Travel for food has become a new trend. It makes so much sense. The ingredients, the cooking and the people who serve the food are all reflection of heritage and culture. There is no better way to taste a city than indulging oneself in food and drinks.
It is no exaggeration to say our culinary experience shapes our lives. I still remember the first few years when I came to Canada – how much I disliked raw green salad. I did not like cold sandwich, not to mention my frustration over not finding fresh seafood or live chickens in a metropolitan city like Toronto.
After all these years, I have adopted to the living style here in Canada. I will grab a salad or sandwich as quick lunch. I finally come to terms with cooking with frozen fish fillets. However, there is always something missing. The craving for home-town taste is intense.
Every few years, I will hop on a plane and travel all the way back to my birth place – Hong Kong. The food scene has been changing so fast there. Local eateries are disappearing because of skyrocketing rent. Some already have become footnotes in history.
This time, I set out to resurrect those familiar yet distant food memories. And, my journey began in Kowloon City – a well-known district for local foodies.
1. Islam Food
Why here? Chinese Halal food? Definitely not a mainstream option. The answer is simple. This Xinjiang restaurant opened my heart and mind to embrace deliciousness. It is like first love. No matter how many relationships you have in your life, the first one is still the most unforgettable.
Within the first 24 hours I landed, I found myself lining up outside the restaurant. All dishes are Muslim-friendly. But, most frequent patrons are NOT even Muslims. They are drawn here by simple deliciousness – no rare ingredients; no grand presentation.
Everything is plain simple, even for their signature VEAL GOULASH CAKES. As the waiter was putting down my plate, I was hesitant. The pan-fried wheat pastry certainly looked crispy. The skin was translucent. Not too oily. However, it hardly had the look of a masterpiece. Could it be THE ONE?
The magic moment came when the hot and rich broth inside the pastry exploded as I took my first bite. I tried NOT to let it leak away but fail. The minced beef was cooked perfectly, with a hint of scallions and turnip. The flavours sipped through every taste bud on my tongue and hit the right nerve.
Love is always worth waiting.
2. Milk Tea
Café culture has been blooming in Hong Kong. Stylish and trendy brewers or coffee shops are everywhere. However, when I was a kid, coffee was not as popular. I grew up drinking milk tea – an intense black tea blended smoothly with evaporated milk. It is a local variation of British afternoon tea. It is a living testimony of nearly a century-long colonial rule in Hong Kong.
Some of the best ones are hidden in “wet market” buildings. Lok Yuen is one of them. I came here only because it was a convenient choice for my milk-tea fix. On the first glance, its menu looked like one that I could find in any similar food stalls. However, there were surprises and twists, like the French Toast with Beef Satay. Talking about crossover.
Same with the milk tea. I could order the traditional one for sure. Yet, my instinct urged me to try the Iced Milk Tea with Red Beans. It was the true winner. The tea was so strong that it maintained its integrity, despite a glass filled with ice. The sweetness of the red beans was surprisingly subdued, amid a well-balanced creaminess. It really capitalized on the spirit of two local beverages – Red Bean Ice and Milk Tea. No wonder it was jam-packed even during late-lunch hours. The framed Chinese banner in front of the stall says, “Sing Guo Bao Sum Chi Tou”, meaning their food could be better than the most expensive seafood like shark fin, sea urchin and abalone. There is some truth in that.
What food can truly represent Hong Kong? There is no black-and-white answer. But, if you pick cart-noodles, it is unlikely anyone will dispute that. Its origin is hard to trace. It has existed for decades, at least half-a-century. Its name comes from the fact that customers can pick and choose their own noodle-topping combination from “a cart”.
Nowadays, many street vendors are forced off the streets and some of the more popular ones have turned into specialty eateries, just selling cart-noodles. They scatter around the city. I just finished a photo shoot in Causeway Bay, one of the busiest districts, on Hong Kong Island. Looking for a quick lunch, I remembered this cart-noodle eatery in a back street – Sun Kee Cart Noodles.
It was busy lunch hours. Many white-collar workers were there. There were so many people that the owner set up an “ordering” table outside the restaurant before they could be seated. The hardest task really was picking my toppings. Old-time favourites: egg noodles, pig’s blood cubes, braised pig’s ears and fish balls? Sure!
The soup was spicy and flavourful, blended well with spices. I could spell it like a block away. It met the bar of a “good broth”. Was it the best? Probably not and I certainly tasted better before. Yet, it was good enough for a hungry “foreign” soul. With its prime location, it was not exactly a cheap eat any more. And, it would feel even better if it came from a street hawker. Just saying.
4. Claypot Rice
Made-for-order food is always the best, particularly for CLAYPOT RICE. It needs to be served RED HOT. The rice and the toppings are all cooked inside a claypot. Although there are so many good Chinese restaurants in Toronto, not many can prepare a claypot that is truly satisfying.
Surprisingly, my quest for this heart-warming dish ended in Tai Po, a district far off from popular tourist spots. I used to come here for late-night snacks. You know, when I was young. As I was randomly browsing for a dinner idea, the subtle smell from a regular-looking corner establishment – Chan Hon Kee – made me stop. I took a peep inside and saw a claypot nearly on every table. THAT told me something. A good sign.
There were more than a dozen topping combinations to choose from. Generally, I am an adventurous foodie. However, when it comes to “traditional” food, I like to go by the book. That was why I ordered the Pork Ribs Claypot Rice with Black Bean and Red Chili.
Frankly, for me, it is all about the rice. Cooking rice perfectly in a claypot is an art. The best one would have a thin layer of slightly burnt rice stuck at the bottom, adding a crunchy, rustic flair to the taste. This one did not disappoint.
But, the final touch was the house-made soya sauce. Each restaurant has their secret recipe. This one was no exception. It tasted garlicky, enhancing the complexity and sophistication of the fragrance and texture. Not too salty. Not too sweet.
And, of course, pairing it with a bottle of an ice-cold beer is a must. Another “check” on my list.
Exploring my hometown with the eyes of a “tourist” was refreshing and exhilarating. Everything seemed so familiar yet so distant. There were so many places I wanted to go but time simply just flied by. I just know I will be back again – real soon.