choice for birthday celebrations. “I’m not actually sure why it’s orange. I would guess that there’s some coloring added to it, as it does leech color when we cook it,” he says.
Color aside, the noodles aren’t dissimilar to wonton noodles—thin noodles made with wheat flour, eggs, and lye water, an alkaline solution (potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate) that gives the noodles a distinctive texture—an almost elastic al dente—and a pale yellow color. A light touch is required, however, as too much lye water results in noodles that leave an unpleasant, soapy taste in your mouth.
And this, Hui points out, is one of the reasons why sugar and vinegar noodles are served the way they are—with granulated white sugar and black Zhenjiang vinegar. “The vinegar helps counter the effects of the alkaline solution so that it’s more easily digestible,” he says. Practical matters aside, culture also plays a role. “It’s how Chiu Chow people like to eat—savory and sweet together,” he says.