In Hong Kong, you’ve got to live in the moment - one second to stop at a corner to contemplate which way to turn will get you trampled by a crowd or flattened by a bus. Even my NYC roots could not prepare me for how fast everything moves in Hong Kong, and I find myself on edge almost constantly. I’ve adapted by becoming very reactive, which includes the way I’ve described the food. In one moment I’m in awe of how vibrant and fresh things are, and in the next I’m shocked by how tired, processed and bland much of it seems.
The street-style markets here are amazing. Food that is literally alive is everywhere, frequently killed on the spot and cooked before your eyes. I expect and have experienced that kind of freshness on the shores of Mexican beaches, but I was not prepared for it in such an intensely urban setting. It’s really something to watch skilled fishmongers pull twitching creatures from a seawater tank, clean them precisely in seconds, then hand them to a partner who puts them on a stick and fries or boils them before handing it over to you, all in a matter of about 4 minutes.
This setting produces one of the best bites of food I’ve ever had. It was a 4-inch piece of octopus that had been skewered and par-cooked. When I ordered, it was dunked for about a minute into intensely spiced boiling liquid, redolent with Szechuan pepper and star anise which adhered to the sea creature the way the spices do to crawfish at the best Louisiana boils. It was tender and tasted so fresh, with the sweet flavor of the octopus somehow able to stand up to all of that spice. $1.50 bought me a food memory I’ll never forget.
I’ve appreciated the food recommendations I’ve gotten from friends who have been to Hong Kong, and have followed some of them with good success. But when I travel, I also like to follow my nose and the locals. I look for crowds, see what they’re eating, and join them. This is a dangerous method in Hong Kong. There are a lot of people here who like terrible food. Some of the most crowded spots are serving mushy spaghetti with ketchup sauce (that’s literally what it is) or limp elbow macaroni with cheap hot dogs in bland broth. These people are not tourists. Most of the above is served in places that have no English menu, and you won’t find a Caucasian face in sight. It’s authentic Hong Kong cuisine, perhaps even the archetype. I tried one of these places after waiting 20 minutes for a seat, and while I’m glad to have experienced this part of HK culture, suffice to say that the food tastes precisely as it sounds.
You can’t go to Hong Kong without having dim sum, and I did so at a super-crowded spot called The Dim Sum Corner, which I stumbled upon while walking around. Despite the unusually English name, the place didn’t seem touristy at all – it was teeming with local businessperson-types who were waiting in line for a seat at prime lunch hour. I had standards that I get regularly at dim sum places back home: egg custard buns, shumai, steamed rice rolls, and turnip cake. I wanted to see if these standards were better at a mid-tier HK place than they are back home. Better doesn’t begin to describe it. This was whole different league. The turnip cake was especially delicious, with a more varied, interesting texture on account of unprocessed turnip pieces, and more robust seafood flavor than I’m used to. The egg custard bun was oozing in a way that I haven’t seen before, and the liquefied yolk was contained by dough that’s much thinner than what I’ve seen before. A greater level of skill went into all the food here, and it showed.
I had a few higher end meals too, which ran the gamut from disappointing to revelatory, with one sort of in between. A ha-ha-named place called Ho Lee Fook has been touted quite a bit by local bloggers, but its version of Modern Chinese food tasted just like regular Chinese food to me, at quintuple the price in a dungeon-like setting with horrible Springsteen music playing. Ronin, a supposedly-izakaya style seafood place from a much celebrated chef who used to work at Masa had some really delicious bites (oysters with cucumber-pear juice and yuzu kosho), but also a few elements that seemed more style-over-substance (“mandarin salt” served on the side of some fish tempura). Ronin staff were also annoying about upselling luxe ingredients and drinks (yes, I like uni, but I’m not ordering your tiny $30 uni supplement and stop asking already). The revelatory meal was at a place called Serge et le Phoque, run by a 2-Michelen-starred French chef and his Parisian business partner who came to Hong Kong a couple of years ago. The restaurant has an all-French wine list and French-accented staff, but the food transcends borders, with a focus on Japanese ingredients and styles perhaps more than anything else. Every morsel of food I tasted at this place was spectacular, highlighted by things like dried fugu skin with teriyaki glaze, sea bass with a “risotto” made from land-based seaweed (samphire) cut into rice-sized bits, and an amazing lemon custard served with capsicum jelly and tarragon.
I’ve eaten more noteworthy things that I’ll lump together here for the sake of expedience. Pineapple buns (which don’t have any pineapple) are really wonderful, and are described well here: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1587246/secrets-behind-serving-hong-kongs-hot-cross-buns . Portland Street in Kowloon is a mecca of diverse cheap eateries, and the one I settled into was a Yunannese places serving “mountain goat noodle soup,” a giant, $4 bowl of very gamey deliciousness. Egg custard tarts are everywhere, and the ones I’ve tried at random bakeries have been OK, but surprisingly not as good as the ones at Cai back in Chicago.
Hong Kong is massive and dense, and it’s impossible to make much of a dent in the city’s food with just a few days. I’m glad to have heeded bits of advice from people, but nothing beats the enjoyment of just wandering around and trying what looks good or interesting. I even loved the experience of sharing a table (this is how it’s done in HK –people just sit wherever there’s a chair) with a cigarette-smoking cab driver while eating terrible macaroni soup.