Fishballs, BBQ & har gao: Get some Hong Kong in yer belly

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: January 18th, 2011 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
So last week I whined about how Hong Kong treats me oh-so-bad every time I come here. My friend Anna, who is studying international law in Hong Kong, caught wind of it, and after she was done smacking me for being a whiny b*tch, she said: "You need to get some Hong Kongin yer belly." You can't argue with repeated smacks to the face followed by wisdom. So I didn't. Hong Kong and I were going on an all-day date with Anna as our chaperone, and this time it was gonna be perfect. Good food. Nice conversation. Some walking. So like China Travel's Hungry Dan, we hit the streets of Hong Kong in search of food (and a little love).... We got up early for my little eating tour. First thing, breakfast at one of the tiny holes-in-the-wall that serve up fishballs, milk tea, noodles with fried eggs and a few other classic morning snacks. Though I didn't know it at the time, I know it now: the milk tea-fishballs-pork buns combo is a HK tradition. Little snack shops like the one we picked can be found down most side streets in Hong Kong proper, Kowloon or Mongkok. They stay open from around 6 am to 2 or 3 pm. If the sun's just risen and you can already smell the fishball funk floating through the air, then you know you're close. The best thing to order? In my opinion, a bowl of noodles with a fried egg and a cup of hot chai, Indian style. Cost: just HK$18. It does the trick. I immediately felt better for a couple reasons:

1) Breakfast just tends to do that to ya 2) Interaction with Hong Kong people

As for #2, I find the people here to be very down to earth and informal. It might seem gruff to anyone who has never been to a big city before, but if you have, as I have, its refreshingly real. So my morning started out pretty good. We'd started in Central and walked around a bit, finding ourselves on Queen's Road. There are many roads that display the sweet combination of age, dynamism and low-brow sentiment that make up part of Hong Kong's personality, and Queen's is one of them. Right off of Lan Kwai Fong, where the IFC Tower looms, the clubs keep booming till 6 in the morning. Here Queen's Road connects to lower-level roads via rough-cut stone stairways. The old steps are steep and narrow and lined with locksmiths and iPhone accessory stalls. Flashy women mix it up with busy men who in turn mix with relaxed street workers mixing with construction teams... all of whom are eagerly waiting in line to get into a noodle shop, get a table underneath the walkway, or even grab a burger. Indeed, the best way to get to the real Hong Kong is through its collective stomach.[callout title=The skinny on fattening up in HK]Hong Kong is one of the best places in the world to eat. The city is has a very strong mix of Indian, Malay, Chinese (Cantonese), Filipino and Western peoples all vying for your attention. A favorite of mine is Monster Burger, a fast food joint that serves up high gourmet burgers and fries for cheap; I also fell in love with Ebenezers, a Middle Eastern/Indian fast food spot that is open late. They're lamb and rice set hits the spot and the kebabs are great for a 2 am sober-up snack. When in town, definitely take the time out to visit one of the many dim sum restaurants around Hong Kong. And why not cruise through Soho and try out the Mediterranean, Thai, Nepalese or the Posto Pubblico on 28 Elgin St, a new New York style Italian restaurant and bar playing NY Hip Hop in the background offering solid pizzas and a flavorful Tagliatelle Grice among other premium pasta dishes? [/callout]Ourselves, we wound up at a noodle and dumpling shop near the famous Lin Heung Teahouse in Central (recommended by the ubiquitous Anthony Bourdain, it turns out). It was about then that I noticed something else about Hong Kong that I like: a lot of the restaurants are staffed by polite older men wearing white gloves. Not just the fine dining establishments, but little shacks too. It's so dignified. The noodles were Hong Kong style—a small heap of fresh noodles, slightly chewy, bathed in chicken broth. The little shrimp dumplings (har gao in Cantonese) that came along with it were absolutely perfect. Bursting like ripe grapes with a blended filling that jumped down my throat, they nestled in close with the noodles and broth already making a happy home for themselves in my tummy. So by then, I was in a pretty good mood. It helps that the weather in Hong Kong was ideal. For locals, 11 degrees Celsius seems frigid, but for me it was light-jacket weather—the type of weather that lets you walk around all day and not notice the weather at all, the  occasional "man its nice out" comment aside. My belly was noticeably fuller and I was starting to get a feel for the people. But I still wasn't full. So Anna and I hopped on the MTR from Central to check out the Mongkok markets (more about those tomorrow... they deserve their own post). But back to snacks. Hong Kong is about shopping and shoppers need snacks and drinks. But I didn't mess with the snacks though. For one, most of the stands were selling deep fried innards, boiled balls of mystery meat and other stuff I couldn't really recognize. And for two, no need to try some new deep fried funk just for the sake of it. I was looking for something really yummy. And I found it, baby! If you find yourself in the marketplace and you're looking for something to sip on/chew on, try Hong Kong's fruit stands. They're everywhere. Get a smoothie; mix some dragon fruit with a pear; point at a fruit you've never seen before. I got a rose-apple-papaya-pear juice and it was the bomb. I even had a little epiphany there, slurping up the last bits and pieces of that heavenly juice. I learned that you don't need fried meat bits or chunks of steaming whatchamacallit or Fifi on a Stick to tide you over betwixt meals. All you need is something mouthwatering. Something that makes you go mmm-mmm-mmm. And that something is ... fruit. By then, the sun had set and my belly was starting to growl. But instead of the rumble of permanent discontent that colored my previous poor man's trips to Hong Kong, this was the slow purr of a cat rubbing against yer ankles as you fork out the Whiskas. I knew there was some good stuff coming. Anna took me to Wanchai to sample the classic southern Chinese BBQ at another well known spot, Joy Hing Roasted Meat (Facebook fanpage) on Hennessy Road. The place is famous amongst those in the know, but to me its just a brightly lit, spartan little place with a chef whose face is hidden by steam and massive, dripping chunks of roasted duck, goose, pork and beef. A polite older gentleman with white gloves saw Anna and I approach and said: "Two! Here!" So we sat down and I was about to reach for the menu when he leaned in and said: "Pork is fresh, very famous! We have mix platter, pork and duck. You should take that. Very nice." Sold. Joy Hing was crowded and people were constantly coming up to the chef to order take out and delivery, but we only waited a few minutes for our BBQ plates to arrive. I can barely remember it because the plate kinda put me in a special place where the physics gave way to metaphysics and dreams walked the earth ordering take out. I was also starving, I think, when I walked in. Anyway. The duck was glistening and juicy. The pork was sweet enough to make me smack my lips, but savory enough for me to growl a bit and keep my eyes out for rivals while I scarfed it down. The bed of rice played a great Robin to the BBQ's Batman, never getting in the way, but coming through right when needed. So that was nice. Hong Kong and I had a great date. After we dropped Anna off at Wanchai, HK and I held hands on the way back to Lan Kwai Fong. I got a little peck on the cheek and a promise for another date. And I'm still smiling about it now.
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