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Hong Kong Revisited

by Harley Spiller

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

Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(1) page(s): 21, 22, and 30

As a Big Apple foodie who revisited Hong Kong, in many ways it is both like and unlike New York City. The hustle and bustle is equivalent. However, the Hong Kong streets feel dirtier while restaurant fish tanks appear cleaner than in New York. Both capitals of cuisine boast thousands of food businesses, yet 'mom and pop' operations are faring better these days in China. One thing is certain, the Hong Kong tourist industry does a better job in promoting food tourism than its New York counterpart.

Only restaurants with huge advertising budgets can tout travelers arriving at Kennedy, but arrivals at Hong Kong's brand-new airport can pick up free booklets focused on food. The best is the one about small, longstanding family food businesses, the Hong Kong Snacks Guide. This colorful pamphlet lists many small local spots specializing in Cantonese standards like jook, their rice porridge, which is said to be older than rice in Chinese history. Do see the article in this issue titled: Congee, Asia’s Bowl Full of Comfort. There are also listings for specialists in everything from wonton noodles to tea shops. Some spots focus solely on beef brisket and offal, others serve Pun Choi, an assortment of foods like goose, chicken, prawn and fish in one bowl with preserved red bean curd flavor. This wonderful guide describes dozens of great eateries, including their dai pai dong or open air restaurants of every description. It tells of dessert spots, too. As Flavor and Fortune went to press, we heard that the brochure was no longer in print, a pity.

Even Hong Kong locals were impressed with the tourist snacks guide and several asked to thumb through it, confirming old favorites and checking to see any restaurants they might be missing out on. One business traveler remarked that she routinely had trouble finding authentic cuisine when touring the mainland. Her inland contacts invariably wanted to woo their sophisticated Hong Kong business colleagues with nouvelle 'status' dishes like fried shrimp with mayonnaise, while she secretly wished for adventurous regional specialties unavailable in the big city.

KUNG WO BEAN CURD FACTORY at 118 Pei Ho Sreet is found following a bilingual guidebook to a distinctly non-tourist zone, the sprawling and super-saturated fabric-by-the-yard district, Sham Shui Po; it is in Kowlooon. Wedged in hard by the subway stop is the Here, you can learn a lot about the little yellow powerhouses of Asia, soybeans. Kung Wo is a traditional tofu factory that still uses an abacus and a 'cash register' that is nothing more than a straw basket attached to a long weighted line. Cashiers operate the block and pulley device, raising and lowering the money some feet off the ground, keeping it secure on Sam Shui Po’s chaotically overcrowded sidewalks.

A variety of food workers at Kung Wo’s petite premises manufacture more than a dozen variations of tofu to sell to well-tailored clientele. Wearing protective arm gaiters, men and women alike ply palettes of pre-cooked curds, spreading mild fish pastes atop the twisted yellow bits, then deep-frying them in spattering hot oil. Soft, hot, flavorsome and elegant, these are refined, state-of-the-art versions of the large squares of stuffed (not spread) tofu cake (not curd) available in most Chinatowns. Bottles of fermented soy cubes are popular, and many a thirsty textile worker finds restoration at the self-serve spigot of soymilk piped directly from backroom vats. Individual servings of dofu fa, or 'flower tofu' are pre-bowled and kept in a glass refrigerator with pour-your-own honey topping. It is a heavenly, cooling, and nearly gelatinous refresher, the top skin kind of pulley-like an old-fashioned chocolate pudding.

In Kung Wo's back rooms sit bushels and bushels of golden-skinned soybeans, surrounded by a bewildering variety of rock, metal, wood and bamboo buckets, and implements. Two old gigantic stone mills grind away at the beans, filling twenty-five-kilo earthen basins which keep heat for a long time, strengthening the flavor of soy beans. There is a steel contraption the size of a large industrial dough mixer which takes the raw beans in at the top, then cooks, spins, and squeezes them into liquid and curd. A spinning wheel strains the milky liquid thru a giant cheesecloth into a sort of a tiled bathtub. The curds stay in their cheesecloth bags and are brought up front for sidewalk sale. Some liquid is used for soymilk, the rest poured into wooden molds to harden into soybean cakes. Frothy bubbling liquids are fired in an ancient kiln as noisy as a jack-knifing eighteen-wheel truck. It is such a highly developed system maximizing nutrition, a nonstop cycle of manufacture so refined that it can overseen by but one worker.

SUN YUEN MING KEE SEAFOOD RESTAURANT at 298-300 Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei is a guide-suggested restaurant with high standards for sanitation. Not all of the best eateries are hyper-sensitive to things such as clean floors. This authentic spot on the ground floor is in what once was the world's most crowded neighborhood. At morning dim sum at this one, it is a scene from the past. With no napkins, it is all about salt and oil. At ten large round tables sit forty-five older men downing a variety of morning whiskeys, potions and pills. There are two or three elderly women and a young worker who stops by once in a while. Rice whiskey is sold in pre-packaged drinking cups with tin peel-off lids. There are no chairs, only stools. There is no porcelain, only stainless steel bowls full of succulently-sauced chicken feet cut in half lengthwise for smaller appetites, just like the bountiful sprays of thin stalk Chinese celery in the markets. Pai guat, pork rib tips steamed in garlic, black bean and oil, in a half portion can be added to the feet, or both can be had over rice. A regal combination like Chicken and Mushrooms is available over rice, as are salt-of-the-earth items like Beef Balls or the immensely pungent steamed ground pork with shards of salt fish. One old-timer's sensible technique for these rice bowls was to remove and place the toppings aside in a pony bowl, and then eat the rice while selecting specific tidbits at will.

Much sucking and tooth-picking ensues. The Chinese and English 'Do Not Spit' sign goes unnoticed. Gigantic steamed buns are nimbly nibbled with chopsticks. Its nearly one hundred degrees on this hot September Tuesday and customers move in and out quietly wearing flip-flops and shorts, t-shirts, button down shirts, or no shirts at all. There is no tipping, and everyone has a private teapot, even if sitting with friends. Green teas are steeped with the lid off, fermented teas kept closed. Everyone washes their utensils and bowls with a spot of tea and a tea-discard-bowl is ready at the center of each table next to the mini-cans of Ovaltine that are actually toothpick dispensers.

Guys with special soups on their brain order from the staff at Sun Yuen Ming Kee as they enter the plain dining room, knowing their favorite brews take a while to prepare. One such healthy looking bowl was full of roast duck with fresh turnip and parsley with its root in soup. The men know what they want. Calloused hands carry small boiling hot bowls of soup and dim sum to patrons when the food is still too hot to consume. The restaurant's steamers spill out onto the sidewalk and an outside worker sells takeout orders to the hurly burly throngs. An octogenarian comes in and his compadres silently make room and get him a chair. They chat with tea first and then the four of them split one lo my gai, an ingot of sticky rice with assorted goodies steamed in a lotus leaf packet. Money is thrown back and forth at a female cashier. Few words are exchanged. This place could never make it into a tourist guide, it is too unlike the upscale dim sum palaces where customer status is accrued with each cell phone call received. Here in working class Yau Ma Tei, a standard phone rang and rang and rang. No one picked up.

Sun Yuen Ming Kee's dim sum choices are fairly limited and include seen jook gerng or stuffed bean curd skin, cha siu--their roast pork, and several other bun items or bao. They have yu chi gao or shark's fin dumplings, grey fish balls, and fun say gow which is a salty open-top rice-skin dumpling with slivers of ham, seafood, and vegetable. There are no colorful bowls of gelatin for kids, no expensive daily specials. Still, eating here encompasses all the joys of a well-rounded tea luncheon, setting the diners aglow. A hard working guy, with bottom left and upper right teeth only, sidled onto his stool and ordered a bony gai tsan, a piece of chicken ankle bone, fish maw, and a stick of smoked ham in bean-curd skin. He sipped tea, took a carefully measured bite then flashed the greatest crooked smile ever.

YUNG KEE at 32-40 Wellington Street is at the other end of the food spectrum from Sun Yuen Ming Kee. It has been in the Central since 1942. Hungry Hong Kongers in the know salivate like Pavlov's dog when they see Yung Kee's red takeout boxes, many saying 'The Famous Roasted Goose in Town.' They display goose and their webs and wings in eye-level storefront windows. The tall decorative piles of long-chewing feet resemble bats, a Chinese symbol of long life often used by purveyors of fine food. Inside the cloyingly-plush red and gold showcase, an elevator brings in-house eaters to one of many floors and dining rooms. Warm-ups include pickled ginger and slices of 100-year egg. The signature roast goose is succulent and velvety, a scientifically roasted pile of golden goose in a café-au-lait colored sauce atop a pile of sweet yellow beans. Other dishes were Shrimp with Chile in Shaoxing Wine, an earthy baby bok choy, Young Chow Fried Rice with way too much roast meat, and Sweet Coconut Cream with tapioca dessert. Yung Kee's goose is indeed stellar, but its efforts to mix East and West leaves one feeling stranded atop a great wall.

Asia is a place where people live close to their roots, where a whole live fish is infinitely more sellable than the skinless, boneless filets preferred by Occidentals. Fishmongers need not write the names of the fish on their price placards because customers know exactly what they are buying. Even in the tremendous bustle of gigantic mid-city markets, the cycle of life of farmers and fishers is in evidence everywhere. Salty and savvy fishermen seem awkward on land in their squeaky rubber getups. A funky assortment of containers made of straw grown and woven on produce farms are trucked to and from the city on a daily basis. Dusty bicyclists carry chicken-in-a-basket, the living kind, and roped pigs. People squat everywhere in the gray concrete multi-storied marketplaces, and more people (without permits) sell on the sidewalks outside, Wherever you look, there always seems to be a crone, perhaps parsing an odd handful of dried oysters, or a sweet widower with hand-tended chive shoots for sale.

Precious little goes to waste in an Asian market. At the end of a busy day, its not unusual for a market with hundreds of stalls to leave behind only one or two small bushels of garbage. Many discards even find new life, like the over-worn butcher’s chopping block that was affixed to legs and recycled into a sturdy stool. Its over-worn surface now serves as a sensuously-curved seat.

The markets never cease to astound. There are dried fish so big and hard they have to be cut with cleavers that are struck ear-piercing blows with wooden mallets. It is three Hong Kong dollars or about thirty-five cents for a big bunch of flowering chives that would cost ten times more in New York City. Fresh straw mushrooms can be so different from the canned variety that they are unrecognizable. You see chicken everywhere, and you note the purest white chicken feet, and admire whole capons in paper bags laying in crusty beds of rock salt along with chicken hearts and parts of every description. There’s a very bright yellow fish called, not surprisingly, 'Yellow Fish.' Other fish have names with no English translation available. There is ground fish paste so fresh its fairly alive, expertly sliced live fish still puffing their organs, even an ice display with a fish still caught in the mouth of a larger fish, just as it had been found in the net, a freeze-frame, stop-action moment of oceanic survival of the fittest.

Every market has good and bad stalls. Some trim their vegetable bottoms meticulously, others do so in slovenly ways. A lady selling frogs make peeling them look easy. In just few seconds she chops off the heads and skins and guts the frogs leaving them otherwise intact. None of this legs-only French stuff for the Chinese! The frogs come out of their skin like a baby pulled out of a shiny nylon snow suit, but the nerves continue to flip and jump so much that I nearly croaked. Just around the corner are happier stalls, their names carved in fanciful red Chinese characters on gold-painted coconuts. These shops specialize in food gifts for auspicious occasions, offering to arrange delivery of giant stalks of sugar cane, big muddy lotus roots, and other specialty items. The haphazard look of piles of large exotic edibles makes it feel like you are in the wilds of Borneo.

In this particular Lunar Year, Moon Festival falls in September. Celebration of this ancient holiday is punctuated by unctuous and scrumptious moon cakes with a variety of rich fillings such as egg yolk and bean pastes. Nowadays there are even Garfield-shaped moon cakes and Haagen Dazs 'moon cake' ice cream with a peach sorbet center instead of egg. Moon cake sales in Mainland China have been down recently because of reports that some major manufacturers extract and re-freeze the filling from unsold cakes to use again from year to year. September also seems to be the season for prized tropical fruits from Indonesia and Singapore, and ostentatious gift baskets are so heavily laden that their bottoms need to be reinforced with heavy gauge wire. YAU MA TIE is a great place to see the bounty of the tropical trees the world over available at this wholesale fruit market, fruits there from across Southeast Asia. Mango, plum, and baby, personal-sized winter melons were in season, as were many kinds of small select pears like tasty Shengfashuijing Crystals. There are even fruits from the United States. More than one hawker outside the market smells my Western blood and tries to sell me oranges and apples, none of which seemed to have enjoyed the flight from the Eastern to the Western Pacific coast. By 10:30 am, the majority of truck-stall salesmen have sold their fruit, eaten their main meal of the day, and played dominoes or mah jong. Next door to the market is an area of basket weavers and a towering refuse pile emitting the smell of cheap fruit wine.
This article will conclude in the next issue of Flavor and Fortune, in Volume 9(2) beginning on page 17. It will be called: Hong Kong since the Changeover, concluded.

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