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Hong Kong food critic Chua Lam on good food and beautiful women

Why did you turn from movies to food writing? “When I was a film producer, I had to travel around the world to find film locations. Other team members focused on the scenery but I focused more on food, which I am always interested in. I was invited to write a column [by Oriental Daily News editor Chow Shek] and the pub­lishers let me write anything I liked. So I wrote a lot about food and restaurants, and eventually people saw me as a food critic.”

What is good food? “A good meal is more than just the taste. It is related to your memory and prejudice. Many people think the food cooked by their mother is the best. Many migrants love the food of the coun­tries where they come from. I was born in Singapore and I like laksa and many Singa­porean dishes, but now I think the lifestyle has changed so much in Singapore that the taste is different from when I was small.”

You also arrange travel tours to Japan and South Korea. How would you compare the two places? “I like to go to South Korea where there are many beautiful women. If you walk on a street for an hour in South Korea, you will see at least three beautiful women. In Taiwan, you may see one beautiful woman in an hour. In Japan, I am not sure you will see any beautiful women in a hour.

“Japan is popular this year as the yen has dropped against the dollar, so many Hongkongers find it cheaper.”

Korean food with a twist

South Korea has been a favourite destination of yours for a long time. How has it changed? “I went to South Korea when I studied film in Japan, which was in the 1960s. I was a poor student and the South Koreans were very poor, too. The food was simple but very tasty. They were very generous, too. If you ordered a main course, they offered you 10 to 20 small side dishes. I have been there over 100 times and I still find it exciting. South Korea has come a long way and nowadays they are wealthy and the country is leading the culture in Asia with many popular Korean songs, movies and dramas.”

What are your favourite Korean dishes? “The raw crab with sauce – I eat this every time I go to Korea. Some people worry about eating raw crab but the Koreans have eaten it for more than 100 years. They don’t seem to have any problems and I feel safe to eat it. I also like ‘captain hotpot’ – a dish favoured by soldiers. For this they cook noodles, luncheon meat, sauce and cheese in a small pot. The Korean barbecue beef is getting better and better and now they can afford to get good beef from around the world. My favourite restaurant is La Yeon, at the Shilla Hotel [in Seoul], which serves good traditional Korean food.”

What do you like the most about South Korea? “I like that they are very keen on beauty. Even if they are born beautiful, they will still use skin care and cosmetic products or do plastic surgery to enhance their beauty. And if even plastic surgery fails to make them beautiful, they develop mobile phone apps to enhance their photos and make them look beautiful. This is why there are many beautiful women in South Korea. I like beautiful women!

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“When [Koreans] first meet you, they always ask your age. Some might find this offensive but in fact it is important to Koreans. If they learn that you are older, they will give you respect and call you big brother. When you drink with them, they will let you drink first.

“There is a joke that before world war two, Korean men always walked ahead of the women but, after the war, they let women walk first as they were worried about stepping on landmines.”

 

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How do you rate the food in China? “Mainland China has good food and drinks but they do not know how to package them. Kuei Hua Chen Chiew is a very good Chinese yellow wine, made from a recipe from the palace, but they sell it cheap. They are not good at branding and marketing. The problem with the Chinese food industry is that there are many chemicals added in the farming or food-processing process. I do not eat salmon in China as I worry about the colour and I’m not sure if there have been chemicals added.”

Who is the cook at home – you or your wife? “I am the cook at home. I could cook 30 different types of noodle in a month, one dish for each day. I believe one should eat whatever they enjoy and keep smiling all the time. A happy person will also be a healthy person.”