You’re never far from a bowl of steaming noodles in Hong Kong

Travel News from Stuff - 20-11-2023
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“Would you like your porridge with or without frog’s legs?”

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It's not a question you hear every day – or ever – but I'm in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district and the waiter is keen for me to try congee, a glutinous rice porridge that's the Chinese comfort food equivalent of chicken soup.

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Usually it comes with pork, duck, scallops or tripe but tonight's speciality is a bowl studded with tiny, chilli-fried frog’s legs.

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It's a truth universally acknowledged that a key part of travelling is stepping outside of one's comfort zone, of experiencing the new and different. But by 10pm, when jet lag has whacked the bejesus out of my body clock and my stomach thinks it's lunchtime, the last thing I feel like doing is chewing on the legs of tiny amphibians.

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So I wimp out and settle for a bowl of hand-pulled noodles, joining the chorus of greedy slurping that fills the restaurant.

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It's my first meal of a week-long stay in Hong Kong, yet this humble bowl of carbs sets the bar high. It's a bar that is leapt over many times during the next seven days.

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For many of us, there is no Hong Kong outside of Chek Lap Kok Airport's transit lounge. That's why this former British colony is often referred to as the 'revolving door to Asia': no sooner have we landed than we're shunted on the next leg of our journey to Europe, or back to Aotearoa.

Which is a shame because this territory of 7.4 million, the third-most densely populated place on the planet, is a beguiling mix of yin and yang: here bamboo scaffolding and vertiginous skyscrapers, there $4000 iPhone covers and cheap street markets, everywhere delicious food.

The locals will tell you they’ll “eat anything with its back to the skies and anything underwater except a submarine”. Stir fry this attitude in the wok of fresh food and the result is more than 12,000 restaurants, most of which seem to be open around the clock.

Cantonese cuisine is the star of the show and yum cha is the ultimate fast food. These bite-sized dumplings, steamed buns, pastries and spring rolls can be had at any time of the day or night for as little as NZ$8. The only problem is that with more than 1000 dishes, deciding what to eat can be tough.

If you want a side order of tradition with your meal, check out a dai pai dong. These tiny, open-air food stalls started life in the 1950s selling dishes such as snails and chilli mud crabs. But when hygiene and traffic started to become an issue, the city fathers moved them into wet markets, or cooked food centres.

These days there are only around 25 licensed dai pai dong left, but they're wonderfully eclectic, serving everything from congee and fried rice to seafood and Hong Kong-style toast with lashings of honey and condensed milk.

The best is Haiphong Road Temporary Market (so called because when it was built in 1978 it was never meant to be around for long; 45 years later the 'temporary' sign still hangs out the front).

Located halfway between the grit of Nathan Road and the glitz of Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, my guide tells me it serves the best yuanyang in town, a typically quirky local invention that combines coffee and Hong Kong-style milky tea. I can't say it will ever replace the long black in my affections, but the bowl of delicious seafood fried rice that accompanies it costs far less than my daily coffee addiction at home.

If you've ever looked at a piece of flesh or a fruit in Asia and wondered what it is, then a food walking tour could be for you. Not only does it help to demystify local cuisine, you’ll get to see, and eat, your way through places you'd never find on your own. Bonus: you get to hear the stories behind the food and those serving it.

It’s why nine of us navigate the clean and incredibly efficient subway to get to Sham Shui Po early one Friday. What we have in common is a love of good food and, on this cold spring morning, empty bellies, having been warned to forego breakfast to allow for tastings at the six stops.

Led by Silvana Leung, founder of Hong Kong Foodie, our four-hour munch-fest takes us through Hong Kong's oldest, and possibly its least touristy, neighbourhood. Tucked into the northeastern part of the Kowloon Peninsula, Sham Shui Po was the site of a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. It doesn’t look as though it’s been renovated much since. But down-at-heel equals authentic, argues Leung.

“Everywhere in Hong Kong is Westernised, but Sham Shui Po remains a traditional, working class neighbourhood with the kind of small, family-run restaurants that used to be found all over the territory.”

Like our first stop, a traditional cha chaan teng (tea house) where we enjoy pineapple buns hot from the oven, served with the Hong Kong-style milky tea/coffee hybrid I can't quite wrap my taste buds around. It turns out there's no pineapple in the buns, but the name comes from the topping which, if you squint the right way, resembles the texture of a pineapple.

I realise elastic is a girl's best friend at the hole-in-the-wall sweet shop that's been around for 60 years. My taste buds are put through their paces with some of the offerings, but I hoover down the sticky sesame cakes that come threaded on a stick.

I'm not a carnivore, so the charms of our next stop, for Chinese-style braised goose and pork knuckles, are lost on me but my fellow foodie tourists tuck into their spicy meat with abandon.

Later, we ladle sweet sauces over bowls of steaming hand-made tofu and learn about mooncakes, delicious morsels of pastry filled with gooey red bean and lotus paste that are traditionally exchanged at lunar festivals.

If you love anything that comes in noodle form, you'll love the last stop, where the hand-made egg noodles are served with shrimp roe.

I hardly need any more calories but an invite to high tea at the landmark Peninsula Hotel doesn’t come along every day. Along with the cutest macaroons, cucumber sandwiches and lashings of delicate rose tea, high tea at ‘The Pen’ is like stepping through a tardis, where a string quartet plays and stylish people waft in and out of the lobby, doing whatever it is the rich and powerful do.

My wallet may not be as heavy as theirs but for two hours, as a string quartet gets busy in the corner and I get busy with three tiers of baked goodies, I’m able to pretend. And that's almost as good.

Hong Kong Foodie's Sham Shui Po food tour costs HK$770 per adult and runs for around 3.5 hours. It includes food and drinks tastings at six locations. See:

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