HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – The other day, craving a bowl of fishball noodle soup, I went to eat lunch at On Lee, a famous 54-year-old hole in the wall on Hong Kong Island. I hadn’t been there since the start of the pandemic.
The cashier at the door, instead of greeting me with the usual efficient nod and asking “How many people?”, pointed a temperature gun at my forehead before even allowing me to step inside.
In Hong Kong, where space is at a premium and mom-and-pop restaurants operate on a paper-thin margin, diners typically share tables with strangers. This is part of the fun of the Hong Kong eating experience: As you rubberneck, you see what other people have ordered and occasionally strike up cross-table talk. But that day the chatter was muffled, and no bowls of roasted chilli oil were being passed across the table. The owners had installed movable plexiglass partitions, as per the latest rules, to keep customers apart and conversational droplets away.
Before Covid-19, there was the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2002-2003. And before that, the bubonic plague, smallpox, leprosy, rabies and bird flu. Infectious diseases have been part of Hong Kong life at least since the territory was colonised by the British in 1841.
And if you dig into this city’s food culture, you’ll find enduring traces of epidemics past. For instance, according to food anthropologist Sidney Cheung, it was Sars that helped establish the custom in local restaurants of providing separate sets of chopsticks: one for eating, the other for serving.
This might not seem like a big deal, but in a culture that has a specific term – gaap sung – for taking food from a common platter with your chopsticks, it is. Now, courtesy of the coronavirus, chopsticks for serving can often be found in even the most humble street eateries.
As for the chopsticks you eat with, the old-fashioned canisters stuffed with communal acid-green and neon-orange plastic chopsticks that used to grace the tables at On Lee are gone. They have been replaced by individually wrapped packages of the disposable variety.
Hotpot? Not. The Sichuan winter tradition that became a Hong Kong year-round rage in the 1990s lost its allure in late January, after 11 members of one family became infected with the coronavirus from sharing a holiday meal over a bubbling communal pot.
Dim sum, the city’s most famous breakfast and lunch custom, has taken a hit too. Normally it’s a boisterous occasion, with extended families or office mates hunkered over steamer baskets. But in late July, the Hong Kong government restricted restaurant dining to a maximum of two people per table. (The rule has recently been relaxed to allow four people per table from Friday.) Diners have had to adjust to unaccustomed dim sum intimacy: a pair of people, a few lonely baskets and quiet, face-to-face conversation.
Dinner time has suffered especially. The typical Cantonese restaurant meal is a delicate balancing act of multiple courses, each showcasing a different ingredient, flavor, texture, cooking method and health benefit. Ordering the right parade of dishes is an art, and they are sized for group-sharing so that diners can eat a bit of everything. Downsizing restaurant meals to only two (or even four) people means adjusting not just service and table size, but also menus and recipes.
One of the pandemic’s biggest casualties here has been the reputation of wet markets.
I shop at a wet market almost every day, and it pains me that the place where I buy wriggling pomfret plucked from a bubbling water tank by the fisherwoman herself is being rebranded worldwide as ground zero for the pandemic.
Cantonese cuisine, however, can’t be maintained at its highest expression without wet markets, and remarkably the city authorities, both British and local, have got this. Despite a contagion-driven obsession with hygiene, they have adapted health regulations with elaborate workarounds to preserve the local food culture.
Consider the chicken.
In Cantonese cooking, there is simply no substitute for a just-killed chicken. The classic preparation bak chit gai is deceptively simple: a whole chicken slow-poached in water, hacked into small pieces and served with a side of dipping oil infused with ginger and scallion.
Getting the dish right is not so easy. Cantonese cuisine plays with subtleties of texture as well as flavor. The chicken can’t just taste good; it must feel right in the mouth: tender but with a chewiness to the bite.
“You lose that texture if your chicken has been chilled or frozen,” Cantonese chef and food columnist Lau Chun said. He added: “It can get soft and mushy.”
Over the years, live chicken has been a flash point between Cantonese culture and Western presumptions of cleanliness and cultural superiority.
A local newspaper article from 1895, the second year of the bubonic plague, describes the food stalls newly established by the British authorities as a “healthful change” from “the old dirt begrimed sheds which have for the last years answered for the Hong Kong Market”. Mr Lau, the chef, told me: “There’s always been controversy over the practice of selling fresh-killed chicken and other live animals in Hong Kong. It touches issues of hygiene, animal welfare and how supposedly ‘barbarian’ we Chinese are.”
In fact, it was local Chinese elites, not the British, who spearheaded the drive to eliminate the sale of exotic animals in Hong Kong wet markets after a rabies panic hit the city in 1949. The Dogs and Cats Regulation ended the sale and consumption of those animals for meat in 1950. Yet, the chicken, even after more than a century of plagues, bird flus and coronaviruses, is still quite alive and squawking.
In my old local street market in Wan Chai, a neighbourhood in the city centre, two vendors in open storefronts ply their trade across from each other. Despite the premium price, lines often stretch down the street on Sundays and around Chinese New Year, both high-demand chicken occasions.
Middle-aged women point at their preferred bird in the cage. The butcher holds the reluctant fowl up to demonstrate its size. Soon, feathers and squeals are flying from the back of the shop. Watch this scene, and you might think that little has changed since the 19th century. But you would be wrong.
From egg to pot, the contemporary Hong Kong chicken has been bred and monitored and regulated in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even 30 years ago.
After bird flu emerged here in humans in the late 1990s, local health officials, along with many politicians, called for an end to the live-chicken trade. But in the face of opposition from the public, they eventually kept bak chit gai on the menu by imposing near-draconian health regulations at every stage of the trade.
Today, health officials inspect the city’s 29 government-registered chicken farms once a week. They require a vaccination certificate and blood test for every bird.
Delivery trucks must drive through a disinfection pool when entering or leaving a wholesale market. They may carry only birds from the same farm, with no mixing. That way any infection can be traced with accuracy.
Once the tagged-and-tracked chickens arrive for sale at markets, their cages are separated from shoppers with plexiglass partitions like the ones now commonplace in Hong Kong restaurants.
For these socially distanced chickens, the clock is ticking. No bird is allowed to spend the night at the market. Come 8pm, the ones that weren’t killed for sale that day will be slaughtered and sold the following day as cheaper “chilled” chicken.
And if even a trace of bird flu appears – in just one chicken – the entire population might be killed. Millions of fowl have been destroyed over the years, after sanitary culls in 1997, 2001, 2002, 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2016.
Faced with an epidemic and a public health dilemma, Hong Kong developed an intricate, expensive and time-consuming regulatory regimen – all to preserve a flavour, a texture and a Cantonese classic that people refused to give up.
Food, tradition and culture are stronger than anything a disease can throw at us.
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