Hong Kong is a world-renowned ‘foodie’ destination that is home to a populace that has a seemingly insatiable appetite for good food. Most Hong Kongers ‘know’ their food and are well acquainted with the latest trends in the culinary world. A measure of this passion can be gauged from the fact that, at a recent food event organized by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel which featured uber-chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se restaurants fame, tickets sold out weeks in advance even though the price for this eleven course meal with wine pairings was a whopping $5888 + 10% tax or US $800.
However, Hong Kong is not solely the domain of high-end restaurants and luxe dining. The city offers a wide variety of dining establishments that range from open-air street-side stalls which are commonly referred to as Dai Pai Dongs and old-world Chinese diners known as Cha Chaan Teng that offer indigenous eats alongside Hong Kong interpretations of Western food to Michelin starred high-end dining temples that usually feature world-renowned chefs. Hong Kong, in fact, has a well-developed dining-out culture, and even though people do like to cook at home, they also like to frequently escape from their tiny kitchens.
The Chinese food that is available in Hong Kong differs greatly from what passes for ‘Chinese’ in other parts of the world. Hong Kong, in fact, offers a wide range of ethnic Chinese cuisines that differ greatly in style and composition like Sichuan, Guangdong, Chiu Chow, Shanghainese, Beijing, Hakka and Hong Kong Style or Cantonese cuisines. The city’s cultural diversity also ensures that many other global cuisines are also well represented and Hong Kong is home to numerous French, Japanese, American, Australian, Malaysian- Singaporean, Thai, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Indian, Pakistani and Indonesian restaurants. It can be safely said that Hong Kong offers almost every cuisine known to man and the city is home to quite a few ‘restaurant rows’ that offer much diverse fare.
Some of the best-known dining districts in Hong Kong can be found along Wyndham Street in Central, in an area known as SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) near the Central Mid-Levels escalator, and near the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront in Kowloon. The restaurants located within these dining districts are generally quite pricey and a dinner for two at one of these establishments can easily cost $1300 with wine.
Perhaps the most well-known Hong Kong culinary tradition is that of ‘Yum Cha’ or what is commonly known as Dim Sum. The term ‘Yum Cha’ actually translates in Cantonese as ‘tasting tea.’ The origins of Yum Cha or Dim Sum can be traced to the traders who traversed the ancient Silk Routes and stopped for a cup of tea at the many tea houses that were located along the route. The Chinese tea consumed at these teahouses was usually accompanied by small portions of steamed or fried eats which over the years came to be known as Dim Sum.
Yet another tale associated with the origin of Dim Sum states that these small, steamed breakfast dishes were once lovingly prepared by Chinese housewives for their husbands before they set out for a long day of work. Keeping in line with this ancient tradition many Dim Sum restaurants in Hong Kong only serve these delicious small dishes until mid-afternoon (usually 3 pm) after which they serve other Cantonese dishes.
Nowadays Dim Sum is an immensely popular weekend meal in Hong Kong which is usually enjoyed in the company of family and friends, not unlike brunch in the West. Some of the most popular Dim Sum dishes that would appeal to most Westerners include Cha-Siu-Bao or barbecued pork buns, Har-Gau steamed shrimp dumplings, Sui-Mai- steamed dumplings made with pork and Cheung Fan, steamed rice flour pancakes. Of course, Dim Sum offerings also often include more exotic fare like fried chicken feet, a dish which is immensely popular with the locals but which is known to produce expressions of horror in others.
Since the SARs epidemic in 2003, hygiene levels in Hong Kong have improved dramatically. Hand sanitizers and disinfecting wet wipes are common sights at various Hong Kong eateries. However, if you choose to shop at one of Hong Kong’s many local ‘wet’ markets you should steel yourself for the various grisly sights and smells that abound. Many Hong Kongers choose to buy fresh meat and fish at these markets and the vendors often have no qualms slicing open a ‘live’ fish to demonstrate its ‘freshness’ to the buyers.
Various other innards, ox tails, sheep heads are also similarly displayed and make an especially gruesome sight for the ‘faint-hearted’. The wet markets also house small eateries within their folds that usually serve dishes like freshly made noodle soups which are popular as lunchtime meals with the locals. Eating a meal at a Hong Kong wet market is truly an adventure and if you have the stomach for it, you should experience it at least once during your stay.