Hong Kong celebrity chef Hugo Leung talks walled-village cuisine during Vancouver visit

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      Hugo Man-To Leung can walk down a street in Asia and unintentionally command every smartphone camera to point his way—his presence doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by food lovers.

      Identified as the “Gourmet God” and affectionately known as Toto throughout Hong Kong’s culinary world, the celebrity chef, cookbook author, and food critic has been featured in a multitude of television, print, and radio interviews, and he has even hosted his own food series. Nowadays, he leads luxury food and travel tours and acts as the director of the award-winning Tai Wing Wah restaurant group in Hong Kong.

      To say he’s a busy man would be an understatement, so it’s a pretty big deal that he’ll be bringing his gastronomic expertise to Vancouver this week.

      Chef Leung (or Toto) with Floata Seafood Restaurant's executive chef, Ho Lim Tso.
      Tammy Kwan

      Leung is in town to host and attend a charity dinner for the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association on Thursday (July 19) at Floata Seafood Restaurant (180 Keefer Street). The 10-course menu—created by Leung and executed by the Chinatown eatery’s executive chef, Ho Lim Tso—will be special because it features traditional wai tau choi, or walled-village food, which cannot be found at dining establishments around Metro Vancouver.

      So, what exactly is walled-village food?

      It stems from the history of walled villages in southern China and Hong Kong that were built to ward off burglars who looted humble households. Its cuisine is characterized by the use of common meats and produce (chicken, pork, and seasonal vegetables), with flavours enhanced by specialty sauces.

      Chinese-sausage-and-fish-paste rolls.
      Tammy Kwan

      “Walled-village dishes are unique because they are made according to seasonality, and only if the ingredients are fresh,” Leung explained. “When food is in season, it’s even more tasty. You can eat different types of dishes at different times of the year.”

      At its core, this type of cuisine is delicious, home-style comfort food that doesn’t empty your wallet. Leung’s customers aren’t the only ones who can vouch for its quality and affordability—the Michelin Guide has awarded Tai Wing Wah the Bib Gourmand distinction (recognizing exceptionally good food at moderate prices) for nine consecutive years.

      Hometown steamed taro paste made with tender pork and scallions.
      Tammy Kwan

      The dishes featured on Thursday’s menu (which can also be found at Leung’s restaurants) include walled five-spice chicken (soy sauce and bay leaves), hometown steamed taro paste (tender pork and scallions), stir-fried shrimp (dried mandarin peel and black-bean sauce), bamboo fungus soup (white fungus and fish paste), Chinese-sausage-and-fish-paste rolls, and milky-egg-yolk steamed sponge cake.

      “Vegetables are very important in walled-village cuisine because beef and chicken and geese are expensive,” Leung said. “Veggies are the cheapest and most affordable, so each dish features some greens to pair with the protein.”

      Another signature walled-village menu item that the charismatic foodie recommends is lard rice, which combines melted pork lard and freshly steamed jasmine rice. Mix it with a bit of quality soy sauce and you have yourself a simple yet aromatic and highly addictive concoction.

      The addictive lard rice dish.
      Tammy Kwan

      When Leung isn’t travelling around the globe for work or leisure, he is tied up managing three Tai Wing Wah locations and striking up food-filled conversations with guests. Although he’s no longer at the helm of their kitchens, the renowned chef makes it a point to visit Hong Kong’s wet markets (markets selling fresh meat and produce) twice a week to get a sense of what new dishes he will create.

      As for his two cents on Vancouver’s food scene, Leung doesn’t single out his favourites. “In Vancouver, I’ve eaten at many renowned restaurants, and each has its own specialties and distinction. I usually go wherever my friends bring me to,” Leung said with a smile.

      Tickets ($88 per person) to the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association’s charity dinner can be purchased by calling 604-351-3189.

      Scroll through the photos below for a look at some of the traditional walled-village dishes that will be featured on Thursday's menu.

      Stir-fried shrimp made with dried mandarin peel and black-bean sauce.
      Tammy Kwan


      Pork shoulder stir-fry with green beans.
      Tammy Kwan


      Hometown steamed oysters.
      Tammy Kwan


      Walled five-spice chicken.
      Tammy Kwan


      Chef Leung at his restaurant in Hong Kong.
      David Chau