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Hong Kong Since the Changeover, concluded

by Harley Spiller

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

Summer Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page(s): 17 and 18

In the last issue of Flavor and Fortune, that is in Volume 9(1) on pages 21 and 22 and also page 30, you learned about my returning to Hong Kong for a third visit. That was my first since the changeover from British to Chinese rule. I found quite a few changes and want to share many of them with you. My report could not fit in the allotted space, so allow me to now share other adventures and changes on that wonderful visit that room in the previous issue did not allow.

People and things British seemed less prominent. Chinese militia in ill-fitting green uniforms patrolled the streets. An election was underway and political sloganeering was abundant. The Liberal Party Election Manifesto plastered on the subway walls says: "Enhance economy; increase accountability; quality education; greener lifestyle." Other slogans were "preference for the poor," and "passion and compassion - nothing is impossible."

Change is discernible in Tsim Tsa Shui, a diverse zone with some of the world's ritziest hotels and most famous hovels. Since the takeover, many shops have new owners and offerings, including a faintly perceived downturn in friendly service. Prostitution was in evidence where it had not been spotted before. On the positive side, Chinese native handicrafts are in greater abundance and the new Museum of Chinese Art near the Star Ferry shows fabulous National collections representing all regions and dynasties of China and beyond. Of particular interest to Flavor and Fortune readers are rhinoceros horn drinking and eating cups from the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE). They had been used for libation, it is said, because of their ability to detect poison in food and drink.

Despite the changeover, much in the Hong Kong food world remains the same, with a decent-size decline in price for the finer restaurants, due to the influx of high-quality chefs used to drawing Mainland salaries. You can still order customized mixed fruit juices and teas at many locations during the day, and eat well into the wee hours at a number of build-your-own soup diners. Choosing from among dozens of ingredients, noodles and dumplings, you can create combinations like spicy fish balls and leek dumplings in broth for a couple of bucks. Of course, there are several restaurants at the upscale Peninsula Hotel, and many other world class restaurants in southern Kowloon where many a har gow is rabbit-shaped and fancy chefs use julienne of taro and turnip instead of the typical mash to make more savory dim sum cakes. Regardless of the change in politics, the food supply seems steady, and Hong Kong is forever destined to be a gourmet Shangri-La.

Just near the Fortress Hill stop on the Hong Kong Metro, the Old Hong Kong Restaurant serves Shanghai style cuisine in super-sleek subterranean style. The Hong Kong-New Yorker who created the new Canal Street subway mosaics, Bing Lee, had told me of his circle of Hong Kong artist/friends who love to dine and so we met in the unassuming Newton Hotel at 218 Electric Road in North Point (www. hkoldrest. com. hk). The ordinary hotel basement dining room was empty at 12:30 pm, giving me cause for worry, and Heineken and salted peanuts did little to assuage the feeling. A half-hour later, my dining companions had gathered and the room had filled with a well-heeled crowd of Hong Kong cognoscenti. Things began to look up. The first sign I noted that this was to be an auspicious occasion was when my tea had a stem in it, floating upright. This is said to mean someone or something good was coming.

The highlight of the meal was Duck Tongue. I had eaten duck tongues thrice previously, and assumed that these crunchy vinegared tidbits were popular more because of health or novelty reasons than for flavor. But these tongues were roasted to perfection, the incredible gooey meat was soft with elements of the best parts of duck - hot crisp skin, rich melting fat, succulent meat, even a bit of crunchy cartilage. Nothing I have ever eaten before or since can match the symphony of texture and taste in these tiny gourmet quackers.

The Shanghai luncheon continued with Wined Pigeon, boneless and elegant, and a greaseless Scallion Bread as puffy as cumulus clouds. Stir-fried Green Beans packed a huge ginger wallop--the kitchen must use an entire one-pound ginger root just to flavor the oil. Well-minced Vegetable and Meat Dumplings were neatly served atop razor thin carrot 'lily pads,' clean tasting but lacking the burst of flavor brought on by juicier coarse ground stuffings. Kao Fu, a wheat gluten mock duck, was hot, soft, and crispy with many layers of golden brown and variegated mushrooms slices. It did indeed mock the look of roasted poultry flesh. The waiters were attentive to every need, even parceling out the last piece the polite guests had left on each platter.

It was obvious that I was in the company of true gourmets when the simple plate of raw scallions and brown dipping sauce we ordered as an intermezzo was sent back. To the best of my understanding, they had given us scallion whites when we had ordered thin hard 'heart' of scallion. The entire scallion whites brought the first time were too thin and curly. They should have been the straight hard heart only. And, I believe they brought hoisin sauce on the first round instead of a bowl of superior double thick soy. When the dishes were sent back, every single waiter in the 125-seat dining room quietly left their posts to cluster about and learn why. Their thirst for more food knowledge was a fitting tribute to the gourmand who had ordered this perfectly orchestrated meal.
Harley Spiller again extends thanks to Bing Lee, Eddie Lui and friends, and to Diana Budiman of the Hong Kong Tourist Board. With many other wonderful visits to report on, he hopes you stay tuned.

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