Hong Kong is a city dedicated to food. It is home to great French bistros, Portuguese pastries and some of the best Vietnamese food this side of Saigon. Best of all though, the city represents the best of Chinese cuisine, in all their regional varieties. They’re all here, from spicy Szechuan to the wheat based noodles and pancakes of the north as well as the local, and more widely exported Cantonese style.
Everywhere you look in Hong Kong, there are hoardings above your head advertising somewhere to eat. But don’t look up too long - you may trip over one of the many food stalls that fill the pavement. The city is never short of someone offering you a mysterious sticky thing on a stick. After all, you never know when you might get peckish as you walk from one meal to the next…
And yet some of the best eateries aren’t advertised at all - many are hidden away inside blocks of domestic apartments. Hong Kong’s liberal planning laws give any enterprising soul the opportunity to turn their flat into a shop or restaurant. Which means that, with a little local knowledge, any anonymous housing block may reveal a wealth of secrets.
It was Auntie Bella’s birthday and we’d been invited to a rather special vegetarian Buddhist restaurant. On entering the building, there was no sign and no indication that there was anything of interest here. Yet we stepped into the lift, pressed a button and soon found ourselves in a private restaurant with only one room and a single table. One remarkable mouth watering course followed another. All were vegetarian substitutes for real meat dishes, in the finest traditions of the Buddhist monasteries. The chef’s ability to fake meat and seafood dishes was quite extraordinary. There was sushi, and shark fin made of juicy pumpkin. Even the ‘beef’ had just the right flavour and consistency of the real thing. It might be enough to turn you vegetarian, if it wasn’t that the real thing is still so much better.
It’s November and that means its Shanghai crab season. The hairy crab is adored here. People fly into Hong Kong just to sample its sweet meat. They are only available for two months, whilst the hairy crab fattens itself to prepare for the winter months. Small shops temporarily spring up to meet demand, dedicated to selling this seasonal delicacy.
We eat ours simply steamed, they are sweet and oh so “ho may ah!” (tasty), especially with a little of the ginger dipping sauce. But it’s a fiddly old business extracting the meat from his shell. If Amy hadn’t de-shelled mine, I suspect my crab would have scampered back to the lake with impatience.
Your food is still very much alive when you visit the city’s wet market. Wicker boxes are crammed with live chickens. Huge slabs of roasted pork and bloodied carcasses hang displayed on hooks. Tanks are filled with schools of fish, tiger prawns and octopus wriggle about. On the chopping board are the still warm, freshly gutted fish. A heart flops onto the board, still beating with a steady pulse. It’s all good and fresh with not a fish finger in sight.
In fact, if it has ever moved, breathed, wriggled, swam, or just lived in some fashion or another, you will likely find it on a menu in a Hong Kong restaurant. Good things come to those who are brave, or at least ignorant. Sometimes it’s best not to know what you’re eating until after you’ve tried a mouthful. With frog porridge and fish stomach on the menu, there is no room for the squeamish when it comes to food. It tells you something that the Cantonese word for doggy bag is the same as a body bag in a hospital.
There can be a few unpleasant surprises. Pig’s stomach on a stick is an acquired taste (if you can ever develop a taste for elastic bands cooked in soy sauce). But this is easily forgiven when you’re in the city that perfected dim sum - those delicious little parcels of fried and steamed dumplings stuffed with seasoned fresh prawns, scallops or pork. These are moments to savour long after you’ve put down your chopsticks and reason enough to book a return flight to Hong Kong.