Five bites behind: Chan Kai Ying

Hong Kong Dining

3 Aug 2021

Perfecting the Chinese Ma La Tang with over 50 years of experience

The mother-daughter duo behind Chilli Fagara run the restaurant on a foundation of memories and lessons learnt from their family. Chef Chan Kai Ying, the mother, rules the kitchen while Tracy, her daughter, manages the business. “She works outside and I work inside,” Chan jokes.

With their Sichuan heritage, the restaurant is a warm venue to visit, from its hospitality to its spice.

The five bites:

1. Spun sugar with candied strawberry tanghulu: A treat, gifted from Chan’s mother for when she helped in the house or did well in school, a cherished memory from her childhood.

2. Pork and vegetable dumplings: Taught by her mother, wrapping dumplings evoke a deep sense of home which she wants to bring to her customers.

3. Stir-fried egg with a spicy garlic sauce: Being the oldest of her five siblings, Chan was responsible for cooking for them from the age of 10 years old. Made from simple ingredients, this easy meal made her feel in charge.

4. Ginger braised fish: Seafood was a luxury saved for special occasions, these positive recollection of memories inspired one of her signature dishes of mandarin fish in chilli broth.

5. Caramelised beef with garlic and ginger sauce: A recipe perfected by chef Chan for over 30 years, this dish is unique at Michelin-recommended Chilli Fagara. The steps to creating the sauce and careful control of temperature when cooking are essential in creating the perfect bite of beef.

The first thing Chan does when travelling is to visit the local markets, dragging a less-than-impressed Tracy along with her.

To Chan, teaching her daughter the lesson that “it is essential to always select fresh ingredients to enhance the umami taste of any dish” was paramount, a teaching that she’d learnt from her father.

When chef Chan lived in Canada, she struggled to find a variety of produce similar to what’s available in Hong Kong, her favourites being bamboo shoots and a wide selection of lobster.

The secret to choosing the best lobster? It’s something you learn by “just looking,” Chan shares. “If they are too big, they are too tough”.

Apart from fresh produce, the basis of Chilli Fagara is the spices imported from Sichuan. When borders closed during Covid, they struggled with their supply but have been able to keep the level of quality they desired.

While she was worried about the situation, she “had faith that people would come back for true Sichuan food”.

Finding ways to adapt the spices for other cuisines has been a way for Chan to experiment creatively. One great example being the succulent Magret duck breast that she uses in her signature caramelised beef dish for a French foie gras spin.

Chan saw her guests’ love for Chilli Fagara’s authentic chilli sauces and turned that into another business opportunity. “I like that people can cook Sichuan food at home” she comments. Nearly every dish has been refined from her youth. Its online artisanal shop sells chilli oil, XO sauce, Sichuan peppercorn and more.