Remember the beautiful old number, “If you ever go to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers on your hair”? Well, to be ready for Hong Kong, you have to sing, “…be sure you have room in your belly!”
Seriously, every nook and cranny of HK has eating joints — from speciality fine dining to dai pai dongs (local diners) — catering to everyone from hungry souls looking for any grub, to serious epicures on an exotica hunt. With four days to spend in HK, I am ready to lay my hands on as many dishes as humanly possible, some traditional, some fusion — and all so flavoursome.
My first stop for food in this exciting city is at a popular dim sum chain restaurant, Super Star, in Tsim Sha Sui. It is lunchtime and the restaurant is suitably busy. Amidst the drone of diners' conversation, waiters flit about with precariously loaded trays, the aroma of Chinese spices all-pervading. I find a table thanks to prior booking by my host, Hong Kong Tourism Board.
The menu card is a thin sheet of paper with names of over 50 dishes printed in Mandarin with English translations. Well, that doesn't quite help for I have no idea about authentic Cantonese food. So the task of placing orders goes to my guide for the day, a cheerful Michael Lee.
Even as I finish my first cup of Yam Cha (the light orange Chinese tea), accompanied by some fine slivers of tiny deep-fried fish paired with an awesome chilli oil, our table begins to fill with food.
First come vegetarian dumplings with a sticky rice stuffing, then some filled with chicken, beef, pork and crab meat, plus slices of roasted goose — a Cantonese delicacy to die for, with a crusty skin and soft flesh underneath.
A variety of Chinese greens follows with thin slices of cucumber done with mushroom and bean curd, noodles with pink shrimps all over, chilli-flavoured catfish and a whole lot of other dishes that I lose count of!
To many Indians, used to desi Manchurian, authentic Chinese food is hard to like at once. To those I suggest, try some Cantonese food to alter your opinion. Over sips of Chinese tea, I chomp on the food, happy doing justice to the spread and grinning from time to time for having found myself in this foodie's paradise.
The next day's lunch is at an even more exciting place. Called Yellow Door Kitchen, it is a private kitchen that serves only traditional Chinese dishes. On one of the snaky lanes of Central, its nameless entrance comes all of a sudden leading to a rickety lift that opens at Yellow Door, a rather small place with not more than seven or eight tables alongside a neat food counter. The owner, Lau Chun, joins me at the table. He narrates how the place got its name. “Since it is not a restaurant, we can't put a board outside. With our diners often finding it difficult to locate it, my grandfather painted the door yellow and told people to look for it. Gradually, it became known as Yellow Door Kitchen.”
An eatery popular “only through word of mouth”, prior reservation is mandatory here. Lau says the waiting period can be up to three months!
Lau rolls out a grand feast for me. I begin with a light soup of winter melon, common in South China. Yummy! Then come some cold starters. The one I like a lot is a sheet of tofu, a Szechwan variety — greasy, hot and superlicious! Another interesting dish is glassy beans with coriander leaves and chicken bits and also a poached chicken in sesame sauce. Then there are Shanghai style cucumbers and rice cakes, pork ribs with sweet potatoes and some very interesting dishes made of porcini mushrooms from Yunan province and smiji mushrooms from Japan, now farmed in China.
But the show stealer at YDK is its chilli Szechwan pepper hot pot. Served in a wok, it is made of shredded pork with loads of dry red chillies, chopped fine, with a peppery, hot gravy. The chillies float on top adding a grand look. You can have it alone if you can deal with hot chillies. I try it with sticky rice, all the while wishing I had an extra tummy to tuck in all!
Ever greedy for exotic food, I try two of Lau's desserts — white fungus and fruits and a sweet soup of papaya with lotus seeds and fungus.
Towards the evening, walking around Central, I find myself in the birthplace of the famous milk tea of Hong Kong. Extremely busy, it is almost a hole-in-the-wall kind of place. My tea comes in a jiffy with slices of hot buns made in-house, a practice that began with the British rulers. Milk tea of HK is made with condensed milk, which gives it a richer body, and is usually taken during afternoons. So I guess I hit the place at the right time.
My dinner is at yet another fascinating address, Hullet House, Canton Road. A majestic 150-year-old stucco building, it is a reminder of HK's colonial history. Local hospitability group Aqua recently turned this old Marine Police headquarters into a luxury hotel with five restaurants and a bar. A set of Michelin star chefs lay out a rich dinner, abalone included.
At the next day's breakfast at The Parlour in Hullet House, I also try out some amazing desserts, breads, cookies and other breakfast items made by these chefs.
I also have an outstanding dinner at the floating restaurant Jumbo. Some memorable dishes there are the century egg and a dish made of baby pigs! My food trail ends at a nameless restaurant by the seaside at Cheung Chau, one of the many islands surrounding HK. Cheung Chau, a charming fisherman's village, has a perpetual carnival atmosphere. It has an ancient temple worth visiting, a gorgeous beach, numerous curio shops, plus rows and rows of seafood restaurants along the bay. Comfortable ferries ply hourly between HK and the island.