Hong Kong: A Unique Culinary Experience
by Lauren Gloekler -- August 20th, 2012
Hong Kong citizens take pride in the fact that the food they eat is unique. While the cuisine may borrow inspiration from neighboring Asian countries and Western society, the experience is truly one of a kind. A foreigner may assume that Hong Kong cuisine is not unlike Chinese food, their minds conjuring up images of sweet and sour pork, fried rice, and spring rolls. But reality is always more complex, and Hong Kong cuisine is no different. It is a colorful and tasty tapestry weaved from many cultures and global inspirations.
The best way to eat your way through Hong Kong…is with friends. Vast round tables, big enough to seat 20 people, are adorned with glass lazy-susans. Never-ending varieties of dishes and hot tea spin around continuously, the consumer seizing morsels at will. The first style of communal cuisine is called dim sum, consisting of many plates of small bites of both sweet and savory dumplings, cakes, rice rolls, vegetables, and meats. It is customary to fill the teacup of the persons sitting next to you before serving yourself. It is also customary to eat quickly in order to consume the choice bites before they disappear. The second type, called “hot pot”, allows the guests to also act as the chefs. A variety of raw meats, seafood items, vegetables, and noodles are ordered and then thrown or carefully held in the boiling pot of stock in the middle of the table. Each person dips their chopsticks into the pot to grab at the pieces they desire throughout the meal. Some of the more interesting items include raw slices of bright red beef, raw scallop, fish balls, ostrich, mini sausages, and crab paste. All items are dipped into the diners own concoction of ‘special’ soy sauce, seasoned with hot chili, ginger, fresh garlic, scallion, and XO sauce. The final experience I like to call “the ultimate seafood restaurant”. It can be distinguished by walls of tanks filled with live seafood ready to be devoured and tables of fresh sea creatures lying on ice waiting to be selected and cooked. Dishes may include fresh scallop with garlic and noodle, whole fried fish, oyster pancake, steamed crabs, and mantis prawns. In Hong Kong, travelers can head down to the Sai Kung pier to pick their fresh seafood live and squirming straight from boats lining the docks. Point to the creature of choice and the captain of the boat wraps it up and places it right into your hand via net with a long pole. Then take it over to any seafood restaurant nearby and enjoy!
My favorite dim sum:
Har gow: translucent purse-shaped wrappers filled with shrimp
Turnip cake: a soft square piece of mashed daikon with bits of sausage pan-fried and dipped into a sesame and hoisin mixture
Rice noodle roll: soft white rolls flecked with chive and sausage swimming in soy sauce
Water chestnut cake: a clear yellow cake with a sweet, almond-like flavor and bits of crunchy water chestnut throughout
Steamed vegetable: perfectly cooked greens topped with crispy garlic and hoisin sauce for dipping
If you are an adventurous eater, Hong Kong is heaven. There are many dishes that would cause most foreigners to scream and run for the hills, but brave eaters will be handsomely rewarded. One dish that has been described as the most disgusting food ever, and wrongly so in my opinion, is the century egg. After being preserved in ash, the white part of the egg becomes a dark green translucent jelly with surprisingly little flavor and a greenish yolk that tastes very much like regular boiled egg. It can be served inside pastries, with congee, or on its own, sliced and doused with chili oil, scallion, and garlic. Overall, it is a pleasant experience despite its strange appearance. Another food that has gotten an undeserved bad wrap is the durian fruit. Loved and hated the world over, the dangerous, spiky fruit yields a creamy, yellowish interior with a flavor reminiscent of melon with hints of stinky onion and garlic. I tested the water first with durian pancake with creamy durian wrapped in a soft wrapper with whipped cream. Next, I sampled durian chips, durian candy, fried durian, and finally fresh durian. All were delicious. Whatever fresh cultivar I tasted, it noticeably lacked the oniony aftertaste and was creamy, room temperature, and overall very appetizing. Then again, it might have been the gorgeous mountain vistas and salty sea breeze that made it taste better, we will never know. Other adventurous foods I tried were sea cucumber, chicken feet, duck intestines, pig tongue, chicken cartilage, sea urchin, pig stomach, pig tongue and so many more.
No trip to Hong Kong would be complete without trying the enormous variety of unique sweets and desserts this city has to offer. A light, refreshing import from Taiwan, the shaved ice desserts come in a plethora of colors and flavors. Towers of thinly shaved ice that looks like ice cream is bejeweled with whipped cream, tapioca pearls, pudding, and other fun toppings, doubling as both a dessert and a work of art. I tried two, a green tea flavored one with tapioca pearl, fruit seeds in jelly, and coconut jelly squares and a sweet tofu one with rainbow sprinkles, crumbled oreo, and cornflakes. An institution and crowd favorite is the mango coconut soup with pomelo and sago pearl. A light creamy coconut broth with mango puree is studded with bits of pomelo (a fruit similar to grapefruit), chunks of ripe mango, and squishy tapioca like pearls made from the sago palm. The light, fruity flavor and variety of textures make for a satisfying summer treat. Another sweet treat can be found one almost any street corner in Hong Kong, especially along the bustling night markets and vendors in Mongkok. In Cantonese its called gai daan jai and in English the bubble waffle, egg waffle, or eggette. The best ones are still make over hot coals in Sai Kung along the narrow corridors of the small fishing village. The piping hot egg shaped waffle pieces are torn off and popped into the mouth, crunchy on the outside and like soft cake on the inside. So good! Another famous sweet from Sai Kung is the sweet tofu pudding. Served either hot or cold, the tofu is dressed with ginger syrup and brown sugar. The syrup adds sweetness to the creamy tofu and the brown sugar adds a nice crunch. Although many of the desserts found in Hong Kong have recurring elements like tapioca pearls, pudding, jelly, and tofu, the variety of combinations and innovation is endless.