I became obsessed with the history of Gold Coin Chicken right around the time I became obsessed with the idea of Hong Kong.
For much of my life I’ve had a romantic image of the city. I’ve been there four times over the course of my childhood and each trip left me wanting more. I ate up the city’s history, a fascinating juxtaposition of new and old – though, as everybody who visits Hong Kong sees, the latter will eventually consume the former.
It seems this is always the case in modern cities (Singapore for example). Loss of culture always seems inevitable when it comes to the progress towards building a modern metropolis. Cultural preservation takes the form of government programs, subsidies supporting the arts, architectural landmark designations, or historical archiving in the form of museums and libraries. But one thing is often left out, and it is particularly vulnerable to economic change: native cuisine.
Food is representative and indicative of economic status, regional influence, and a multitude of factors, both a commodity and cultural trait. What happens to the history of certain dishes when demand for them begins to vanish? Is it solely the responsibility of individual diners and chefs to preserve culinary history?
This is what led me to Gold Coin Chicken.
Gold coin chicken (gum tsin gai in Cantonese) is a dish born from poverty and the refusal of Hong Kong’s poorer population to waste anything. Start with trimmings from Cantonese style roast meat delis – roast pork, char siu (red barbeque pork), excess pork fat trim, and spare chicken livers. Skewer each piece on a long metal stick and baste it with the same glaze used for char siu. Serve with steamed folding buns (mantou) – like how they use flatbread to eat kebabs in the Middle east.
Gold coin chicken was sold as a discounted food item due to it’s rather proletariat nature and thus carried a connotation of being “poor people food”. To some citizens the dish carried a sense of shame or embarrassment. As often when one’s fortunes improve, they may feel a need to define their newfound sophistication, so they leave certain foods behind which would expose their lower class origins. As Hong Kong’s skyscrapers pierce the stratosphere, on the ground level, some of the city’s best dishes are at risk of being lost to history. Some would rather not look back down and forget their past but how can you reach the top without a strong foundation. No one climbs the top of the ladder without help from someone or something. A humble, affordable dish which helped you make it through difficult times is something that becomes a part of your character whether you like it or not. Therefore why not appreciate it and preserve it’s memory?
I picked Gold Coin Chicken out of the many dishes that Hong Kong is forgetting primarily because I thought it would taste good. It’s not a dish that would make sense on a lot of menus economically, but Gold Coin Chicken is a skewer of delicious sweet glazed fat, protein, and offal from the trimmings of many Cantonese deli meats that I and many of my peers grew up with.
I am drawn to Gold Coin Chicken because it is uniquely Hong Kong. Food is so commoditized these days as globalization has allowed chefs to source once hard to find ingredients from around the world yet if you give several chefs the same ingredients they will always produce different dishes. The ability to take the same ingredients and apply your own personal techniques or approaches is what differentiates unique regional dishes from the rest of the global cuisine. Almost everyone for the most part has access to chicken liver, pork, flour but none do it like Gold Coin Chicken. This dish is Hong Kong, or at least was Hong Kong at some point but it still can be as long as we choose not to forget it, which is my choice.
The concept of the dish is something that I strongly identify with. My family would from time to time poach a chicken along with the giblets. We never threw them out they would be poached in the same pot and eaten at the same time of the chicken. Gizzards, hearts, liver, neck, nothing would be thrown out. Using all parts of the animal and not wasting anything along with making it accessible the lower and middle classes is one of the reasons I like to cook, and I want to be known for it.
I am not going to make a traditional gold coin chicken. The reality is that the dish requires the use of a vertical oven typically found in Cantonese roast meat delis. I also wanted to give my own take on it, because I don’t believe it needs to stay the same. Food and culture evolve over time and there’s no reason why this dish cannot as well. I will not be using the same cuts of meat found in the original but I have purposely chosen new ones that embody the spirit of the original dish. in that I am using offcuts of meat which would be thrown out or wasted because they are not popular cuts. Duck neck and pork tongue are two relatively ignored parts which is why I chose them. My idea is to capture the rich, unctuousness of the original with a similar glaze that is not reliant on red food coloring. I want to make the dish my own because as a chef I want to draw from my own heritage and family experiences which are unique to myself. We all have something to contribute to this world because everyone comes from a unique background resulting of growing up in a specific environment with a unique family. My variation on this dish is basically a result of my own personal experiences growing up in a lower income neighborhood and being raised in a frugal family.