September is a very hot month to visit Hong Kong. And, if you’re like me and prone to wandering new cities on foot, it can become a rather exhausting endeavour. However, I only had 6 days, and was determined to pack as much into them as possible, eating all kinds of things, ignoring the heat as much as possible. The last bit became rather hard towards day 6…
I stayed in Kowloon (the Tsim Sha Tsui ‘hotel district’ ha!) which is a great base from where to explore the city. You can see how the the city is slowly being modernised – a glimpse into the local paper a few days in a row revealed at what rate any multi-storey building (recent or old) gets demolished neatly and a newer, higher one replaces it via impressive bamboo scaffolding cage. It’s great however walking around neighbouring district Yau Ma Tei watching how locals eat, live, shop, sell and spend their time, trying to miss stepping in puddles of fish guts & rotten vegetables.
I found a few restaurants in TST that catered mostly to locals (like the one pictured above, with the excellent xiao long bao I found there) where little to no English is spoken, never mind featured on a menu.
At this particular mom and pop operation the dumplings are made to your order, whilst you sit back and wait, drinking what seems like litres of jasmine tea in the pressing heat.
Of course trying Gai daan tsai (egg waffles) cooked on custom griddles – the best is when the vendor is really busy because then they’re made to your order – they’re at their plain best straight off the iron (above).
A recommendation by a friend led me to Chachawan in Sheung Wan. (The chef is ex-Nahm & Bo.lan (Bangkok)/Kha (Singapore) and the food sings. Loudly. Which is a good thing because when I went with my mom we nearly got out-hipstered, and only scored a squashed corner at the bar (walk-in? fools!) but it was well worth the wait and literally the best Thai I’ve had in my life – here in particular being reflective of the Isaan-region. Stir-fried morning glory was exceptional, as well as grilled marinated pork collar with jim jaew – exceedingly memorable actually. I’ll go back just for this.
Back to the markets, and endless displays of (poor!) little fish in bowls, writhing reels & conchs, geoduck clams (my favourite!), butchers chopping up whole pigs, whole massive fish, stacks of vegetables and mountains of ginger – so terribly expensive just about anywhere West. Walking along, we found this stack of cartons – from Patensie, a tiny town in the citrus-producing heart of South Africa, kind of near the famous surfing town Jeffrey’s Bay, on the East coast if that gives you any idea…Anyhow, here these oranges were just hanging out on a smelly Hong Kong street in Yau Ma Tei Vegetable Markets.
Well worth it too was a day out to Lamma Island, about 30 min by ferry. I think my new life goal is to retire here and spend my days eating pomfret, wandering the tiny (not even) streets and island, and drinking beer. This time round though we just got ripped off like right tourists, eating delicious pomfrets in chilli, and average clams and crab. The beer was welcome though as it was sweltering – top marks for trying to avoid the HK heat, it’s worse on the islands!
I really wanted to try the “deep fired spine foot with pepper salt” (pic above) but mom wisely wasn’t into it, so just had the ‘fired marine fish’ (the pomfret). Local and very fresh, but as (mom, wisely again) pointed out, unsure about the freshness of the local water… (Mines abound this area).
I really wanted to get to either a Din Tai Fung or Mak’s Noodle for a starchy fix, and eventually found a Mak’s at the top of Victoria Peak of all places, with no queue to boot. Look, they’ve plastered Anthony Bourdain’s face and all the subsequent reviews all over, but the noodles with wontons are definitely a go, (I had brisket noodles), and a real cheap filling meal. Oh, yea, and Victoria Peak is good too, if you like views and all and fear of heights isn’t a factor cause that tram ride is pretty steep!
Back in Central, I desperately wanted to eat at Ho Lee Fook, hip new bastion of Cantonese fusion fare, and I can see why the hype is big (and probably the first time I can see restaurant hype justified). Cool decor, cool (and really competent) staff, daring menu. (Chef hails from Mr. Wong /Ms. G’s in Sydney – rather obvious if you know these establishments)
Dumplings are freshly made and awesomely more-ish, brussel sprouts and cauliflower cooked with bacon and chilli disappear fast, and every table seemed to be eating the short rib – sichuan pepper sears and numbs throughout, adding an addictive edge to the meal. We had more – shredded chicken salad, octopus, more sichuan pepper, more deliciousness. We literally couldnt stop eating. So… no place for dessert, but I can report a tight wine list (fair comment, you need to see the restaurant booze prices in this city). It’s helluva contemporary, and I’m sure offends heaps of Chinese culinary purists, but hey, chefs interpret food the way they see it fit – and sometimes it really works. If you approach this restaurant as just that, a new young chef’s view, its delicious. I see one reviewer asks ‘is this how they eat Chinese food in Australia?’ I guess yes, they are, because it’s new approachable and…sexy. Hey there’s place for all types in this world.
Next post – the Other side of HK.