The aluminium plates were each a piece of art, characteristically malled by the years they'd served. So impressive as well were the steaming hot rolls of colourful towels offered to the customers at the end of the meal. The cheerful and attentive hosts, especially the uncle in a Hawaiian shirt with loud hibiscus print, looked like they enjoyed their roles very much. A rarity these days, don't you think? In the background, Christmas songs sung in Mandarin where played. All these, and the food, made my first Sek Yuen experience on Christmas day a most satisfying one.
Dad recounted his few banquet attendances here some 30 years ago and praised their signature creations, including the chilled bowl of meat and jelly. Some of these dishes are long lost, he said. According to dad, the sweet and sour pork here is an all-time favourite. I must agree. Everyone can make sweet and sour pork, of course. But to take it beyond a high school science project of combining plain bottled ketchup and deep-fried pork requires some techniques. Or what we Cantonese call kung fu. At first glance, the blistering nuggets appeared to be the result of deep-frying in overheated oil, which usually causes the meat to be undercooked. Not at all, thankfully. In fact, each piece was cooked tender, pink to the core. Kung fu! Coat the crunchy golden fried batter with a balanced sauce of syrup, tomatoes and starch, and it's a colourful and appetizing dish.
I reported my menu to dad after that lunch and he seemed pleased that I had the pei pa duck, which was air-dried then deep-fried and yet, came just minimally greasy. This is a dish that has been with the restaurant for the longest time and it's really not difficult to understand its longevity. Addiction was that crack of the crispy skin followed by the taste of well-salted, succulent meat. If I'd proceeded with my plan for a bottle of affordable bubbly, nothing too fancy and difficult to pronounce, for this occasion, it would have paired this duck nicely, I'm sure.
My folks have been telling me that Sek Yuen is exemplary of classic Cantonese fare. But what is classic? I'm not sure if my limited knowledge and young tastebuds, furthermore marred by all these new fusion/confusion cuisines, grant me the ability to recognize such complexities - a skill that comes only with age and a long love for food. But I do know that good taste is always here to stay. And that's how I'll remember Sek Yuen.