Its name translates as “The Fragrant Harbour” and depending on whether you love or hate the food in China’s newest state you’ll either agree vehemently or disagree strongly. Speaking for myself, I think that the finest food in China comes from Hong Kong, and there are a couple of reasons for it.
During the Cultural Revolution years, many chefs on the mainland, especially from the neighbouring province of Guangdong, escaped to Hong Kong where their craft was in demand. Today, good chefs, discerning customers (rich and poor alike, mind you) and fabulous ingredients from Guangdong all conspire to make Hong Kong a gourmet paradise in the Chinese-speaking world.
I’m sure there are good eateries on the island itself (that is how Hong Kong is referred to by the locals) but I bat for Kowloon. It is the extremely ethnic, very South China, slightly gritty part of Hong Kong, which actually consists of 233 islands, out of which only a handful is actually inhabited. Kowloon is across the bay from Hong Kong Island which is a decade after handover, still the most English part. What I love about food in Hong Kong is that even the tiniest road-side stall coaxes out the maximum taste from the food they serve. Usually, one place will offer a tiny repertoire like our very own dhabas. This is as true in Hong Kong as in Kowloon, but if you want the full flavour of China, Kowloon is where you should be dining.
Wonton mee is the national dish of Hong Kong. It’s made best in the tiniest shops, some of which are no more than six foot square. A walled-in hotpot for stock, sides of roast pork and beef hanging up as advertisements and so much steam that the owner-chef is hardly visible, it is a clear soup in which wontons are cooked to delicate perfection. Other treats that you can buy as you walk the streets include barbecued pork buns and egg custard tarts.
Because of the pressure of real estate prices, Hong Kong’s mid-level Chinese restaurants tend to be small and cramped. They cater to the local population who has such tiny kitchens inside poky flats that cooking is not a daily affair. Hong Kong’s own cuisine is more or less that of Guangdong, but there is also Chiu Chow, Sichuan and Buddhist vegetarian too. Hong Kong’s cuisine is largely seafood based. Like Goa, Hong Kong has dried seafood, but in quantities that would astonish even the Goans. Cuttlefish, shrimp, prawn roe, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels – you name it, it is caught in the South China Sea and dried. Some of it is used to make the delectable XO sauce, and around Chinese New Year, you’ll see jars of dried scallops selling in stores because they’re a status symbol because of their colour: anything in the natural world that is coloured golden is considered auspicious.
Which is why, if you are in Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year, don’t buy oranges: the prices go through the roof. On the other hand, like London is at its most festive at Christmas, Hong Kong bursts into life at Chinese New Year.