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Hong Kong: Food

Local Hong Kong food is predominantly influenced by Cantonese flavours from Guangdong Province just north of Hong Kong.

As one might expect for a country with such a long coastline, fish is an important part of the Hong Kong diet. Local fresh fish is easy to come by and often quite cheap — if you know the right places to go.

Meat also features heavily and offal (especially tripe, heart and liver) is popular.

Hong Kong cooking has had a strong influence on Chinese restaurants around the world. Some of the dishes may therefore be very familiar — such as sweet and sour pork, crab and chicken broth or wonton soup. But there are also likely to be many new flavours to explore.

Not everyone immediately warms to the traditional food of Hong Kong, and there are some elements that might be hard for a non-Cantonese stomach to cope with. Chicken feet (endearingly known in Cantonese as ‘phoenix talons’), a greyish-black egg that is several months old, bird’s nest soup and the unmistakably slippery sea cucumber are all considered delicacies in Hong Kong — but can be something of an acquired taste for the gweilo.

Dim sum

Perhaps nothing defines Cantonese cuisine as well as the humble dim sum.

A speciality of Hong Kong and the surrounding region, dim sums are bite-sized morsels of food served in small wicker steamer baskets. They can be either savoury or sweet.

Dim sum were traditionally eaten with tea, which is why the expression ‘yum cha’ — literally ‘to drink tea’ — is usually taken to mean ‘to go for dim sum’.

There is a very clear dining culture associated with dim sum. In days gone by, a dim sum trolley would be wheeled between tables for diners to select choice morsels from. These days the ordering process is far less romantic — usually from a laminated menu.

The soya sauce that is typically served with dim sum in Hong Kong will either have a dash of vinegar in it, or else will have been fermented to give it a slight pungent nip. If you prefer to have regular soya sauce you will usually have to ask for this to be brought to your table.

Dim sum restaurants are popular places for ‘working lunches’, in which Hong Kongers dine with colleagues or business associates.

Typical food

  • Bird’s nest soup — made from the edible nests of a small type of Chinese bird that comes from the swift family. The nests are actually made out of bird spittle, which gives the soup a gelatinous quality. The taste is delicate and subtle.
  • Cantonese fried rice — a staple dish for the Hong Kong kitchen. The rice is stir-fried in a wok and mixed together with other ingredients (most typically vegetables, chicken or pork).
  • Chicken feet — known in the local Cantonese language as ‘phoenix talons’, presumably because this gilded delineation sounds less distasteful than what they actually are, you will find this Hong Kong delicacy on the menus of most local restaurants. The chicken feet are typically fried and steamed, which gives them a soft and rather gelatinous texture. They don’t actually taste of all that much. The taste mainly comes from the sauce that they are cooked in, so it’s best to choose a good restaurant for enjoying your first helping of chicken feet. Hong Kongers believe that eating chicken feet is good for both the skin and the bones.
  • Congee — a type of rice porridge that can either be thick (chan) or fairly watery (chi). It may be cooked in chicken or meat stock to give it more flavour. It is a popular dish for serving to those people who are not feeling very well.
  • Century egg — an egg that has been preserved for several months in a brine solution, usually consisting of salt, calcium hydroxide and sodium carbonate. Preservation methods have changed over the years; in the old days it would have been preserved with salt, lime and ash. The preservation process turns the egg a dark green or grey colour. If you can get your head around the idea of eating an old egg, it is actually very tasty, with a strong flavour and creamy consistency.
  • Dau fu fa — a Chinese dessert made of very soft tofu. Often served with ginger, clear syrup or coconut milk.
  • Egg custard tart — an open-top pastry filled with egg custard, which may have been inherited from the Portuguese or the British.
  • Egg waffles — made from eggy leavened batter. They are cooked between two plates of semi-spherical cells, which gives the dough the appearance of a waffle made up of lots of little bubbles. They are traditionally cooked and sold by street vendors.
  • Fish balls — small balls of minced fish, often served in curried sauce. They are typically sold by the side of a road in a polystyrene cup or on a skewer. The proportion of actual fish that these balls contain, and exactly what type of fish, varies from stall to stall.
  • Pineapple bun — this crunchy, sugary pastry doesn’t actually contain any pineapple. It is so-named simply because the top of it resembles a pineapple. It is the Hong Kong version of a croissant, often served with butter and a popular accompaniment to milk tea.
  • Shark fin soup — a Chinese delicacy, traditionally served at weddings and banquets. Hong Kong has come under pressure from environmentalists to limit consumption of this soup, but it is still possible to find it in many high-end Cantonese restaurants. The fins are virtually tasteless; the taste comes from the soup, whilst the fins are valued for their texture and professed health benefits.
  • Stinky tofu — is, as the name might suggest, smelly. This is the result of an intensive fermentation process. Many locals claim to enjoy the smell, but it usually takes some time for foreigners to get used to it (if they ever do). The idea is that the smellier the tofu the better it tastes, although the taste is actually milder than the smell would suggest. The taste is slightly hard to describe, but imagine biting into a fairly mild blue cheese. The tofu is usually sold at night markets or roadside stalls and is accompanied by a sauce that may be either spicy or sweet.
  • Sweet and sour pork — another classic Cantonese dish, which has made its way into Chinese take-away menus the world over. At its best, the dish consists of tender pork fried in crispy batter, served in a well-balanced sauce that is equally sweet and equally sharp. Rice vinegar lends the sauce sharpness, whilst sugar gives the sweetness.
  • Wife cake — a traditional Cantonese pastry filled with a paste that is made out of winter melon and sugar. It sometimes includes almond paste and sesame, too.
  • Wonton soup — a clear broth of vegetables, noodles and a particular type of dumpling usually filled with minced pork and shrimp.

Typical drinks

  • Bai jiu — a fiery spirit, translucent in colour and made from either rice or sorghum. It typically has an alcohol content of between 40% and 60%.
  • Hot coke — a popular drink for those that have a cold, served with slices of lemon and maybe some ginger.
  • Milk tea — one of the most popular beverages drunk in Hong Kong. It consists of black tea with a generous helping of condensed or evaporated milk, and can be very sweet.
  • Pearl milk tea — otherwise known as ‘bubble tea’, this drink is originally from Taiwan. The tea is sweet and has an interesting texture, full of lots of jelly-like bubbles. The bubbles — or pearls — are actually made from tapioca and are slightly chewy. The tea usually has a mildly bitter aftertaste.
  • Soya milk — this drink was popularised in Hong Kong shortly after the second world war by the Vitasoy company in order to help combat malnutrition among the poor. It remains a popular drink to this day and is highly prized for its health benefits.
  • Sugarcane juice — a refreshing juice made from crushed sugarcane, usually served cold. Available from roadside vendors. Less popular than it used to be, but not difficult to find: just look for the two big metal cylindrical drums that are used to crush the sugarcane.
  • Yuanyang — a unique Hong Kong drink, combining about two thirds of coffee with one third of milk tea. It’s name is derived from the Cantonese word for ‘mandarin ducks’, which are a symbol of conjugal love in Chinese culture. The drink can be served hot or with ice.
  • Zhian jing — a Chinese rice wine similar to Japanese saké. Originally from the mainland but now also popular in Hong Kong.

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