It has been said that the Chinese will eat anything that walks on four legs with its back to the sky. In actual fact, Leung joked with Lilly that only the tables and chairs were safe from the voracious appetite of the Chinese. It’s true that in Hong Kong food and day to day life are inextricable. New restaurants opened up daily, often right next to one another. As competition grews between each new restaurant so did the size of the signs outside them. Each one became bigger and more colourful than the one next door as restaurants compete for space and attention on the road side. In Leung’s day these signs would have been long, thing hangings decorated with colourful characters. By the time I came to live and work in the colony, the streets were a mass of flashing neon.
Leung’s business was boosted by a new arrival to the throng of culinary temptations in Hong Kong. These came in the shape of small, street hawker stalls, called dai pai dongs. These were little more than tiny metal trolleys. They served pungent preserved bean curd and won ton noodles, Shanghai dumplings filled with meat and vegetables, wet soup dumplings and rice parcels. The competition between the street hawkers drove down their prices and made good food, for the first time, affordable to the masses. Their cheap, tasty wares turned snacking into a Chinese institution. If you had the appetite, you could eat from morning till midnight. For my great grandfather, Leung, the boom in new businesses was an absolute blessing as every one of these dishes was seasoned with a splash of soy sauce. As the food business grew on the street corners of the city, so did the demand for his soy sauce.
Sweet Mandarin © Helen Tse 2006 28
Along with the huge demand, Leung had another important factor contributing to his success – national pride. Both the Chinese and one from the Japanese used soy sauce in their cookery and both nations believed that it was they who invented it. The Japanese claimed the monk Kakushin created the dark liquid, whilst Leung and the Chinese claimed that it was in fact they who invented soy sauce first. My grandmother remembered only Chinese soy sauce because as anti-Japanese sentiment grew in Hong Kong, Japanese soy sauce was boycotted by the Chinese community. Sales of Leung’s original Chinese soy sauce soared as a result.
Leung soy sauce was prepared from a traditional Chinese recipe. He used soybeans, wheat and salt in its creation. The soybeans provided the distinctive delicious flavour; the wheat added the sweetness and aroma. First, the wheat was roasted and crushed, and the soybeans steamed to soften them. Special seeds were then added to the wheat and soybean mixture and it was left to sit for three days. This formed a dry mash called see yow peen which was combined with salt and water to form see yow gorn. Fermented in large tanks until it reached its full flavour, the see yow gorn was then poured onto cloths, folded and pressed, and the raw soy sauce was squeezed out. Finally this was refined and pasteurised, the finished product put into barrels ready for consumption.
Leung sold these barrels directly to restaurateurs and retailers. There were two kinds of soy sauce, dark and light, with the light soy sauce considerably saltier in taste than the dark. Chefs used the dark soy sauce to add colour and the light soy sauce to add flavour.
It was by her father’s side that my grandmother Lilly had her first experiences of the wonders of Chinese restaurants. My grandmother, who was more than grateful to escape the family’s dingy living quarters, ran alongside her father transfixed by the sights, smells and sounds she saw through their open doors.
By now, Leung made a primitive cart to transport the soy sauce barrels around town. It was heavy yet functional. When they arrived at a restaurant, my grandmother would sit by the cart whilst her father negotiated prices with the owners and poured out samples for them to try.
As a young child, my grandmother sat outside the restaurants and watched the wealthy dinners as they enjoyed their meals inside. To her young eyes, the restaurants seemed almost like theatres where the drama of ordinary lives of all kind was enacted before her. Rumours were spread, illicit lovers met and impossibly elegant women dressed in embroidered Chinese silk dresses, called cheung sams, dined with fat perspiring businessmen. Waiters, who buzzed backwards and forwards carrying steaming plates of food and returning with silver trays of money as all types of food was devoured day and night. She was often spoiled by these waiters and treated to free buns as she sat on the cart. The restaurateurs nicknamed my grandmother, ‘Leung and a half’. They found her amusing and warmed towards Leung. On one occasion she was even given a tiny tea cup set with matching chopsticks all in miniature size to fit her small hands. To their delight, my grandmother would copy her father; swilling the soy sauce around the tiny tea cup to test its flavour.
This is an excerpt from Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House in 33 countries. Now available on Kindle.