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Report on my 7th Hong Kong visit

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Report on my 7th Hong Kong visit

Bryan Loofbourrow | Dec 18, 2004 09:48 AM

I'm told that Hong Kong has more restaurants per capita than any place on earth, which means that I'll never get to eat in all of them. I'm also told that to truly know Chinese food, one would have to know a thousand variations on "in this village, in this season, they catch this fish from the river and prepare it in such and such a way." Which means that I'll never truly know Chinese food.

So what? What that really means is a lifetime of visiting Hong Kong, of having superlative meals, of discovering new restaurants and new dishes, of learning a little more about the food each time. What could be better?

Of course, to learn something new, I have to be willing to get outside my comfort zone of favorite restaurants and favorite dishes. Every time I come to Hong Kong, it seems my list of things that I absolutely must have has grown since my last visit. Can I really go home without having the incredibly refined and delightful dim sum at the upscale and elegant Spring Moon restaurant in the Peninsula hotel? Without having the (winter-only) multicourse Shanghai Hairy Crab set dinner at Wu Kong Shanghai Restaurant? Without shrimp dumpling soup noodles from the little place on Wing Kut Lane just inland from Des Voeux Road (best broth, great noodles), or beef tendon soup noodles from Wing Wah Noodles at 89 Hennessey (best noodles, great broth)? No.

Even allowing for the list of must-do restaurants, there is a high threshold for any new restaurant possibility. In 10-15 minutes, generally with no notice, I can jump on a train and get a table in Loong Yuen, the fabulous Cantonese restaurant in the basement of the Holiday Inn (yeah, I know, just trust me on this one) in Tsim Sha Tsui, for some (winter-only) venison or tiny fried fish or hairy-crab roe flavored dumplings or any one of dozens of other fabulous things. Or I can go a block or so away and go under the Kowloon Hotel to Wan Loong Court, another top Cantonese with a wide selection, and a pigeon in wine sauce dish about which I still have vivid memories. If I'm in the mood for Sichuan, I can make my way to the Miramar Centre on Nathan Road, up the escalator and into the elevator, to Yunyan, a fabulous Sichuan restaurant, for the crispy beef appetizer and some dry-fried chicken. I can, with a little more planning to avoid peak hours, be eating truly superlative roast goose, accompanied by (winter only) pea vines, the world's best green vegetable, that have been topped with a delicate crab sauce, at Yung Kee, the famous roast goose restaurant in Central. Anything new has to compete with that.

So I avidly seek out restaurant information. I ask for recommendations from anyone who shows the slightest interest in food (which is more common in Hong Kong than in other places, as you can imagine). I seek out the annual Hong Kong Best Restaurants book, and any other books which might be helpful.

And, generally, it does work out. I have had a very few mediocre meals in Hong Kong, though generally "mediocre" in Hong Kong would rate a "hey, this is good! We should come back here" back in the States. But in return I've found some wonderful food. New restaurants, to me, on this trip alone: super-delicate fried fish slices at T'ang Court in the Langham Hotel, along with stir-fried pig intestines that I think most anyone would like if they didn't get too hung up on what they were eating; transcendent fried chicken, and pea vines with dried scallop, and baked oysters with Port at the Cantonese place in the Wharney hotel, flawless (though expensive) steamed garoupa and a wonderful fried-shrimp-paste-and-century egg dish at Victoria City near the convention center, and, last night, superb fried mutton dumplings and delicious shrimp stir-fry at a Peking place on Jaffe (blue green sign containing the word "Peking" among others, near California Fitness) with the feel of a downscale diner and a great menu of little dishes so you can eat an assortment.

You may have noticed the "baked oysters with port" thing. There may be a few readers who've been reading my reports long enough to know that I have an aversion to fusion food. So why am I eating baked oysters with port in a Cantonese restaurant?

My aversion to fusion food is something I experience at the gut level, but that doesn't mean I don't have an explanation, or a rationalization, take your pick. I argue that, for the most part, the great dishes that come down to us from food traditions have survived and been communicated precisely because they are great -- that, whether they were discovered by brilliance, by accident, or by experimentation, they were recognized as something special, and therefore have survived. Naturally, it is difficult to come up with dishes that are as good as those that have survived that sort of process, and, the more long-lived, and the more vigorous, the food tradition, the harder it is to devise a new dish that can compete with the traditional ones. Worse, many fusion restaurants don't even really try to do that -- instead, they think of it as an "accent" or an "influence" -- like the "little touch of Pacific rim" that infests too many preening, technically flawless but magic-free California restaurants. I am the first to admit that occasionally such experimentation produces something that is highly worthy of survival -- the combination of mussels and Thai green curry, for example, or the Bahn Mi, the Vietnamese sandwich. Sometimes it gives birth to a new, great cuisine, like Cajun and Creole. But along the way to those happy discoveries is a long line of uninspired combinations, too often inflicted on diners for the sake of style, or market positioning.

In Hong Kong, though, I've encountered more successful fusions than anywhere else. I attribute this to a surfeit of chef talent, an astonishingly competitive market, a demanding and discerning customer base, and, more generally, a higher standard for deciding when a dish is good enough to present to customers. Basically, I think what happens is that a lot more experimentation goes on behind the scenes before a chef is willing to add a new dish to the menu.

So in Hong Kong, I've happily eaten steamed fish in a sweet-sour sauce containing tomatoes (Loong Yuen); fried bean curd skin rolls served with Worcestershire sauce for dipping (many dim sum places); hairy crab served in flaky pastry (Wu Kong), and the superb hotel Cantonese answer to Western dessert: mango pudding (virtually any hotel Cantonese place, each with its own style).

Successful and properly vetted experimentation helps make Hong Kong a fun and vibrant place to eat. But it is the long, long tradition of Chinese cooking that provides the depth to the local cooking scene.

Some of these traditions are hard for a Westerner to adjust to. "If its back faces the sun, we eat it" is one. The Hong Kong version of this is admittedly toned down, with insects and rats not in evidence, and canines and felines consumed only in private, in deference to laws established according to the sensibilities of the British during their reign here. But the "innards question" is very much an issue. Of course it is easy to simply avoid all innards. There's plenty to eat. But I would argue that it is very much worth acquiring a taste for innards, even if you have to work at it, even if you have to eat some things that at first disgust you, and gradually work away at your prejudices. This approach does work, as I can verify, having gone through it to lose an aversion to blue cheese.

And, too, the rewards are greater. French and Italian restaurants can do some wonderful things with innards, but once you move from the rich, savory innards like liver, at which the French excel, to the texture-based innards like intestines, tripe (meaning stomachs), and feet, I think that the Chinese approach is the greatest in the world by a large margin.

Part of that is a sensibility that says: texture is as important as flavor. Not an easy idea for a Westerner to internalize, but very much part of the culinary thinking here. And you don't have to start off by gnawing the wonderful gelatinous bits from the stewed toes of a pig. Consider Peking duck. The skin is the key to Peking duck -- crisp, glistening with fat, thoroughly and evenly caramelized, dried for a bit of crunch, but layered with gelatin so that your tooth has a wonderful composite experience as it bites through the layers.

Wallow in duck skin a few times, and you may be ready for beef tendon, which you can have with noodles at many soup noodle places around Hong Kong. Unlike tripe and intestines, it really has almost no flavor of its own, so it's a good one to start off with. It has a firm, gelatinous texture, and tends to absorb flavors, so it's generally stewed with anise and other flavorful influences. It also lends an appealing glossy sheen to the broth it sits in. Wing Wah would be a good place to have this, because they tend to serve pieces of tendon combined with meat.

From there you can proceed to getting chicken feet, stewed in black bean sauce, at your next dim sum outing, and you'll be well on your way to texture nirvana. Leave the intestines for last, except for the version at T'ang Court, which were really very accessible.

I went through this process some years ago, and it laid the ground work for my being able to fully experience Hong Kong food. So when I paid all that money for a perfect steamed fish, I got full value -- I ate the entire head, all that wonderful stuff between the flat bones, even the eyeballs. I got to eat Sichuan goose intestines, and Sichuan dry-fried pig intestines, and a cold plate of Sichuan tripe. I'd mention pig ears here, but the cold cut that is made with pig ears is so easy to like that it's really not challenging at all, and so little resembles a pig ear that it's extremely unlikely that you'd spot it. Basically it's a thin sliced cold cut with a spiral pattern.

Another tradition that takes some adjusting to is the lack of US-style Puritanism about eating fat. Not that the locals here don't worry about their diet. They do, all the time. Chinese medicine principles, widely internalized here, dictate all sorts of principles about balancing this and that. But the cuisine has been designed to address those issues, deliciously. For example, when I had my Shanghai Hairy Crab set dinner, a succession of courses of this special crab prepared in various ways, Chinese medicine principles said that, by eating so much crab, I was practically a hospital patient on the side of "cold." So the crab was served with hot, dark, sweet, intense ginger tea, and (by recommendation) warmed rice wine. That balanced things out, and, coincidentally, happened to be really delicious with the meal.

That's a different approach from the vague guilt one feels, eating in the U.S. about such delicious things as putting a pat of butter on a steak, or eating the skin of your fried chicken. In the U.S., the idea of a dish that is a glorious celebration of the pleasures of fat seems somehow decadent and misguided, something a mature and sensible adult just wouldn't do.

Here, it's taken in stride. When I ordered the barbecued suckling pig plate at Loong Yuen, what arrived was 5 thick cross sections, consisting of the following layers: extremely crisp caramelized outer skin (1/4"), creamy fat (1"), and meat (3/8"). In other words, the majority was crisped fat over fat. Man, it was good.

I think part of the reason for the difference in attitudes about fat is that the general assumption is that a fat-laden plate like that is simply one part of a meal consisting of several dishes. But also, everyone's skinny here. Maybe they know something we don't.

Enough reporting. I'm hungry. Time to go eat some more!

-- Bryan

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