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Explore the world of Canto-Western cuisine

In a nod to steak house tradition, sirloins served at Hong Kong's Goldfinch Restaurant are accompanied by a sauce and a side. But don't go looking for American-style sauce and the ubiquitous baked potato with sour cream.
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A view of Hong Kong island's high-rise buildings. Mike Clarke / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a nod to steak house tradition, sirloins served at Hong Kong's Goldfinch Restaurant are accompanied by a sauce and a side. But don't go looking for American-style sauce and the ubiquitous baked potato with sour cream.

This is the wonderfully weird world of Canto-Western cuisine. The meat arrives on a sizzling iron plate, smothered with a soy sauce and garlic gravy that bubbles furiously. The side? Fried rice with egg and peas.

It may sound odd to Western palates, but at this Hong Kong restaurant, it's the only right way to eat steak.

For decades, waiters have served up dishes best described as Western fare with Chinese flair: borscht spiked with soy sauce, wok-fried spaghetti with meat sauce, and a watery cream of corn soup with strips of pink ham floating in it.

Canto-Western cuisine grew out of the numerous steak houses and other Western-style restaurants that opened during the '60s and '70s in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

At the time, the food - which acquired the nickname "see yauh sai chan," or "soy sauce Western" - was a novelty. For locals, the restaurants were a more affordable and relaxed experience than authentic Western eateries, which catered mostly to expatriates.

"You could call this Hong Kong's earliest fusion food," said Lau Kin-wai, a food columnist at the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

"Chinese people were trying to handle what they saw as exotic food at the time. They were applying their own flavors and culture to the Western dishes they were exposed to," he said.

But as Hong Kongers have developed more sophisticated tastes, once classy venues such as Goldfinch - at one time the only option for a taste of steak or pasta - have become quaint relics.

"In the past, this was one of the very few upmarket Western restaurants around. It wasn't so easy to come in here," says Wong Kin-wing, a longtime Goldfinch manager. "Only people with some money could afford to, and they only came for special occasions like Christmas."

But today, high-end Western foods are widely available, he says. And that leaves the few remaining soy sauce Western restaurants trying to capitalize on their nostalgic appeal. And it seems to be working.

Goldfinch, which opened in 1962, has become popular again after Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai chose its dark and musty interior as the backdrop for a romanticized '60s in his sultry "In the Mood for Love," as well as for a scene in the movie "2046."

Meanwhile, curious young diners are drawn by the restaurants' timeless qualities, their tattered leather-bound menus, dimmed yellow lighting, smoked mirrors, stained leather booth seats, large portions and no-nonsense presentation.

Soy sauce Western meals typically begin with soup served with a sweet bun, or a salad of prawns and fruit that comes with a dollop of salad cream, which is similar to mayonnaise. Dessert usually is something old-fashioned, such as ice cream or sweet milk poured over orange gelatin.

The main course typically is a sizzle-plate steak accompanied by fried rice, spaghetti or french fries. Other popular mains include a fried rice that is baked with a layer of a cream or tomato-based sauce - likely inspired by lasagna.

Among the most famous soy sauce Western dishes is "Swiss sauce chicken wings" created by Tai Ping Koon, a 146-year-old restaurant. The eatery claims to be the first Western restaurant to open in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, once known as Canton.

The story goes that a foreign diner who first tasted the dish - a plateful of wings marinated in spiced, sweetened and almost caramelized soy sauce - exclaimed that it was "sweet," a comment misinterpreted as "Swiss" by the Chinese waiters.

Because of the misunderstanding, diners thought they were eating an authentic dish from Switzerland.

Another dish that could bewilder foreigners is macaroni cooked in clear broth, often eaten with a fried egg and ham for breakfast or a light lunch. McDonald's adopted the dish and sells it in the morning.

"These tastes are definitely completely different from real Western fare. Foreigners will find this food very unfamiliar, even unrecognizable," says Lau. "But that's OK, because I also find some Chinese food in Britain unrecognizable. This happens all over the world."