As author Lin Yutang noted in My Country and My People (1935), “what is patriotism, but nostalgia for the foods of one’s childhood?” In these patriotism-infused times, defining national dishes, especially when these are claimed by groups that have no formally defined nation to begin with, is fraught with peril. Independence advocacy, “splittism”, and other potentially disastrous accusations might result from simply claiming a plateful of something tasty as one’s national food. Such is the topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass world of today’s Hong Kong.
Marginal peoples must gather up individual identity’s scattered crumbs when and where they can; ancestral foods often provide the most readily available definition. Here is the conundrum; every cook has their own recipe, just as every historian creates their own version of past events, depending on which ingredients are available, or personally palatable. This multi-horned dilemma particularly applies to contemporary diasporic “communities”, often more imagined than actual, whose ancestral homelands – in so far as they ever really existed – are now generations removed, in time and space, from the present day.
Ethnically, culturally, linguistically and culinarily creolised from centuries of transnational interaction in Macau, the Macanese diaspora is illustrative. A distinctive (though widely variable) communal group, they are not (and never have been) a nation; tenuous, overemphasised connections to a long-ago, ancestral Portugal are about the closest that many modern Macanese ever come to a common origin story. Their true and only homeland – the one shared source of any national identity – is Macau, an integral sovereign territory of China. This inherent contradiction makes any imagined national identity chimerical and destined for gradual decline and eventual disappearance.
Portable identity markers, such as heritage foods, become hotly contested by descendants born and raised in other places. Partly motivated by a search for family roots, and a consequent sense of personal or ethnic identity as a pathway to self-understanding and broader external validation, many cling tenaciously to otherwise trivial recipe details.
Pineapple bun with milk tea: the national dish of Hong Kong? Photo: SCMP
What, for example, is the “national dish” of the Macanese? Only one contender exists – minchee, a Pidgin English pronunciation of mince. Minchee generally involves a mixture of coarsely ground fatty and lean pork, braised with onions and light and dark soy sauce, and served with crispy cubes of fried potato, plain rice and a fried egg on top.
With this simple, homestyle fusion fare comes unexpected controversy. Certain families add molasses; others prefer brown sugar. Black pepper is essential for some; Worcestershire sauce might equally be abhorred. Apostates add garlic to theirs; purists recoil, horror-struck, from mustard – and so it goes on. Squabbles about the authenticity of these heretical variants – “The Wars of the Minchees” – inevitably break out wherever the diasporic Macanese gather. Ancestral foods – let us not forget – can create communal divisions as readily as unity.
Likewise, diasporic Anglo-Indians have as their “homeland” the fringes of larger Indian cities, in particular the ports, railway junctions and hill stations, and hail from a long-ago, “betwixt-and-between” society that no longer exists, except in fading memory. Ball curry – an endlessly varied meat kofta in spiced gravy, served with coconut-flavoured rice, wins hands-down as their national dish and – like minchee – inspires internecine quarrels and occasional brawls wherever these diasporic communities gather, along with the Christmas cakes and puddings that are the family pride (and closely guarded secret) of every ancestral Anglo-Indian recipe book.
So, what might Hong Kong’s national dish be? In these sadly humourless days, the mere discussion becomes chancy. But most people would opt for one of the more popular cha chaan teng staples – a “pineapple” bun with a glass of milk tea, perhaps – just as popular in a Kowloon backstreet as among reluctant émigré populations emerging everywhere from Manchester to Melbourne.