Exactly five years ago, I made my way to Hong Kong. It was my first trip to South East Asia and I was wide-eyed with wonder. The veritable forest of tall buildings, the neon brightness that threatened to outshine the sun, the sheer variety of Chinese food, from roadside dai pai dongs (street-side stalls) to swish restaurants where food cost a fortune. It was then that I was bitten by the travel bug, so I’ve traveled around the area a fair amount, including to most of the Chinese-speaking world. When I landed up five years later at Hong Kong on my second visit, it was with some trepidation. Would I still be overawed? After sampling the food in Shanghai, Beijing, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore, would I still maintain that food in Hong Kong is the finest Chinese cuisine on the planet?
The answers are yes and yes. The new airport on Lantau Island is up and running; Lantau itself is connected to Hong Kong by bridge. In true Hong Kong style, it is the most scientifically advanced bridge in the world. Elsewhere, ethnic Chinese lives played out with the backdrop of towering skyscrapers flashing with Mandarin signs, and so many neighbourhood eateries that were critically acclaimed for roast goose, rice congee or boiled pig’s intestines – I just couldn’t help being wonderstruck. You cannot hope to eat at all Hong Kong’s restaurants in one visit – or even ten of them. The best you can do is to define where your interests lie, plot a chart on a map and then find a hotel in the vicinity. My own hotel was The Luxe Manor off Kowloon’s Nathan Road. Kimberley Road where the hotel was located, was stuffed silly with the kind of eateries that define Hong Kong. Rest a While served congee, noodle soup, stir-fried noodles and rice topped with deep-fried beef cutlets or steamed chicken.
Thanks to my friend, a professional tour guide, Fred Cheung, I had a piece of paper with the names of each kind of meat, poultry and seafood written prominently in Mandarin and English. Many mid and low-range eateries – the real culinary gems of Hong Kong in my opinion – don’t have English menus and would not be able to understand the concept of customization, so that paper became invaluable during my trip. What struck me is the amount of specialization. The single most signature dish just has to be wanton mee – a thin, flavourful soup with a handful of minced pork wontons. You’ll see a lot of those on the streets, but there are roast pork, beef or goose stalls too, and stir-fried noodles, baos, cold herbal drinks and dozens more. The tiniest eateries are usually the most crowded and those that have pictures on the menus serve gwailo or foreigners. However, many of them are great, if you know the correct dishes to order (I don’t!)
The smaller islands off Hong Kong, accessible by a short ferry-ride, are notable for their just-caught seafood. Fresher even than Hong Kong.