Flavours of Hong Kong
Hong Kongers are passionate about their native cuisine, yet the ‘traditional’ food of Hong Kong is really a mixture of various influences. There are Portuguese restaurants that hark back to the city’s colonial days, sweet Malay curries, spicy South Asian flavours and the steadfastly traditional dishes of inner China. In Hong Kong you will discover myriad influences waiting to be savoured in a densely crowded, skyscraper city that jostles for a glimpse of the harbour along a neon-lit skyline. It’s a place where the debate about who makes the best barbeque buns can get as heated as the little doughy rolls themselves, yet its gourmet landscape was only invaded by the Michelin Guide as recently as 2008. This invasion has thrown some surprising curveballs, including stars awarded to street cafés that have never seen a starched tablecloth or silver fork (sorry, chopstick).
Internationally renowned chefs from around the globe have opened up their eateries here in droves – Nobu Matsuhisa, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Joël Robuchon all ply a brisk trade in a city whose inhabitants love international cuisine. Yet the most popular food in the city remains Cantonese, in innumerable forms: from fast food dumplings and dim sum in grubby street cafés to delicately plated visions in wood-panelled hotel restaurants. Hong Kongers are curious about food and generally quite adventurous in what they’ll eat, resulting in some surprising dishes. You may be familiar with (or at least have heard of) durian – the stinking fruit whose rotting garbage odour means it is banned on all public transport – but have you ever been tempted by stinking tofu, a deeply fermented snack whose spongy texture and arresting aroma appeal to the more hardy Hong Kong gourmand?
Notwithstanding these rather extreme treats, traditional dishes include noodles (wonton, Singapore, flat, egg… you name it, there’s a noodle for it) and dim sum, which translates as touch the heart. Both are eaten from breakfast onwards: their quality is taken rather seriously, as is the art of tea, which borders on the ceremonial. There are plenty of tea houses where you can appreciate the art of brewing and correct pouring (the Lock Cha Tea Shop in Hong Kong Park offers a short class) as well as learning about how the country’s history is interwoven with that of its most famous leaves.
You’re never too far from somewhere to eat, but the city has several concentrated foodie districts worth visiting: Lan Kwai Fong and Soho are particularly lively and boast one of the best mixes of modern and traditional cuisine, as well as bars and nightclubs aplenty.
Meals are meant for sharing, and nowhere is this more true than in Hong Kong, where traditional dining means no one orders one main course to themselves. Instead, dishes are brought to the table and everyone digs in, using chopsticks, leaning over one another and generally tucking in to whatever is in front of them. Don’t worry if you’re a two-left-thumbs kind of diner when it comes to chopsticks: forks and spoons are provided with just the right amount of polite pity to make you wish you’d practiced before you left home.
A half-day trip to Lamma Island is a must-do. The rural island is a calming contrast to the relentless urban hive of the city and is accessible by boat; best of all, if you pre-book your table, the restaurant will send a ferry to bring you in and take you back. The eatery itself isn’t much to look at: brightly coloured plastic chairs and tables beneath a functional corrugated iron roof, but the food is sublime and the ambience very charming. The island has resisted the skyscraper changes of Kowloon and the mainland and is really just a little village set amid tropical vegetation. There’s a great walk to be had before descending back to the harbour area where a row of ramshackle restaurants – including the Rainbow – serve up some of the best Cantonese cuisine you’ll ever have, at incredibly cheap prices. Lemony fish, scallops topped with angel-fine noodles and ginger, a whole fish so soft and flaky it melts in your mouth, and plump and tangy shrimps washed down with cheap, light Chinese hops. You’ll surprise yourself at how much you can eat and how inexpensive it is.
INFO: www.lammarainbow.com; +852 2982 8100.
Where to eat
Tim Ho Wan
Michelin stars in a mall? Dubai dwellers may balk at the concept of a flouro-lit fast food joint being awarded such a rarefied accolade but in Hong Kong they simply shrug… and queue. Ah, yes, the queue outside this unassuming little café is testament to its popularity. Tim Ho Wan’s turnip cakes may be the cheapest Michelin bites you’ll ever sample along with the delicious (and Gourmet recommended) barbeque buns. Bite into the soft, sweetly doughy mound and a soft waft of steam escapes, before the meaty filling reveals itself. They’re absolutely delicious. Also not to be missed here are the prawn dim sum and the rice noodle rolls, while dishes such as chicken feet and the turnip cake are perhaps best left to those who may truly appreciate their authenticity. It’s certainly an experience to eat here: you grab a ticket at the counter and then wait – sometimes for upwards of an hour – to take your seat alongside other diners in the crowded little space. Your food arrives as it is cooked and dawdling over lunch is not welcomed.
INFO: Shop 12A, Hong Kong Station, Podium Level 1, IFC Mall; +852 2332 3078.
Where To Stay
The InterContinental in Hong Kong enjoys not only one of the best harbour-side locations, but is also something of a destination in itself for gourmands. The hotel boasts Spoon by Alain Ducasse, a two-Michelin starred French eatery, as well as a Nobu and an award-winning steakhouse. But the real star of the show, in Gourmet’s humble opinion, is Yan Toh Heen, which is a Michelin-starred Cantonese eatery that serves traditional Chinese food reimagined for the 21st century. It isn’t a fusion thing by any stretch, but the dishes introduce a few new ingredients while remaining resolutely and recognisably Cantonese. Stir-fried Wagyu beef with black peppercorns, crispy prawns with black truffle and spare ribs with lemongrass and honey bring the cuisine into the present with deliciously fragrant results, while dishes such as bird’s nest, braised abalone with goose webs and double boiled sea cucumber will appeal to those hankering for a truly authentic dining experience. An elegant setting overlooking the harbour completes this quintessential Hong Kong dining experience.