In a Food Paradise

December 21, 2009 — This is my final blog entry of the year. In a few hours I will depart for two weeks of scuba diving in the Philippines. I’m due to return to Hong Kong on January 6th, just a few days before the start of classes. Of course the end of this year is also the end of the decade, the first of the new century and millennium. As in most societies, such a milestone moment has prompted some self-reflection in Hong Kong. This has been the first full decade of unification with China and what was once the uncertain post-1997 future is now well over ten years old. Tempest fugit. As befitting the occasion, many of the local opinion makers on TV and in the newspapers have been looking back on what has happened and not happened. They agree that, overall, the HK SAR has fared quite well. It enjoys stability, record prosperity, and its peculiar place in the world is in no danger of disappearing. Hong Kong is now China’s portal to the rest of the world (rather than the West’s to China) and consequently its importance in the international market is greater than ever before.

Some here lament that there is no real democracy in Hong Kong, Certainly there is no institutional democracy, but there is an undeniably democratic spirit in the culture of this place—one that China has wisely allowed to continue unmolested. Hong Kong has its own imperfect legislature with “functional constituencies” in which elected members represent professions (teachers, businesspeople, civil servants, etc.) rather than districts based on census data and the principle of one-person-one-vote. The chief executive is answerable to party leaders in Beijing but also to the people of Hong Kong (albeit in a less formalized though equally real way). The media has substantial—though not unlimited—freedom and street protests against HK and PRC policies are a daily occurrence. The protesters, as a rule, are very well mannered—in fact, many are silent (we should be so lucky in America). Yet they can be quite sharp. One clever protest poster recently showed a picture of Donald Tsang as a desperado and underneath it in western cowboy lettering the words “unwanted dead or alive.” Ouch. Most important of all, the Hong Kong judiciary remains the final word in civil and criminal cases. This, above all things, is reassuring to foreign and Chinese investors who remain confident enough to incorporate new businesses in Hong Kong believing that if legal disputes must go to court they will do so in a place that upholds contracts and whose judicial system has integrity and is not leaned on by politicians. At least in this regard some things have not changed since the handover and any Briton looking at Hong Kong today should be proud of what has remained even after the Union Jack was run down the pole for the last time in 1997. However, in fairness to the Chinese it must be noted too that Hong Kong is more democratic now than it was during the overwhelming majority of the time it was under the British. In any event, the overall assessment of Hong Kong’s recent past and the predictions for its near future are largely positive.

Right now, most Hong Kong people do not seem terribly concerned with politics. It is just a few days before Christmas and the malls are full of frantic shoppers. In a society that can at times seem obsessed with commerce, consumerism, and the trappings of material success, the Christmas season is embraced wholeheartedly by Hong Kong people, Christian or otherwise. Public spaces are decorated in varying levels of tastefulness. As in New York’s Rockefeller Center, here in Hong Kong an oversized evergreen tree is shipped in (from Manchuria or Siberia, presumably), erected in the middle of Central, and lit up from top to bottom. The shopping malls have decked their halls and they continuously pipe in the most insipid Christmas jingles through their sound systems, just like back home. Christmas sales and advertising abound, but I have seen no department store Santa Clauses (Chinese children would probably be terrified sitting on the lap of a fat European with a white beard and red nose—and rightly so). Not to sound like Scrooge or the Grinch, but by now I have had more than my fill of it all and am starting to look forward to a more authentic and less commercial Christmas experience in the Philippines.

One thing that I will certainly miss while I am away from Hong Kong is the food. Since arriving I have never ceased to marvel at the culinary bounty of this city and have very quickly come to take for granted an endless array of delicious, varied, and easily available food. It is a challenge even to begin describing the gastronomical scene all around me. Suffice it to say that Hong Kong, like Paris or New York, is one of the great culinary cities of the world. It may even be the greatest. Food here is an integral part of the culture, economy, and aesthetic richness of this place; it is to Hong Kong what music is to Vienna or Nashville, art is to Florence, fashion is to Milan, or architecture is to Chicago. Those who dismiss Hong Kong as a slave to mammon and a cultural wasteland with its dearth of art galleries and writers’ colonies and its bland architecture should try to eat out more often. Hong Kong’s great artists may wear aprons and chef’s hats, but their creations are no less impressive than if they painted on a canvas or chiseled in stone. Many of the chefs are world famous and the disposable income in Hong Kong matched by its demand for luxury and fine dining makes this a desirable place to begin or to advance a culinary career.

Hong Kong people do dine out a lot. Most of them live in shoebox apartments and often choose to have parties and large family gatherings in restaurants where there is more space. It is a Sunday ritual for families to eat out and the thousands of restaurants here are packed with customers. Five-star restaurants are found throughout Hong Kong but it is as easy to find a cheap and delicious meal just about anywhere. Noodle shops and Dim Sum stands are a stone’s throw from most MTR stations and offer up steaming hot bowls of the freshest and tastiest Cantonese staples. Supermarkets have kitchens and can pack up meals to go just as readily as the takeaway stands. My experience is that eating out or bringing home takeaway is usually cheaper, faster, and better than trying to cook at home. In fact, since arriving in late August I have cooked exactly one meal in my kitchen—and that was during my first week here before I wised up. The centrality of food in Hong Kong culture and society is really amazing and was one of the easiest realities to become accustomed to once I arrived. In fact, I wonder if it is possible to have the reverse of culture shock: to experience in a new place a change in culture that makes me feel more like I belong and then to look at my own culture and wonder how I could have ever considered that to be normal. The one exception to all this is 7-Eleven. There is one on every other street corner and, just like at home, the morning commute would not be complete without a quick stop in. Except that here you can buy pork dumplings at the register, but no coffee. I still have not gotten used to that.

One can get any kind of food in Hong Kong. So far I have eaten at top-notch Spanish, Italian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese restaurants. In particular, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon boast a wide array of tapas bars, New York delis, Texas steakhouses, Bistros, Trattorias, Irish and English pubs, teppanyaki rooms and every variation of Chinese eatery. While the western food here is quite good, it is ridiculously expensive… well, maybe not so ridiculous given that many of the key ingredients are flown in from around the world: mozzarella from Naples, chorizo from Madrid, top sirloin from the US, etc. Apart from restaurants, the supermarkets, street markets, pastry shops, and wine distributors clearly cater to a worldly and discriminating customer base. Certainly I have would no problem indulging my love of Spanish and South African wines were it not for my attempt to keep within a reasonable budget.

But of course, the real pleasure of Hong Kong dining is the opportunity to become familiar with the range, subtlety, and exquisiteness of Chinese cuisine. At the outset one should acknowledge that there is actually no such thing as Chinese cuisine in any real sense. To speak of Chinese cuisine is the same as speaking of European cuisine. It is simply too varied and complex to be characterized as one whole. The leading regional varieties such as Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuan, Hunan, Shandong, Fuijian, and Zeiyang are separate cuisines in their own right each with their own unique culinary traditions and sensibilities. While all these regional varieties are on offer in Hong Kong, Cantonese predominates, not surprisingly. Compared to other regional cuisines of China, Cantonese dishes are lighter and less spicy. The emphasis is on freshness and many of the dishes are steamed inside bamboo baskets. Dim sum delicacies are served in small dishes and washed down with ample quantities of tea. This sort of dining experience is called yum cha (飲茶 literally “drinking tea”) but I find that some of the local beer is just as good an accompaniment. Dim sum dishes include dozens of varieties of dumplings, wontons, rolls, balls, and buns made from every sort of meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable. Some Shanghainese dumplings are filled with soup along with meat or fish (I still haven’t figured out how it is even possible to make these). In South China there seems to be more of a preference for rice, pork, chicken and seafood while in the north one find more beef and duck specialties. In all cases, there is great emphasis on presentation and the best chefs learn quickly to develop an eye for detail and beauty. Tea is also a critical part of every meal and comes in dozens of varieties. I am not normally a tea drinker, but I have developed a liking for the jasmine and chrysanthemum varieties and find that they go nicely with a big meal as a digestive.

Since arriving in Hong Kong, I have been able to eat like a king. I have been spoiled, corrupted, and now wallow in my own decadence—at least as far as food is concerned. Many of the Fulbright meetings hosted at the various universities begin with a dim sum lunch that seems like a banquet. Dishes are selected for us and brought out continuously during the meal where they are set upon a glass lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Round tables are the norm here and nowadays on the rare occasions when I am at a western restaurant and seated with a group at an elongated rectangular table it feels strange and uncomfortable. Apart from Fulbright occasions, I have been able to dine regularly with my friends Xiaonan and Michael, who I have known for many years since my graduate student days in London. Xiaonan is from Beijing and Michael is from Guangzhou. They have lived in Hong Kong for a few years now and know their way around quite well. Sometimes they take me to their favorite Chinese restaurants, which often specialize in non-Cantonese regional cuisines and are popular with mainlanders. These are always off the beaten path and virtually unknown to westerners. I am usually the only gweilo in the place and the menus are all in Chinese. The wait staff does not speak English and all the ordering is done by my two friends. Thus I am able to enjoy another dimension of Hong Kong dining to which even some long-time expat residents are not exposed.

Apart from variety, Cantonese cuisine is distinguished by an almost obsessive insistence on freshness. Vegetables are always fresh and are steamed to keep in the flavor, texture, and vitamins. But the most astonishing use of fresh ingredients is in seafood. Most restaurants have a fish tank from which live meal ingredients can be drawn, but this is nothing unusual and by itself would hardly be remarkable. What is amazing, however, is the size of the tanks and the variety of the offerings. One of my favorite spots is the famous Hung Kee Seafood Restaurant located in Sai Kung, a pleasant seaside community on the eastern side of the New Territories. I occasionally eat there with friends from my dive club after our boat returns in the evening. Hung Kee is a local tourist attraction even for people who don’t dine there. It is like a trip to the aquarium and dinner, in the same place and at the same time. Indeed, if something swims or crawls in the ocean, Hung Kee has at least a dozen of them each in their own special tank (see below). On my last visit, one tank held a grouper that must have weighed at least a hundred pounds. As an avid diver, I consider myself reasonably well educated in marine biology, for a layman, but there are many types of species in the Hung Kee tanks that I have never seen (or tasted), although it must be said that there are fewer of these with each return visit. Patrons stand in front of dozens of tanks large and small and point to the creatures swimming, slithering, or scuttling obliviously inside, all the while a waiter dutifully writes down the names of the condemned. Step two is to review the selections and decide the way that each is to be cooked. Step three is to sit at one’s table and drink beer until the dishes are brought out. The wait is never long, but impatient and fidgety children are kept distracted by the horseshoe crabs that the management allows to crawl around on the ground in front of the tanks. It’s an amazing experience.

By now I am sure that I have managed to disgust and enrage any vegetarians that may be reading this. Alas, unlike Indian or Thai cuisine, the culinary sensibilities of the Chinese are not kind to vegetarians. Most dishes are a mix of meat and vegetables and even the strictly vegetable dishes are often prepared in chicken broth or fish oil. My vegetarian friends here all eat well, but it takes some effort and caution. Many of them shop in the local markets and cook at home. While it is easy to eat out all the time, one shouldn’t pass up a trip to the food markets of Hong Kong, if only as a spectator. My favorite “wet markets,” as they are called, are the ones in Tai Po and Shau Kei Wan. These are covered warehouses with hundreds of stalls selling every kind of food imaginable. Fruits and vegetables are extremely cheap and there is a seemingly endless variety. The butcher stalls are lesson in anatomy and apparently there is no part of a pig or chicken that cannot end up on someone’s dinner plate. The buckets of chicken feet, in particular, make me think of some "Far Side" cartoon whose punch line I can’t remember. Along with assorted chicken parts are wooden crates with live chickens inside. Many of the seafood stalls have aerated buckets of water filled with live fish, clams, lobsters, crabs, octopi, squid, cuttlefish, shrimp, turtles, and eels. If you wait long enough you will invariably see one of them climb or jump out and make a break for it before the stall owner grabs it from the floor and tosses it back in with its more apathetic brethren. Above and behind the buckets are tables laid out with trays of ice containing fish and freshly cut fish parts. Some of the sliced up eel pieces and octopus tentacles still squirm around while the gills and hearts of the decapitated and disemboweled fish still pulsate. Customers can even take away plastic bags filled with water and live fish back to their homes or to their favorite restaurants. In the US, some restaurants without a liquor license allow patrons to bring their own wine, but this is even better. I wonder if there is a fish gutting fee added to the bill instead of corkage; it seems only fair.
The menu at the Hung Kee Seafood Restaurant in Sai Kung, New Territories
15 December 2010