Hong Kong is an olfactory onslaught.
Smells swarm and swirl, shifting with every few steps: familiar scents of pork buns, chicken pies, and processed pork mingling with whiffs of the unfamiliar. They’re all thick smells riding on crests of warm but not dry air characteristic of this July summer. Condensation rises from a giant opened steamer, misting my skin as I walk past. Farther on, my nose detects the acrid, anise-like smells of Chinese medicine quickly followed by the nutty aroma of soy milk. Every ten paces sets off a delivery system that mainlines vast and varied smells straight into my nose. I’m high on this sensory trip. And all around me is a cacophony of chatter – various tongues speaking in excitement, awe, and wonder at this Oriental wonderland.
I was 3 years old when my family and I lived in Hong Kong and we stayed ‘til I was 5. This was right before we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. My most vivid Hong Kong memories are of my mom bundling me up in a thick wool coat and me trundling alone to Kindergarten while she watched my every step from our flat that overlooked the school. I remember her anguish when my sister got lost in Stanley market on a Sunday (!). And I remember my first crush ever, Will, a brown hair boy with shiny brown eyes who was in my pre-school class. Living in Hong Kong then, I don’t remember the food much but of course an adult, it’s all I think about now.
This is a quick trip to Hong Kong, and it’s primarily about the food, for what else is a trip abroad but an excuse to eat more than I should? Today we’re in Din Tai Fung, an eternally popular – no, make that famous – restaurant renowned for their xiao long bao, steamed pork dumplings encasing a gulp of broth. Hailing from Taiwan, the restaurant now has branches in Asia and the US, and several in Hong Kong. As we’re led to a private room on the upper floor, I’m entranced by the chefs in the glassed-in kitchen meticulously rolling circles of dough that are then stuffed with minced pork.
Din Tai Fung serves their xiao long bao with shredded ginger and soy sauce, a recommended ratio of 1:3, some even add vinegar to the mix. A handy laminated guide enlightens me on the proper eating procedure. What immediately strikes me on first bite is the wrapper, it’s thin yet thick enough so that it doesn’t rupture, avoiding a needless releasing of its precious treasure. The intake of smell and gentle slurps reveal ginger and salt and flavorsome secrets. I smell, I taste, storing the memory of them.
My dad enjoys his dish of jellied ham, slabs of chopped pork suspended in gelatin. Deceptively solid, it deteriorates on first bite leaving a salty remembrance.
These are Dandan noodles (dàndànmiàn), a classic Chinese Sichuan dish. A noodle bundle is calm amidst its spicy sauce of chili oil and Sichuan pepper punctuated with pork and peanuts and scallions.
Din Tai Fung excels at dumplings. Here, crescents of dough enclose a steamed vegetable filling.
This restaurant serves truly distinctive siomai. Reminiscent of tied chaffs of wheat, they stand squat and proud, offering up their edible riches. This is the pork and glutinous rice shao-mai…
… and here is the shrimp and pork shao-mai, which carries a secret cache of warm broth. It’s a liquid surprise on last bite.
Hot and sour soup for my Bin, to enervate him for the shopping (and eating!) days ahead.
Steamed beef soup meanwhile, for my brother in law, Vinnie. Possessing a clear broth, it’s a restorative even with the meat.
For the three kids with us, Chinese food means fried rice so good that even the adults want some too…
… as well as fried pork chop, something no one expects to be good but truly is. Ethereally crispy.
Din Tai Fung
Shop 130, 3/F, Silvercord, 30 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2730 6928
G/F, 68 Yee Woo Street, Causeway Bay, 3160 8998
It’s only in Hong Kong perhaps, that it feels right – no, required – to have dimsum for breakfast at least once. At Cheers Restaurant in Causeway Bay, there are no trolleys in sight but every mini bamboo steamer comes with a dish that’s thoughtfully crafted and delicious.
Flaky barbecued pork buns that make “messes” of mouth and plate, flirtations of salty and slightly sweet.
The three little ones with us adore flat rice rolls (with shrimp only, please). The server pours over a stream of light soy sauce — it’s delicate, the saltiness but a whisper. The glutinous rice wrappers slide and slip as a knife attempts to slice through them, sometimes ejecting an errant shrimp in the process.
Taro puff buns. I have an obscene fixation with anything that has “taro” appended to it, and these buns are no exception. A crispy outside cradles the softly purple filling enshrouded in a pillow of dough.
Red bean pastries artfully encased in a layered shell. Exquisite.
Siomai, pork and shrimp sprouting like a flower.
Cheers Restaurant, Tao Heung Pier 88
5/F Windsor House, 311 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
3167 7288 / 2831 9155
At night, Hong Kong emits a different buzz, that of pulsing energy and frenzy threatening to spill over. There are people, always plenty of people: those with heads down, determinedly charging through the throngs; locals out for a night of eating and giggling; befuddled tourists clad in fanny packs and rubber shoes, clutching cumbersome SLRs…
and people like me who stop and stare at every food stall, their items clarion calls to eat and drink and eat some more.