Hong Kong, Where Food is Life and Life is FoodCountry Focus
Petty Elliott not only recalls some dining experiences in this unique city but also interrogated former residents as to where to find memorable meals.
Few would ever question the standing of Hong Kong as a foodie capital. The reasons to visit this amazing city, in its 21st year of being returned to Mother China, are the subject of many an article before this one. You can’t fail to be impressed by the buzz in the city streets and the crowded, harbour dotted with crafts heaving to and fro through the swells.
Hong Kong is an incredible density of humanity everywhere you look, topped by breathtakingly tall buildings in its heart, crowded subways, and from the aircraft window as you arrive, a staggering scale of vast apartment complexes set in rows across a hilly landscape. And yet 40 per cent of Hong Kong’s geographical footprint is country parkland, with sandy beaches, rolling grassy hills and rural Cantonese villages – somehow unbelievably fitted together.
Hong Kong’s public transportation system, compared to many other Asian cities is outstanding in its ability to handle 12.6 million passengers every day – from subways to trams, buses and taxis to harbour and island ferries. This is possibly its most compelling feature, for it allows you to go and do so many more things in Hong Kong than probably anywhere else. It’s beyond just ‘getting from A to B’ but also ‘C and as far as Z’, incredibly easily.
So, don’t waste time sleeping. Go wander in the early morning markets, wonder at the local medicine shops and take in a superb dim sum breakfast. It’s then time for a 40-minute ferry ride to Discovery Bay or Mui Wo on Lantau Island or Cheung Chau Island or 20 minutes to nearby Lamma. In each case, you’ll soon find yourself on a delightful walk through rural China, imagining times past. Don’t forget to be back in Central in time for an afternoon tea house visit. Try an hour or two of shopping at the endless flashy malls and there’s still time for a shower and a cocktail before venturing out to try one of the tens of thousands of restaurants for dinner and a late bar crawl through Wan Chai. I suggest there is nowhere else on earth where one can fill her or his day with such an amazing variety of activities.
Any visitor should bring an adventurous appetite with them. However, there is one vital secret to making the food experience truly memorable: local knowledge. Few places in modern Asia seem more reluctant to give up their secrets to any casual foreign visitor. In food as with everything else, Hong Kong is all about the deal, the bargain and a perpetual hurry to make profits. It is the ‘can do’ and ‘will do’ capital of the world. The faster, the better the delivery, and the more successful business.
Those locally born or have long lived in Hong Kong and have the patience to pursue hidden food treasures benefit from the unusual and the best in eating and drinking out. Of course, any competent hotel concierge will be able to help find you something special, but time and again the best in Cantonese, Szechuan or Shanghainese food has been arranged through knowledgeable local hosts - Chinese of course, but also true in the large Indian community.
The same can be said for sampling Indonesian or Filipino food – thousands of domestic helpers keep Hong Kong households going, and they know a good bargain and some great tastes. Think you can go back alone to a memorable restaurant, with your notes from that first visit? Be prepared for disappointment, for in truth your wise, a local friend with menu in hand is the one who will make that dinner extra special. It’s all part of the experience and yet it’s also a question of culinary honour.
Best of all, there are always plenty of other food opportunities. That’s Hong Kong personified.
An evening at the Hong Kong Jockey Club eating crispy suckling pig; dim sum among the proud owners of song birds at a private table surrounded by well-used spittoons at the Luk Yu Tea House; roast pigeons after a gentle walk at dusk on Lamma Island. And if you are lucky, a brisk sail from Tai Tam Bay to Po Toi will make those fresh garlic prawns washed down with ice cold Tsingtao beer taste so much better, the sand soft between your toes on the beach as the sun sets.
Hong Kong residents are a lucky bunch – they’ve got some 21 public holidays every year, outpacing any other country by far except perhaps India. There’s benefit for visitors in this, as many of them are connected with cultural and seasonal events, and of course food plays a big part in any calendar. You can enjoy mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival and dragon-shaped breads with walnuts and glutinous rice with lotus roots for Ching Ming.
To an extent, Hong Kong is a culinary crucible with all the best regional cuisines from the mainland – available again as the seasons come and go. Great favourites are Shanghai hairy crab with ginger and of course, not forgetting the legendary Peking Duck. It is always a good idea to do some research before you travel, not only as to seasonal eating, what’s new and different, and of course be prepared to venture a bit further for the best.
A trip to Sha Tin (above the rail station) in the New Territories for duck is well worth the train journey. Not least should one overlook the best of other cuisines melded into the local context. The Middle Eastern vegetarian fare at Olive Leaf on Lamma Island springs to mind, or Thirty One out at Sai Kung is a pleasure worth trying. Tired of the idea of mass tourist eateries such as Jumbo Seafood Palace floating at Aberdeen Harbour? Then paddle not far away to sample authentic French traditions at Le Bon Gout. That’s so Hong Kong.