Wednesday, September 1, 2010

HK: Margaret Xu's Private Kitchen Yin Yang in Wanchai

Margaret looks pleased with her assistant du jour. Darren is plucking the stems off the chillies.
I have a new food hero. She's Margaret Xu Yuan who is possibly Hong Kong's foremost female celebrity chef, and a champion for delicious healthy eating.

Margaret used to run an ad agency before becoming a self-taught cook. Her excursions to the villages in New Territories inspired her to rejuvenate Hong Kong cuisine. She fell in love with the stone rice grinder, as well as wood and charcoal-based cooking. Then came Cuisine X, the one-table experiment there in 2003, using produce from her own organic farm in Yuen Long. Her roast chicken and stone-ground rice cakes became so popular, people soon needed to make reservations months ahead.

Her food is very much like Hong Kong condensed in a nutshell. She combines olden techniques she learned from the various Chinese dialect/cultural groups (Hakka, Chiu Chow/Teochew, Cantonese, and boat people) with touches of British colonial influence, and presents it all with contemporary flair.

I admit I had not heard of her until getting the itinerary for our trip to Hong Kong by the SBA2010 and HKTB. But I soon found out her interesting story, and how sought after she is.

The scale model of the three-storey heritage building that Yin Yang occupies
She now has a private kitchen (at 18 Ship Street, tel: +852 2866 0868) called Yin Yang - named after the coffee-tea drink that is so symbolic of Hong Kong. It occupies a refurbished preservation shophouse in Wanchai, and is kept deliberately small. There are only three tables, and it's all reservations-only (at least one day in advance).

(I couldn't get a photo of the entire building from the narrow street outside, so here's what it looks like, from a scale model replica)

The restaurant setting is cosy, old school and homely
Here you feel more like a privileged guest invited into someone's home, rather than a customer. The ambiance is old school casual but very warm and nostalgic.

Love the '70s style frosted glass windows
I love the diffused light coming in from the tall frosted glass windows.

Little decorations on the narrow window sills
There are cute little decorations on the narrow window sills. Some baskets of limes, a dim sum steamer basket of name cards, semi-precious stones and little plants.

An old school thermos flask
A vintage thermos flask stands at the side of the room, a symbol of homestyle hospitality.

Quirky table decorations like this egg basket
This is a cute quirky egg basket used as table decoration (and menu holder if not mistaken).

We were very fortunate that Margaret agreed to host us at short notice. Normally you'd have to make reservations months ahead. She let us take the third floor tables and prepared an eight-course meal for us.

Margaret's signature "Yellow Earth Roast Chicken" with ultra crispy skin
Margaret's signature "Yellow Earth Roast Chicken" with ultra crispy skin. I had been waiting for this, and it was the opening number! It certainly lived up to its repute. Everyone wanted seconds/thirds/more...

Oh I found her recipe online. I really must try this at home someday, even if I don't have a terracotta oven!

Margaret presiding over the shredding of the chicken
Margaret presiding over the shredding of the chicken. She believes doing it by hand is better than using a knife to carve the chicken. Yes, I do prefer rustic hand-torn pieces myself.

Flower clams in delicious broth with thick tanghoon
Flower clams in delicious broth with thick tanghoon. I wanted this all to myself! Gorgeous aroma and stunning flavours. The clams were very fresh indeed.

Who can resist this?
This would inspire the caveman in anyone! This is the Red Hot Baby Pig. Roast hunk of pork with bone-in!

The roast pork chopped up, served with lychee dip
The roast pork is chopped up, and served with an unusual lychee jam. Juicy, tender chunks of meat capped by crispy was all very rich! The best, however, was yet to come...

Mud crabs in a green-curry-like sauce
When this dish appeared, it drew gasps of delight and wonder. Fleshy mud crabs in a complex yet beautiful sauce with spices and coconut - a bit like green curry but much more refined. We were moaning "oh my god" as we ate. It was so, so good!

What a beautiful soup! Okra pentagonal slices add a touch of whimsy, almost!
Interestingly, the soup came in halfway through the courses. Seaweed eggdrop soup with okra or ladies fingers. I never thought about slicing okra this way. It looks like pretty little pentagonal flowers dotting the soup.

Olive rice in cast iron wok
There is always a carb dish in Chinese multi-course meals. To make sure you are really well-fed! The olive rice with vegetables was beautiful to look at. Like something cooked with love.

Platter of vegetables
Yes, your greens are important. But by the time this came along, I was too full to eat anymore.

Banana ice cream
But there is always room for dessert - in our case, a scoop of banana ice cream! You can taste that it's made from real bananas, but not the overly sweet variety.

We were going for Tsingtao, but many changed over to the the Blue Girl instead, because it sounded more...risque
We washed it all down with some refreshing beer and soft drinks. Most of us were going for Tsingtao, but some changed over to the the Blue Girl instead when they saw it, because it sounded more...risque.

Eclectic kitchen with modern and retro, east and west all co-existing in harmonious warmth
Her eclectic ground floor show kitchen has many eclectic pieces - modern and retro, East and West - all co-existing in style. I love the SMEG fridge!

Many strange things abound in the kitchen
Many strange things abound in this kitchen. Margaret likes to make everything herself, so you will see foods (and wines) of all sorts in various stages of preparation.

The terracotta oven that Margaret built herself
This is the terracotta oven that Margaret built herself, from two flower pots (one upturned). Terracotta helps distribute high heat very evenly, so the chicken she roasts in this gets crispy skin but stays juicy within.

A bottle of Green Dream - dip made from green chili, ginger and scallions
After our meal, some of the bloggers were treated to a workshop on sauce-making. Margaret would demonstrate an absurdly delicious yet simple green chili dip. There are only five ingredients:
- a large mixing bowl of green chillies (stems plucked; see Darren doing that in the first photo)
- a hand-sized portion of ginger (sliced)
- two bunches of scallions or spring onions (chopped into 3-4 parts)
- salt (to taste - quite a bit; maybe a level tablespoon, depending on your quantity)
- oil for frying (I think she used more than a litre, but she made a big batch)

Sorry the quantities are all approximate, but the recipe is quite forgiving. I have since then made two batches (500g of chillies yield about 500ml) at home - and I can certify it's idiot-proof!

Margaret stir-frying the ingredients in hot oil
The method is easy. Get the oil moderately hot and fry the ingredients.The chillies go in first, followed by the ginger after a few minutes, and scallions at the very last few seconds.

Hot in the wok - the green chili, ginger and scallions
It doesn't take too long. How beautifully green and glistening everything is. The aroma of chillies, ginger and scallions warmed our lungs. Needless to say, all these came from her organic farm up north. The Hong Kong chillies don't carry as much heat (although Margaret says you can never tell when you'll get a rogue pod that's superhot).

Margaret blending the mixture
Margaret then gave it all a good whizz - oil included - in her industrial strength blender. It came out looking interestingly light green! She poured some out for us to have a taste.

We were lapping this all up!
Oh my, how could so few ingredients taste so good together? Just heat oil, fry and blend! Voila!

We were lapping this sample bowl all up! Could not stop spooning the creamy stuff into our mouths! This would be great as a dip for chicken or seafood. I even think it's perfect with our chicken rice, or simply with bread or prata or nachos.

Fortunately, we each got a bottle to take home too! Hurray! We happily christened this the "Green Dream" - nice, right?

The Green Dream Team!
This was our last meal in Hong Kong, and one of our most memorable. I count myself very lucky to have had the chance to dine at Yin Yang, and to learn from Margaret (I really do hope she gets an English cookbook out soon, she has one in Cantonese).

I'm pleased to make this fabulous stop my final post of the Hong Kong series (sixteen posts in total). I hope you guys have enjoyed trotting around with me vicariously.

I'd really like to thank OMY  and HKTB for making this four-day trip possible, and for showing us incredible experiences and gastronomical delights in Hong Kong. You can still view posts (more coming!) on the OMY joint travel blog - catch the different perspectives from the ten bloggers who went on the trip.

18 Ship Street, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Lunch menu - sets from HK$228 per person (min 2) or a la carte choices
HK Specials - from HK$180 per person
Dinner menu - sets from HK$560 per person (check website for monthly menu changes)
Omakase sets at HK$880 per person
Reservations - tel: +852 2866 0868



  1. thanks for sharing this, I will try on my next trip to HK (as well as the recipes)

  2. Yup, never would have expected the ingredients to blend so well, turning into a marvelous jade green colour.

  3. ilcourt: I do hope you'll enjoy it!

    J2Kfm: the taste was an even bigger surprise. I thought I knew what green chillies, ginger and spring onions taste like, but when cooked and blended together like that, it was amazing.

  4. I really enjoyed reading all your HK series posts. Well done and you are one of the best.

  5. I've been MSN-ing my friends about this post even before leaving a comment here. Devil and I just decided we must visit her tiny restaurant next year! (Our 3rd trip to HK together, some more!)

    Thanks for the reccie, dear! :)

  6. Well done! You survived all 16 posts! LOL. But the food here really looks like the real deal. Gonna try making the sauce for sure. I can never say no to sauces and dips. :D

  7. A very nice write-up, and brings back memory of my meal there 2 years ago during a very traumatic time. The chicken was very, very good, and the pig was excellent (for the pieces without salt).

    I think it's time for me to go back for another taste. She has definitely made a name for herself, and her passion is evident.

    Here's what we had 2 years ago:

  8. Had a quick look at the chicken recipe - looks easy enough to replicate at home, but I guess the terracotta oven makes the difference. :)

    I am curious about the Red Hot Baby Pig - is the skin crispy? We have piglets sold in parts here, so am tempted to try roasting one.

    And the Blue Girl, was she up to expectation? ;)

  9. Wow, as of this post, Margaret Xu Yuan is my hero too, because she champions healthy eating! Her "kar-chang" (paraphernalia) in the kitchen is amazing! I also love that shot of the vintage flask as well as the delicious baby pig. I would love to eat something from that terracotta oven one day as well.. maybe on the 12th .. can ar? LOL

  10. Hi!
    Been following your blog for a while, but this is my first time to comment here :)
    Thanks for the great review, the Yellow Earth Chicken really looks enticing, will try the recipe someday ;)

  11. Wen: Thanks very much! You're very kind!

    LFB: Cool, I look forward to more of your lovely travel tales! Margaret's is definitely worth going for.

    Ju: haha, yeah, the 16 posts were very siong, but so enjoyable! Let me know how your sauce experiment goes!

    Peech: nice post of yours too (sorry about the circumstances). You're right - you can taste Margaret's passion in her food.

    Gfad: Haha the Blue Girl tasted a little bitter. The piglet skin is gently crispy (not the brittle sort) and chewy. Yes, roast chicken recipe looks easy enough. I just have to at least try the marinade!

    Cumi&Ciki: Hehe guess I better start looking for terracotta flower pots! Yes, her kitchen is amazing!

    Clr8: Thanks for commenting! Join in the chatter anytime. Glad you like the post.

  12. wow..great post! get to know another great person~

    thanks for sharing~

  13. Thanks for sharing!

    I just had a superb meal at a restaurant in London (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal)whose chef created dishes inspired by ancient British receipes . Just when I was wondering if there is a Chinese equivalent, my friend told me about this place. interesting!

  14. Thanks for sharing!
    I Like Chinese food

  15. I think I haven't ate claim for a year now. I miss them so much, I have to cook soon some claims.


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