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Off the Menu: Hong Kong & Guangzhou Specialities

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Summer Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(2) page(s): 7, 8, and 22

Hong Kong is a Mecca, a Chinese cuisine lover's holy city. Impelled to bustle, all Hong Kong is chock-a-block with thriving markets and food stalls, and with restaurants of every stripe. Prices run the gamut. If you go, try pungent cubes of fish paste wrapped in yellow dough for fifty cents a skewer from the street carts, or treat yourself to Har Kow (shrimp dumplings) at the Peninsula Hotel at five dollars for three. Revel in luscious mangosteen, imported from Sumatra its thick purple skin hides magnificent small globes of white fleshy fruit that taste like a blend of Concord grapes and lichee. Hunt for the uncommon yam seng guar, the ginseng fruit has a flattened oval shape like small Puerto Rican alcapurria. Its mottled brown, kiwi-ish outer skin is peeled to release a sweet, melon like inside with a mild ginseng flavor.

Stores specializing in hundreds of types of freshly dried and prepared fruits, meats, and seafood sell items like dried, deep-fried, honeyed, hot pepper baby squid for ten dollars per pound (the body costs slightly more than the legs). Markets routinely feature carrots with twelve-inch diameters and super thin bamboo shoots less than one-third of an inch in diameter. Maybe you would prefer sixteen-inch long watercress or the three-inch long baby version? I delighted in the fact that heads of celery are cut in half lengthwise so you do not have to buy too much.

Birds abound in the South Seas. In Hong Kong the goose is cooked! In days gone by, folks took roasted goose wings to the movies as a chewy, long-lasting snack. Fine restaurants, like Yue Kee or Victory, specialize in roast goose that is sweet and silken, perfectly moist with endearingly sensuous skin. It’s a must. Then again, so are the gorgeous gourmet dumplings made of king prawns served in fishball noodle soup at Jim Chai Kee at 36 Wellington Street. The list of hot spots goes on and on.

Pairing live traditional music with superlative cuisine, one of the finest restaurants in town is the elegant Hunan Garden at Exchange Square. Start with a bamboo cup of Mashed Chicken Soup and inhale a heavenly, warm, clear, ginseng-y broth with a hassock-shaped meatball of pureed chicken that falls apart and spreads throughout the soup more easily than the softest of matzoh balls.

Other standouts include a high platter of jumbo prawns in chile sauce, resplendent in dried and fresh red pepper garnish; and steamed bamboo shoots painted with fu yi, the fermented flavorful spiced bean curd. The large pieces of bamboo shoot are sliced fan style, making for a uniformly cooked vegetable that looks fancy and is neat to eat. Warm, pretty, and delicious, a dessert of mashed red dates in flaky white crust caps ends a perfect meal.

While Dim Sum (tea lunch) is perhaps best locally at KB Garden in Flushing, it's perfectly easy to find wonderful dumplings throughout Hong Kong. In the populous but hardly privileged Aberdeen area, the Ruby Restaurant was a weekend madhouse seating some 800 people; it only served a selection of a dozen or so items. They did provide a wide variety of high grade teas and regulars stored their special tea pots in glass display cases.

In Tsuen Wan there is a small tea house that caters to older folks with the best-ever steamed chicken buns with shiitake mushroom; and big, steamy, juicy beef balls, brown on the outside and pink within. They are loaded with quarter-inch cubes of bamboo shoot, and they rest in a bowl on a ten-inch long piece of dried bean curd skin.

You’re in the South Pacific so try the local seafood at Lau Fau Shan or Lei Yue Mun, two quite distinct maritime villages. The former is a picturesque old fishing town in the New Territories, a short mile’s swim from the Mainland. Famous for oysters, everyone in China seems to know that the best oyster sauce comes from the clean, shallow waters around Lau Fau Shan.

Mr. Yu Kai Giu smiles broadly in welcome when you enter his unassuming restaurant amid the fish monger’s stalls. He bustles to bring starters of pickled garlic cloves, and a mélange of shredded clear seaweed, turnip, chile pepper, and mustard green. He serves both chrysanthemum and bo lei tea, and recommends a menu.

Given the OK, Mr. Yu dashes to a neighbor’s tank to procure the freshest possible shelled foods. Boiled shrimp appeared in a flash, a foil for the subtly redolent local oyster sauce. Next came deep-fried, taro-breaded oysters, huge and faultless, neither chewy nor slimy. The piece de resistance followed, a house special plate of baby elephant clams (geoduck) with fried chopped garlic, vermicelli, and scallion, all in the shell. They were pure, soft, oceanic, and satisfying. Green cabbage, white rice, and Blue Girl beer rounded out the three-hour, fourteen-dollar feast for two. Now that’s succulent South Pacific seafood at its finest. More urbane (read expensive, although cheaper than downtown), Lei Yu Mun is a small but teeming port just ten minutes by car from the airport. It’s curious there to witness the customary parties of well-heeled Hong Kongers-in-the-know sloshing about the market stalls buying live, thrashing seafood to bring to restaurants where these wriggling wonders become gourmet delights.

We presented a one-and-a-half pound abalone, a small crab, and some ten-inch long creatures that were either giant shrimp or small lobsters to the waiter at Lung Moon Seafood Restaurant. In return we received appetizers of peanuts mixed with raisins and tiny salted fish; and 1,000-year-old egg with pickled ginger and a salt dip. It was not long before our abalone arrived sliced ever-so thin and braised, its curly-edged tendrils beckoning from their gravy-filled bed of lettuce. The viscid marine dish was all nuance and toothsome texture. It was hard to get meat out of the spiny shrimp - the best part was their firm, deep-pink coral. The crab, however, was a joy to struggle with, fresh and rich, lightly covered in a hot pepper black bean paste that was salty and gritty with plump, tender beans. Oh, ambrosial South Pacific seafood, I'll be back!

Grazing at Kowloon’s Temple Street Night Market is entertaining dining. Amid clothing and general merchandise, many street carts and small alfresco restaurants offer inexpensive snacks and plates. One of the local favorites is pig intestine rolled and barbecued in long sausages and then deep fried and sliced. It is served on skewers with your choice of chili, soy, and/or yellow mustard and is crispy, oily, gooey, and intestine-y. For the less adventurous, try wonton soup - a hearty broth in a lettuce-filled bowl with countless fresh wontons and salt, soy, sugar, vinegar, and hot spicy turnip.

Maybe a stop at the pickle man before a dessert of mango pudding? The pickled cucumbers here are sweet and served with a dash of toasted sesame seeds. Pucker up at the other options including turnip, lotus root, carrot, egg, mustard green, garlic cloves on a stick, even big slabs of ginger skewered to slices of fresh coconut or 1,000-year-old egg.

Western food is also prevalent and popular with locals. Besides the fast food chains, many crowded spots serve fried chicken or steak plates which were not packed with rice, but rather french fries and green beans. Lay’s Potato Chips come in tomato and celery flavor; television newscasters sing praises in Cantonese about chef’s salad (heavy on the turkey and meat slices and tomato, but scant on the lettuce); and yes, coffee bars are on the rise.

Tutto Bene, one of few authentic Italian restaurants in Hong Kong, is an up-market place that throbs on Friday night. Not on the menu (but recommended in a Japanese guidebook) is a stellar East-West fusion dish, Italian spaghetti with tomato, garlic, and robust dried Chinese shrimp instead of fresh shrimp. It was an experience to see the chef flipping his Italian pan and utensils like a Chinese wok and reassuring to know one can find in Hong Kong a fine house Remole Chianti, hot rosemary breadsticks, butter dished with tomato sauce, and even good pizza.

Let’s not forget that the Brits also live here. We were treated to an excellent 'ex-pat' party menu of various curries served with grated dried coconut and mango chutney; white rice and white bread, a birthday-cake-sized chicken pot pie, and an odd salad of bananas and mayonnaise.

Before heading to Guangzhou (Canton), we grabbed a quick train station breakfast with working class Hong Kongers who commonly gulp down 'cross-cultural' meals at the many Maxim’s fast food restaurants. Fried eggs with plain buns; bowls of plain broth with canned corn, peas, and carrots; and beef with gravy and more canned veggies - whatever you order comes with the option of adding two hot dogs or slices of ham.

On the train to Guangzhou, one can buy gifts of cognacs (only Napoleon's and up), red apples, Japanese seaweed, or dried apricots in liquid-filled plastic glasses inscribed 'Merry Christmas.' Upon arrival, we saw the familiar green and red Maxim’s logo, but the name in China is spelled 'MaLin’s.' Hmmm.

Guangzhou is commerce. This wild, wild East has too many vehicles and not enough emission controls. It also has: Men eating noodle soup out of a plastic bag. Small selections of apples, oranges, and mangos. Precious lemons individually wrapped. Fresh water chestnuts being peeled for you. State run “dumpling bars.” Vats and wells for fill-your-own bottles of soy sauces and vinegars. Dry noodles of all styles laying loose in cardboard boxes. Restaurants where you point out your entire dinner, vegetables and all.

There’s lots more such as ladles-full of liquid rice noodle batter (think pancakes) are slathered on an oiled cookie sheet, smeared with a spoonful of ground beef, and steamed in a large tin contraption (there is an illustration of it on page 7 in this issue's hard copy). They steam it for one-and-one-half minutes before they are scraped off into a bag within a bowl, drenched with oil and soy, and sold to go for less than fifty cents. If noodles could be considered elemental, these hot, gooey wonders are straight from the primordial pool.

China’s best known market, Qingping, is in the middle of Guangzhou, bursting with critters of every description. An entire dark street is densely packed with dried mushrooms. A dozen or so salespeople hawk sixteen or more types and grades of ginseng each; and there are many similar stalls for each and every other herb in the Chinese pharmacy. The offerings are exhaustive: turtle shells vie for space with bundled centipedes. Fried, dried and, yes, fresh live scorpion abound. One friend bets they are all crunchy.

Yum Cha (which it 'dim sum' or 'tea lunch' by another name) at the Victory Hotel on prosperous Shamian Island is a non-stop parade of assorted sweets and savories from dawn until late afternoon. It might be the fanciest place in town but two can fill up for less than seven dollars. In the morn, the wiser set gathers at outdoor cafe tables along the Pearl River for a post-Tai Chi spot of tea and, perhaps, a plain bun with sweet yellow bean paste. Toward late afternoon, the discretely ostentatious and carefree set dines indoors, Rolexes churning, cellulars ringing. A little girl darts about the room licking a chicken foot like a lollipop. Rich, auburn bo lei tea is kept hot nestled in a porcelain heater; the dishes bear imperial Asian flower designs that look almost French; the tea cups have handles; and army men in uniform, eating. We're on the second floor - hidden - no tourists - it took a while to notice. Duck blood in duck’s broth; elegant, roast sliced chicken gizzard with soy and oil; tiny, beautifully hand-pleated dumplings of juicy-sweet pork; fried one-and-one-half-inch round, flat cakes of ground fish with ham, corn, scallion, and shrimp bits; balls of sticky rice with bits of ham, roast pork, scallion and carrot, fried and flattened to produce that 'bottom of the rice cooker' crispy brown stuff. Top shelf.

Snake King Completely and Restaurant is an eighty-five-year old famous facility. It surely changed my food attitudes. At the entrance one is greeted by at least forty different kinds of live snake, tottering in piles of traps and baskets. Tourists and prosperous locals alike are drawn for the wild game, including more than one hundred snake dishes on a two hundred and fifty-item menu. Here are some of the choices:

Fresh Snakeskin with Cold Foods
South of the Five Ridges with Fresh Snake Balls
Initiate Snake Sashimi
Fried Fresh Flake a Snake
Deep Fried with Snake the Heart
Fresh Snake Skin with Unicorn
Deep Fried Snake Liver and Chili Diced with Silk Worm
Fried Diced Snake with Nuts
Deep Fried Snake Liver and Chili Diced with Silk Worm
Stewed Chinese Francolin with Lotus
Stewed Beaver with Radish
Stewed Voles Pot
Wild Fotiaoqiang
Braised Almond and Bamboo Shoots with Cat Pot
Braised Snake and Cat with Chicken
Braised Scorpion with Three Snake
Boiled Crab with Beer
Baked Fish Intestines with Earthen Bowl
Spiced Celery
Cattle Oil and Flower Rolls
Big Five Step Snake Wine
Magnificent Packing Three Snake Gall Bladder Wine
Toad and Snake’s Seminal Vessicle
Snake King Completely Snake Wine

It’s a scary place. The miasmic first-floor is like a bad zoo. No, that is not the serpents, that smell is coming from a kind of oubliette with tiny cages of scared-to-death voles, civets, cats, beavers, et alia. One loses a good bit of appetite, but having come this far...

Once seated upstairs, it dawned on us that the lurid green chopsticks and uniforms are the color of snake. Only later did we learn firsthand that the 'house green' is more precisely the color of snake bile. Mustering an order, we choose francolin, figuring it must be a misspelling of pangolin, the ant-eater-type mammal. We learned later that there is indeed a 'francolin' owhich is an old world partridge. In any case, it tasted sweet and froggy with diced, dried red dates and boxthorn fruit, steamed with scallions in a fragrant lotus leaf. The snake dish we ordered was in the familiar Kung Pao style. The diced snake was chewy and mediocre - the most popular preparations were the whole snake pots. The spiced celery comes with loads of deliciously salty, crispy lotus root. Cattle oil and flower rolls are simple wheat dough with scallions, gaily twisted, a mild, sweet, and pully bread with no strong flavor of cattle oil. Despite the good food, a strange feeling overcomes many diners at Snake King Completely and Restaurant.

There are limits to what should be eaten. This place imparts a sobering and long-lasting feeling of humanity. The next day I could only stomach noodles and fruit for breakfast, and tofu for lunch. Dinnertime, however, found me back in Hong Kong at the goose shack.

A healthy lifestyle can easily be pursued in Hong Kong, which is equally famous for its big city flair as for its close proximity to gorgeous natural parklands. In Central Hong Kong one can find the immaculate Eu Yan Sang Pharmacy at 152 Queen’s Road. They have a fascinating and informative bilingual display of hundreds of pharmaceutical products divided into five categories: Marine Products; Rooted and Leafy; Animals, Minerals, Stones; Herbal and Woody; and Flowers and Fruits. It is like a working museum!

Tea/refreshment stores abound, many with thermometers and barometers to help customers select the proper tonic for the day. They sell hot and cold teas, ginseng drinks, almond tofu soup, hard-boiled tea eggs, and cold, bitter, gelatinous black tea to which one adds a honey ginseng mixture and eats rapidly with a spoon, not unlike pudding.

Don’t be taken by the ballyhooed Yat Chau Health Restaurant where the food is passable but exorbitantly priced. Ashtrays on each table are but a small reflection of a host of unhealthy attitudes. Instead, head for a Bhuddist vegetarian meal at Healthy Mess Vegetarian Restaurant, 51-53 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, a popular place with a copious vegetarian cupboard and a scrupulously healthy kitchen. Here, everyone begins with a complimentary pineapple vorsbitte. We chose the following from a large and sundry menu: Pan Fried Bamboo Fungus with Elm Fungus (the bamboo fungus was hollow and soft like fish maw - tubular, spongy and gelatinous); Diced Mushrooms with Macadamia Nuts in Taro Nest; Shredded Vegetables in Bean Curd Skin Roll; Sweet and Sour Soup with Bamboo Shoot, Tomato, and Black Sea Moss (which Is actually harvested from near the sea); Tangy Lemon Chicken made from gluten; Deep Fried Crisp Taro Pieces; Fried Rice in Two Kinds: Tomato Sauce and Fujianese White Sauce.

Who needs meat? A dazzling array of colorful and geometric desserts made a spectacular culmination: triangles of unsweetened rice dough with black bean; squares of yellow cake with brown bean; rectangular white pastry with prune; large pats of sweet turnip with flecks of bright carrot; vivid green and orange flower-shaped, flaky, salty, savories; it was all too much to take in at one sitting but that’s the beauty of being in food lover’s paradise.

Now, all that remains dear reader, is the coup de gras. As you are reading Flavor and Fortune, you are a true and worldly lover of Chinese food. If you've been there, you know. If you have not, there’s no better time than the present to pack this issue into your suitcase now and make a beeline to the culinary Mecca known as Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

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