Food & Drink
Tasty Hong Kong - a city of foodies
With the highest rents in the world, 30,000 licensed restaurants, innumerable unlicensed hole-in-the-wall nooks, and street food vendors, competition in the Chinese city of Hong Kong restaurant business is cutthroat.
Despite this, there is usually an atmosphere of near hilarity, or at least the sound of loud giggling. Some restaurants, such as Dim Dim Sum, shape their bundles of pork dumplings into the head of a cute little pig with a snout. Others, such as Little Bao, take what are known as ‘Taiwanese hamburgers,’ or baos, and go all the way to the US for inspiration, making their patties with organic meat from grass-fed animals, and serving them with ketchup, cheese, and mayonnaise, accompanied by roasted onion, sesame oil, and shiso leaves, with a side of truffle fries. Easily the best fast food in Hong Kong and perhaps the most luxurious hamburger joint in Asia, if it can be called that. All from nothing more than just a hole in the wall.
x-treme Chinese food
Nobody in Hong Kong is closer to the true spirit of the city than Alvin Leung. Since the self-taught cook opened Bo Innovation in the Wan Chai district in 2003, his brand of deconstructed Chinese food, which he terms ‘x-treme Chinese food’, has made his restaurant one of five in Hong Kong to be awarded three Michelin stars. But most staggeringly, this former engineer has shown Hong Kong residents – and the rest of the world – that it is possible to fuse the Chinese heritage of the city with the international influences that continually flow into the financial capital to create some truly unique food experiences.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that I’ve succeeded. I think it’s more surprising that nobody got there before me,” says Leung self-assuredly as he sits in the shade on the terrace of his restaurant, escaping the humidity of the Hong Kong spring. He’s wearing his signature $2,000 glasses and smoking his equally characteristic cigar.
“Because I was born in London and grew up in Canada, I always saw Hong Kong from the perspective of an outsider. Before I became a cook – which only happened in 2003 after I’d become disillusioned with engineering – I thought that the city was underperforming in terms of its food culture. Of course, there were good Chinese restaurants, but what struck me was the thought that here’s a city of 7 million people living in tiny apartments who, quite naturally, have to go out to eat lunch and dinner. Add to that the fact that the island is home to the most millionaires in the world and is a magnet that attracts countless of tourists every year, and you have a potential that doesn’t exist in many other places in the world. And although there were good Chinese restaurants, they weren’t very exciting. No-body wanted to experiment. So I decided to give it a shot.”
On the threshold of change
When we drop by Bo Innovation for a seven-course taster lunch, we are served scallops with rice that, after having been steamed and dried, pop like popcorn in your mouth. This is followed by a brown gelatinous ball that, when chewed, explodes and releases a taste of Chinese bao, which is a traditional Chinese pork meat faggot, or steamed bun. The course that Leung himself is most proud of is called mao tai and is a mix of sea buckthorn, lemon grass and passion fruit served in a ceramic pot with a pipe that is lifted to drink the stock with your eyes focused on the ceiling above. Everything, says Leung, is designed to take diners out of their comfort zone.
“Not completely out of that comfort zone, but enough to get your thoughts to flow. That’s the goal here, I want diners to think more.”
Hong Kong, says Leung, is now on the threshold of change, moving from being a city of food lovers to being a city of foodies. The difference, he says, is that that food lovers feel good when they eat, while foodies are curious. They think about what they eat and how it fits into a larger context.
Katie Keiko is one of the new generation of Hong Kong foodies. She writes the K’s Luxe Dining Table blog, where she photographs and writes about her visits to restaurants with Michelin stars in Hong Kong and around the world. She is also one of the main contributors to the Swedish-produced documentary Foodies – the Culinary Jetset, which has been shown in cinemas and at movie festivals the world over.
“I first started to blog about food because I liked taking pictures and began to notice that more and more restaurants were opening in Hong Kong where the food served up was a real work of art and merited photographing. It was stunningly beautiful,” says Keiko when we meet at Ah Yat, a traditional Cantonese restaurant located on the roof of a shopping mall in the Kowloon hotspot Tsim Sha Tsui. The reason for meeting here is that Keiko wants to show us local Chinese food from the Cantonese culinary tradition that is far detached from monkey brains and shark fins (even if the latter does appear on the menu).
According to Keiko, Cantonese cuisine is largely about consistency.
She orders suckling pig, oxtail and abalone, the latter of which is a member of the oyster family and one of the most expensive foods in the Cantonese larder. It is an extremely luxurious food (some of the dishes on the menu containing it are priced at over $1,200). Therefore, it is a little surprising that they are served in what, to me, appears to be traditional Swedish cinnamon bun paper.
Text: Marcus Joons
Published: May 28, 2015
Last edited: March 8, 2018