When you find that it consumes 3.5 million fish balls each day, you know that Hong Kong takes eating very seriously indeed.

Hong Kong takes its tag of “Asia’s World City” and “Gourmet Paradise” quite seriously. The Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival — an annual four-day epicurean fest in November — kicked off a month of culinary extravaganzas. This year, the event moved to the New Central Harbourfront with an all-new Tasting Room where visitors enjoyed wine pairing dinners, gourmet classes, talks by master chefs, fine wines and delicacies from 18 countries at 280 food booths.

Hong Kong’s top hotels and restaurants rolled out the red carpet with great offers as they cooked award-winning, signature dishes. Around 70 food booths featured barbecued specialties, appetisers and sweet treats.

Mainly clustered around Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui, SoHo and Kowloon, Hong Kong’s 11,000 restaurants brought together diverse styles — from traditional Cantonese dishes to Beijing duck, oriental flavours from Indo-China to colonial-style cooking and Indian food. But the most authentic experience was the city’s street food as carts and kiosks dished out snake soup, fishballs, offal, octopus, dim sums, noodles, and stir fries on the go. A recent survey revealed that people in Hong Kong eat almost 3.57 million fish balls every day! For a sit-down meal, try any old-style yum cha (tea-house), siu mei (barbecue restaurant) or cha chan teng (fast food joints) that are a unique fusion of Chinese and Western cuisines.

While food icons like Lung Mun in Kowloon and Tse Kee Fish Ball in Aberdeen have downed shutters, a set menu can be sampled at any dim sum restaurant. The elaborate meal starts with an appetiser, often Drunken Chicken braised in red wine and garnished with dried plums, followed by Abalone, Prawn Tempura with glass noodles, Hong Kong style lobster with sautéed garlic, Garoupa (fish) served in two-style sauce, pak choy stir fry and jellies in various flavours for dessert. Chinese tea, known to cut fat, forms an important part of the dining ritual in Hong Kong.

While the consumption of food can be a very personal experience for some, in Hong Kong there’s a fair deal of community eating. Groups often order a hot pot — a big pot of soup boiled on a stove built into the table with seafood, meats, vegetables and other ingredients. Diners serve themselves at the table, dipping their portions in black sesame sauce, balsamic vinegar and an assortment of dipping sauces. On the other hand, clay pots are rice-based with juicy meats and fresh vegetables added to the pot. This is covered and slow-cooked over a coal fire, allowing the rice to remain moist in the centre and crisp on the edges.

Community feasts take on a new dimension at walled villages like Lam Tsuen in the New Territories. For poon choi or “big bowl feast”, ingredients are layered in a large bowl and eaten communally. It could include pork, beef, lamb, abalone, chicken, duck, shrimp, crab, various mushrooms, Chinese radish, broccoli and tofu in nine to 12 layers, enough to feed a group of ten. The contents are not mixed but eaten layer by layer. Legend has it that the dish was invented when Mongol hordes invaded the empire forcing an emperor of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 -1279) to seek refuge in the New Territories. Local villagers collected all their food in large troughs and presented it to the emperor. Unique to Hong Kong, poon choi is part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage.

But the ultimate dish at village feasts is the suckling pig or siu yuk (roast pork) where a whole pig weighing up to 20 kg is cooked in a charcoal oven until the skin becomes crispy and the meat tender. Women chop it with cleavers and serve it with a piquant mustard dip and pickled chillies.

However, all celebrations pale in comparison to the Chinese New Year (Jan-Feb) when families dine together on New Year’s eve to remember the year gone by and wish for greater success in the future. Each dish in this sumptuous banquet symbolises a particular wish for the New Year — wealth, fertility or good luck. Fish figures prominently on the menu, as the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for abundance. The abalone or bao yu means surplus while the sea cucumber or hoi sam has a similar pronunciation that denotes happiness. The kumquat or miniature orange, a gold-coloured fruit, has a name that sounds like the Chinese word for gold. The clash of cymbals drives away evil spirits as lion dancers reach out to grab chai-ching, a bunch of lettuce leaves hung from a height. The strange tradition derives from the fact that the Chinese words for lettuce sound like growth and wealth.

Eating unusual combination dishes is integral to the celebrations, as they rhyme with positive attributes like wealth, happiness and prosperity. In Hong Kong, food is more than just a meal, it is celebration, it is faith.

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