48 hours is not long, and Hong Kong has a lot to offer, and I want to check out a fascinating aspect of Hong Kong’s ‘cuisine’ and the buzz around Wan Chai. Text by Will Meyrick
From the outset Wan Chai looks a little of a no-brainer, Irish pubs and the seamy side of the neon-lit sex industry full off imported girls, imported beer and the culture that accompanies pubs and strip joints, Soho on steroids kind of thing, but dig a little deeper and you can discover there is a lot more to this hub once you step behind the neon into the food trading and tea houses.
It’s meat market meets meat market; less than a block back you are deep in the sort of trade that makes a chef weak at the knees: amazing arrays of sea food, razor clams, adept butchery of pork, of beef, sliced, diced and hung in the open air. It’s a pretty heady atmosphere and the faces you see, the stall-holders at the top of their game, holding court over the buyers, slicing into flesh, hands diving deep into crates of red mullet, live scallops, bundling it all up for the best prices. It’s exciting to be contemplating the new restaurant, too. We can buy the freshest every day, market direct, no middle man, no traipsing from one place to the next, it is all here, granted imported from Taiwan and from Thailand, Vietnam, mainland China. Personally I prefer the Southeast Asian imports when it comes to seafood, but for vegetables, the mainland is like the farm of Hong Kong. You don’t have to be a chef to appreciate the atmosphere of the markets, its great fun, the energy thrown around, the tone of the language that adds an audio spice into the mix, and the Blade Runner “unrealness” of it all: the meat so red, the fish so fresh, the glistening skins of the ducks hanging and the fluffy bean curd squares. The density and depth of the markets are such that you feel you can disappear into its sci-fi scenario.
Fortunately before you do, the very real sensation of hunger kicks in, and while the tea house and dim sum cafes can’t promise you quality, they can promise you satisfaction. The Cha Chaan Tengs of Hong Kong offer the kind of nostalgia that feeds the best of British back to the Chinese with only the merest hint of irony, and a wistfulness that is all about comfort and blandness. These places are packed, families gather, generations fight furious hand-held battles of gambling and online combat in a revered occupational space that says, “We do this because we are family,” and while conversations punctuate the individual reveries, the appearance of food is the only thing that breaks the concentration. Food that attempts to replicate the memory of British fare with a Chinese twist. It’s like the reverse of sitting down at dawn in a cold Prince Street flat with a plate of smoked haddock and boiled eggs that are served as kedgeree.
Maybe this is part of my culture, deeply ingrained in the experience of familiar food, served with a foreign twist, and perhaps where I get my passion for flavour from. Not that flavour is high on the list of priorities of the Cha Chaan Tengs, but they have to be experienced. Like old-fashioned Milk Bars of 1940’s Australia or the Joe Lyons Corner Cafes, the décor and the buildings themselves are heritage, some of them even protected by UNESCO listings.Click to view slideshow.
Maybe this is part of my culture, deeply ingrained in the experience of familiar food – will meyrick
The Australian Dairy Company is one milk bar noticeable for the queues outside, it doesn’t actually take long until you are inside, indicative of the sort of service you receive. Directed to squash into careworn booths I wondered how the place stays so popular; the menu doesn’t give any clues either. Ham soup with macaroni, Wonder bread white sandwiches containing fluffy yellow eggs and thick brown tea made with evaporated milk. It’s not the food you go for though, it’s the real mayhem that accompanies the visit, the way your food arrives almost as soon as you have ordered it, how you are elbow to elbow with slurping strangers and caught up in this truly foreign culture that is demolishing plates of highly familiar food.
The Lin Hueng Tea House on the other hand is so Hong Kong that some people don’t recommend foreigners go there for the incredible breakfast and lunch dim sum as it is all too overwhelming. Well, I’ve never been afraid to be overwhelmed and the Lin Heung Tea House, one of the oldest dining rooms in Hong Kong, serves the most authentic dim-sum on the island, starting from six in the morning. It’s true that you may have to queue, and what amounts to service can be quite alarming, but as long as it is understood it is all part of the charm, then sit straight in your chair, grip the menu and order as if your life depended on it. You will not regret it.
From 11am the best spicy crab is found in this Wan Chai hole in the wall called Under Bridge, as that is where it is. Twenty years ago this was a street stall competing with the many other stalls along Canal Road, but through consistent delivery of incredibly tasty Typhoon shelter dishes, including the famed Spicy Crab in Typhoon Sauce the, stall has grown into one of Hong Kong’s most ‘famous restaurants’. However again the décor is pretty garish and the service is hardly service, and don’t be surprised if you see the chefs smoking while cooking, or even washing and cooking and smoking all at once!
Head to Kowloon Night Markets for lively outdoor eating, look for displays of the steaming clay pots and the Mido Café, a UNESCO heritage building that drips 50s, 60s nostalgia with cramped booths, formica tabletops, mosaic tiled staircase and gracefully old-fashioned window frames. Mido is Hong Kong’s height of modern nostalgia and a popular café with the arts and film crowd, it’s menu offers a mix of the Cha Chaan Teng Hong Kong British fare with more traditional Chinese dishes like their Spare Ribs Baked Rice, sweet and sour ribs served with fried rice and eggs, and don’t leave before trying the bright pink drink with half a can of fruit salad at its base.
My forty-eight hours are ticking by and there’s just one more stop – breakfast, no matter the time. At the Flying Pan, Lockhart Road, breakfast is a 24-hour affair, with all the trimmings; sides of bacon, sides of beans, scone like dumplings, gravy, pancakes, patties and corned beef hash, its all here to be soaked up on white toast with thick milk tea. The Flying Pan is another popular time capsule of décor and design and seems to be packed 24-hours a day.
This Hong Kong fascination with the tackier elements of the past reflects a very distinct people who step seamlessly between their interpretations of tastes and styles with a manic delight in the combined energies of chaos and calm and a curious love of what can only be described as nursery foods. It certainly beats other countries love for the processed and packaged though, and I hand it to Hong Kong for turning the food of my childhood into something that has become a staple of everyday life. That takes talent.