The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Cantonese food: traditional teahouse, mall restaurant and low-brow daipaidong

Over the past few weeks, we've had a few opportunities to experience the various types of food offered by the Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong. There was bad service but amazing dim sum at Luk Yu Teahouse, upmarket dining but fairly unremarkable dishes at Lei Garden, and seriously cheap grub at Kwun Chung Market.

Luk Yu Teahouse, Stanley Street (Central)

My impression of Luk Yu Teahouse on Stanley Street is that it is one of the few places in Hong Kong that still functions as a traditional teahouse, where tea is the focus and the dim sum dishes are just side dishes to complement the tea. This teahouse is run and maintained by surly men in their 50s and 60s, and their brusque (bordering on rude) service is offset by the excellent quality tea and probably the best dim sum I've ever had. None of us were too impressed with being directed to the 3rd floor, climbing stairs with a 2 year old toddler, carrying a stroller and everything else that goes along with a toddler on any outing. Thankfully my sister Honey was visiting us for the week, and she could help us out with carrying stuff. The lousy first impression of Luk Yu continued when we had a look at the limited menu, which didn't have many of our favourites.

Now I'm done with the negatives of our experience, I can move on to the good part! The bolay tea was very good, and I have never before liked this type of tea because it can be quite pungent. I had read that the dim sum dishes here are very good, and we picked out seven dishes of both the usual suspects (like hargow (shrimp dumpling), beef meatballs and egg tarts) and also ones we have never heard of before (like duck pie and mashed dates cake).

The first set of plates to arrive at our table were the pastries - egg tarts, mashed dates cake and duck pie; and the second set were the steamed dishes - beef meatballs, shrimp dumplings, turnip cake and rice in lotus leaf

The hargow had a nice fresh wrapping that wasn't too thick or too thin, steamed perfectly and not overcooked to soggy texture like many I've had before. The egg tart was perfect in every way: pastry that was deliciously flaky, perfectly cooked egg custard filling, and a size that was easy to eat (although Rob would say it was far too small). The duck pie was hearty and filled with tasty goodies like minced duck meat, shrimps and chunks of vegetables. If this was a normal restaurant, I would have thought that it was a great way to use up leftovers, but since it functions strictly as a teahouse with only a limited number of dim sum, I am disinclined to think that this was a leftovers dish. The Mashed Dates Cake was, for me, the star of the table. The cake relied solely upon the unmistakable sweet flavour of dried Chinese dates, and the crust was reminiscent of the mooncake. The rest of the dim sum dishes were pretty good too.

The fillings of the duck pie and the date cake respectively:

Lei Garden, IFC Mall (Central)

On Honey's last day in Hong Kong (while we were still at the Four Seasons), we had lunch at a restaurant in the IFC Mall. Lei Garden a high end restaurant chain with restaurants also in China, Macau and Singapore. We basically chose this restaurant because of its convenient location to us, and also because the other two restaurants we were considering were fully booked. This is also a pretty popular brunch choice with the weekend shoppers, and we were rushed through our meal to make room for the next customers. The restaurant seemed like it could be a nice fine dining place, except that service was not that great, and the food was mediocre at best.

Stirfried Shanghai Hairy Crab that contained more eggs (and tofu?) than crab meat; and Lotus Pork Sandwich (a thin layer of seasoned pork mince sandwiched between two slices of lotus root, battered and deep-fried):

Tofu Ensemble; and Special Fried Rice:

Kwun Chung Market, Jordan (Kowloon)

I love exploring anywhere on foot - you discover so many things that would be easily missed when you take the subway, bus or taxi (or even bicycles!). Last weekend, after dismissing our concierge's opinion that it was too far to get to Kowloon Park by walking, we headed out for the park, and we came across another smaller park, the King George V Memorial Park. From the street we could see that there was a large playground area, and after playing a little while, we headed off for our intended destination. We didn't get far before noticing interesting shops and stalls set up in and around Kwun Chung Street area. It was almost lunchtime by the time we were done with having a "quick look" around, so we started looking for lunch. The Kwun Chung Municipal Services Building on the nearby Bowring Street contained two levels of wet market, and the 3rd floor was the "Cooked Foods" level, and we headed straight for it.

The daipaidong-style dining area on the 3rd level; and self-service:

We had no idea what to expect, and what we saw was like a hawker centre, called a daipaidong in HK. There were a few shops with a self-service set-up, where you can pile up as much food as you can on one plate for HK$22, which is very cheap even by Hong Kong standards. Steamed rice, plain congee and soup are also self-served. For obvious reasons, this set up is popular with the locals, and I won't be surprised if many of the diners were market workers. To be honest, we were happy just to take a look and then head off elsewhere for lunch. Popular dishes had high turnover, replenished steaming hot straight from the wok, but others had been sitting there with no constant heat source to keep it even slightly warm. Then there was the hygiene issue of self-service. It was highly tempting to act like cultured snobs and walk out (which we almost did), but then I remembered that this is the best way to experience the local food: to eat like the locals do. One particular shopkeeper, his wife and helper were friendly and prompted us to take a seat, so Rob grabbed a table while I went to grab the food. Our table received a lot of looks as Rob was the only Caucasian in the whole area, and Zak was the only child in sight (our 2-year-old didn't get even a taste, as I'm not such an irresponsible mother! He was happy with his packed lunch). One plate of food (not piled very high with food, so that we don't eat too much food of a questionable level of hygiene) and one bowl each of plain rice and plain congee were plenty for the two of us. The food was home-style cooking, simple, hearty and very filling. Quite tasty too. We didn't get food poisoning, so maybe we should start eating like the locals do - it will be a lot easier on the wallet compared to the dining options available inside the polished floor mall closer to home.

Braised chicken and potatoes, stir-fried greens, pork, steamed fish and Chinese-style omelette, as plonked on the plate by yours truly:

This was our first time in almost a week outside of the air-conditioned mall bubble since we moved to our not-too-shabby apartment above the Elements mall. Whilst I can see the busy streets several storeys below us, I was starting to wonder if there is actually a way out to street-level! We could get almost everything we need inside the mall, but it was so refreshing to reconnect with the noisy, dirty and not-so-shiny streets of real, local Hong Kong. I went out almost everyday last week, on my own with Zak in the stroller, since discovering the way out.

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