This master of Cantonese cuisine talks with John Krich about his humble beginnings and his links to tradition
Why do we tend to take the exceptional standard-bearers of Cantonese cuisine somewhat for granted? Mei Jiang restaurant, in the Peninsula Bangkok hotel, is one of but a handful of establishments in Bangkok—a city that teems with Chinese influence but not terribly much quality Chinese cuisine—that have maintained a menu and reputation for excellence, remaining a place where you can take friends or colleagues for private lunches or special occasions and never, ever be disappointed. That sounds easy to do, but it isn’t.
At the helm of such a restaurant there has to be a steady, knowing presence like that of Chef Ho Hon Sing, more commonly referred to as Jackie Ho, a cheerful Hong Kong native not to be confused with Jackie Chan (even if his nightly tricks are on the same level as the kung fu stuntman, maybe better because they are live). A humble leader in the kitchen for the past 12 years, he is practically a Bangkokian by now, having put in 3 years at the Oriental previously. Like many a colleague in Cantonese fare, he began as a poor kid apprenticed out to dim sum duties, the hardest and most labor-intensive of kitchen assignments, usually entailing crossing Hong Kong harbor in the middle of the night and beginning to knead and shape and stuff dough by 3am. Rising in the ranks, Chef Ho fulfilled a childhood dream to see Europe by working in England, then Italy and other locations before ending up in Thailand.
At 54, he’s now an old pro, but he says “keeping a high level” remains his daily concern. To that, the Peninsula sponsors him on two trips a year back to mainland Chinese for inspiration—the latest to German-influenced, seafood-oriented Qingdao. The restaurant also offers monthly specials, including a current emphasis on bird’s nest, although for environmental reasons the Chef no longer uses shark’s fin (thankfully). This scrupulous kitchen master also manages to put out organic tofu, substitute egg whites, avoid gluten and even sneak the use of olive oil into some dishes, as he is constantly upgrading his customers’ requests to eat and stay healthy. He also emphasizes that he stands at the ready to tackle any special orders or dietary needs not addressed on the menu, either for a single diner or in banquet planning.
In Chef Ho’s hands, a simple rice steamed in lotus leaf or an unusual potato starch dumpling are amazingly satisfying. He’s got a deft touch for any sort of scallops, making his own X.O. sauce in-house and of course bringing decades of experience to bear in every slice of roast duck.
For many non-Chinese, Cantonese food came to seem a bit dull and predictable over the years, as it is the staple fare of the world’s innumerable Chinatowns. However, within China itself the cooking of Guangzhou is considered the height of the nation’s culinary art. That’s because of a reliance on fresh ingredients and superb roast meats, unspoiled or unadorned with heavy sauces, too much garlic, or harsh leeks, or ginger. Yes, simplicity is the highest aim in any art and the luxurious simplicity of Mei Jiang is mirrored in the mild-mannered personality of its head man. Order anything here and what you will get is something beyond taste or flavor. You’ll get consistency and loyalty to the finest supplies and traditions that have no need of change.