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Wine & Dine
February 22, 2017

Discover Hong Kong As The ‘City Of Cuisines’

Text by Shirin Mehta

From Michelin-starred establishments to tea restaurants and dim sum houses, there are a variety of delicacies to sample

Hong Kong seems to me to be the perfect representation of the ‘city that never sleeps’. Its impressive skyline never dims its neon colours and psychedelic silhouettes and its crowded streets seem to throb with activity at all hours. And, while it is constantly rebuilding and re-energising itself, it seems to me that this is also the city that never stops eating. Hong Kong perfectly lives up to its title of Gourmet Paradise. If food tours to France are a given, Hong Kong is slowly edging through as the place to satisfy all culinary cravings.

‘All’ being the keyword here…. This former British colony and economic powerhouse has attracted people from all over the world. While the local cuisine is mainly influenced by Cantonese, Western and Japanese flavours, this is the place to enjoy everything from a good steak dinner to sushi and tempura, Italian delicacies to Indian curry. The traditional saying here, ‘The food is in Canton’ has today been elbowed out by Hong Kong’s culinary entrepreneurs and chefs. The food is indeed in Hong Kong!

The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong provides an ecosystem, a cocoon, of glorious food. We lunch at Man Wah, the Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant with panoramic views of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong skyline. A selection of dim sum — steamed, braised, fried — provides wonder for the taste buds and the eyes. The standout dish according to me, however, is the steamed glutinous rice with crabmeat. Served in individual bowls, the rice proves to be part crispy, part tender and the mouthfeel is like nothing I have eaten before. A delectable treat!

We meet up with chef de cuisine Satpal Sharma in his spiffy kitchen at the hotel. Of Indian origin, Chef Sharma has lived in Hong Kong for most of his adult life. He strives to bring the tastes of India to the partying crowd at the ever-popular Captain’s Bar, the city’s favourite after-work watering hole. A variety of snacks arrive in small and large platters, piping hot and delicious. Melt-in-the-mouth mutton samosas, I decide, are unbeatable until the palak pakoras, aloo puffs and Mumbai pakoras leave me confused as to what I like best of all. While I am one of those who steers clear of Indian food while travelling to foreign shores, I have to admit that Chef Sharma has laid out a treat indeed.

Pineapple or tea?
An interesting walk around the Police Married Quarters (PMQ) that has been revitalised as a creative hub for local design talent in the middle of Soho in Central, leaves us hungry, for good design must be followed by good food. Having already sampled the city’s excellent five-star fare, we now venture into a classic cha chaan teng or tea restaurant. The large and airy Honolulu Café reminds me of Mumbai’s fading Irani restaurants with its wooden and plastic furniture and recycled bottles of sauces. The menu is as exhaustive and provides for a fascinating mishmash of Chinese and Western fare representing the popular local food. We dig into bowls of rice and duck, noodles and pork, both incredibly delicious and replete with nourishing and warming broth. We bite into thick slabs of French toast unlike any other, served with hefty slabs of butter. And then we sample the signature offerings which, of course, are the Hong Kong-style milk tea and the pineapple bun.

Let’s take a piece of the pineapple bun first. If you are looking for the fruit in its doughy folds, look elsewhere. The top part of the bun is made to look like a pineapple and hence the name. This is made of cookie dough and crunchy compared to the bread underneath. Why am I not surprised that a large piece of oozing butter peeps out of its delicious interior? In 2014, the Hong Kong government listed the pineapple bun as part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage. Yes, that is exactly how important this innocuous-looking bread is to the people of this city.

And now for a sip of the Hong Kong-style milk tea, an integral part of the food culture and a lasting legacy of British colonial rule. The English practice of afternoon tea grew in popularity here and milk tea is similar to the black tea and milk served there, except that it is made with evaporated or condensed milk instead of regular milk. Every cha chaan teng purports to have its own secret recipe, which is usually a mix of several types of black tea. The key feature though is that a sackcloth bag is used to filter the leaves, apparently to make it smoother, the mark of a good milk tea. This bag slowly takes on an intense brown colour due to the constant tea drenching. Together with the shape of the filter, this resembles a silk stocking giving the tea the nickname of pantyhose or silk stocking tea. I find the tea strong, sweet and very milky, a bit like masala tea without the masala.

Another star of Hong Kong cuisine is the egg tart, an enviable concoction of crisp, smooth, sweet and salty. It is delicious and satisfying and an integral part of a meal offered in a dim sum house. It is also available in cha chaan teng or five-star bakeries and restaurants. The Macau version of the egg tart was brought by Portuguese colonisers and this made its way to Hong Kong where it was influenced by British custard tarts, making it smoother than the original. These tarts are an essential Hong Kong treat and definitely worth several tries, with milk tea, as part of a dim sum meal or even as dessert.

Michelin-star treat!
Today, we are standing in line outside Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, for another must-do culinary experience in this crowded city. This dim sum restaurant has gained fame as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Chef Mak Kwai Pui who helmed the Four Seasons’ three-Michelin-starred restaurant opened this excellent yet reasonably priced eatery. The chain has expanded all over the world, including to New York most recently. Chef Mak is here, at the restaurant, a stroke of luck, and while he speaks little English, our grunts of satisfaction say it all. We make a celebrity of him, taking pictures and having him autograph menus. That’s how much we love his food.

So, this is what we eat, all of it amazingly good: baked bun with BBQ pork, a house special not to be missed; freshly steamed shrimp dumpling, tender and caressing in the mouth; steamed pork dumplings with shrimp, delicious; steamed egg cake, to die for; pan-fried turnip cake, to live for; and phoenix talons with abalone sauce as chicken feet is a delicacy in these parts…and so on. The restaurant interior is nothing to shout home about, on the grubbier side in fact, but the food is worthy of that long line that continues to snake around the building outside, day in and day out.

There is good food wherever you go in this city! A day at the races throws up intricate cocktails and cold coffee at the restaurant Hay Market where the adrenaline is thick enough to slice. A day out shopping at Harbour City, a large and diverse mall, has us spoilt for culinary choice as we settle on Italian restaurant Al Molo. A tram drive up to the Peak opens up vast food options. A ride on the crystal cabin of Ngong Ping 360 at the Tung Chung Terminal takes you to the Big Buddha on Lantau Island that also hosts a selection of Chinese restaurants at Ngong Ping Village. Or, you may lunch at Po Lin monastery’s vegetarian kitchen for a seasonal meal that ‘cleanses the stomach and intestine’.

At any time, it is estimated that Hong Kong has up to 60 Michelin-starred restaurants. But, if your heart desires, you may wander the streets, duck into a traditional cha chaan teng, savour an experience at a heart-warming dim sum house, indulge in the iconic high tea in the lobby of The Peninsula hotel, balance a glass of champagne on a Chinese junk boat sailing into Victoria Harbour or simply delve into a bowl of noodles at a corner restaurant. Hong Kong’s literal translation is ‘fragrant harbour’ and I certainly know why.

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