Russian food and eateries in Hong Kong
During the last months there have been various mentions of Russian eating places and bakeries in Hong Kong including the search for Tkachenko's location etc. Someone also mentioned that the history of Russians in the territory was very sparse. I've just come across the newsprint feature presented below while clearing out old newspaper cuttings. It covers a bit more on the Russian eateries and the evolvement of well known named delicatessens.
From Russia with Love by Annabel Graham from the Sunday Morning Post,
May 25 1997
If you have lived in the territory for a long time you will remember the influence of the Russians. You would have dined on bortsch and pirozhki at Chantecler, bought doughnuts and Napoleon slices from the Cherikoff Bakery, bet on Russian-trained horses at Happy Valley and, if you were lucky, been invited to a few rowdy vodka and zakuski parties. Sadly, this colourful dimension to Hong Kong life and culinary scene has all but disappeared.
Emigres from the eastern regions of Russia first arrived in Hong Kong early this century. They trickled down through places such as Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai, each home to a large Russian population. Following the Communist takeover in China in 1949, large numbers of White Russian refugees arrived in Hong Kong. Mostly they stayed only long enough to get their papers processed for other destinations, such as Australia or Canada. Some obtained foreign passports but returned to Hong Kong to live.
Like all minority groups, the Russians in Hong Kong clung faithfully to their food and culture. Lydia Dorfman (nee Sofranoff) remembers her mother, Valentina, tirelessly pickling tomatoes, marinating mushrooms and salting cucumbers. Pelmeni, little crescent-shaped meat dumplings much loved by Siberians, were handmade and served in a broth or fried. Back home, vast quantities of pelmeni would be produced in one session and buried in the snow, frozen and ready for use.
The retail food scene in Hong Kong 40 years ago was a good deal less sophisticated than it is now, and many essential Russian ingredients were hard to come by. There are memories of growing precious pots of dill, chives and flat-leaf parsley, important herbs in Russian cooking. The passion for strong black tea was satisfied with bricks of Iron Buddha, which Russian tea greatly resembled. This was boiled up with milk, salt and a little butter. Tea was not the only thing brewed by the Russian community. Kvass, an alcoholic drink, was fermented at home from dark bread and raisins. It was drunk straight or used to flavour soup.
Other foodstuffs were brought out by sailors on Russian ships. There was no shortage of vodka or, for that matter, caviar. As Ms Dorfman recalls: “Russian sailors would come to our home with tins of caviar. We ate it without the ceremony and reverence it is accorded today. Usually we just had it for breakfast spread on toast or blini [a Russian pancake].”
Sour crème or Smetana is another important ingredient in Russian food. It is used extensively in cooking and dollops of it are liberally added to a whole host of savoury and sweet dishes. Ira Daiko, who arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1946, remembers making her own in the early days. Dairy Farm was a source of Russian products. In the 1940s and 50s there were Russians on the production and farming staff, and special orders would be received for cream and cheeses. Ms Daiko tells of collecting curd cheese for Easter baking from the company’s farm premises in Pokfulam.
Later, a Mr Gregory opened a delicatessen called Greg’s in Prince’s Building, which supplied much nostalgic food for the minorities. Here Russians could buy caviar, smoked fish, black bread, horseradish and herrings. The Gregorys were somewhat of an institution in Hong Kong: Mrs Gregory was reputed to be particularly formidable. The family business was eventually sold to Jardines and the Dairy Farm before resurfacing as Oliver’s
The Russians in Hong Kong were hospitable, generous and gregarious hosts. Parties would usually begin with a large selection of zakuski, ~platefuls of little appetisers laid out on a table and washed down with small shots of cold vodka. It is a sociable and relaxed way to start a meal, and zakuski can be presented in the humblest or most elaborate of settings. At its simplest there may be marinated vegetables, stuffed eggs, herbed butter and bread, or there can be a riot of smoked fish, caviar, items in aspic, liver pastes and all manner of vegetable dishes.
There was never a Russian club in Hong Kong, and the Russian Orthodox Church in Kowloon Tong was very much the meeting place for the Russian gentiles. Religious festivals were closely observed and there was a good deal of either feasting or fasting. In the book The Milky Way, which records the history of Dairy Farm, David Shaw — assistant farm manager in the late 50s — attests to the hospitality of the Russians: “One of the major hazards for a young man coming out to the farm as I did was to get through the first Russian Easter and first Russian Christmas, such was the partying that went on.” Easter was the main religious festival, and feasting began in earnest after the Lenten fast. A tall yeast cake called kulich, and paskha, a rich confection of curd cheese and sour cream, would be prepared ready for the fast to conclude after midnight mass.
Ms Dorfman remembers: “The whole house would smell of vanilla when mother was baking kulich. Of course, we weren’t allowed to touch it and she would roll the cake up in a tea towel and hide it from us. Not only were there kulich and paskha, but also lamb, decorated eggs, pickled herring and smoked fish. We would come back from church and tuck in this huge meal at 1 a.m.
While much of the partying was done in private homes, there was no shortage of Russian restaurants. Tkachenko’s, behind The Peninsula Hotel was a favourite, and the old Queen’s Cafe had a deli-style counter where you could buy pelment (those Siberian dumplings), pickled cabbage and vinaigrette, or what non-Russians know as Russian salad.
The owners and cooks of these establishments were more often than not Chinese from the north who had learned their skills first-hand from Russians in cities such as Harbin and Tianjin. It was even possible in those days to employ domestic cooks well versed in cooking Russian food. All the Russians I spoke to agreed that in their heyday these restaurants served authentic Russian fare.
They have all but vanished now, Czarina survives in Bonham Road, as does the Queen’s Cafe in Causeway Bay, but their Russianness has diminished through the years and today they stand as quirkish Russo-Chinglish restaurants. Interestingly, many Russian dishes have entered mainstream Hong Kong menus. Bortsch, known locally as Russian soup (mor law see tong ) is still found on many a fast-food menu. It is usually recognisable by the presence of cabbage, carrots, tomatoes and a piece of beef brisket. Beef stroganoff — without the sour cream but with tomatoes — is another fast-food favourite, though the recipe has been so re-worked over time that it barely resembles the original.
In Hong Kong 30 years ago, Russian bakeries dominated the scene. I remember as a child going to Cherikoff Bakery in Waterloo Road and being bought lattice-topped pies filled with apricot jam, ring doughnuts, choux cream puffs and Napoleon slices. No childhood birthday party was complete without the last of these.