My two traveling companions were far luckier than I. They were in Hong Kong to shop for electronics – cameras and cellphones. I was there to look around for food. They pored over catalogues long before our trip; I wasn’t even sure if there’d be anything for me to buy. They knew what they’d be scouting around for if they didn’t get what they wanted: clothes and watches. For me, it was food all the way: I knew I wouldn’t look good in a cheongsam anyway.
Our first stop, the Temple Street Night Market was as disastrous a start as it was possible to get. Temple Street is indistinguishable from hundred of others around Hong Kong during the day; at night, scores of enterprising stall-holders, many working at their third shift of the day, erect makeshift stalls (except when the weather is seriously windy or rainy) and settle in till the wee hours. The wares? Impossible to tell apart from the tacky stuff at Hill Road, Bandra or Palika Bazar, Delhi. My companions went berserk. They bought up every silk coin purse and video game in sight. I consoled myself with a plate of stinky tofu, the infamous chiau deo fu that is spoken of in the same breath as durian from Thailand. It only smells while it’s being fried – when you eat it, all you can taste are the two sauces, one sweet the other hot.
Neither did luck favour me at Ladies’ Market, another well-known night market, also run, by and large, by a bunch of people (mainly ladies) who work virtually round the clock. Newspaper delivery in the mornings, a 9 to 5 job and then a night shift running your own business: it’s what contributes towards the incredible buzz of Hong Kong, and gives the middle class upward mobility. Ladies’ Market is a trifle more concerned with clothes and bags than Temple Street Night Market is, but has the same essential mix of down-market goods. No ethnic kitchen utensils, I noted sadly, though there was one stall whose “decoration items” stood out from the rest: tiny glass jars filled with artistically fashioned fruit and vegetables.
Aji Ichiban is a chain of confectioneries. I almost lost interest when I saw the glittering window displays. Inside, however, it’s like no sweet shop you’ve seen before. Avoid the chocolates and toffees: the Hong Kong versions are pale imitations of the real thing. What is irresistible is the range of dried plums, sweetened dried fish, beef and pork. Thus, pork floss, beef jerky (that looks like aam papad), anchovies fried with sesame seeds, all are slightly sweet. Textures range from crispy to chewy. Imagine, protein-rich confectionery! It’s a hugely popular chain: at the departure lounge of the airport, it was jammed with locals catching up on their last minute shopping. Nearby, John Lobb and Dunhill wore a deserted look.
Bird’s Nest (as in the soup) is a far more premium ingredient, as compared to say, dried seafood. Shops selling birds’ nests, principally on Wing Lok Street, have stocks of hundreds, all proudly displayed on shelves. The nests themselves are priced according to colour: the palest ones are a fraction of the price of the red ones, red of course, being an auspicious colour. Whatever the colour, the saliva of swiftlets that contains semi-digested seaweed (for that is exactly what bird’s nests are) always fetches a premium at restaurants in Hong Kong.
Prestige and culinary traditions win hands down over eco-friendliness and propriety. Shark’s fin is still accorded pride of place on Chiu Chow menus (it’s a branch of Cantonese food), and if you purse your lips at the eco-unfriendliness of it all, your fellow diners will hasten to tell you why shark’s fin is a vital part of your diet. Apparently, it has been found to contain nutrients that prevent the abnormal growth of cells. The shark, I was repeatedly told, is one of the few creatures in nature that never suffers from cancer. If I wanted to (I didn’t), I could have had broken shark’s fin for a song – the larger the single piece, the higher the price.
I turned my attention to other kinds of dried seafood instead. Although there are shops selling dried abalone, scallops and shrimp roe everywhere in Hong Kong – you can smell them a mile off – there’s a whole market full of them in Des Voeux Road West. My traveling companions politely declined to join me; it is admittedly not for the faint of heart. The fishmongers’ quarter in Crawford Market smells pleasant in comparison. Des Voeux Road patently caters to restaurateurs: they’re the ones who buy in bulk. While reconstituted dried scallops are used to flavour vegetable dishes, dried seafood is used in secret combinations for the famous XO sauce, in much the same way as Indian chefs use their own blends of spices for garam masala.
I stocked up on dried sea cucumber, dried squid and dried octopus much to the disgust of my friends, but found that I could have saved some of the trouble, and all of the stink. Parknshop is a hugely popular supermarket chain, which like everything else in Hong Kong, had a piquant local twist. Amidst the toilet cleaners and Huggies diapers, there are vacuum-packed dried seafood, each packet containing a selection. I scoured the aisles looking for sesame oil and soy sauce, and to my joy found hom moi too, dried preserved plums. Sweet and sour, and long lasting, they’re not only the Chinese version of chewing gum, they slake your thirst to a large extent. They’re small packets, easy to pack and relatively inexpensive – for Hong Kong’s formidable standards anyway. They make great gifts, because you don’t have to have a particularly adventurous palate to enjoy them.
By the end of our trip, my friends needed to buy a couple of suitcases to accommodate all the quilted jackets and miniature tea sets they’d acquired. On the other hand, my strolly bulged a trifle more than it did on the way in, but what a punch my shopping packed! And if I could, I’d have bought some stinky tofu too. Just to teach them a lesson.