I visited Hong Kong this past winter break, a bustling hubbub of activity. I would step out into the streets and hear Cantonese chatter everywhere. I dodged red taxis that veered past and surrendered to the mercy of the hordes of people cramming the trains. Nevertheless, if there is anything that stuck with me most, it was the culinary experience — Hong Kong is a true haven of stellar cuisine. Even the McDonald’s boast sleek, sophisticated cafes with latte art and macarons. If you are looking to study abroad in Asia or you just catch a whiff of wanderlust, Hong Kong is a wonderful place to explore some of the finest and most unusual eats in the world.
The cooking culture varies from casual, hearty comfort food to exquisite banquet fare that includes suckling pig, roast goose and Alaskan king crab. There are numerous restaurants that serve typical comfort foods, such as variations of fried rice, chow mein and wonton noodles (pork or shrimp dumplings bobbing in a rich broth and mixed with thick egg noodles). Iconic drinks like lemon tea, milk tea and yin yeung (“phoenix and dragon,” a mix of milk tea and coffee) can be added to most meals for less than $1. Hong-Kong-style milk tea also differs from British tea. Instead, people whip out evaporated and condensed milks to concoct a smooth, creamy texture that enhances the notes of black tea.
Little food carts hover on many street corners as well. These serve all sorts of steamed snacks like pork intestines, curry fish balls and gelatinous rice crepes dipped in a sweet, dark oyster sauce. My favorite snacks are these egg puffs called “gei dan zai” that taste like waffles but are shaped in honeycomb-like molds with round hollows so that the finished product looks like bubble wrap. I always eat them piping hot, and they never disappoint.
Dim sum is another significant part of Hong Kong food culture. It sort of defines leisure dining. Elderly people love to wake up at the crack of dawn and head to restaurants to feast on little plates and metal tins of dumplings and steamed meats. Many people also opt to sit down for dim sum at teatime as well. Some of the most popular options are “siu mai,” “ha gao” and “cheung fun.” “Siu mai” are pork, shrimp and mushroom dumplings often dotted with bright orange crab eggs on top. These are my favorite; I love the rich and savory flavors of the hot meat juices that spill over with the first bite. “Ha gao” features shrimp dumplings where the dough is a soft, opaque-colored rice flour. The dumpling shell has a rather bland flavor, but that allows the salty and strong shrimp taste to shine. “Cheung fun” are gelatinous rice flour crepes stuffed with meats from barbecue pork to shrimp, then doused in soy sauce. The soy sauce adds a slightly sweet and salty flavor to the dish, which is often what makes it so popular. The steamed chicken feet, an interesting alternative, are served in a rich red sauce and have a rather fatty texture. Other iconic items are sticky rice covered in lotus leaves, fried squares of Chinese turnip cakes and steamed barbecue pork buns.
For dessert, the bakeries offer rich, mouthwatering treats. The celebrated egg tarts melt in the mouth when fresh out of the oven and are baked in buttery, flaky tart shells with a hint of vanilla. Pair these bites of heaven with a hot milk tea; welcome to the breakfast of champions. Bakery shelves are also loaded with heaps of coconut-stuffed buns and soft breads topped with savory bits of dried pork or baked pineapple crust. They just do not taste the same in Houston’s Chinatown.