Text And Photos By Nathan Fong
Placed before me is a hearty plate of a rich beef curry atop a mound of steaming rice, heady with ginger, star anise, cinnamon and various other aromatics.
I’m somewhat crushed, sitting shoulder to shoulder in this tightly-packed restaurant, and I notice that nearly all of my neighbours are eating the exact same dish. Although the menu options are fairly modest, it’s the famed curry with its slow braised beef and intense flavour that has its followers lining-up for more.
Even though it’s a balmy 30 degrees and probably 80 per cent humidity outside, the air-con whirls away, keeping us cool while I attempt to attack this intensely aromatic curry on an already nearly-full stomach. This is already my third meal of the day and it’s barely past noon. My typical morning usually involves a yogurt and protein-infused power shake followed by a midday salad – but not today – because I’m in one of the world’s best food cities… Hong Kong.
Although Hong Kong is renowned for its Cantonese preparations, Hong Kong also showcases cuisines from afar, making it an important city of gastronomic gluttony. From simple congee and noodles to Thai and Malay-influenced dishes, Pakistani Halal-styled curries, delicate Japanese sushi and Michelin-starred uber-haute cuisine influenced by Europe’s famed restaurant gastro-laboratories, Hong Kong is one serious global kitchen.
I start breakfast with a slow-simmered chicken congee, a type of rice porridge which is one of my favourite comfort foods. It is chock full of intense flavor and accompanied by a hot, freshly-fried savoury donut, which I dip into a blend of soy and chili-infused oil before I dip it into the velvety congee. It’s simply sublime.
Shortly after my quick morning repas, I’m sped through the harbour tunnel to one of the many food streets in Kowloon. We head to another restaurant that’s famed for their Hainanese Chicken Rice. This local specialty originated from the island of Hainan and is often associated with Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine, but it’s also a popular dish in Thailand.
The chicken is poached in chicken broth for about 45 minutes, removed and dried and then placed into a marinade of more than 30 ingredients. The marinade recipe is a big secret, but it mainly consists of star anise, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, red chilies, Thai cilantro and cardamom. The chicken fat from the broth is skimmed off and fried with washed rice, ginger, garlic, pandan leaf and galangal, and then placed into a steamer to cook.
To showcase big an obsession food is in Hong Kong, some 500 to 600 customers line-up daily at this tightly seated restaurant just to sample this famed chicken dish. The fragrant bone-in cut chicken sit atop a bed of rice that’s garnished with a side of pickled cucumbers, red and green chilies, lemongrass, vinegar and fish sauce. The accompanying dipping sauce is made with similar ingredients, but blended to a smooth paste. But it’s this dish’s combination of different elements – sweet, salty, hot and spicy – that’s so incredibly satisfying.
I have a couple of hours to semi-digest before I’m taken to the 20th floor of a Kowloon-side tower, where I venture into one of the most stunning restaurants I have ever seen.
The darkly lit interior is full of Chinese antiques, and I’m instantly hit by one of the most spectacular views of Hong Kong in all of its evening neon-glory below. It’s here at Hutong where I sample exquisite boneless double-cooked mutton, sweet chili-licked tender meat, soft tofu stuffed with shrimp mousse, and one of my favourite classics, a delicate soy-seasoned fried rice with shredded chicken and dried salted fish.
Photos: Nathan Fong
But not all is traditional in this land of plenty. At the recently-renovated and renamed The Mira (formerly The Miramar) on Nathan Road, the rooms exude a chic stylishness, while the dining rooms emit a sophisticated ambiance.
At the hotel’s Whisk eatery, Scandinavian chef Bjoern Alexander takes diners on an exciting culinary voyage through European and Asian-inspired flavours and textures through his whimsical tasting menus.
Influenced by the award-winning menus of Denmark’s Noma, Chef Bjoern takes the diner from a brilliant Nordic creation of cranberry, foie gras and eel, through a German-inspired beef tongue with horseradish, chives and potato, to a Belgian chocolate laced with coffee and lemongrass. This is contemporary gastronomy at its finest, with just the right amount of molecular technique to keep the diner intrigued and their palates excited.
Although there’s seemingly an infinite supply of high-end Chinese restaurants packed into this former miniscule British colony, one of my favourites is still the elegant subterranean Shang Palace, which is located in the graceful Kowloon Shangri-la. Newly renovated last year, Chef Mok Kit Keung challenges his kitchen brigade with contemporary classics.
A comforting and intense double-boiled chicken soup with sea conch and cordyceps is served in fragrant young coconut. Baked Inaniwa noodles with delicate abalone slices in a mild cheese sauce are served in mini pumpkins, and vanilla ice cream is laced with white truffles. This is where western ingredients infiltrating a Chinese kitchen works like a dream.
For a truly magnificent meal on the edge of heaven, there’s Tim Lung Heen, which is located on the 102nd floor of the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong. With its vaulted ceiling and dramatic scenery, it’s hard to decide what to concentrate on – the spectacular view or the brilliant cuisine.
For dim sum, try the delicate short crust tartlet brimming over with shredded goose and slow braised abalone, the traditional har gow (shrimp dumpling) that oozes sweet shrimp and chopped asparagus, and is garnished with gold leaf flakes, or the signature barbecued Iberico pork, which is dressed with the light sweetness of honey.
There are a few eateries that like to challenge the traditional. The classic combination of ginger and spring onions is ubiquitous in classic Cantonese cuisine, such as in a traditional hotpot of braised fresh oysters with ginger and green onions… But as I sit at a chef’s table in Bo Innovation where I am about to experience an amuse bouche of a freshly shucked Irish oyster delicately sitting on a vibrant green pool of spring onion infused with lime juice and topped with ginger ‘snow’, I can’t help but wonder if this is the future of Hong Kong gastronomy. Is this ‘Molecular Chinese Cuisine’?
From a homely beef curry served up at a tighty-packed table, this futuristic amuse bouche showcased in a super-chic eatery, there is no doubting that Hong Kong is a mesmerizing culinary haven. Throughout the years I’ve ventured to various parts of the globe, searching far and wide for that perfect gastronomic Shangri-La... To me, Hong Kong is about as close as it comes.