The Flying Foodie: Hong Kong
Crunchy dumplings, slippery noodles and sweet sweet buns is all in a day's work for Alana Lowes as she discovers the heart of traditional Hong Kong in Sham Shui Po - just like a local.
Did someone say food tour? Count me in thanks. Exploring the old streets and burrows of Hong Kong through food is my idea of heaven and the area of Sham Shui Po is the spot to do it.
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Hong Kong Food Tours run a 4-hour tour off the tourist track, to an area one may not usually have on their “must see” list when visiting Hong Kong – but you would be missing out on so much!
Sham Shui Po is one of the most traditional areas in Hong Kong, still maintaining its working class heritage and is the “real” old Hong Kong. Don’t go looking for a Starbucks or McDonalds, as you won’t find one here.
My mum and I meet up with our guide Carrie at the Sham Shui Po MTR Station. Carrie advises us we will be tasting at 6 local food stops as well as hearing some of the fascinating and rich cultural information of the area.
Our first stop is a bakery. It’s filled with crowded tables and booths. As soon as we slide into the comfy booth, a shiny crunchy delight is presented to the table along with a cup of hot steaming milk tea. A traditional breakfast combo in Hong Kong is strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk and paired with a pineapple bun – and this pineapple bun was almost as big as a head!
The name “pineapple bun” can be a bit misleading as one may believe it to contain pineapples. Carrie explains there are no pineapples in a pineapple bun. The topping is a crunchy sweet combo of egg and sugar and actually looks like the pineapple pattern on the fruit. To be honest, I don’t care what it looks like, but this steaming soft fluffy bun topped with a buttery crumbly sweet crust is incredibly good.
The classic milk tea might not be to everyone’s liking. It has an unusual texture and coats the tongue with a slightly rough layer and the tea flavour is strong. However, I love it and quickly gulp down the entire cup.
Our second spot is for another breakfast dish – Rice rolls. Rice rolls are essentially made from the same batter as rice noodles, but rather than sliced into thin strips, they are steamed into big sheets and then carefully rolled up before being steamed again and cut with scissors into bite size lengths.
Before you can order, you need to secure a seat and in such a densely populated city, seats can be a rarity. The trick, as Carrie, explains, is to stand next to a table where it looks like someone is close to finishing and they will quickly chow down and be on their way, freeing up space for you to sit down.
Once seated, plates of slippery noodles are plonked on the table and Carrie advises it’s now up to us to top them with the sauces we like. Traditionally hoi sin, chilli sauce, sesame sauce are drizzle on with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s then as simple as using a small skewer to spear the rice roll and slurp it down with delight. Who knew such a simple little dish could provide such warmth in the belly – real comfort food.
By the time we finished off our second breakfast, the streets were starting to fill and bubble with energy. Vendors opening up their stalls ready to sell for the day. Butchers with fresh meat hanging, fish mongers with plump glassy eyed fish and the colours of the rainbow on the fruit and vegetable stalls. Customers are carefully inspecting the products before choosing and always bargaining down the price.
The pungent smell wafting from the dried food stalls is overpowering, yet such a nostalgic smell of Asian countries. There is dried fish, scallops, mushrooms, sea cucumbers and even dried lizards splayed and sewn onto a stick. Most dried foods have a medicinal quality and apparently the lizards are great for respiratory disorders like asthma – no tastings here (thankfully) as they all need to be softened into soups and broths.
As we continued to explore Sham Shui Po, Carrie tells us of the many changes which have happened over the years. From electronics to haberdashery, Hong Kong was once the epicenter of manufacturing. While most garment manufacturing has moved to China now, some small shops are still here to wander the aisles of beads, ribbons and trimmings.
We make a quick stop at a family-owned kitchen store where the shelves are laden with pots, pans, chef’s knives and large cleavers, the cleavers being still manufactured in Hong Kong. The highlight is meeting the owner, who must be 80 years or more and still hand sharpens the cleavers himself. My tip is to definitely purchase one of the locally made cleavers, as you will have it for years to come.
We jump back on the food trail and Carrie directs us to a small hole in the wall selling tofu desserts. The tofu is made fresh on site. We watch as the server scoops the soft tofu with a little wobble as it’s plopped into our bowls. From here you can add cane sugar powder and ginger syrup. Silky and smooth with pops of sweetness and spiced ginger – don’t underestimate how such a simple dish of tofu could be the highlight of the day!
I love making dumplings and I love eating dumplings, therefore, when Carrie announces our next stop is to taste test some local dumplings, I am ecstatic. Women are filling and folding the dumplings at a pace I could never compete with, creating hundreds and hundreds in a day. We sample a few different flavours including pork, greens and ginger. I like to think I am a bit of a dumpling aficionado and I can say these were some of the best I've ever eaten.
We sneak in a quick stop on the way to our final food spot at a bakery selling biscuits and cookies, including walnut biscuits – again, like the pineapple bun it doesn’t actually have any walnuts in it, the biscuit just happens to look like a walnut.
It’s time to slurp down some noodles at a restaurant which has been around since the 1940s. Mr Lao begun his business out of a noodle cart and it’s now one of the most popular noodle restaurants in all of Hong Kong. What is most interesting is it’s a bamboo noodle shop, which again, is a noodle not made from bamboo (I am seeing a pattern here), but a style of noodle where the dough is pressed with a large bamboo pole which gives the noodle its unique texture.
The noodles are served with shrimp roe powder and are as intense and pungent as the name suggests. While I find the shrimp row powder slightly overpowering, the texture of the noodle is extremely enjoyable with a slight bite and chewiness to it. The mushroom soup is refreshing with its delicate sweetness and I add a little chilli oil – warning, the chilli oil is extremely hot so you only need a few drops depending on your tolerance.
And with that our food tour of Sham Shui Po is at an end. Mum and I are thoroughly full of food, wiser with culture and historical stories and confident to head out and explore more of the Hong Kong food scene - just like a local.
Alana Lowes was a guest of Hong Kong Tourism and Virgin Australia and stayed at Cordis Hotel in Mongkok.
Feeling inspired? Virgin Australia now flies direct from Melbourne to Hong Kong, with daily services commencing 12 November 2017. Search and book for your getaway now!
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