All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.
In almost every way I can think of, my all-too-brief Hong Kong holiday was a break from routine. A much-needed and much-appreciated one, I might add. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Japan. But life here can get monotonous, just like it can anywhere else in the world – except, maybe, for Hong Kong.
Nonsense, you say. Hong Kong is just like any other big city. What makes Hong Kong so special, so exciting, so worthy of such unabashed exoticism?
Don’t get me started. The bustling markets! The hilly terrain! The lush foliage! The ultra-modern architecture! The neon! The affordable taxis! The comforts of a cosmopolitan capitalist society! The idiosyncracies of a thriving local culture! The exuberant sound of salsa music in an African bar, the distracting sight of radiant pink dragonfruit in the windows of corner stores, the tantalizing scent of five spice and ginger wafting out of noodle shops!
What makes Hong Kong so great? Well, everything. But if you need a few specifics…
They’re doing fantastic things with eggs in Hong Kong. Coming from the comparatively unimaginative egg scenes of the United States and Japan, I was delighted to see and to taste chicken, duck, and quail eggs that had been boiled in soy sauce, marinated in tea, crusted with salt, or, as the case may be, buried in a mixture of lime, tea leaves, rice malt, and clay for a month. Yes, that’s right. I sampled the internationally notorious century egg 皮蛋 (ピータン), which was introduced to much of the American public as a challenge on an episode of Fear Factor some years ago. I was surprised to find that the egg was not particularly scary and actually quite palatable, especially when eaten with a slice of pickled ginger, its standard condiment. The white of the egg, though it looks like cola-flavored Jell-O, tastes remarkably similar to a freshly boiled egg white, just a bit more gelatinous in texture. The yolk, on the other hand, undergoes an incredible transformation in its thirty days (or more) underground. From a familiar yellow to an other-worldly greyish teal, the yolk’s flavor is just as rich, musty, and ultimately bewildering as you’d expect of something called a “century egg.” You could probably replicate the flavor by taking a fresh egg yolk and blending it into a pâté with fish liver, Pont l’Eveque, boiled cabbage, Marmite, and expired milk. That probably doesn’t sound very good, but then describing the flavor of the century egg is far more challenging than actually eating one.
As in Japan, seafood options are plentiful, varied, and generally quite tasty in Hong Kong. I dove right into all kinds of creatures from the briny deep: springy, crunchy, and virtually flavorless jellyfish; prawns big enough and rich enough to pass as lobster; plump, homogenous spheres of puréed cuttlefish; and – perhaps the most delicious and controversial marine ingredient I tasted – shark fin, which had the flavor of scallops and a unique texture that could be compared to al dente Vermicelli – or maybe enoki mushrooms, or konnyaku noodles. But by far the most interesting thing I tried was sea cucumber ナマコ, the dumb, ugly cousin of the sea urchin. Prized in traditional Chinese medicine for reasons I have failed to learn, sea cucumbers are commonly sold at pharmacies in their dried form and rehydrated before cooking. Now that I think of it, this method of production may explain the sea cucumber’s peculiar texture, which is something like a wet piece of stale baguette, or maybe like a disastrously overcooked Cannelloni. Whatever flavor the little critter had was bland enough to have been covered up by the sweet-and-savory sauce in which it was served (and by the cocktails I had before dinner), but that’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable.
Dim Sum 飲茶
Going out for dim sum, which in Hong Kong is metonymically referred to as “drinking tea,” was just as exciting to me as some of the more outwardly strange things I tasted during my stay. If there’s any one maxim that could encapsulate the viking life philosophy (there isn’t), it would probably be “Variety is the spice of life.” And with this mantra in mind, dim sum is terrifically flavorful in more ways than one. A typical dim sum meal consists of anywhere from a half dozen to a few dozen different dishes, depending on the size of your party and your stomach. And when you don’t speak Cantonese and don’t go to dim sum very often (like me), each new ceramic platter and wooden steamer brought to the table contains a new and often delightful surprise. I expected the soft, shiny, egg-shaped dumplings to be filled with savory meat or vegetables; but when I bit into it, out gooshed a warm, sweet custard. I expected the deep-fried and braised chicken feet to be tasty and unusual; instead, they were tedious to gnaw from the bone and tasted like… well, chicken. I expected the stir-fried cubes of minced daikon to be bland and crunchy; and when I tried them, they surged with a spicy red heat, then softly disintegrated and melted away. And then there was that vegetable – that amazing vegetable, almost certainly the most incredible vegetable I’ve ever tasted – a rare, seasonal thing that tasted like some fantastic blend of bok choy, broccoli rabe, spinach, and Brussels sprouts. Eaten with fatty slices of salt-cured pork, each soft, dark, leafy mouthful just gushed green with flavor. It’s exactly this kind of unexpected revelation – that vegetable didn’t look so spectacular – that made dim sum one of my favorite culinary experiences in Hong Kong.
In the last paragraph, I mentioned that I tried chicken feet, and that I was pretty disappointed with them. But even though I wouldn’t call them delicious by any stretch, the important thing is that they were palatable. I mean, I had no idea chicken feet were even edible – but then, coming from America, I never really had to worry about any other parts of the chicken besides the boneless breasts and the McNuggets. To me, it seems like it would have taken a lot of ingenuity and skill to figure out how to turn those bony little claws into something you could eat. I don’t know why the people of Hong Kong bothered to try and eat chicken feet in the first place, but maybe a better question is: why not? And the same goes for goose feet, pork knuckles, pork kidneys, pork skin, fish guts, and tripe – all of which I sampled in Hong Kong. I really enjoyed a few of these choice cuts – the memory of that spicy, succulent pork skin is making my mouth water as I write this – and those that I enjoyed less were tastes that I could easily see myself acquiring. So honestly, America, if you’re reading this: why not follow in the footsteps of the people of Hong Kong (and Pennsylvania Dutch country, for that matter) and stop throwing so much perfectly good meat to the dogs and the landfills? You’ll never know how tasty the nasty bits can be until you try them.
I wish somebody had told me that you can make soup for dessert a long time ago. Made from such wonderfully flavorful bases as almonds, black sesame seeds, custard, broad beans, and mulberry tea, the dessert soups I tried in Hong Kong were a delirious new experience for me. Sweet and warm like a friendly hug, each one was a masterpiece of focused simplicity. But the after-dinner slurpables I enjoyed even more than these were Hong Kong-style milk tea and café au lait. What makes them special is a long drizzle of condensed milk in place of regular milk, resulting in a concoction with the approximate appearance and mouthfeel of sippable peanut butter. You can also order these with a blend of coffee and black tea, which gave each thick mugful an amazingly complex aroma. But of course not all dessert items in Hong Kong are liquid, and the pastries I tried were some of the best I’ve ever had. Baked with lotus seeds, tree nuts, sweet beans, jellies, and fruits, there were so many scrumptious varieties of confectionery available, I wouldn’t even know where to begin talking about them. The adjectives just keep coming: crunchy, nutty, crispy, tender, chewy, doughy, soft, juicy, gooey, flaky, fruity… it’s hopeless. You’ll just have to go and try them for yourself.
Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐
Stinky tofu gets its own subheading because it’s just that remarkable. Of all the extraordinary things I ate in Hong Kong, it made the strongest impact on me (in more ways than one). I have never heard of a food so aptly named – and that’s not just some label affixed to it by foreigners, that’s a direct, literal translation. Soaked in a brine of salt and rotten vegetables for many months, stinky tofu is saturated with all sorts of alarming volatiles, weird gases and liquids produced by the decomposing plant matter in which it’s prepared. These volatiles are released most rapidly when the tofu is cooked, usually by deep-frying, and if cooked in sufficient quanities, this can create an invisible cloud of noxious fumes capable of stinkifying a whole city block. When I first walked into one of these stinky tofu clouds at a crosswalk near Temple Street, I immediately recoiled and said, “Oh my god, what is that smell?”
I was shocked to learn the answer. See, I’d had stinky tofu before – or at least, I thought I had. At a restaurant in Little Saigon, I ate some chili-marinated tofu out of a jar on the table that was undeniably stinky and was translated to me as “stinky tofu.” But whatever that was, it far more mild and approachable than this. This hit me at twenty feet or more away from its source, a food stall pouring light and steam onto a quiet street corner. At first, the smell reminded me of the old monkey house at the Racine Zoo, a stench of simian excrement and human neglect. But it was a bit different – more sour, more vegetal, more enteric. More intense. And this was before I had even approached the stall.
A friend helped me order, I handed over a few coins, and then I was the proud owner of a hard little brick of deep-fried stinky tofu, which I quickly customized with a liberal douse of chili sauce. As I walked away from the stall, the smell faded, and eventually we got far enough away that I couldn’t smell it anymore. Then, even when I put my nose right up to my piece of stinky tofu and took a whiff, all I got was a relatively timid zip of acetic tang. Since most of its more pungent compounds had been vaporized by boiling oil, the tofu itself was actually rather tame. In fact, its crunchy-on-the-outside texture was more robust than its flavor, nothing more than a soft tofu blandness pinched by an acidic funk. But be warned: this little late-night snack was not as innocent as it tasted. The next day, I woke up to the sounds of my own tract violently destroying itself, which makes stinky tofu one of only a handful of foods that have ever made me sick.
Have I convinced you yet?