By Daisuke Utagawa
I am often asked to name my top favorite restaurants/eateries in the world. Or, at least I think about what the top 5 would be time to time. Broken Tooth Shing in Hong Kong has always been my favorite top 5 even though last time I dined there was 2005, and I’ve had plenty of amazing meals elsewhere since then.
Broken Tooth is not a real restaurant, nor is it the real name of the chef. The Chef’s name is Lee Shing, and “broken tooth” is his nickname since he has one of his front teeth broken. It’s not a real restaurant because the establishment is not licensed and is in their small apartment in down town HK. What it is though is an eatery that can take diners through an amazing journey and even back in time –so to speak.
Broken Tooth only takes one group a night. Up to 18 guests. It will cost about $2500 for the 18 people not including the drinks. (Its BYOB) The place is booked months in advance and they wont take any reservations if you were not recommended by someone they trust. The guests sit in Chef Shing’s small living/dining/bedroom of his one room apartment. Not much of décor or comfort; big round foldable table and some milk crates with cushions to sit on. (Although the second time I visited, they had invested in some foldable chairs)
But none of these things matter because of the sublime food he makes and all doubt will be blown away at once when you walk in to the kitchen. The first time I went to the kitchen, I saw this old man crouching on the floor (wooden slats over concrete) cleaning fish. He was Chef Shing. I looked around and noticed that there was not a single gas or electric cooker, instead, there were several coal cookers of various size! I asked about this and the Chef told me that he doesn’t know how to cook with gas and the coal fire gives his food the right heat, and for him, its much easier to control the heat with coal fire. The only difficulty for him is that no one makes the coal range anymore so he has to special order them for his woks of various sizes.
Let me give you some background on Chef Shing. He was 86 years old last time I dined there in 2005. Chef Shing studied under a private chef of a well-known Chinese opera star. This was about 100 Years ago, and back then, all good chefs worked for someone rich and famous privately. This still holds true to some extent in today’s HK, as eating is one of the most important aspects of life in HK and people believe through eating well, one can live longer or even have a great fortune. The teacher of Chef Shing was famous for his skills. For instance he was the chef who invented snake soup with dried citrus skin, now a classic dish. Having such a chef as your own private chef was also a status symbol in those days.
Chef Shing learned all the techniques and secrets from his teacher. He also kept ingredients that is no longer available today such as dried giant grouper skin (I was told this type of fish is not found anymore in the area.) or dried scallops and dried fish maw from the time the sea was not polluted.
If you are lucky enough to get a table at Broken Tooth, they will ask you for your budget and you work out the menu outline with them in advance. Of course you can ask for some surprise dishes, but for me every dish was a surprise even if I thought I knew the dish very well.
My first visit, the meal started with:
A big plate (its all family style here) of something that looked like wokked (Stir Fried if you like) thick cellophane noodles with finely julienned celery. But it turned out these bean sprout sized noodles were actually sharks fin! I’ve never even seen sharks fin that fat!
And it followed with:
A dish of brazed dried abalone and sea cucumber with Shitake. So delicately flavored , the texture and the taste of those chunks of giant abalone as I sink my teeth in to it was something I can still recall today.
The famous snake soup. Chef Shing’s son who was serving told us that dried citrus skin which flavored the soup was from 30 years ago.
After that it was:
Steamed whole grouper together with some braised fish maw (also very old). The combination of fish maw and the fresh steamed fish was so complementary to each other that one enhanced the flavor of the other.
And still going with:
Turtle stew. A delicate collagen rich dish. Flavored with dried grouper skin.
And of course:
Couple of vegetable dishes, such as braised yellow nappa cabbage with dried scallops, and stir fried fresh greens.
Not to forget:
The most deluxe fried rice with sausages, and various seafood, dried or otherwise.
And we finished with:
Sweet Red Bean Soup and some exotic fruits.
While I was eating, I had a sense that I was tasting history and a culmination of ages of great Cantonese cooking culture. Perhaps a sense that maybe Chef Shing is the last of the Mohicans so to speak. I’ve asked as delicately as I can if there was anyone who can carry forward his skills. His son said he learned everything from his father. I genuinely hope he did…