Photos by 
Mario Chui on location in Hong Kong
Mario Chui on location in Hong Kong

We Should All Take a Lesson From Hong Kong on How to Eat Romaine Lettuce

by 
Clarissa Wei
February 26, 2021

I lived in Hong Kong for two and half years, and when I first got there, I was appalled that a side of seasonal greens on a restaurant menu often equated to a small plate of blanched romaine lettuce.

It felt lazy. As a child of Los Angeles who grew up surrounded by beautiful bouquets of crisp salads mixed in with chopped romaine, I was convinced that the right way to eat lettuce was to eat it raw. And as a Taiwanese-American kid who grew up surrounded by a plethora of Asian greens like bok choy and water spinach, I felt that there were better greens suited to the blanching process. Unlike a softer leafy green like spinach that becomes silkier with heat, romaine is crunchy and adds textural contrast. It wilts if you cook it. Boiling it in a pot of hot water felt sacrilegious and disrespectful.

Now from a cultural standpoint, boiled lettuce makes sense. Raw vegetables are rather rare in traditional Chinese cuisine — a consequence of China’s ancient agricultural system in which human waste was commonly used to fertilize crops. This gave way to a culture of cooking vegetables over high heat as a means of sanitation. Of course, with time and development, most of the lettuce produced today in Hong Kong and China is no longer grown that way and is perfectly safe to eat raw, but old habits die hard.

New habits, however, are much easier to create, and eventually I got used to eating boiled lettuce. And then slowly — unexpectedly — I began to enjoy it.

In Hong Kong, poached lettuce is always a side dish — an addendum next to an earthy bowl of beef tripe noodle soup, or a hearty char siu meal. I especially liked it served with roast goose; it cut through the meatiness and fat of the bird, and made the meal all the more balanced. Like with any appetizer, its purpose is to act as a counterweight to the main course. It should not overshadow it.

After eating countless renditions of the side dish in restaurants across the city — both in high-brow and low-brow establishments — I came to realize that a good plate of poached lettuce is still all about the texture; it still needs that signature crunch. Cooking lettuce actually takes a considerable level of skill. If it spends too much time in hot water, it becomes a soggy, inedible mess. But time it just right, and you’ll get a gorgeous, almost translucent vegetable, with a surprising amount of crunch.

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A simple oyster sauce dressing rounds it all out and gives it a sweet and savory finish. Allegedly invented by Lee Kum Sheung, the progenitor of the famous soy sauce brand Lee Kum Kee in the late 19th century, oyster sauce is a classic Hong Kong condiment — universal enough that it can be used from anything from a slow braise to a sauce on vegetables. Made with a thick soy paste flavored with oysters, it can be drizzled on blanched greens directly. I like to dilute the viscosity with some water and add a bit more sugar so it’s not as salty.

Recently I moved to Taiwan, and although I’m in a neighboring country that shares much of the same culinary heritage and traditions as Hong Kong, boiled lettuce isn’t common here. I haven’t been able to figure out why it is such a mainstay in Hong Kong and not elsewhere, but perhaps there is no specific reason. Sometimes dishes will stick and trend throughout a city, and just won’t take off beyond its shores.

Occasionally, my husband and I often find ourselves craving some of the comfort foods from our short time in Hong Kong. He compensates by buying barbecue pork from the local Hong Kong restaurant, and I compensate by poaching lettuce. 

Hong Kong-Style Romaine Lettuce With Oyster Sauce

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Ingredients

1 ¼ cups (300 grams) romaine lettuce

2 tsp salt

Ice water

3 tbsp oyster sauce

2 tbsp water

1 tbsp white granulated sugar

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Ingredients

1 ¼ cups (300 grams) romaine lettuce

2 tsp salt

Ice water

3 tbsp oyster sauce

2 tbsp water

1 tbsp white granulated sugar

Ingredients

1 ¼ cups (300 grams) romaine lettuce

2 tsp salt

Ice water

3 tbsp oyster sauce

2 tbsp water

1 tbsp white granulated sugar

Directions

1. Wash the lettuce and cut into 2-inch pieces.

2. Fill a medium pot halfway with water and add salt. Bring it to a boil. When it boils, turn off the heat and add in the lettuce. Make sure the lettuce is completely submerged. After 10 seconds, strain out the lettuce and put it immediately in an ice water bath. The ice stops it from overcooking.

3. Shake the water off of the lettuce and place it in a serving bowl.

4. In a small bowl, combine the oyster sauce, water, and sugar. Stir until incorporated. Pour this dressing over the lettuce.

 Serve and enjoy.

About the Author

Clarissa Wei

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