Simply Chinese: Suzie Lee on Hong Kong dishes and takeaway favourites

Suzie Lee’s first recipe book is inspired by the Chinese cuisine she grew up with, both at her parents’ takeaway in Northern Ireland and on trips back to their homeland of Hong Kong

By Qin Xie
Published 23 Sept 2022, 06:04 BST
Suzie Lee making homemade noodles.

Suzie Lee making homemade noodles.

Photograph by Lizzie Mayson

You grew up in the UK, but what’s your connection with Chinese food?
Both my parents were born in Hong Kong and they moved to the UK in search of a better life in the 1970s and 1980s. They really wanted us to integrate, but food’s a huge part of Chinese culture. We ran a family takeaway in Northern Ireland, and my parents would take us back to visit Hong Kong at least once if not twice a year. We were very fortunate; our family home was in Tai Mei Tuk in Tai Po, which is right beside the seaside, and seafood is one of my favourite things; that’s where my taste buds were exposed to — and developed by — trying what the Western world would consider unusual.

What was your first trip to Hong Kong like? 
The first time I visited Hong Kong, I was about six. When you get off the plane, you get the heat straight away and then you smell the food. The flights are usually late at night, so when you wake up, you go for breakfast. It’s not like a bowl of cereal, it’s a ham and egg sandwich or a corned beef and egg sandwich. And you’d have that with really strong Chinese tea with condensed milk mixed through. I grew up with all the same food [as in Hong Kong], so there was nothing too strange, but when I went to the wet market, that was like a sensory explosion. There were a lot of things there that I’d never seen before. You’d hear the chicken, and you’d smell the fish and then that really pungent smell of durian, and people would hold live animals in front of you. For me, it was just like, “OK, this is what happens here.” Mum made us very aware and mindful of not judging.
 

Egg and tomato, a classic Chinese comfort food.

Photograph by Lizzie Mayson

What are the central elements of Hong Kong cuisine? 
It’s that melting pot of flavours from so many different cultures. Obviously you have Chinese cooking, but you also have English elements with ingredients like HP Sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and you can taste it all in one dish. Take the Singapore noodle, which was actually developed by a chef in Hong Kong. It’s that British Empire thing, where curry powder from India came to Hong Kong and became a part of spicy Singapore noodles. You won’t be able to find that anywhere else. Everything’s so flavourful in Hong Kong because you go to the wet market every day and you pick up the ingredients fresh — you might change your mind at the last minute, but that’s what’s refreshing. 

What food experiences excite you the most when you visit Hong Kong? 
There’s always something new and different. Obviously there are the traditional dim sum houses, but there are also cool, funky fusion places. The food scene is just so much more advanced as well. It was where I first tasted sushi, bubble tea and all the things that are now so popular. There are also lots of different cuisines, like Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai.
 

Simply Chinese: Recipes from a Chinese Home Kitchen, by Suzie Lee (£20, Quadrille).

Photograph by Simply Chinese: Recipes from a Chinese Home Kitchen, by Suzie Lee

What are some of your favourite recipes from the book?
I have a takeaway section, which is true to my heart. But for this book, I’ve also modified traditional Hong Kong dishes to be more accessible for people, with ingredients that you can get from the corner shop or the supermarket. I wanted to break down barriers so people realise there’s a whole different kind of flavour and fusion that Hong Kong brings to cooking. The steamed fish is so simple and you can make it with whatever your local fishmonger has. That’s a classic and a really good dish to share, especially if you’ve got friends or family over. One of my kids’ favourite dishes is Hainanese chicken, and when I’m short on time, I cook char siu egg. If you don’t have char siu [barbecued pork] around, you can always use ham or spam. It’s super tasty and it goes well with rice or noodles. I think that’s where my mum was very good — she’d have key ingredients like soy, ginger, garlic and spring onions, but if there was a bit of this and that left over without anything else, she’d just bring it all together. That’s the whole essence of Chinese cooking: make do with what you have. 

Published in Issue 17 (autumn 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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