First recipe - sesame prawn toasts
"This has to be one of the worst represented dishes on the Chinese takeaway menu. Too often you open your container to reveal greasy-spoon-style fried bread with a hint of prawn spread over the top, all topped with a concrete layer of sesame seeds. We seem to eat the toasts out of habit and a craving for that omni-flavoured oil they are fried (destroyed) in." Rob Allison - The Guardian
I confess I have been putting off this first recipe post for some time now. The recipe shown above is from Valli Little and is for those Sesame prawn toasts. Not at all like the ones from the takeaway. Now I am not a huge fan of Chinese food and so I had no idea that this is indeed a standard takeaway food. In fact it is one of the major representations of Hong Kong/Cantonese fusion food. So a whole area of knowledge sort of opened up. Which just goes to show that one should never ignore the potential of first recipe or lucky dip posts.
This first recipe is from one of those delicious. booklets and specifically from Valli Little. It's undated so I don't know how old it is. As you can see it's a collection of 'stress-free entertaining' menus gleaned from Valli Little's columns in the magazine. Each menu has a cultural theme and the first one is Asian - which covers a lot of very diverse cuisines, although the emphasis here seems to be Chinese. There is also a Thai menu - the last in the book as it happens and seemingly more 'authentic', but the rest of the menus are from here, there and everywhere.
In fact it is probably best to describe the food in this little booklet as modern Australian - fusion food with influences from here, there and everywhere, even within a notional cuisine. This first menu for example consists of Sesame prawn toasts; Chinese duck and plum salad; Asian ratatouille; Edamame bean and prosciutto salad; Sugar snap pea, roasted shiitake and black bean salad; cubed steak with chilli and coriander dressing and lime and ginger crème brulée. A veritable smorgasbord of fusion. For as Valli Little says in her introduction:
"The diversity of cultures that make up this culinary melting pot means that we can make use of a wonderful variety of ingredients from all over the world."
And so the first dish in this book is a wonderful representation of that Australian diversity as it presents a dish which is itself a representative of fusion food, further modified to include Australian smoked trout. Fusion of fusion.
Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841. Already well-positioned as a trading centre with its Asian neighbours the influx of British and other European businessmen speeded up the fusion thing, although at first, no doubt the British were served up imitations of British food, whilst the Hong Kong natives continued to eat their own stuff. I suspect this was until the British realised that what the natives were eating was good - even better than what they had, and the Hong Kong natives discovered British bread/toast. A similar, but different process that happened in all European colonies, and which has been happening down through the ages everywhere.
For example the Vietnamese discovered the baguette from their French colonial masters - and so today we get Banh mi quet tom - a Vietnamese version of prawn toast that features baguettes. The version shown on the left below is from a website called The Delightful Plate, and I don't suppose think it too is inauthentic. Although when does fusion food become 'authentic'? Wikipedia also has a picture of a different kind of Vietnamese prawn toast, but I cannot find the recipe for this and the toast in question does not look very bread like..
The Japanese also traded with Hong Kong of course, and they have their versions, called Hatoshi, which has been appropriated by a couple of chefs: Dan Hong from Canada with Prawn toast with yuzu mayonnaise, coriander and mint and Shrimp Toast with Kabayaki Sauce and Yuzu Flavor Pearls from Kitchen Alchemy. Japanese versions often seem to include the ubiquitous miso paste it seems to me. Rather more elegant don't you think?
I don't get the impression that there was a traditional Chinese prawn toast prior to the advent of the British, but I could be wrong, although there was prawn paste. It was just put to a different use. Post second world war that fusion increased at a frenetic pace until the Cantonese and Hong Kong cuisines became one of the most widespread and admired in the world, and now apparently every Chinese takeaway has a version of prawn toast - or sesame prawn toast on their menu. It's a dim sum classic. The sesame seeds seem to be a later addition.
"It could be argued that the seeds of Hong Kong society as understood today were not sown until 1949, and the cuisine of Hong Kong has its direct roots in this period." Wikipedia
So here is a gallery of what I found - some from 'authentic' cooks like Kylie Kwong, some from celebrity chefs, and popular magazines and broadcasters, some from bloggers. An eclectic mix. (From left to right, top to bottom): Prawn toast from Neil Perry; Diana Henry on the BBC Good Food website; Completely unauthentic dim sum crispy prawn toasts from Rosheen Kaul, one of Heston Blumenthal's chefs who has been out of work because of COVID and who has been writing a cookbook. Of this recipe she says:
"My version takes it up several notches to a buttery, garlicky, prawny delight – with little guanciale flavour bombs scattered throughout. It sounds intense but a fresh squeeze of lemon and a little herbaceous note of dill do the job of balancing all that richness."
Guanciale (pig cheek?), and dill, garlic too, are surely not very Chinese?
To continue: Donna Hay's Sesame prawn toasts with chilli oil, which, of course, look divine, and have taken the step of being a kind of fried sandwich rather than toast; Kitchen Sanctuary's Sesame prawn toast - a pretty 'straight' interpretation; and Kylie Kwong's King prawn toasts as reported by the blogger of My Best Days Ever who says:
"They are easy and very tasty, I wasn’t even frightened by the prospect of frying either – with the prawn mixture strangely defying gravity and staying stuck to the bread. A little oriental magic maybe…"
Then there are Sesame prawn toasts from Yotam Ottolenghi who can't resist having two kinds of sesame seeds and quite a few extra spices, as well as a recipe for a dipping sauce; Rob Allison's Grilled sesame prawn toast - yes grilled, and this does indeed look more ordinary, dare I say British, toast like; Australian Women's Weekly go at it and finally the UK version of delicious. which offers Spicy prawn toasts.
I suspect that if you looked into all of these you would find a vast range of individual touches from here there and everywhere Fascinating stuff. And here's a truism, I suppose, that I found in today's ramblings when looking into the history of Hong Kong fusion food:
"We encourage all children and adults to seize any opportunities to learn about their roots, and food is always the best start." First Initiative Foundation (Hong Kong)
A topic for another day perhaps. As is this quote from the Raco ads which bookend this publication - I suspect they paid for it: "cooking is an expression of all your senses"
But they're asides. I'll conclude with a link and the picture of Valli Little's last dish from her Asian menu: Lime and ginger crème brulée. Crème brulée - not very Asian, but I'm guessing an acknowledgement of the French colonial gifts to Southe-East Asia. It looks beautiful. But then her food always did. And delicious. always employs the best photographers and stylists around.