Hong Kong: Dining with the Dragon
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity”
Hong Kong takes the subject of its food extremely seriously. There is no other place in the world quite so passionate about good food and the experience of dining. Food is viewed as much more than a practical solution for a hungry stomach, it is regarded as a way to bring friends and family together for a social occasion. Dining out for Hong Kongers is a pretty common occurrence, mainly because eating at home can often be a pretty cramped affair and almost impossible for large families. Housing space is at a premium throughout Hong Kong with new construction constantly going upwards rather than outwards producing an abundance of smaller compact apartments. The Kwun Tong area of Kowloon as an example is reputed to be one of the most crowded places in the world with in excess of 54,000 people living and working in a square kilometre. Just take a walk around Kowloon along Canton Road or Nathan Road and you will soon become aware just how densely populated this area is.
The hilly terrain of the main island makes housing development very difficult, so the only way to build on suitable sites is upwards. The vast majority of accommodation is in small high-rise apartments with some of the smallest kitchen spaces ever created. Imagine trying to cook a meal for your family and friends in an area the size of a small bathroom and you will know why so many families relish the opportunity to eat out. This means a large family meal can often become a regular occurrence and with over 6,000 eating establishments to choose from it is unlikely that anyone will ever go hungry. It is this freedom of choice that keeps the quality of restaurant food in Hong Kong consistently high and the prices down, because if an establishment is not good and does not provide the service or the food that customers want it will not survive long. The restaurant business can be exceptionally ruthless for the unwary but in the end if you offer a good product at a price that pleases your diners then you will do well.
Meals are very noisy occasions as it is a chance to catch up with the latest news from family and friends. The atmosphere is generally informal with everyone welcome to share the table and the food. There are several traditions and superstitions surrounding dining, which I will tell you about later but generally dining is a relaxed affair. For the Cantonese good food and good conversation make a great meal and in Hong Kong there is always enough of both to go round. As a nation the Chinese are very wary of strangers at first but prove yourself friendly and honourable and you will find that without exception they are embarrassingly generous hosts at mealtimes. A friendly smile and an offer to yum cha means you are highly regarded and welcome to eat at their table. Yum cha literally means to ‘drink tea’ but it also implies to eat well while drinking tea. Traditionally yum cha is associated with the Cantonese speciality of Dim Sum (more on that later) but nowadays it is applied to any meal.
If you are lucky enough to get an invite to dine with the locals it is really the best way to appreciate the food and culture of a very friendly and family orientated society. Cantonese meals are often very noisy affairs with the most popular restaurants nearly full to bursting point. Food really brings the people together with being part of the meal regarded as an honour. Strangely to Westerners the biggest honour is to be the host and the one to pay the bill. It is often quite comical to see the lengths people will go to, and the friendly arguments that ensue over who has the honour of paying the bill. I am sure that is one tradition that we won’t see adopted in the UK!
The cuisine of Hong Kong is rich and varied with influences that come from all over the world. Eastern and Western ingredients combine in dishes that are perfectly balanced creations that excite all your senses at once. Asian people in general are not overly concerned with the nutritional aspects of food but despite this they enjoy a diet that is in most cases extremely healthy with instances of obesity and high blood pressure remarkably low when compared to Western society. Food for the average Asian is not just about taste; it must be enjoyed by your eyes and your nose as well as your palette. In Hong Kong there isn’t one individual dish that captures the essence of the local cuisine; it is just that everything is done so well. The secret of Hong Kong’s culinary success is that it takes only the best of everything and adapts it to meet the demands of the customer. Situated in the heart of Asia obviously the Asian influence is predominant but look closely and you can find almost any meal you can think of within the confines of the island. If your preference is Asian, Mediterranean, African or American fast food there are restaurants to suit you. In fact you could eat every day for a month in a different restaurant serving a different type of cuisine without a problem.
The Chinese influence is everywhere embracing a cuisine which has evolved over the course of several thousand years. Chinese food is traditionally about sharing and making a little go a long way with very little if any waste. Most food items are cut into small portions and cooked quickly to seal in the flavour and retain the natural freshness. Stir-frying, deep-frying and steaming are the most popular cooking methods with the philosophy being to bring the flavour out of the freshest ingredients without compromising the integrity of the food. There is an old saying that says ‘the only four-legged thing that the Cantonese people won’t eat is a table and the only thing that flies they won’t eat is an aeroplane!’ Hong Kong actually consumes more protein per person then any other region in the world, which is quite staggering really for what, is essentially a small island. Nothing is ever wasted and scraps for the dog’s bowl are in short supply because if it is edible they will find a way to cook it. Some of the best meals I have eaten have involved things like feet and entrails, items that would be thrown away in the vast majority of restaurants in the UK.
The best known cuisine of the region is unsurprisingly Cantonese which traditionally uses ingredients that are purchased and prepared for eating on the same day. Cantonese cuisine is one of the most widely known and loved of the regional cuisines, so much so that the Chinese proudly declare that ‘Eating is in Canton’. Cantonese dishes tend to be on the mild side using a simple combination of spices that do not overpower the delicate flavours of this style of cuisine. Garlic, ginger and spring onions are the staples in many dishes along with rice wine, sugar and soy sauce, lightly thickened by the addition of a little cornstarch. Light seasoning is the key with the Cantonese people believing that the freshest fish and meat needs no further embellishment other than the simplest ingredients to make a truly good meal. Highly spiced and over seasoned dishes are treated with distrust and suspicion, as it is believed that the chef is hiding something about the freshness of his produce beneath the spices.
The one exception to fresh ingredients comes with the Cantonese love of preserved foods, which are often preferred to their fresh counterparts because of their more intense flavours and interesting textures. Items such as salted dried meats, black mushroom, abalone, shrimp and scallop are all much sought after dried produce. One of the most popular dried ingredients is fish maw, which is used extensively as a flavouring agent. It is actually the dried stomach lining or air bladder (sometimes called swim bladder) of a large fish most commonly the conger pike. It is used predominantly for texture as it has no strong taste and will readily absorb the flavours of any dish it is used in. It is most often dried and then deep fried to make it puff and expand. The drying process really intensifies the little flavour it has and gives it a much longer shelf life. They are usually soaked in water prior to cooking to re-hydrate them and then cooked in a soup or stock over a long period.
The slow cooked soup is a speciality of Cantonese cuisine; it is usually a clear broth which uses any available meat or vegetables often combining fresh and preserved foods which are simmered for up to 8 hours to produce a liquor that retains all the essence and flavour of the ingredients. It was at one time regarded as a staple part of the Cantonese diet but because of today’s busy life style and the long cooking time it is more common in the restaurant than in the home. Quite often Chinese herbal medicines are added to the pot so families use it as a dish to help you recuperate from illness. Chicken soup is regaled across the world for its medicinal qualities and according to food historians even in Ancient Egypt it was frequently prescribed as a cure for the common cold. In today’s society the humble chicken soup is often given the nickname of Jewish penicillin because of its restorative merits.
While in China a slow cooked soup is regarded as the basis of all good marriages with Cantonese women in particular believing that ‘cooking a good soup is the way to win a man’s heart’.
Rice is a staple food of the Cantonese and of all of the regional Chinese cuisines and as such is regarded as an extremely important part of the average Asian diet. Half of the world's population actually live on a staple diet of rice and it may be compared to the importance of the potato or pasta within a Western diet. White or polished rice is the type most frequently eaten, with the Vitamin B rich brown rice traditionally associated as a staple food of the lower classes. Southern China including Hong Kong consumes by far the largest amount of rice while the north consumes more noodles. Every grain of rice is regarded as important as a single grain is a symbol of the toil and labour in the struggle for survival in life. It is believed that one grain of rice on its own may appear insignificant but join it with others and it can feed a nation.
In Cantonese cuisine rice is regarded as the unifier of the table adding harmonious balance to any meal. Long grain rice is most commonly used throughout the homes and restaurants in Hong Kong although short grain, sweet and jasmine rice are also used. Cooking rice was once regarded as a delicate art with skilled chefs stirring bubbling pots for hours over open charcoal fires. Nowadays most restaurants and families possess an electric rice cooker which has simplified the process somewhat. The rice is religiously washed to remove any sediment left from the polishing until the water runs clean. It is then placed into the rice cooker and covered with fresh clean water up to a depth of the first knuckle on the index finger. Then the rice is covered and the rice cooker takes over and produces that clean fluffy rice that is so indicative of the region.
My favourite Cantonese rice dish has to be Congee or Juk as it is also known locally. It is a traditional rice porridge eaten in many Asian countries but particularly famous in Hong Kong where it is served throughout the day. Congee is traditionally a breakfast dish made by simmering a flavoured broth and rice in a 12:1 ratio for over an hour until the starch breaks down and produces a thick viscous porridge. Ginger, spring onions, shredded lettuce, peanuts and bamboo shoots are sometimes added along with minced beef or fish. Sometimes a sweet version is made by adding red beans and sugar making a delicious sweeter alternative. Congee can be eaten thick like Western porridge or as a thinner broth served in earthenware dishes which retain the heat very well. The Japanese produce their own version of Congee which they call Okayu. It differs from its Cantonese version in that it uses less water and is cooked for only thirty minutes. Miso stock, light seasoning and maybe salmon, fish roe and beaten eggs are commonly added.
To produce the best Congee the rice must be constantly stirred, while cooking slowly so that the rice is not allowed to stick and burn. Nowadays the modern rice cookers take a lot of the strain out of cooking Congee with some even having a separate Congee setting allowing the cooking to be done overnight. The resulting porridge is often eaten at breakfast the next day with a youtiao which is a long golden brown fried breadstick often called yau ja gwai, which literally translated means ‘oil-fried devil’. Youtiao are lightly salted and produced so that they can be torn apart lengthwise into two strips. The strips are said to represent a corrupt Song Dynasty official, Qin Hui and his wife who plotted against General Yue Fei who was a much respected symbol of patriotism in China. Tearing the bread became an act of contempt towards the couple and symbolic of pulling them apart. Congee nowadays is eaten throughout the day and is often the first food served to Asian infants as they progress from milk to solid foods.
Noodles are another significant staple food that has an elevated status in Cantonese cuisine. They are found in various shapes and sizes and are much loved because they are cheap, nutritious and can be stored for a long period of time. Marco Polo was credited with introducing the noodle to Italy in 1295 but it is thought to have originated in China as early as 25 CE during the days of the East Han dynasty. The Cantonese word for noodle is mein familiar to most Westerners from the most famous Cantonese stir fried noodle dish chow mein. Noodles can be served at any time of the day but are particularly sought after on special occasions such as birthdays and New Year. The length of the noodle signifies longevity and as such it is considered bad luck to break or cut the noodles. This is why it is quite common to see people noisily slurping long noodles out of bowls in restaurants.
The types of noodles used are numerous ranging from egg and wheat noodles to rice and mung bean noodles. Rice noodles or bijon are often referred to as glass noodles as they are translucent and glass like in appearance. They are most commonly eaten as flat noodles resembling Italian tagliatelle, whereas egg noodles are most often served in the shape of thin spaghetti. The wheat noodle is frequently used in a Cantonese speciality called lo mein or stirred noodles. Eaten outside Hong Kong this is often a dish with carrots, bok choy (Chinese cabbage), spring onions, and pork, beef or chicken stir fried in a soy sauce, sugar and corn starch broth. Eaten in Hong Kong lo mein will often be served with the noodles and broth separate giving the diner the option to drink the broth, dip the noodles or mix according to taste. There is no right or wrong way it is just personal preference and you will undoubtedly see many people eating the same dish in different ways.
In Cantonese the word yu means fish but also plenty and abundance so it is no real surprise that fish and seafood form the basis of numerous dishes. The preference is to steam the fish whole with freshness the key, so fresh in fact that many restaurants have tanks with live fish to ensure the freshest supply. Even filleted fish lying on ice at the wet markets are often so fresh and skilfully filleted that you can see the heart still attached and beating, now that is fresh! One of the most popular fish in Hong Kong is the Grouper which is a member of the sea bass family well loved for its lean firm flesh. It is most often brought in from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines in huge quantities. Prawns, mussels, crayfish, lobster are also frequently used along with abalone which is a highly sought after mollusc very reminiscent of scallop.
One of the most famous ways to try Cantonese food is through the dai pai dong food stalls once hugely popular over the whole of Hong Kong. Dai pai dong means literally ‘big licence food stall’ a reference to the large operating licence that was required to operate legally. Nowadays the government no longer issues licences as the dai pai dong is viewed as unhygienic. Current licence holders can pass the licences down to their children but not to future generations so their outlook is not secure. In essence a dai pai dong is an open air or street food stall selling a wide variety of cheap everyday dishes at low prices. They may not be the cleanest of places but if you are sensible and eat where you can see the locals eating you can’t go wrong. I have been eating at them for many years and have never had any problems. If you want to appreciate the real taste of Hong Kong then these are your boys and all for a few dollars at the most.
Traditionally the original dai pai dongs were mobile handcarts, which moved location to find the crowds and then moved again to avoid the police. Nowadays a few handcarts can be found but the majority have semi-permanent stalls, which remain fixed in the same location. Try visiting Stanley Street, Gage Street, Mee Lun Street, Gutzlaff Street, or Elgin Street in Central or Ki Lung Street, Shek Kip Mei Street or Yiu Tung Street in Sham Shui Po for a nostalgic trip back to Hong Kong’s past. The Temple Street night market in Kowloon is famous for its food stalls as well as the usual shopping bargains and the dai pai dongs here are some of the best around. There is a permanent dai pai dong at 429 Lockhart Road, one on Tin Lok Lane in Wanchai near the crossroads and another in Times Square. These last two are my favourites selling the one thing that I crave whenever I visit Hong Kong. It is the legendary Egg Roll or dan zai, as it is known locally, a sweet pancake like waffle, which is absolutely delicious. A batter like mixture is poured into a hot waffle iron and cooked until golden brown and even the smell is enough to make you hungry. The finished dan zai looks like a sheet of the bubble wrap used to pack fragile goods but made out of pancake. Luckily that is where the similarity ends, as it is an almond flavoured crispy bite of heaven and one that has to be tried at least once. On numerous occasions I have brought one to take back to my apartment but the combination of the tempting warmth issuing from the brown paper bag it is served in and the delicious aroma has meant that I have never once got one back in one piece.
Typical fare at these stalls are rice, noodles, congee, fish ball curry, roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes, siu mei (roast meats), steamed fish and shellfish but generally it varies from stall to stall so it is advisable to look around. Some are full blown restaurants with patio chair style seating while others are just small stalls selling snacks like the ones in Tin Lok Lane and Times Square. Try the octopus tentacles on a stick, the bright orange pig intestines, a pot of steamed clams or even the local favourite a slice of toast smeared with condensed milk and you will have experienced a part of Hong Kong’s historic past and sadly one that is fast disappearing.
No so long ago dai pai dongs were hugely popular so much so that they were often the cause of huge congestion and traffic problems, nowadays they are becoming less common with only 29 retaining the original big licence. In the early part of the twentieth-century unlicensed food stalls were found all around Happy Valley near the famous racecourse with a large concentration residing along the old Wong Nai Chung Road. It is rumoured that the great fire at the racecourse in 1918 was caused by a dai pai dong set beside the podium. Sadly nowadays they are no more at the racecourse and at trackside you will find a MacDonald’s or a Kebab replacing these vestiges of Hong Kong’s past.
On your travels around Hong Kong you may see or hear people talk of restaurants called cha chaan teng or tea restaurants to give them their literal translation. These affordable inexpensive restaurants serve a vast variety of quick and easy foods from noodle and rice dishes through to egg tarts and sandwiches. The tea in these restaurants is usually weak low grade tea, which you will find, invariably presented to you as soon as you sit down. You may observe some of the older customers using the tea to wash their chopsticks which is an accepted practise although seen less and less due to the advent of disposable wooden chopsticks which are found in most premises nowadays. Set menus are common in these restaurants with often a soup or drink included in the price. A waiter will take your order and present you with a ticket, which you take to the cashier at the end of your meal to pay the bill. They are usually pretty crowded and it is accepted practice at these restaurants to table share with strangers, sometimes with up to three separate couples sharing a six-seater table.
Another common Chinese cuisine is Chiu Chow also known as Swatow cuisine, which is renowned for poultry and seafood dishes with often sharp and contrasting flavours. The cuisine originated from the Guangdong province of China and has become one of the most popular styles in Hong Kong. A typical Chiu Chow meal is rich in protein and would serve duck, goose or minced pigeon with water chestnuts wrapped in lettuce leaves spiked along with a piquant plum and vinegar sauce. The cuisine is known for its abundant use of vegetables, which are often carved into intricate designs of flowers, birds and even dragons. It is also the region famous for the much maligned shark fin and bird's nest soups, the latter using the dried saliva, from the edible cave swiftlet's nest as the basis for the soup. The meal is normally finished with desserts made from taro, water chestnuts, and sugar-syrup, followed by cups of pungent and bitter oolong or Iron Buddha tea to aid digestion. The tea is supposed to cleanse the system but drink too much and you will be climbing the walls and watching a lot of late night TV.
If you like rich and sweet flavours then Shanghainese cuisine may interest you. Strictly speaking Shanghai does not have its own indigenous cuisine but absorbs the influences of the surrounding regions. Compared to Cantonese food the dishes are richer and heavier using a lot of garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine giving a distinctive sweet, zesty taste. The region is famous for steamed hairy crab, braised eel and hot and sour soup, which is a vegetarian or meat-based soup with wood ear fungus and bamboo shoots. It also produces the wonderfully named drunken chicken; a cold steamed chicken dish that has been marinated in a rich Chinese wine. The chicken is served with a glorious gelatine jelly that results from the chilled mixture of the wine and the cooking juices. Shanghainese cuisine is probably best known for the legendary thousand-year egg (century egg), which are the rather scary preserved black duck or chicken eggs often seen at the market stalls. I will tell you more about these bad boys in a later chapter when I recall my first encounter with them in Hong Kong.
Hakka cuisine is a relatively unknown cuisine from the New Territories but it originated in Northern China and made its way south as the Hakka people migrated. Hakka uses a predominance of pork along with a wide variety of dried and preserved ingredients. Fried pork with fermented bean curd is a favourite New Year dish in Hong Kong. Other favourites include sliced pork with preserved mustard greens, salt baked chicken and tofu soup. You will also find Hakka embrace offal and dishes such as braised chicken's blood or pig's brain stewed in Chinese wine are common.
A more familiar cuisine is from Peking originating from the imperial courts of northern China and said to be fit for an Emperor. Peking food is flamboyantly presented and often extremely rich and spiced using coriander, peppers, and garlic. Noodles, bread and dumplings are commonly served with some traditional restaurants still demonstrating the art of noodle pulling in front of the diners. The most famous dish however is the legendary Peking duck, which is an elaborate dish, prized for its crispy skin. The duck is coated with a mixture of soy sauce and sugar and then air dried to retain the crispiness. The meat and skin are served wrapped in thin pancakes along with spring onion, radish and plum sauce. Generally Peking food is heartier and richer than Cantonese food with peppers, coriander, garlic and ginger used in dishes that keep the body warm. Another dish that is found in Peking cuisine is beggar’s chicken. This consists of a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms, pickled Chinese cabbage, herbs and spring onions, which is then wrapped in lotus leaves sealed in clay and then baked for 24 hours. The clay is broken by the guest of honour at the table to reveal what in reality is anything but a beggar’s meal.
The spiciest food comes from the Sichuan cuisine using the fiery Sichuan chilli. The influence of Burma and Tibet, which border the region, can be seen in the dishes creating some of the hottest dishes in China. Garlic, ginger, coriander, chilli paste, peppercorn and various spices all fire up these dishes, which are simmered and smoked rather than stir-fried. The most famous dishes are pan-fried Sichuan prawns, sour and peppery soup and smoked duck which is seasoned with peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, orange peel and coriander, marinated in rice wine, then steamed and finally smoked over camphor wood and tea leaves. Noodles and steamed bread are often preferred to rice.
Hunan cuisine is very similar to Sichuan cuisine but is often spicier and contains a larger variety of ingredients due to the high agricultural output of the region. Chilli, garlic and ginger are balanced by the use of honey with sweet and sour dishes characteristic of the region. Hunan is landlocked and as a result absorbs a lot of the cuisine of its neighbours and so is often regarded by many as the culinary centre of China. Notable dishes include hot and spicy chicken, sweet and sour chicken, orange beef and desserts such as cassia flower cakes and lotus seeds in sugar candy.
The cuisine of China is rich and varied due the geographical and climate differences between the regions. Northern China experiences extremes of cold so hot and spicy food proliferates in order to increase circulation and keep the body warm. In the South the climate is much warmer so milder cooler dishes are preferred to prevent overheating. This is where the yin and yang or balance of Chinese cuisine emerges with the aim of creating a happy and healthy state for the body. The Chinese believe in the power of both positive and negative energy with too much of either creating an imbalance in the system and leaving the body open to disease. Yin represents the positive energy and foods which belong to this group are known as ‘cold food’. These are foods such as melon, bean sprouts, soybean, mung bean, cucumber, coconut, cress, bananas, clams and oysters which if eaten excessively can cause stomach aches, dizziness or diarrhoea. Foods that belong to the Yang or negative side also known as ‘hot food’ add balance to the yin side. These include such foods as chilli, garlic, ginger, onions, beef, turkey, pineapple, mango, aubergine and peanuts. Over indulgence in this group is thought to result in gas, indigestion, skin complaints and constipation.
The Chinese do not place much faith in nutritional balance in their diet but concentrate more on the balance of yin and yang. High importance is put on freshness and flavour and if the yin and yang are in harmony then the belief is that your body will be in harmony too. Food is about choice and moderation in everything, an idea that perhaps the Chinese understand and something that we should at least look at in the West. In Hong Kong the discerning diner has a vast choice and although everything will not be to your liking by rolling that dice you can take a chance and occasionally those sixes will come rolling back to you.