Hong Kong: Where food is a celebration

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With 11,000 restaurants and 3.5 million fish balls consumed each day, Hong Kong takes eating very seriously. ANURAG MALLICK goes on a culinary tour from Kowloon to Lam Tsuen. 

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Hong Kong takes its tag of ‘Asia’s World City’ and ‘Gourmet Paradise’ quite seriously. The annual 4-day epicurean fest ‘Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival’ (31 Oct–3 Nov) kicks off a month of culinary extravaganzas. This year, the event moved to the New Central Harbourfront with an all-new Tasting Room where visitors enjoyed wine pairing dinners, gourmet classes, talks by master chefs, fine wines and delicacies of 18 countries at 280 food booths. Hong Kong’s top hotels and restaurants rolled out the red carpet for a whole month with great offers as they stirred up award-winning, signature dishes. Around 70 food booths featured barbecued specialties, appetizers and sweet treats. Laze around listening to jazz bands as you watch the sun go down Victoria Harbour.

Mainly clustered around Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui, SoHo and Kowloon, Hong Kong’s 11,000 restaurants bring together diverse styles – from traditional Cantonese dishes to Beijing duck, oriental flavours from Indo-China to colonial style cooking and even the odd Indian restaurant. But the most authentic experience is the city’s street food as carts and kiosks dish out snake soup, fishballs, offal, octopus, dim sums, noodles, stir fries and food on the go. A recent survey revealed that people in Hong Kong eat almost 3.57 million fish balls every day! For a sit down meal, try any old-style yum cha (tea-house), siu mei (barbecue restaurant) or cha chan teng (fast food joints) that are a unique Hong Kong fusion of Chinese and Western diners.

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While food icons like Lung Mun in Kowloon and Tse Kee Fish balls in Aberdeen have downed their shutters, sample a set menu at any dim sum restaurant. The elaborate meal starts off with an appetizer, often Drunken Chicken braised in red wine and garnished with dried plums, followed by Abalone, Prawn tempura with glass noodles, Hong Kong style lobster with sautéed garlic, Garoupa (fish) served in two-style sauce, pak choy stir fry and jellies in various flavours for dessert. Chinese tea, known to cut fat, forms an important part of the dining ritual in Hong Kong.

It is common etiquette to pour tea for others before filling one’s own cup. Tea drinkers tap the table with two fingers to express gratitude to the person filling their cups. This practice, called ‘finger kowtowing’, is linked to Qianlong, an 18th century Chinese emperor of the Qing dynasty who often travelled through his dominions incognito. According to local legend, once on a visit to South China, he went into a teahouse with his men. To maintain his anonymity, he took his turn to pour tea as a commoner normally would. His companions wanted to bow down for this great honour, but kowtowing would reveal his true identity. So one of them tapped three fingers on the table, one finger representing their bowed head and the other two representing their prostrate arms. The emperor understood and ever since, the hand gesture has literally been handed down over generations.

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While the consumption of food can be a very personal experience for some, in Hong Kong there’s a fair deal of community eating. Groups often order a hot pot – a big pot of soup boiled on a stove built into the table with seafood, meats, vegetables and other ingredients. Diners serve themselves at the table, dipping their portions in black sesame sauce, balsamic vinegar and an assortment of dipping sauces. On the other hand, clay pots are rice-based with juicy meats and fresh vegetables added to the pot. This is covered and slow-cooked over a coal fire, allowing the rice to remain moist in the centre and crisp on the edges.

Community feasts take on a new dimension at walled villages like Lam Tsuen in the New Territories. For poon choi or ‘big bowl feast’, ingredients are layered in a large bowl and eaten communally. It could include pork, beef, lamb, abalone, chicken, duck, shrimp, crab, various mushrooms, Chinese radish, broccoli and tofu in nine to 12 layers – enough to feed a group of ten. The contents are not mixed but eaten layer by layer.

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Legend has it that the dish was invented when Mongol hordes invaded the empire forcing an emperor of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 -1279) to seek refuge in the New Territories. Local villagers collected all their food in large troughs and presented it to the emperor. Unique to Hong Kong, poon choi is part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage.

But the ultimate dish at village feasts is suckling pig or siu yuk (roast pork) where a whole pig weighing up to 20 kg is cooked in a charcoal oven until the skin becomes crispy leaving the meat tender. Women chop it with cleavers and serve it with a piquant mustard dip and pickled chillies. However all celebrations pale in comparison to the Chinese New Year (Jan-Feb) when families dine together on new year’s eve to remember the year gone by and wish for greater success in future.

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Each dish in this sumptuous banquet symbolizes a particular wish for the New Year – wealth, fertility or good luck. Fish figures prominently on the menu, as the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for abundance. The abalone or bao yu means surplus while the sea cucumber or hoi sam has a similar pronunciation that denotes happiness.

The kumquat or miniature orange, a gold-coloured fruit has a name that sounds like the Chinese word for gold. The clash of cymbals drives away evil spirits as lion dancers reach out to grab chai-ching, a bunch of lettuce leaves hung from a height. The strange tradition derives from the fact that the Chinese words for lettuce sound like growth and wealth.

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Hotels like The InterContinental and Regal Kowloon lay out elaborate feasts featuring ‘Braised Pig’s Tongue with Dried Oyster’, ‘Sea Moss or Braised Abalone with Sea Cucumber in Oyster Sauce’ and ‘Fried rice with shredded chicken and shrimp in tomato & cream sauce’. Eating unusual combination dishes is integral to the celebrations, as they rhyme with positive attributes like wealth, happiness and prosperity. In Hong Kong, food is more than just a meal, it is celebration, it is faith…

Authors: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 21 December 2013 in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu.  

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