Chop, Steam, Eat — Culinary Adventures in Hong Kong

By Jean and Peter Richards

China’s culinary history spills out onto Hong Kong’s sidewalks and streets in a splendid tapestry of color and texture amidst streaming humanity and a cacophony of voices – workers passing orders, customers buying, trams clanging and truckers vying for space to load and unload goods clustered in shrink-wrapped cartons on pallets.

Organized chaos outside the food markets

In the Sheung Wan sector of the Western district around Connaught Road, Des Voeux Road and Queen’s Road West where food specialists group, each strip of stores makes its own olfactory impact. Bins, barrels, showcases and huge glass containers brim with dried seafood, fungi, tea, seeds and medicinal necessities exotic to many Westerner’s senses.

Delicate, pale bird’s nests, as essential to the eponymous soup and as costly as a Perigordian truffle, perch protectively boxed on banks of shelves. The unmistakable and to some slightly unsavory scent of dried seafood fills the air outside shops laden with fish maw, oysters, octopus, black moss, abalone and scallops – delicacies requiring careful selection and reconstitution.

Birds’ nests of all sorts

Our love affair with Chinese cooking began a half century ago progressing from simple adventures with the recipes of Cambridge’s Joyce Chen to unbridled passion when writer, cook, restaurateur Bruce Cost, author of Ginger East to West and Asian Ingredients: Buying and Cooking the Staple Foods of China, Japan and Southwest Asia gave his first series of cooking classes in Rhinebeck, N.Y., nearly four decades ago. Even fresh ginger had to be procured in the Chinatowns in those days. Since then we’ve learned how little we know.

“Sniff the conpoy (scallops),” Mr. Wu at Fook Lin Hong at 70 Des Voeux Road West advised us by example a few years ago  “They must be fragrant,” he conveyed in animated imitation of a game of charades. Half a catty (300 grams) of golden brown set us back $75 and these were just in the mid-price range, but he promised in English, “No Fakes.” Mr Wu graciously pretended to recognize us when we showed up last year for a small bird’s nest ($90.71). He quickly corralled an English speaker to convey to us a lesson in how to use it: soak four hours, steam 20 minutes and add water and a little sugar. It is a taste we’ve yet to acquire.

A shop specializing in dried seafood delicacies

Even a Parisian so spoilt for choice in mushrooms in a marché might become perplexed in Hong Kong. We still don’t know what we are doing, but dive in anyway buying a catty (600 grams) or half (300 grams) there of varying sizes, symmetry and color on Ko Shing Street and having them split into small, heat-sealed bags.

Tea can be as complicated in China as wine is in France. We get intelligible lessons at the delightful Ngan Ki Heung, 290 Queen’s Road Central, a shop that exudes a sense of Zen and purveys very good tea. Each time we try something new, but always come away with an earthy Pu Ehr (Po Lei in Cantonese) – a tea, which like certain wines, can get better with age and can cost as much too. We most recently succumbed to a  20-year-old leafy fermentation packed in a sleek octagonal blue box (100g for HK$240 or $31.16) and good for about 10 years and 75 gram boxes of Osmanthus Oolong that should be used up within a year. Tutelage came in short bursts: “Make by boiling water, cooling to 90 degrees centigrade and adding one cup water to one spoon tea. Pour all of it into cup after half a minute. Don’t let it steep, because it will become bitter as it steeps. Drain tea out if not re-filling quickly. Tea can be re-filled four to five times. Tea to be drunk as tea and not as accompaniment for meal. Osmanthus  (a golden yellowish fragrant flower) is good for skin,” the charming shopkeeper said, graciously using her best English for our benefit.

Communication was the least of our problems on our next culinary adventure involving cultural immersion, a dark alley and cleavers. This was a mission born of a chance encounter on a previous trip. We were riding a tram along Des Voeux Road a few years ago when at dusk we spied a worn sign for a knife maker, hopped off the tram at the next stop and hustled back to No. 311 in hopes of buying a chopper. Little did we know we had stumbled into cleaver heaven in the last hours of its final days after 30 years on the street.

Most everything but one showcase had already been packed, but we bought what became two of our favorite Chinese cooking utensils – a slim, perfectly weighted hand forged vegetable cleaver ($5.16) and larger one for meat ($15.48). Somehow, we were able to get the shopkeeper to write down the address to which he was moving.

Chop, slice, dice like a pro

So useful were the cleavers that finding our man became the top item on our next Hong Kong agenda. Chloe, a concierge at the comfortable Traders Hotel on the Island, thought we were nuts when we asked her to call the telephone number we had saved and aghast that we wanted to get to the Fuk Keung Industrial Building way out in Kowloon by public conveyance and foot.

First we hopped on one of Hong Kong’s wonderful old trams (old people ride for the equivalent of 13 US cents), plopped in seats upstairs and upfront for the views and headed for Central where we switched using our replenished Octopus Card to the ultra modern MTR Metro for the ride under Victoria Harbor and to the un-touristed area of Prince Edward Street out in Kowloon. Upon ascent, we became a curiosity. Men  descended upon us to ask where we were going and did we need help. One grabbed our map, told us all about his office in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., and logistics business in Africa, all the while interjecting exclamations of, “Yes, I know where it is.” He didn’t have a clue about where we were standing already never mind where we were going. More gathered round, but paid no attention to Holly who tugged at my arm, said, “Pay no attention to them. I know where you go.” She led us across the street and promptly went to consult a shopkeeper. Meanwhile Peter had figured it out on map. We thanked them all profusely for their invaluable help, walked four blocks and turned left and found No. 68 Tong Mei Road.

Eureka was short lived. No. 68 was a kitchen tile shop. Undeterred, we went in and showed the startled woman the scrap of paper on which Chloe had written our destination in Cantonese. The woman pointed to the rear of the shop, waved her arms this way and that to indicate that we should go to the back of her shop, turn left, follow the corridor to an exit and turn left again. Out in the alley, we looked up and there it was: Ho Ching Kee Lee Knife Firm, Unit R.

A lone woman sitting in the dark welcomed us in. The showcases were full of stainless and carbon steel blades – dozens of different styles, handles and weights.  She cupped one hand bowl-like and raised invisible chopsticks to her lips with the other. The owner was at lunch. By the time he returned, we had amassed a nice little group of handsomely forged, razor sharp choppers for fruit, vegetables and meat – enough for our needs and for gifts – all purchased using body language, a Cantonese-English dictionary and smiles. The price had gone up quite a lot. The $5 cleaver became $9; the $15 one became $25 – treasures, enjoyed every time we chop and cleave.

“Next time a wok,” the owner indicated as we left. Next time, a wok.

Do you think we could mount this at the Guggenheim? We’ve seen worse.

A bamboo steamer is as essential to cooking dim sum as a wok.

One Sunday morning when we were musing about making steamed wontons in chili sauce, I came across  the name of one of the last companies making steamers by hand. Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company turned out to be only blocks away at 12, Western Street. We dashed over, finding it open only because of upcoming New Year celebrations. The cave-like warehouse lined wall by long wall with steamers small enough to hold a mushroom and gigantic enough to satisfy the demands of a crowd. Our choices were constrained by the dimensions of our luggage.

A hand made steamer may not be a necessity – cheap factory versions will do the basic  job – but a well-made one is said to absorb moisture better and keep dumplings intact.  The Lams brought their business started in 1890 from Guandong to Hong Kong after World War II and still make some steamers the traditional, hard way even as skilled labor declines. The bamboo worker, like a fine cabinetmaker, first must understand the wood and handle it carefully to avoid being cut as he works soaking, stripping, peeling and bending and tying the pale pieces into the familiar round forms with cross hatched bottoms and basket weave tops held together by handmade nails of bamboo or copper. The result is a container of durable beauty.

The aptly named Tuck Chong, we read, translates as “prosperous business.” We happily contributed a mere $12 for a two-tiered and covered steamer, large enough to just fit in our wok – the one we’ll have to replace the next time we’re in Hong Kong.

Our favorite trams — we ride for 13¢

Copyright © 2012 Jean and Peter Richards


About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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