Wok around the clock: Build a 'wok clock' before you start stir-frying

Mung bean vermicelli with shiitake and snow peas.
Mung bean vermicelli with shiitake and snow peas. Photo: Kris Kirkham

If you've ever watched a Hong Kong gangster movie, or even just an "old school" martial arts movie, you'll know what a dai pai dong is, even if you've never been to Hong Kong.

At the start of the movie, once the cameras have finished panning across the bird's-eye view of the skyscrapers and twinkling harbours, the real action begins, most often in the middle of a crowded street market. Once they hit the market scene there is likely to be a token shot of some guy in a sweat-stained white tank top, wielding a giant cleaver or whisking a featherweight wok. That is a dai pai dong.

Hong Kong Diner by Jeremy Phan.
Hong Kong Diner by Jeremy Phan. Photo: Hardie Grant Books

Bare-boned, street-side, run by one or two people. That is the real deal. This type of street-food eating establishment has been around in Hong Kong since the 1800s, although at that time they were unlicensed. After the Second World War the colonial Hong Kong government issued ad hoc licences to families of deceased and injured civil servants, allowing them to operate food stalls in public and thereby earn a living. It was part of the licensing law that every owner of such a stall must display a photo of the licence on the stall itself and so, as we have such a literal culture, the locals named the operation dai pai dong (big licence stall). These dai pai dongs or "big licence stalls" are where I would send someone for the most street-level, fully immersive, sink-or-swim experience if asked to give someone the most authentic lesson in Cantonese cooking.

It's been a dream of mine to get a lesson in "wok-hei" (Eds note: which means breath of the wok, referring to the charred flavour imparted to food during stir-frying) from the true street chefs of Hong Kong since I was a kid. I have deep respect for all chefs, from those who have worked hard to make their way to the very top and now have accolades and stars to show for it, to those peeling potatoes with diligence or performing other back-breaking yet vital tasks within the food industry.

To me, however, none can hold a candle to the fierce owner of a dai pai dong, flicking a huge wok around a 32-jet-point wok burner rigged up on a portable gas canister, then just a minute later serving up the most succulent, crispy, slightly smoky, sweet and sour pork you've ever tasted. Those are the guys with grit, and the true alchemists, not to mention performers of the industry. Dai pai dongs are a dying trade in Hong Kong, with only 15 establishments left, due to the legal logistics of taking over their licences and to the surge of hawker centres and air-conditioned eateries. But if you ask me, they are the culmination point of Hong Kong street-food culture, and should not be missed if you are ever presented with the opportunity to visit one.

Mung bean vermicelli with shiitake and snowpeas

2 dried shiitake mushrooms

100g dried mung bean vermicelli (or glass noodles)

1 clove of garlic

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6 snow peas

½ a carrot

1 spring onion

50g or 2 large handfuls of beansprouts

1 tbsp vegetable oil

For the sauce

1 tsp chilli bean sauce

1 tbsp vegetarian stir-fry sauce (or oyster sauce)

½ tbsp light soy sauce

100ml vegetable stock

½ tsp sesame oil

1. Soak the dried shiitake mushrooms for at least 1 hour, or overnight for best results.

2. Soak the mung bean vermicelli in hot water for 3 to 4 minutes, then drain in a sieve and run cold water through the noodles to prevent them overcooking.

3. Finely slice the garlic, and finely matchstick the pre-soaked and drained mushrooms, snow peas, carrot and spring onion.

4. Pick the ends off the beansprouts and wash them well by soaking in cold water, running your fingers through them a few times, rinsing, then soaking once more in cold water.

5. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl or ramekin.

6. Now build a "wok clock": place the garlic at 12 o'clock, followed by the carrot, snow peas, mushrooms, beansprouts, soaked vermicelli and then finally your sauce, clockwise around the plate.

7. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok to a high heat. Once smoking hot, add the garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add the carrot and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Next, add the snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and the beansprouts and continue stir-frying for 1 minute more, then add the vermicelli, immediately followed by the sauce. Bring the sauce to a vigorous boil, then start to fold the noodles and vegetables through the sauce. Once all the sauce is evenly coating both the veg and vermicelli, remove from the heat, scatter with the spring onion and serve.

Serves 4

Hong Kong char siu 

2 x 300g pieces of pork neck fillet (or pork belly slices for extra fat, or pork fillet for a leaner finish)

For the marinade

½ a thumb-size piece of ginger

2 cloves of garlic

½ tsp five-spice powder

½ tsp white pepper

2 tsp tomato paste

2 tsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

4 tbsp  hoisin sauce

2 tsp pure sesame oil

4 tbsp honey

1. Finely chop the ginger and garlic, then mix with the rest of the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Massage the marinade into the pork neck fillets, then cover and put into the fridge to marinate for at least 1 hour, or overnight for best results (though this dish can be cooked immediately if you're too hungry to wait).

2. Place the meat on a roasting tray, reserving the marinade for basting.

3. Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan-forced) and roast the pork for 1-1½ hours, until well charred on the outside, turning once and basting intermittently with the sauce to get a good caramelised finish on the meat. The slower the cooking process, the more succulent the meat will become.

4. If barbecuing instead of roasting, get your barbecue temperature as close to 150C as possible and barbecue for 1-1½ hours, until well charred on the outside. Baste as you would in the oven for more flavour and caramelisation.

Serves 4-6 if served with side dishes.

Tip: For a quick dinner, you can also cook this in a preheated oven at 200C (180C fan-forced) for 20 minutes on either side, turning once to char both sides of the meat and basting every 10 minutes or so for added depth of flavour.

This is an edited extract from Hong Kong Diner by Jeremy Pang, published by Quadrille Books, RRP $29.99.