The winding streets that were connected by hills, steep steps and alleyways were, I admit, a challenge at first, with not every corner always being named and most signs being unintelligible to me, but I feel sometimes the best ways to explore new places is to simply get lost (This is what I tell myself on a frequent basis at the moment).
Growing up we were always told to eat everything, and having reared our own meat for the table I have always eaten offal and the more unusual cuts of meat. So my usual reply to “Do you eat everything”? is “Yes.” I confess that in Hong Kong I was a little more reluctant.
Meandering through the countless markets and gazing into the shops, that were especially busy with Chinese New Year coming up, I really got the sense that they pretty much eat everything out there. One expat described their first few shopping trips as more like going into a shop that would supply Merlin with so many wonderful and strange looking ingredients. I was very lucky to spend a day with a friend who not only is a brilliant chef but also is Hong Kong / Chinese so had it all sussed and with our mutual love of food did not mind me asking every two seconds “ What’s that”? and “What’s it for”?
There is an incredible amount of dried goods that you can buy, including meat, worms, fish bellies, mushrooms, birds nests (where the bird spit is the prized component), abalone, shark fins and pretty much anything else you can think of. I spent an hour pointing and asking what it all was and what it was for. Most answers to the latter were “soup”. There is a huge focus on the properties of ingredients here and what health benefits they can give you.
The wet markets were a thousand miles away (well actually 6000) from those back home. Fish were all alive and in tanks until bought – then the fishmonger (mostly women) would get out their massive knife and …thwack!
Eating out was a varied experience. When eating out solo I only aced it 70 per cent of the time, I had some incredible pork and prawn dumplings with watercress and a beef brisket noodle soup dish (no doubt with some of those magical dried goods in the market making the stock so tasty) all for about £3. Sadly I also managed to order some dishes where MSG was the main ingredient and the sauce crazily heavily on the corn-starch. Interestingly both these were Michelin-starred or recommended restaurants but I concluded you really have to know what you are doing when ordering here. Though in fairness, although I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, even characters like Anthony Bourdain sometimes found it hard eating out here. So when faced between choosing goose web (the feet) or pigs spleen you really do need some experienced help.
The best meal was a dim sum breakfast. It was a very casual but very busy restaurant with locals sat around large circular tables and trolleys of steaming dim sum weaving their way in between. With no English-like reserve customers ambush the trolleys as they pass and lift up the bamboo lids to see if they might want the goodies inside. Lashings of tea is served at a whole new level and continuously topped up by the waiters carrying around large kettles of boiling water.
This is the most simple (and recognisable) dish I ate while in Hong Kong but also one of the most delicious with its clean fresh flavours and perfectly cooked fish. In China they are very keen on only ‘just’ cooking the fish which makes it all the more delicious and succulent. Serve with mounds of white rice.
1 whole sea bass 800g – 1 kilo
3 fingers worth of ginger peeled and finely julienned
5 spring onions finely chopped on an angle
15 g coriander roughly chopped
80 ml soy sauce
1 tbs rice wine
1 tbs sesame oil
Make sure the fish is descaled, gills removed and fins snipped off. Cut three slashes down each side so you almost reach the bone. Place one-third of the ginger, coriander and spring onions in its belly. Place the fish on the holding plate in your steamer and steam on high until just cooked (check after 8 minutes).
Mix together the ginger, soy, sesame oil and spring onions then heat gently in a pan. When the fish is cooked lay out on a serving platter, pour over the sauce and top with coriander.
You can find more of Philippa’s travels at www.philippadavis.com