Travel April 14th, 2014

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Hong Kong’s glorious cultural contradictions

An eye on Western trendsetters and a foot firmly planted in Chinese traditional values revealed in fascinating approach to dining

It’s a wonder to me that every Hong Kong citizen isn’t obese. Eying the streetscape before me, it rapidly becomes obvious that the people here really like to eat.

They also really like to shop.

Restaurants and clothing stores, two necessary and inextricably linked services (more food, larger clothes), vie for the No. 1 spot on the ubiquity scale. Yet, these same citizens don’t appear to be rushing out to buy ever-growing sizes one might expect necessary to keep up with increasing girth. To the contrary, most people seem to be slim and fit, and in central Hong Kong or its mainland twin city, Kowloon, many appear to be dressed in the latest chic from London, Paris and Rome fashion houses.

The answer lies in the contradictions that make up Hong Kong culture.

While they watch the West and emulate what they see as trendsetters, at base they are Chinese, with all the values of this traditional culture.

They may be scarfing down the occasional burger at McDonald’s, but they aren’t supersizing them. Restaurants serve generous portions, but these are meant to be shared with several people. Food simply isn’t a singular activity.

Indeed, it’s hard not to love the communal Hong Kong/Chinese way of approaching dining. Most restaurants have huge, circular tables whose central, revolving lazy Susan gets piled with dishes, into which hungry diners tuck with great gusto. Chopsticks are useful but not mandatory. Oddly enough, I find delicately picking another piece of meat from the platter with chopsticks somehow doesn’t seem as offensive as performing the same action with a fork.

Food comes out when and as it is prepared, in no particular order, so it is fresh, hot and delicious.

Soup invariably forms one of the last courses. And dessert is usually slices of fresh melon, grapes, pineapple and other delicious fruit.

What the Chinese have always known is that dining on moderate portions of several really good-tasting dishes is healthier and more satisfying than overeating.

It’s important to sample every level of cuisine here, beginning with a corner congee shop for breakfast.

My first experience of this breakfast dish was actually on the plane. Cathay Pacific offers it on the breakfast menu.

Congee is a watery rice porridge to which locals add all sorts of things: mushrooms, seafood, green onions, pickled vegetables and even chili sauce. While this sounds vaguely unappetizing, it is, in fact, really tasty, and a hearty way to start the day. It’s as hearty as Scottish porridge!

While few Westerners know congee, everyone has heard of dim sum, China’s most famous contribution to mid-day dining. “Touch the heart”, its literal translation, serves as everything from brunch to afternoon tea and is an opportunity to sample many small dishes.

At OVOlogue, dim sum is as gorgeous as the setting in which it is served — a sort of Zen meets minimalist chic of grey walls and dark wood, all set in a historic building which once housed a famous pawn shop. Delicate mushrooms in a rich truffle oil sauce, grilled scallops done to a mouth-watering turn, picture-perfect shaomai dumplings stuffed with pork.

By contrast, dim sum at Tao Yuen in central Kowloon has all the hallmarks of rough-and-tumble family dining. In the universal red and gold décor so beloved of Chinese eateries the world over, we spin a turntable laden with noodle soup, dumplings and sweet and sour pork. It’s all so good it’s hard to stop myself from taking one last little morsel — again… and again!

Most people come to Wing Lai Yuen (same red colour scheme), at Whampoa Gardens in Kowloon, for their famous handmade dan dan noodles in a spicy peanut broth laced with pork, prawns and cabbage.

These were once the fare sold by street hawkers, but I could not believe noodles could taste so good. Marco Polo thought he’d got the goods when he took pasta back to Italy, but he didn’t get this recipe!

At Wing Lai Yuen, I discover a whole new delight: shao lung dumplings. I dip each plump ball of dough into vinegar and pop it whole into my mouth. The first bite into the dumpling reveals the interior’s little surprise as chicken broth and pork burst onto my palate. Heaven!

On the other hand, deboned duck’s tongue marinated in wine (who knew ducks have bony tongues?) is glutinous and winey — definitely not appealing to my taste buds.

Being on the water, fish and seafood are a given on most menus and no culinary visit to Hong Kong is complete without a visit to Rainbow Seafood on Lamma Island. A legendary spot, the demand is so great for their food that they maintain their own ferry boats. If you call in advance, you can get a free ride across for dinner.

Here, we pick our own seafood from the tanks. It arrives fresh and hot — sweet-fleshed mantis, like lobster tails minus the body; scallops served with fine glass noodles and chopped garlic; a delicate seafood sauce atop which rests a whole green grouper whose flesh falls off the bone. Rice comes last.

“We always eat rice last,” explains my guide, Denny Ip. “That way you aren’t filling your guests with rice before the good things come out.”

Sounds reasonable.

Chinese food markets are mysterious places filled with exotic, unfamiliar foods. In one shop, I examine dried creatures that look suspiciously like caterpillars.

They are!

Summer grass-winter worm is a Tibetan parasitic fungus that devours the inside of ghost moth larvae, leaving the mummified remains. These are consumed to fight everything from AIDS and cancer to aging. The best of these sell for $600 Cdn for a tail (a tail is a Chinese measure equaling 33 gm).

The Chinese have long understood that some foods are good for treating certain ailments (a Western example might be cranberries for urinary tract infections).

Angelica roots, Ip explains, are good for the circulation, the Chinese yam for respiration, and wolfberry seeds improve the eyes. It’s a whole new way of looking at what you consume.

Unlike almost anywhere else on earth, in Hong Kong every meal is an adventure. And after all, isn’t that the highest accolade one can give any dining experience?

Bon appetit. Or, as the Chinese would say, Sihk faahn!

If you go: Cultural Kaleidoscope is definitely a plus for the visitor — learn about Chinese jade, take a duk ling ride (on a Chinese junk) around the harbour, learn about the architecture or history of the city. Most are free. Visit dicoverhongkong.com and click on the “Things to Do” link to get to the list of tours and activities.

Forget car rentals. Parking is hopeless and traffic can be brutal. Hong Kong public transport is among the best in the world. Buy a pass and hop on a bus or subway to travel around with ease. And walking can be a great way to explore the city, find neat street markets and walk off all the wonderful food.