Expat in H.K. envoy of taste

Keiko Sakurai gives compatriots lessons in world-renowned fare


HONG KONG — Hong Kong is a city of gastronomy, every year attracting millions of food-loving travelers from across the globe.

But few visitors are lucky enough to get a peek at what is going on in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, let alone be a part of the Chinese cooking magic.

Keiko Sakurai of Japan is a rare exception. She has finished courses at dozens of local professional cooking schools and is now regarded as a noted Hong Kong food expert.

She has also written three recipe books published in Hong Kong, and was a judge at the Best of the Best Culinary Awards in 2005, 2006 and 2007, a high-profile event sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

“At all the cooking schools I attended in Hong Kong, I was always told I was the first Japanese student there. All other students were Hong Kong people,” Sakurai said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“I knew few (Cantonese cooking) terms and knew nothing about seasonings or recipes. But Hong Kong people are really friendly toward Japan and they really took care of me.”

Now Sakurai gives her compatriots an opportunity to be part of the Chinese cooking magic: She runs a cooking school for Japanese, both those living in Hong Kong and those who visit.

At Luscious Delicious, her school in the Wan Chai district, she invites a famous Hong Kong chef as a guest lecturer each time.

Sakurai, who has lived in Hong Kong for 13 years and is fluent in Cantonese, serves as translator and coordinator during the lessons, which usually last three hours. She also teaches how to cook local Hong Kong deserts.

Meals students can learn how to cook range from Cantonese, Shanghai and Sichuan cuisine to Japanese, Italian and French.

The most popular lessons are on dim sum and Hong Kong-style home cooking, Sakurai said.

“I had traveled around many countries to learn cooking, such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and some European countries, and there were always a lot of cooking schools for foreigners,” Sakurai said.

“But I realized there was no such school in Hong Kong, even though there are many for local people. A lot of Japanese were living here, but there was little opportunity for them to learn from local chefs. I thought it was really a shame.”

More than 3,000 people have studied at her school since its launch in 2001. During a morning lesson last month, chef Lee Ho Wai Jyu, an award-winning veteran of home-style Hong Kong meals, showed eight Japanese students how to cook four dishes.

Using a wok and butcher knife, she prepared fried fish, a bean sprout appetizer with spicy XO sauce, stir-fried pork with Chinese bean sauce, and traditional soup with shiitake and peanuts.

“Soup is very important for Hong Kong people,” Sakurai told the students. “Asked what is their favorite food, they’d all say mom’s soup at home is No. 1.”

While most of her students are Japanese housewives living in Hong Kong and female travelers from Japan, she also holds a lesson for men once a month.

Since her childhood, Sakurai dreamed of getting a job that had something to do with food.

After obtaining certification as a nutritionist, she landed a position at a company in Japan that develops recipes and products for food-related establishments, such as restaurants and hospital kitchens.

As part of her training, the company sent her to a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong. There she became fascinated with the art of Chinese cooking as she watched firsthand how cooks prepare meals at a restaurant.

“I thought it would be very interesting to stay in Hong Kong to learn Chinese cooking for about a year. But before I knew it, I’d been here 13 years,” she said with a laugh.

She quit her job in Japan and moved to Hong Kong in 1996.

She likes French and Italian cuisine just as much as Chinese, but she decided to start by mastering Chinese cooking first. It took five years to finish courses at “almost all of the major” professional cooking schools in Hong Kong, she said.

Then she thought about settling down in Japan and traveling to other countries, including France and Italy, to learn more local cuisines.

She changed her mind because Hong Kong is an airline hub, offering very convenient flights to anywhere in the world.

So with Hong Kong as her home base, she started to travel abroad to master other cuisine. So far Sakurai has made three to four visits to more than a dozen countries.

At Hong Hong cooking schools, Sakurai had a tough time at first. She knew few Cantonese words and needed to wield a heavy wok, control a strong fire and use lots of cooking oil that sends billows of smoke into the kitchen.

But many Hong Kong people, who have grown up with Japanese pop culture and made-in-Japan products, have always been friendly and kind to her, Sakurai said.

“Hong Kong people have helped me a lot and I owe much to them.”

She feels Hong Kong people’s affinity toward Japanese culture, including food, has recently been growing stronger than ever, she said.

Indeed, Hong Kong has been No. 1 among foreign regions and countries that import Japanese food, ranging from fresh fish for sashimi and sticky Japanese rice to expensive luxury fruit.

“I go to high schools and cooking schools in Hong Kong to teach Japanese cooking. I feel people in Hong Kong really like Japan and are eager to learn about Japanese culture,” she said.