Hong Kong: Street level fare

By Peter Calder

Nothing goes to waste at a Hong Kong market stall, finds Peter Calder.

Dim sum. Photo / Hong Kong Tourism
Dim sum. Photo / Hong Kong Tourism

At breakfast, more than at any other time of the day, we are creatures of habit. First thing in the morning, no one likes a disrupted routine. Mine - and I'm not being paid to say this - involves toasted Vogels mixed grain with sliced tomato and oodles of black pepper. Which makes me wonder why I am sitting on a vinyl stool at a plastic laminate table looking at a breakfast that includes some very intimate body parts of a pig I have never met.

There's liver in there, and heart and stomach and kidney and intestine. It's all floating in a bowl of rice porridge known as congee. And it's absolutely delicious.

Sun Kau Kee Congee is just off Johnston Rd in the heart of Wan Chai, the part of Hong Kong where the old brushes up most agreeably against the new. Its fame belies its drab décor and the service - very friendly but not over-attentive; as I ate my congee an elderly woman in white gumboots mopped the floor around my feet, beaming broadly at me all the while - but the food is great.

My company for the day, a man by the name of Sidney Luk, explains that you can tell a good congee shop by the fact that fish and meat are hanging raw in the window. In second-rate places, the dish is made before you get there. And to judge by its wares, Sun Kau Kee is a very good congee shop.

I've come across congee before in the many Hong Kong-style restaurants in central Auckland and the inner suburbs, but - a creature of habit at lunchtime too, perhaps - I couldn't tear myself away from the roast duck or won ton soup. In Hong Kong, however, I am eating what I am given.

The man doing the ordering, Sidney, has assumed responsibility for showing me the downmarket side of eating in the city. In Hong Kong they take eating very seriously indeed. It has its own Michelin Guide and other food directories pointing the visitor to restaurants where gourmet food may be found for less than $50 a head. The abolition in 2008 of tax on wine makes it a great place to try some of the best vintages from Europe and elsewhere.

The very top chefs, Sidney tells me, are to be found working in the major hotels rather than in standalone restaurants and, if you're after fine food from other parts of China or even European cuisine, as well as the Cantonese traditions, there are plenty of places to live it up large without breaking the bank.

But eating at street level is the quickest way to get to the heart of a place, and it doesn't get much more street-level than Sun Kau Kee.

We had come by way of the street markets where you quickly realise that there's nothing they don't eat in this neck of the woods. I had been puzzled by the mention of the "wet" market, assuming they'd be all fish and dripping water.

As it turned out there was plenty of that: fish and shellfish and crabs and lobsters - a disarming number of every kind showing evident signs of life - were on show, but vegetables and meats, raw and roasted, abounded too.

The "wet", I quickly realised, distinguished it from the dry market where the boundary between food and medicine becomes very blurred. The air is filled with a salty, dusty tang as I pass baskets of meticulously organised stacks of animals - or their body parts - all dried. Some are easily identified - as shrimp, duck or mushroom - but others are harder to pick. Fish bladders yawn like Daliesque blimps. Jars contain the main ingredient of "bird's nest soup" - the salivary "cement" used by small birds called swifts, painstakingly stripped away from the organic material - which sells for around $60 a gram. A black fungus has dried to the shape of a dahlia blossom. Elsewhere, pairs of tiny lizards are held chin-to-chin by a golden ribbon, as if caught in the final embrace of their dance of death.

Sidney discreetly explains that the lizards make a good aphrodisiac and looks puzzled when I ask him if the lizards eat humans when their sex life is getting stale. That black fungus makes a soup that is "very good for skin", he says and, comparing his smooth and faintly golden complexion with my pale and sun-damaged Celtic face, I am in no position to disagree.

Elsewhere it can be hard to tell whether I am being invited to eat or to ease one of the manifold ailments for which there is something to eat in Hong Kong. We go for snake soup at lunchtime, only they don't call it snake soup; they call it "local tonic food". In the densely packed Ser Wong Fun in the part of town called Central, snake is on the menu. The reptiles having obligingly fattened themselves for winter, they are at their best right now, shredded in a faintly sweet gelatinous soup in which hints of mushroom and lemon cut through the gamey taste. In another concoction, melon and ginger predominate.

The snake-flesh looks like pulled pork and, in contrast to most unfamiliar meats, does not taste at all like chicken. But enjoyment seemed to come second to health care.

To be honest, I lost track of what particular part of me the snake was meant to be good for - it was either the sinuses or the knee joints. Certainly an almond cake with lotus seed which we had later with tea was ideal for the lungs. Another of black sesame - earthy and faintly fungoid - was a boon for hair colour, Sidney said. I'm not sure I believe him because what little hair I have on my bald pate remains resolutely grey, but both cakes certainly overcame my lifelong suspicion of Asian desserts.

Lunch the next day was at a Michelin-starred place, but there was no danger of my having to endure white linen, silver service and Chateau Montrachet. I drank smoky oolong tea and if my memory serves - Sidney was paying - the bill was less than $40. But the Michelin star was real: Tim Ho Wan, where they do dim sum to die for, has the distinction of being the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant on the planet.

Hopeful diners wait in a long line outside the door - the place doesn't take bookings - and it is soon plain that the food is worth waiting for. Little effort has been wasted on the interior décor which resembles a slightly upmarket factory cafeteria but in the kitchen, magic happens.

Unlike the Auckland restaurants that serve dim sum - which we call yum cha - the dishes aren't ferried among the tables in an endless, alluring procession. You choose and they cook - in that order. There was nothing there I hadn't seen before but the tastes seemed fresher and more vibrant somehow. The chef Mak Pui Gor used to be the dim sum chef at the luxury Hong Kong Four Seasons Hotel.

I could have whiled away the afternoon happily, but Sidney was looking at his watch and I thought of the people queuing in the heat. As we left I remembered that yum cha, which means "drink tea", is the name given to the entire experience; dim sum is the name for the dishes of food.

It's a phrase that means "touch the heart", which seemed perfect somehow, because eating in Hong Kong has that effect.

Peter Calder ate out in Hong Kong with the assistance of the Hong Kong Tourism Board and Cathay Pacific Airways

- Herald on Sunday

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