Food of the Fragrant Harbor Part 1: Earth & Sea
Hong Kong is known among Asian visitors as a gastronomers’ paradise. Apart from its world-renowned dim sum, countless local dishes await to be discovered and devoured beneath the endless skyscrapers – reason enough for me to go back after two visits to the city.
From protein-based delicacies to fresh seafood platters, from one of the strangest-looking dishes on the planet to sweet buns and desserts, Hong Kong’s culinary scene has been shaped for over 150 years thanks to its strategic location on the main trade route between China and Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. Cantonese, Chinese, British and Western cultures left their traces in Hong Kong cuisine, giving it a distinctive sweet and savory taste unlike in any other dishes I have tried before.
For me, the undisputable king of Hong Kong’s local dishes is siu ap, roast duck with the skin glistening like olives and the meat so succulent, tender and fragrant. From fancy restaurants to streetside food vendors, siu ap is a common sight in Hong Kong, but some are better than others. Noticing my deep fondness of the irresistible duck, James’ mother made sure that I always had it every other day, for the entire two weeks I was there.
“Ngor ho chung yi sik siu ap,” I said to James’ grandmother on a family lunch during the Chinese New Year, an expression I had learned long before coming to Hong Kong, which translates into: “I really like to eat siu ap.” She then took a napkin and grabbed a very big duck thigh before handing it to me with a big smile.
On a different day when we went to Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung, home to Hong Kong’s best beaches and some of its most beautiful hiking trails, we had lunch at an unassuming beachside restaurant. Thanks to an old local deliveryman that day we were introduced to the erroneously named but surprisingly addictive Singapore noodles. Orinally a Cantonese dish, it might be named after the Southeast Asian country for the exotic ingredients used to create the yellow spice-seasoned dish, thus the more appealing name.
Surrounded by sea, it is natural for Hong Kongers to have fresh seafood on their plates, at home and at restaurants all over the territory. Using fresh fish and lemon among other ingredients, the delicious sweet and sour fish was freshness and simplicity at its best, as was the salt and pepper squid we had in Ham Tin Wan. However a wider selection of fresh fish and fruits de mer is available on Lamma Island, a small crooked island in the South China Sea dotted with decent seafood restaurants serving everything from the ubiquitous squids and prawns to the more upscale scallops, all at reasonable prices.
Going to Hong Kong’s countryside is not the only way to find the best dishes the city has to offer. After watching the spectacular fireworks show at Victoria Harbor, we walked all the way from Admiralty to Causeway Bay to dine in a local noodles joint. A bowl of beef brisket with flat rice noodles – hor fun – and chopped spring onions in rich beef broth was not only a perfect hot meal for the cold night, but also proved how good food could be found at modest places.
But even after trying all those different dishes, one might not be prepared to have a dark, slimy and seemingly rotten duck egg on his plate. The century egg, also known as pidan, was a strange creation when food invention went beyond imagination. Made from duck eggs wrapped in rice hulls, clay, ash, salt and quicklime, it takes weeks to months for the process to eventually change the eggs’ colors. People usually cut them in small pieces and put them in congee where the eggs’ rich and savory flavor complements the subtle taste of the light broth used in the congee.
Those who have a sweet tooth will also find Hong Kong a very pleasant place to be as sweet treats are not something the city is lacking in. Pineapple bun is one of the most common, and a good way to start getting acquainted with Hong Kong’s sweet food. While golden cake brought me back to Indonesia due to its similar flavor, color and texture with Bika Ambon, a famous cake from Medan in North Sumatra. Possibly it was the Hokkien people from southern China who brought along the recipe of the cake when they came to Sumatra many decades ago and introduced it to the locals until it gained popularity across the nation.
However no culinary adventure in Hong Kong would be complete without trying the dim sum, and it is so special that it deserves its own post.