IN HONG KONG recently I talked to the famous Australian journalist Richard Hughes, who makes the city the basic of his Asian reporting. He gave me a most sensitive definition of that extraordinary British colony off the south coast of China. Hughes calls it "a borrowed place on borrowed time."
During Hong Kong's 137-year history, there always has been the possibility that it might one day be given back to China. In fact, more than 90 percent of its land area is leased from the Chinese government under an agreement that expires in 1997.
Hong Kong's future and security depend on its usefulness to all concerned -- to the British who reap fat profits; to the Chinese who have used it (but now need it) as a banking and trade gateway to the world, and perhaps above all to the international airlines and travel industries, which send hungry tourists by the millions to eat their way through the city's thousands of restaurants and food markets.
After a day of wandering around, the visitor becomes convinced that food is about the main business of Hong Kong. The average Chinese family (there are about 4 1/2 million Chinese in Hong Kong, 98 percent of the population) traditionally buys fresh food daily. The sheer volume of food for sale in the street markets and myriad shops borders on fantasy -- from the live ducks being carried home by housewives to the edible snakes being "wrapped to go."
I secretly believe Hong Kong has more restaurants per capita than any other city on earth, although I probably cannot prove it. It is a glittering supermarket of restaurants of every degree of luxury, or every size and type. All supermarkets, of course, have their good and not-so-good buys. In Hong Kong, you always have to ask yourself the question: "Will this meal be worth the trip of 10,000 miles?"
Very many Hong Kong Chinese restaurants are not one jot better than (if even as good as) a first-class Chinese place in any major U.S. city. The Hong Kong promoters have recently set up Food Street, with 28 establishments side by side, including fast pizza parlors, fast rice shops, fast noodle-nooks, serve-yourself chow mein cafeterias, etc., all designed, it seems to me, to make you feel as much at home as if you were on Mott Street in New York City, or on Grant Avenue in San Francisco.
Another group of tourist restaurants, with 14 branches across the city, has the dessert concession for 30 different flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. McDonald's is all over town.
But if you do your homework carefully and get sound advice from the right people, you can find marvelous eating places in Hong Kong -- restaurants, as the Michelin Guide might say, "worth the trip."
Since English is the universal language, I was able to communicate with almost all the No. 1 Chinese cooks, as they are properly called, and visit them as they worked at their batteries of huge works. They were charming and hospitable to an aficionado visitor. Not one of them refused to give me a recipe or to demonstrate a particular technique. I have brought back a veritable treasure trove and I hope to share the best part of it in coming weeks.
Let us begin with something supremely simple and yet with such a dramatic flair that I suspect it will soon be in your regular repertoire, as it already is in mine. Just as the Pekinese cuisine is known for its luxury, the Cantonese for its richness, the Hunanese and Szechuanese for their pepper and spice, the cuisine of Shanghai, the great international city at the mouth of the Yangtze River, is famous for its subtlety and imaginative range of preparation with chicken.
Almost certainly the best Shanghai restaurant in Hong Kong is the Lao Ching Hing, where the No. 1 cook, Wong Chun Leung, taught me this remarkable recipe for a cold salad of lightly boiled chicken with cucumber. On paper, it all looks so utterly simple -- absolutely nothing to it -- that it hardly seems worth bothering with. Wait until you try it! Provided, of course, you remember that this is an ultradelicate balance and that it must be prepared with exactly the correct amounts of exactly the right ingredients, that the chicken pieces must be gently simmered to exactly the right undercooked texture, and finally, that the sesame seeds be heated to exactly the proper degree of perfumed toastiness.
Although the recipe involves only about 15 minutes of actual work, there is some essential waiting and cooling to allow the flavors to blend and this cannot be cut down. But if you do right by this race Shanghai salad, you will find it a most refreshing way of presenting cold chicken. SHANGHAI CHICKEN AND CUMBER SALAD (4 servings) 1 chicken, about 3 pounds 2 cups clear chicken bouillon 1 fairly large cucumber 2 teaspoons sesame oil 4 teaspoons corn or peanut oil 2 teaspoons light soy sauce Coarse crystal or kosher salt, to taste 1 tablespoon sesame seeds Cayenne pepper, to taste
Equipment: a 2 1/2-pint lidded sauce-pan; cutting board and sharp boning knife; slotted spoon, vegetable peeler and small spoon; one salad serving bowl and one mixing bowl; wooden fork and spoon.
Average time required: About 10 minutes to bone chicken plus 15 to simmer chicken, plus 15 to cool in refrigerator, plus 5 minutes for combining and serving -- a total of about 45 minutes, of which 15 is active work.
Preparing the chicken
Remove the skin, which is not used, from the chicken. Now, with a sharp, narrow, boning knife, carve off all the flesh. The shape and size of the pieces does not matter very much, since they will all eventually be cut quite small.
In the saucepan, heat the bouillon to a boil, then drop in the pieces of chicken. Bring it back to gentlest simmer, cover the pan and keep simmering cover the pan and keep simmering very gently until the chicken is just cooked -- usually in 10 to 15 minutes, according to the age of the chicken and the size of the pieces, would be to overcook the chicken.
Use the bony carcass and skin some other time for making soup.
As soon as the timer rings, lift out the chicken with a slotted spoon, drain it, and let it cool on the cutting board.
Preparing the cucumber
While the chicken is simmering peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, and with the point of a knife and a small spoon, dig out and discard the seeds. Then cut half cross-wise into slices about one-eight inch thick. Hold these, covered while you prepare two lots of dressing in the two bowls.
Into each bowl put: 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil, 2 teaspoons of the corn or peanut oil, and 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce. Put the cucumber slices into the salad serving bowl, sprinkle them lightly with salt, to your taste, then gently, with a wooden fork and spoon, toss them in the dressing to coat each slice. After about 10 minutes the cucumber will have given up its water. Drain off this excess liquid from the salad bowl into the mixing bowl, which is about to receive the chicken.
But first, cut the chicken into 1/2-inch, bite-size squares. Put them into the mixing bowl sprinkle them lightly with salt, to your taste, and toss them in the dressing.
Now, in a dry sauce pan, over fairly low heat, toast the tablespoon of sesame seeds, shaking them around to prevent them from burning, until they give off a strong and lovely perfume. Then, at once, while they are still hot, sprinkle half of them over the cucumber and the remaining half over the chicken.
Finally, if you like a slight bite of pepper in your salad, sprinkle a pinch or two of the cayenne, to your taste, over the chicken.
Cover both bowls and set them to cool in the refrigerator until serving time.
Combining and serving
Lift the chicken out of the mixing bowl with a slotted spoon, so as to leave behind all the liquid. Make a neat, even pretty layer of chicken on top of the cucumber and serve on chilled plates.