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Fresh from the shores of Ningbo

By Joyce Yip| China Daily| Updated: April 21, 2023 L M S


From left: Signature Ningbo dishes served at Yong Fu Hong Kong include Zhejiang-caught yellow croaker with salted mustard greens and bamboo, crispy chicken with pepper and sesame sauce and 18-cut raw crab. Head Chef Liu Zhen believes in using fresh ingredients and keeping the preparations simple. Photos provided to China Daily

It's 2:30pm at the one-Michelin-starred Yong Fu Hong Kong. The restaurant's general manager, Yu Qiong, is greeting a family of three. She remembers the family name as well as the dishes they had tried during past visits. Yu runs the list by her guests, keen to ensure that they have a totally new experience in terms of plating, color combination, flavor, ingredients and texture this time around. Jotting down the order, she stops at five dishes, cognizant of the family's usual appetite level.

"And how about some rice crackers for your boy while you wait?" she suggests. Everyone says yes to the rice crackers.

Opened in 2019, Yong Fu Hong Kong is an outpost of the eponymous - and also one-Michelin-starred - Shanghai-based restaurant. With branches in Beijing, and one due in Macao later this year, the Yong Fu brand is on a mission to spread the gospel of upscale Ningbonese cuisine.

The port city of Ningbo, in China's Zhejiang province, is a nationally recognized culinary hotspot. Standing at the confluence of three rivers, the city is blessed with a bounty of fresh seafood from the South China Sea as well as a network of canals and lakes. In Ningbo, says Yu, fine meals can extend to 14 courses or more.

Head Chef Liu Zhen has more than three decades of culinary experience behind him. Proud of the fresh seafood sourced from his hometown, Liu prefers to keep things simple. Hence razor clams are blanched, and jellyfish is chilled and tossed in simple sesame oil and soy sauce. Only the most tender parts of baby cabbages are used in a dish whimsically named Let Go.

Other customer favorites include Zhejiang-caught yellow croaker with salted mustard greens and bamboo. Normally pan-fried with scallions in Hong Kong, the Yong Fu version is simmered for hours together, until the dish's flavors permeate every bite. For the signature crispy chicken with pepper and sesame sauce - reminiscent of Cantonese crispy fried chicken - the bird is doused in the coveted Japanese peppercorn oil, as opposed to the usual Sichuanese option. While chicken is an entree protein in the south, in Ningbo its use is traditionally limited to soups and snacks, says Yu.

While the menu changes according to season, Yong Fu makes use of a secret weapon to keep customer favorites on the table all year-round: nitrogen. The restaurant ships yellow croaker as well as the mud crab that goes into its signature 18-cut raw crab dish in subzero liquid nitrogen to prolong its freshness.

Indeed, when I sampled the dish recently, there was no telling that the crab was caught over a year ago.

Yu admits it's a costly business. Nonetheless, it's a price Yong Fu Hong Kong is happy to bear.

"Ningbo food is about seasonality.For example, a fishing moratorium is in place from May until September, during which we'd turn to catches like crustaceans and goose barnacles. These changes are reflected in our summer menus," Yu explains.

"However, the idea of Yong Fu is to share the wonders of Ningbo cuisine with as many people as possible, so we make our best efforts to keep the signature dishes we're especially proud of on the menu."

With such devotion to tradition and respect for quality, with a nod to popular demand, it's no wonder customers must book a week or more in advance to get a seat at one of Yong Fu Hong Kong's five tables and six private rooms. The restaurant was ranked Asia's 54th-best by more than 300 industry experts behind this year's Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list.