Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eating in... Hong Kong

When I discovered that the cheapest way to get from the Philippines to Malaysia was via Hong Kong, I was ecstatic. Long on the list of my desired stopovers, I have been wanting to eat in the former British city for years for its Chinese traditions. Specifically for the dim sum and the famous open-air dai pai dong restaurants and hawker stalls, which have since declined in number due to various reasons, including a sanitisation movement enacted by local regulatory bodies (however not without protest). A formerly prominent feature of the city's culinary scene, we were lucky to have visited two of the remaining dai pai dong areas, one at the Temple Street Night Market (famous for seafood) on the Kowloon/mainland side and the other on Stanley Street on Hong Kong Island.

Stanley Street dai pai dong, January 2014

Every evening on the northern end of Stanley Street, a handful of dai pai dong come to life, lining the street with their foldaway/makeshift tables and plastic stools in preparation for an always bustling crowd of locals, expats, and tourists who know an opportunity for good food when they see it. English menus are available, however at our stall spoken English was tricky. So stringing some of my basic Mandarin together to exchange with their Cantonese (the local dialect), we ordered a braised eggplant and chilli hotpot, a grouper and tofu hotpot, and salt and pepper squid.

The aftermath of our meal after being too excited/hungry to take photos prior

While their was no fault on the squid, it was the hotpots that provided a blinding reminder about how good Chinese food can be. The eggplant melted in the mouth within its punchy, slightly sticky yet unctuous braising sauce; while the large meaty chunks of grouper were perfectly seasoned, moist and complemented by soft tofu which lightened the otherwise rich and salty dish. These with a bowl of simply steamed white rice - to ensure not an ounce of sauce was left unenjoyed - resulted in a complete, satisfying and enriching meal to finish off a night of drinking craft beers.

Exterior of Yat Lok restaurant, 34-38 Stanley Street, Central

Down the road was the only eatery we visited twice during our three day stay in Hong Kong: Yat Lok restaurant. Their specialty is roast goose, and special it is. Not unlike the more common roast duck, their amazingness arises from ultra crispy skin, given life by a combination of seasonings that I'm not privy to, and succulent, tender, equally-seasoned meat. On the first visit, I ordered roast goose on rice, allowing the meat to sing for itself.

Roast goose (below), Barbecue roast pork (above) and Chinese greens with oyster sauce

The second time around, I went for roast goose leg noodle soup which I was slightly hesitant about (after eating disappointing wonton noodle soup at Mak's Noodle at The Peak), until I tasted it. The flavoursome soup broth was subtlely fragrant, while the fresh thin egg noodles provided a textural counterpoint to the goose leg's delicious meat and paper-thin skin. I was happy to have tried this rendition, however I'd have trouble recommending either over the other for a one-time-only visit (I guess personal preference over rice vs. noodles would prevail here). 

Roast goose leg noodle soup

We also tried Yat Lok's recommended barbecue pork (on rice) which we enjoyed for its more-savoury-less-sweet flavour. Unlike what I'm used to for BBQ pork, it took me a few bites to stop looking for the sweet. Without hesitation, we would visit again (beware of queuing during peak meal time, and be prepared to share a table if you are any less than a group of 4) and it should be noted that it was my partner who wanted to make the second visit here.

I say that because he's not the biggest fan of Chinese food, so whenever he really enjoys it, I'm delighted. This was also the case for Tim Ho Wan: the Dim-Sum Specialists. Popularly revered as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, this was dim sum like I'd never experienced before, and unlikely to again unless back at any of the four Tim Ho Wan outlets within Hong Kong/Kowloon, or at the outposts in Singapore, Taiwan or Manila, Philippines - if they're consistent.


I have always known Hong Kong to be the mecca of yum cha (Chinese lunch where small dishes of steamed/fried/baked savoury and sweet foods, known as dim sum, are served alongside bottomless pots of tea), but was completely blown away by our experience at Tim Ho Wan. It went far and beyond my expectations, and I remember thinking, and probably saying aloud, "who could have ever guessed that it could be as good as this!?". 

Baked Bun with BBQ pork

The famous baked BBQ pork buns can only be described as a revelation. Even though I'd read many superlatives about these little puppies before visiting, I was still skeptical. I was only ever fond of steamed buns at yum cha, with the baked versions always being too flaky and stodgy for my liking. These were different. The bread outer was delightfully crispy and light, with the perfect measure of sweetness to complement the (recognisable!) slices of BBQ pork in the moreish 'sauce' which further enhanced the pork's savoury flavour. This complex contrast of flavours and textures is without a doubt the reason for these buns' cult following: each bite was a symphony - despite how wanky and ridiculous it might sound. 

Steamed spinach & prawn dumplings (left), steamed rice rolls with BBQ pork (top right), steamed beef balls with bean curd (bottom right)

Our other dishes (steamed rice rolls/'vermicelli' with BBQ pork, steamed shrimp and spinach dumplings, steamed beef balls with bean curd, and steamed sponge cake; disappointingly the sticky rice - a yum cha favourite of mine - was unavailable) almost equally blew us away. Particularly the rice roll and steamed dumpling wrappers, which were so wonderfully light and silky smooth on the tongue, while the steamed sponge cake was ALSO wonderfully light, not at all rubbery (as previous experience were to suggest), and with a subtle caramel flavour without being too sweet: again, all unlike I've ever tried before. And unlike all previous yum cha experiences, we didn't come away feeling regrettably full and/or lethargic. My only regret was not ordering two serves of the pork buns to save some for later.

A peak into the kitchen at the baked BBQ pork buns being made

We visited the Hong Kong Central station branch, easily found directly under the station on podium level 1 by the large crowd of people waiting out front. When you get here (and presumedly all other Tim Ho Wan branches) you need to get your name and number of people on the waiting list. You will then be handed the menu/order form (available in English) where you mark down your order so when the time comes to be seated, you'll be greeted by your food with the utmost efficiency. If they're shouting out numbers in Cantonese, just keep an eye on the not-necessarily-very-friendly person managing the list and their clipboard. Alternatively, you can order your food to takeaway and get your food fairly promptly. The dine-in experience, however, is worthwhile, if not a little torturous to see what others around you have ordered and you have not. Absolutely a must-eat in Hong Kong and the biggest advice I can give you is to try and eat during off-peak, e.g. around 3 or 4pm, to avoid the hour plus-long waits that I've only read about (we considered ourselves lucky waiting only 30 minutes).

For my partner, Hong Kong had excellent craft beer pubs. In these (The Globe, 45-53A Graham Street, and The Roundhouse, 62 Peel Street, were our favourites) we found ourselves almost-too-comfortably amongst the expat crowd, which I suppose was unsurprising given Hong Kong's history and its status as an international commerce hub. The impressive lists of craft brews represented both Hong Kong and the likes of the UK, USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. This was supplemented by great happy hour specials (varies between bars) as well as excellent pub grub (The Roundhouse offered various barbecued meats, e.g. sausages, pulled pork, brisket, etc, accompanied by onions, pickles and humble slices of white bread).

Barbecue brisket assembled with sides and sauces at The Roundhouse Taproom

Altogether, Hong Kong was amongst the favourite places on our trip. We loved the strong presence of Chinese culture with all its real dirtiness and rudeness (unlike Singapore which is arguably too sanitised), mixed in with its trendy international vibe and undeniable buzz. We felt like we could easily live there (with the right high-paying jobs) provided we could take regular rides between the mainland and Hong Kong island on the lovely not-so-little Star Ferry.

Star Ferry crossing Victoria Harbour between Kowloon and Hong Kong island

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