Vietnamese pickled vegetables, or du’a chua, are a staple in Saigon. ‘I grew up eating my mum’s Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon,’ says chef Bao La, who now incorporates his mother’s own recipe at his brasserie Le Garcon Saigon.
Pickling takes time, but it allows La to incorporate new elements into his dishes that enhance flavours and differentiate them. ‘They add dimension to dishes with their tart and sweet flavours as well as textural crunch,’ says La, who uses carrot and daikon pickles in rice paper rolls and banh mi thit, and pickled radish, Vietnamese lotus stems and morning glory for his campfire bread with chicken liver pate and fried duck egg, and his Saigon BBQ yellow chicken. First, La dissolves sugar in a mixture of water and vinegar, then adds a special blend of herbs and spices before immersing the vegetables in this pickling brine. Over the next 48 hours, the vegetables develop their distinctive flavour. ‘We pickle our own vegetables so we can control the different characteristics such as sweetness, spiciness and acidity.’
But delicious homemade pickles are the result of just one culinary technique that is making a comeback. At New York-style deli Morty’s, all meats are smoked in-house according to the original methods of co-founder Brian Tock’s grandfather, after whom the eatery is named. It was Morty Tock who first introduced his grandson to meat smoking – and today the deli may be the only place in the city that smokes all of its own meats, from beef and salmon to duck and turkey.
Morty’s gets through 1.5 tonnes of beef brisket every month. First it’s dried and patted down to eliminate as much moisture on the outside as possible so that the dry cure – a secret blend of more than 15 spices passed down from Morty – can be applied. The meat is cured for three to four weeks before the brisket is ready to be slow cooked and smoked, with the entire process taking close to a month and resulting in the juiciest meats possible.
While some of the traditional methods used by Morty himself have been modernised – for example, slow cooking and smoking take place in one machine with pre-set programmes to ensure consistency – the process remains highly artisanal in the sense that each step is hands-on, from the cure blend done by one staff member twice a month to the pastrami being hand cut – there’s a specific way to slice it to ensure tenderness.
‘Artisanal takes a lot more time, effort and care,’ says co-founder Gerald Li. But the results – ‘taste and texture that you won’t find anywhere else’ – are worth it.
But while Hong Kong is seeing a renewed focus on artisanship and local organic ingredients, it isn’t always the easiest place for artisanal foods, many of which require space and don’t always take kindly to Hong Kong’s climate.
Le Pain Quotidien hand-crafts all of its breads from its own ‘mother sourdough’
At Le Pain Quotidien, whole wheat, rye, five-grain breads and baguettes are all hand-crafted. ‘Making our own bread is important to us, as we know exactly what we’re putting in it and making sure we’re using the best ingredients available,’ says head chef Nicholas Ratzlaff. All breads originate from Le Pain Quotidien’s ‘mother sourdough’, which provides the bread with the yeast to rise while resting and baking as well as its distinctive flavour. Using sourdough is a longer process with increased rising time due to a slower reaction – the whole process of resting, proofing and baking takes between 26 and 28 hours – but the result is improved flavour.
‘The biggest challenge is not having strict temperature- and humidity-controlled zones,’ says Ratzlaff. ‘During the hot and humid summer we need to make sure the dough doesn’t prove too fast or become too wet as it absorbs humidity while resting.’
At Elephant Grounds, bread is also made in-house, as is ice cream, but the cafe is perhaps best known for its locally roasted coffee. This doesn’t come without its challenges. ‘Monitoring temperatures is key, as is the storage of beans, which needs to be in controlled temperature room at all times,’ says executive chef Miles Oki. ‘One degree off can ruin an entire batch of beans.’