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Hong Kong food traditions endure in city of flux

Bent over a low bench in his cluttered Hong Kong workshop, dark-framed glasses perched on his nose, Lui Ming deftly assembles a bamboo steamer, a utensil essential to Cantonese cooking.

It’s a craft the 93-year-old has been perfecting for seven decades, and steamers like his are an indispensable part of yum cha, the Cantonese brunch involving tea and dim sum — perhaps the most prized culinary ritual in the city.

The circular bamboo baskets are ferried in small trolleys around yum cha restaurants, filled with bite-sized dumplings and other delicacies.

“My only hobbies are yum cha and Cantonese opera,” Lui tells AFP while twisting thin strips of bamboo to build the single most important dim sum-making tool. 

“Those are the joys of my life.”

Hong Kong is equally acclaimed for its fine dining restaurants and its street-side eateries, and the enduring use of handwoven steamers in both is part of a set of unique food traditions that have shaped its culinary landscape for generations.

As in many modern metropoles, the flow of commerce in the finance hub brings constant change, but Hong Kong’s cuisine remains wedded to a network of traditions that residents view as staunch markers of local identity.

“Bamboo steamers absorb moisture and there won’t be condensation (on the lid),” Lui explains, adding that metal or plastic versions would never pass as part of an authentic yum cha experience in Hong Kong. 

But he does add steel around the bamboo rim to make his steamers more durable and improve insulation, an innovation he says he pioneered. 

“For steaming buns, there is no substitute.”

– Hong Kong institutions –

Liu’s shop is located on Shanghai Street, a historic stretch of road in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district that is a treasure trove of kitchenware and utensils. 

One block north is Chan Chi Kee cutlery — a family-run Hong Kong institution more than 100 years old. 

Retired craftsman Mr. Chan, who is part of the clan that runs the shop and now in his 80s, spends much of his time there. 

He started forging cleavers when he was around 15 years old as part of the already-established family business. 

“I was given a piece of metal and shaped it into a knife,” he says, giving only his surname. 

“It was on the mountainside in the squatter huts… But eventually there was not enough space — they built housing there.”

Today, Chinese chefs from around the world visit Chan Chi Kee’s storefront on Shanghai Street to buy handcrafted cleavers and woks. 

“At least 80 percent of Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong use our knives,” Chan tells AFP.

But rising property prices and the city’s shift away from manufacturing has pushed the bulk of production for the knives, woks and steamers to Guangzhou, China — though a small select stock is still “Made in Hong Kong”. 

Increased wages have also contributed to soaring costs, says Wong Yan-wai, a dried seafood trader for over three decades. 

“Most dried seafood is…

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