April 2014: Eating in Hong Kong

I can’t believe it’s been two months since I came back from holiday. It feels like only yesterday that I was catching a bus from Nathan Road in Mongkok out to Tuen Mun City Centre in the New Territories to see my uncles, aunts, cousins, and cousins kids – all million of them. (Slight exaggeration, but I do have a very large extended family).

The funny thing about going to Hong Kong is that I never view it as a holiday. Instead, it’s always a whirlwind of family obligations, visiting and dining with branch after branch of my extended family. And honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way. We eat a lot of street food, and in a lot of dodgy little diners and eateries. The food is always what I describe “ugly delicious” – visually unattractive, but so satisfying!

Here’s just a few of the meals I had in Hong Kong. Prepare to drool!

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On my first night in Hong Kong, I went out with my dad and brother to explore the streets of Mongkok near our hotel. We had two goals in mind – 1) to put an order in for tailored suits for them and 2) to get a decent dinner. We succeeded in both – there’s nothing more satisfying then a simple bowl of noodles with fish balls ordered from a tiny little restaurant staffed entirely by middle-aged ladies. Pure satisfaction at $10HKD a bowl.

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But of course, you can’t spend more than five hours in Hong Kong without going out for tofu fa as well. We went out in search of my favourite dessert after we finished our noodles. All my older cousins will tell you about how they used to pick me up from kindergarten twenty-five years ago, and then take me out for tofu fa before taking me home. My love for tofu fa hasn’t weakened since then, and I almost moaned as the first mouthful of silky smooth pudding entered my mouth.

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My dad decided then that he was still hungry, so ordered a plate of dumplings and turnip cake from the same street vendor. Oily crispy delicious dumplings, with fatty pork soup inside that filled your mouth with flavour.

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I find it really hard to eat healthily whenever I’m in Hong Kong as I inevitably end up in a never-ending series of visits to diners, fried street food vendors, and cake shops. Buying fruit to eat when I’m back in the hotel room at night is one of the small things I try to do, made easier when there’s fantastic options like tiny watermelon the size of a grapefruit!

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And finally before we headed back to our hotel on the first night, I had to buy some egglettes – light, airy, fluffy, sweet and addictive. It became a habit to buy a serve to share between the three of us every night before we returned to our hotel room.

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Speaking of habits, egg tarts! Quite often we would catch a bus directly into the New Territories for breakfast with my extended family, so we had to have a small snack beforehand to get us through the half hour bus trip. With a half dozen bakeries around our hotel all bringing out trays and trays of piping hot egg tarts early in the morning, it became all too easy to have an egg tart each every morning. I always think the egg tarts are better in Hong Kong – flakier, smoother, and less sweet and definitely a lot more more-ish.

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An egg tart and a Vitasoy – could you think of a better pre-breakfast taster?

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I’m not going to lie – my family takes yum cha very seriously. This particular feast was at a restaurant in Shenzhen across the border in China. A dozen of my family members had crossed the border together to pay our respects to my late grandmother and late grandfather’s graves located in Shenzhen. After visiting and going through the rituals of lighting incense and burning paper offerings, we all went to have a late yum cha lunch. Can you believe that we managed to finish it all?

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Yum Cha Round 2, in a restaurant in Yuen Long in the New Territories. We’d strategically arrived late in order to catch the post-2pm afternoon specials menu, where many of the dishes are offered at only 75% of their usual price. Yum cha is already cheap in Hong Kong when compared to Sydney prices – now take another 25% off that!

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A simple breakfast is best. We ate a lot of congee while we were in Hong Kong, served up with plates of rice noodle rolls and fried noodles. My go-to option was the fish congee, my brother opted for beef, and my dad’s a big fan of the pork with century egg.

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My brother and I had never been to Hong Kong Disneyland – oh the travesty! We decided to go together on an overcast day that turned into storm clouds which actually worked in our favour as it meant that there weren’t as many crowds and we didn’t have to queue long for rides! There’s something truly magical about Disneyland – you walk through the gates and you’re transported back to a time when cartoons were real and Mickey and Minnie Mouse are your friends. It’s amazing.

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And just because we’re suckers for kitschy offerings, we had to buy a waffle in the shape of Mickey’s head! It’s a pretty terrible waffle to be honest, and really not worth the $50 HKD.

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Having high tea at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong has become a bit of a tradition. It’s pricey by everyday Hong Kong dining standards, but cheap by Australian high tea standards. While I’m a big high tea fan, I go for a particular reason – one of my cousins is the chief pastry chef in the kitchens of the Mandarin Oriental. His creations are absolutely beautiful, you can see them in the Mandarin Oriental cake shop as well as experience them during a long luxurious afternoon tea.

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Finally, while this meal doesn’t look like much, it represents everything I love about Hong Kong. The HK experience at diner chains like Cafe de Coral is just so quintessentially everyday-Hong Kong. All my relatives go for a diner breakfast three or four mornings a week, not to mention countless morning and afternoon teas. I go multiple times whenever I’m back in Hong Kong, and find myself craving that diner experience every couple of weeks whenever I’m back in Australia.

Coming up – recaps of my dining experiences in China and Seoul!

Recipe: Baked Pork Chop Spaghetti

In case you hadn’t already figured it out, I’m a big fan of Hong Kong style cuisine – the type you would find in an everyday diner. Fusion food is the order of the day, and a total disregard of the five food groups is standard practice. One of the dishes you are most likely to find on the menu is Portugese-style Baked Pork Chop on Spaghetti, a dish that’s been heavily influenced by the Macanese culture and cuisine that’s only a short ferry ride away from Hong Kong Island.

I really enjoy re-creating this dish at home, as it’s just incredibly reminiscent of the best dining experiences of my childhood. It’s not the healthiest of meals though, so do consider serving a salad on the side!

Recipe: Baked Pork Chop Spaghetti

Ingredients

For the pork chops and spaghetti: Six pork chops, salt, white pepper, garlic, Chinese rice wine, sesame oil, one packet of spaghetti

For the tomato sauce: Worchestershire sauce, tomato sauce, potato starch, one can of diced tomatoes, two onions, and six medium-sized tomatoes

Method

Two hours before cooking, make up a marinade of a generous pinch of salt and cracked black pepper, finely diced garlic (a bulb’s worth), and a dash of Chinese rice wine and sesame oil. Tenderise the pork chops on both sides by chopping them lightly with the back of a butcher’s cleaver and cover in the marinade.

When you’re ready to start cooking, boil up a pot of water with a dash of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Cook a packet of spaghetti to your preference (I like my pasta somewhat al dente, but you might prefer it softer!) and then drain. Pour the cooked pasta into a large crockpot.

Lightly grill the pork chops on the both sides and arrange on top of the spaghetti in the crock pot. The pork doesn’t need to be cooked through as you will be baking it in the oven as well.

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Chop up your onions and fresh tomatoes, and fry them up in a pan until slightly caramelised. Add the can of tinned tomatoes and combine. Mix up the Worchestershire sauce and the tomato sauce separately (I aim for a ratio of 2 to 1) with a touch of water to lessen the saltiness and intensity of flavours. Add potato starch as needed to thicken the sauce until it’s the consistency of gravy, and then combine with your onion and tomato mixture.

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Once your sauce is cooked through, pour it over the pork chops and spaghetti. Cover with a layer of grated cheese and then bake in a medium-hot oven for twenty minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and toasty. I prefer my cheese melted rather than toasted, so I don’t tend to bake mine for as long (I do grill the pork chops longer beforehand to compensate though).

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Once the dish is cooked, mix up your melted cheese with the sauce, spaghetti and pork chops, until you have one delicious cheesy and rich-tomato spaghetti dish. Serve with cracked pepper on top, and some lemon iced tea on the side for a true Hong Kong-style diner experience.

What’s your favourite childhood comfort food?

Review: Hong Kong Best Food, Box Hill

My uncle has a funny anecdote about an experience he had at a diner in Hong Kong, where he tried to order a meal in Cantonese, only to be told by the waiter “Say it in English!”. My confused uncle then tried to order in English, only for the exasperated waiter to point to the day’s set menu and tell my uncle to choose option A, B, C, D or E. (Trust me, this anecdote sounds better recounted in Cantonese than it does in English!)

The funny thing about many Hong Kong-style diners is that 90% of their trade is done through the daily set menus for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Each menu will have five options (A, B, C, D, or E – or 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5), ranging from Chinese-Western fusion food (think pork chop with curry sauce on spaghetti!) to clearly Chinese dishes like fried rice or noodles in soup.

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Hong Kong Best Food in Box Hill, a Cantonese-dominated suburb of Melbourne, represents this kind of authentic Hong Kong diner perfectly. The service is no-nonsense, the televisions in each corner of the room are forever tuned to TVB and the staff struggle to communicate in anything other than Cantonese or Mandarin – menu pointing goes a long way here for those who can’t speak the language!

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The day that I visit for lunch with my father and brother, we are given six lunch set options each priced at an incredible $9.80 with a complimentary coffee or tea. Now that’s value!

Chicken a la king on rice, $9.80 with tea or coffee
Chicken a la king on rice, $9.80 with tea or coffee

My father orders chicken a la king on rice, which comes out looking unsurprisingly unappetising. Smothered in the creamy white sauce are plentiful chunks of sub-prime chicken, and a few token pieces of vegetables. Even with the budget in mind, the dish could have really benefited from the addition of some frozen vegetables – carrots, corn and peas could have made a big difference in breaking through the plainness and lack of texture and variety in this dish.

Wok tossed egg and beef on hor fun, $9.80 with tea or coffee
Wok tossed egg and beef on hor fun, $9.80 with tea or coffee

My brother ordered a wok tossed hor fun – again with plentiful meat but a complete lack of vegetables. Unfortunately the hor fun lacked the smokey charcoal flavour that you find with the best hor fun dishes and as a result, the flavours of the dish lost the ‘bite’ that it really needed.

XO sauce prawn and shredded chicken fried rice, $9.80 with tea or coffee
XO sauce prawn and shredded chicken fried rice, $9.80 with tea or coffee

My XO sauce fried rice was a real chilli flavour explosion – a real surprise given the disappointment of the other two dishes on the table! While it was an acceptable dish overall, the amount of oil used was alarming – there was a complete layer of oil at the bottom of the plate after I was done eating.

Overall, I rate Hong Kong Best Food a 5 out of 10 for the food. You never expect too much out of a joint like this, other than quick and efficient service without a smile, and a great deal on a meal with change from $10. The food is never amazing though it is generally palatable, but then again…you don’t come to these places for the food do you? I go for the ambiance, the frenetic atmosphere that always reminds me of my beloved birth place.

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