Hungry Lawyer: Chicken on a Pole at Kowloon’s Tai Chung Wah

Long before pole dancing became a celebrated and mainstream performance art form with amateurs shelling out money to fitness studios in the hopes of burning calories and expressing their sexuality, Guangdong chickens were doing their own culinary version of pole dance to similarly delicious effect – and no, I’m not using “chicken” in the Cantonese slang sense (i.e. “prostitute”).

Tai Chung Wah’s deceivingly modest exterior.

Tai Chung Wah, which loosely translates into English as “Big China”, is one of those classic local Cantonese establishments where what appears as a small storefront with a few tables is actually a thriving local enterprise. These misleadingly modest façades often conceal numerous sparsely decorated rooms that the restaurant purveyor will lead you to by going up a stairwell, around the corner or, in this case, down a nearby alley.

Located at 539 Fuk Wing Street in Cheung Sha Wan, about seven minutes’ walk from MTR Exit C2, this is the type of place where foreigners probably need a Cantonese-speaking friend to guide them. Luckily, a few of this hungry lawyer’s friends had once upon a time attended the nearby Catholic boys’ school and had thankfully introduced the restaurant to me. After several samplings of the locally impaled chicken, Tai Chung Wah seemed like the right restaurant for this column’s first foray into Kowloon.

The dramatic Grilled Cumin Chicken

The chicken, with its ostentatious appearance, is somewhat plainly called Grilled Cumin Chicken (HKD260) and must be ordered one day in advance. As pictured, it is apparent that a whole uncooked chicken has been penetrated by an approximately half-metre-long cold steel pole, which has been fixed onto a steel pan and placed into the oven for baking, like a rotisserie that doesn’t spin. The chicken’s head rests atop the pole, its eyes looking in either direction and its wings outstretched like a velociraptor ready to pounce.

But sadly for this bird, the only pouncing that will be done is by the assembled diners all too eager to tear skin from flesh and flesh from bone. The baking ensures that the chicken is juicy and evenly cooked, with the crispy, well-seasoned skin an almost irresistible treat. The image of the impaled chicken might take some accustoming to for squeamish modern diners used to buying their poultry plastic-wrapped from Citysuper, but the taste will bring you back.

The Black Pepper Sizzling Pork Knuckle

Besides the chicken, Tai Chung Wah serves a number of other old school Cantonese dishes with some emphasis on seafood. Two other signature menu items are the Black Pepper Sizzling Pork Knuckle (HKD130) and the Chinese-style Yusheng or Lo Hei (HKD88 for a small portion).

The pork knuckle comes as a whole knuckle served on an iron plate sizzling with a black pepper sauce. The knuckle is not so dissimilar to what you might find in German cuisine, except unlike its central European counterpart, this knuckle is never dry and is instead coated and infused with sticky, peppery sauce, so that the juicy, delicious meat slides off the bone. 

The lo hei

The lo hei at Tai Chung Wah is a salad-like dish composed of shredded lettuce, seaweed and other vegetables topped with strips of salmon sashimi and sesame seed, accompanied by soy sauce. It’s based on the somewhat more complicated dish yusheng that is a specialty in Malaysia and Singapore during Chinese New Year.

The light, cooling flavor of the lo hei, with its fresh sesame-coated salmon strips and crunchy vegetables, is a highly recommended contrast to the other heavier dishes on offer and an important component of a well rounded dining experience for any group making the trip here.

The Red Bean Curd Marinated Eel

For seafood, I particularly liked the grilled, fermented Red Bean Curd Marinated Eel (HKD110). This dish consisted of a whole eel, sliced into horizontal sections, batter-fried and accompanied by the light-red fermented bean curd sauce, which had a surprisingly mild taste. The batter was crispy but didn’t dominate the well-cooked eel. Similarly, the unusual sauce, with its slight hint of fermentation, complemented but didn’t overwhelm the natural taste of the fish.

The Black Pepper Fish Maw Soup

Another seafood highlight was the Black Pepper Fish Maw Soup (HKD90). Fish maw, the collagen-rich swim bladder used by many species of bony fish to help regulate buoyancy, is one of my favourite ingredients common in Chinese cooking, as it has a wonderfully soft chewy texture and is excellent at picking up the subtle flavours typical of Cantonese soups.

This version consisted of a peppery broth well-stocked with fish maw and various kinds of mushrooms, fungus and green vegetables. It could easily substitute for a vegetable dish. 

Tai Chung Wah’s menu has many options to choose from and I encourage everyone – be they long-time residents of Kowloon, families in the New Territories or new arrivals to Hong Kong Island – to take in the old-school culinary performance art that is Tai Chung Wah. Come with a big group, order a lot and share. It’s more than just chicken on a pole.

Tai Chung Wah: G/F, 539 Fuk Wing Street, Cheung Sha Wan (Google Maps).

About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.

Other columns from the Hungry Lawyer:

Hungry Lawyer: Man Wah, an elegant alternative for dim sum at the Mandarin Oriental
Hungry Lawyer: Beefbar, a Monte Carlo meatery that does beef right

Hungry Lawyer: La Cantoche, a hipster bistro in Sheung Wan that needs to up its game
Hungry Lawyer: Indian Village, a hole-in-the-wall in the heart of Mid-Levels
Hungry Lawyer: Bashu Garden, a Sichuan gem in a quiet part of Sai Ying Pun
Hungry Lawyer: Amigo, the French Restaurant with a Spanish Name Where You Can Dine Like it’s 1979

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