There are many ways to discover a new city. You can spend months before your arrival reading every book about your destination that you can lay your hands on. Or you can visit its museums and palaces. Or you can take an open-topped bus tour and see as many of the sights as you can possibly cram into a single day. But for me, the way to discover a city is through its food. Not the expensive food served in chic, air-conditioned restaurants far above the hustle and bustle of the crowd, but the food that the locals eat – not only what they eat but where they shop and and how they eat. To me, this exposes the essential character of a city, and nowhere is this more true than in Hong Kong. Don’t get me wrong – I love fine dining too, but to get to grips with Hong Kong and its people, you need to leave the air-conditioning and enter the rabbit warren of tiny streets below, and allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the heat, the noise, the neon cacophony, the smells and the flavours of the city.
Of course, it can be very daunting to dive headlong into the heart of a foreign city – especially one where the signs are not even written in your alphabet, let alone your language, and where your Western features instantly identify you as an outsider. But if it is Hong Kong in which you find yourself; and if it is a guide that you are after to lead you down into the labyrinth of tiny crowded streets heaving with humanity to tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants where only one dish is served, but a dish for which they are justifiably famous, then look no further than Hong Kong Foodie Tours. Run by two born and bred Hong Kong ladies Silvana and Cecilia Leung, these tours will share not only the tastes of Hong Kong but also stories behind Hong Kong’s development, its important historical figures, and the last remaining pockets of historic colonial architecture in the financial district. There are two tour itineraries available: the Sham Shui Po tour and the Central & Sheung Wan tour, which is the one that we took together with our knowledgeable guide Silvana. Armed with sadly inadequate appetites (we had just come from a dim sum feast!) we set off into Hong Kong’s central business district to discover six family-run establishments that would not normally feature on tourist radar.
Our first stop for the day was Tsim Chai Kee Noodle, a family restaurant that started life as a tiny food cart (they still have a model of the original cart on display in the restaurant). We were led to the basement dining room, passing by the spotless and surprisingly tiny open kitchen, where they prepare the three dishes that the restaurant serves: noodles and broth with either king prawn wontons; sliced beef; or fish balls (or a combo of two or three of these). Customers also get the option of three types of noodles – egg noodles, rice noodles and vermicelli. Tables are shared and service is perfunctory but oh my, the bowl that set in front of me was filled with the most heavenly, flavourful broth and three of the largest, most well-filled prawn wontons I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. And the price of this bowl of heaven? Just HK$20 (about £1.55)! The place is justifiably popular with people working in the surrounding offices, so prepare to queue at lunchtime.
From there we made our way to Gage Street, just a stones throw from the mid-levels outdoor escalator (yes, really!) to Lung Kee Restaurant. I say restaurant, but it is actually a speciality meat shop and a tiny very basic restaurant side by side. They specialise in barbecued pork, duck and goose, as well barbecued pig’s intestines, judging by the tray of squiggly day-glo orange bits displayed in the window. You can count the number of formica tables and plastic stools on the fingers of one hand, and you eat side by side with the piglets and geese waiting to be marinated or roasted – it’s not for the faint-hearted and definitely not for vegetarians! But it is all worth it when you try the barbecued pork – tender and flavourful in its sticky marinade, served simply over boiled rice.
Our route to the next stop on the tour took us through the popular fresh produce markets on Gage Street. The fruit and vegetable stalls were laden with familiar items like papayas and pak choi to the less familiar like Fuji apples, winter melon and Chinese long beans. The fresh fish market was a hive of activity as shoppers examined the fish and shellfish on dieplay and debated their merits with stall owners. Tasty as thought they may be, I could not help but feel a little sorry for the live lobsters and beautifully patterned red and black crabs, each neatly tied with strips of banana leaf, mutely awaiting their fate.
Eating is thirsty work, so our next stop on the tour was the Kung Lee sugar cane juice café on Hollywood Road. Stepping onto its cool tiled floors (such beautiful little honeycomb tiles) beneath the swirling old-fashioned fans feels like stepping into another era – 1948, to be precise, which is when he shop was opened by a sugar cane farmer. The current second-generation owner has worked in the shop since he was 15, overseeing the juicing of about 100 stalks of pre-steamed sugar cane per day with the stainless steel juicer in the corner of the shop. Your juice is freshly squeezed as you order it and arrives as a surprisingly green liquid, tasting rather like a lot of soft brown sugar (obviously!) dissolved in water. It’s sweet but very refreshing. The other thing that the shop sells is “herbal turtle jelly” in a massive tureen. In chinese medicine, this is meant to be cooling for the blood, and it is rich in collagen from turtle shells – but although the two giggling girls at the next table offered me a taste of their evil-looking dark green goo after I stared, I passed on that one! On the way to the café we also passed one of the dried seafood stores that litter the area – easy to locate by their pungent smell! Here you can buy anything from dried mushrooms, to snakeskin, to dried scallops (conpoy) in various sizes, to abalone, to dried fish maw – and even (to my surprise) shark fins. Lurking outside was a hopeful local cat (obviously drawn by the smell!), and some local residents, probably drawn by the gossip!
From there we headed to our next destination, stopping along the way to see probably the most ancient barbed I have ever seen, operating out of an alcove the size of most suburban bathrooms, complete with barber’s chair and mirror. Another sight worth visiting the area for is its temples: the Man Po temple and the Pak Sing ancestral hall (originally a storeroom for bodies awaiting burial in China, but now containing the ancestral tablets of about 300 people each surrounded by a coil of incense. As we walked, Silvana also explained that this vibrant and character-filled area is sadly under threat as developers seek to move in to build expensive housing and landlords put rents up, forcing small family business out. It definitely gave us a sense of witnessing a Hong Kong that might soon vanish, along with its stories and people. The next stop was the Xiao Tu Tu Tea Studio, where we were warmly welcomed by tea master Ivan Chiu and offered a welcome drink of refreshing green tea. Ivan explained that all tea came from the same species of plant but that the differences lay in how it was fermented, giving us a chance to smell each type of tea leaves as he talked. Here are some of his tips:
- green tea is not fermented and should be stored in the fridge for freshness. Ideally, make it with water no hotter than 80C.
- white tea is very slightly fermented and is therefore high in antioxidants, so good for the skin!
- yellow tea (not very common) is lightly dry-fried green tea
- oolong tea is semi fermented and then baked – very good for digestion
- red tea (Chinese breakfast tea) is fully fermented to release the caffeine and needs to be made with water hotter than 90C
- black tea (pu erh tea) is another fully fermented tea which is very good for digestion
Ivan also showed us how to brew the perfect cup of tea using loose leaves and we each had a go at pouring our tea from a little lidded bowl – which takes more co-ordination than you’d think! I loved browsing the shelves stacked with tea paraphernalia and gorgeous individually wrapped discs of compressed tea leaves, tied up in bundles using dried bamboo leaves. Participants on the tour get 20% discount on all purchases in Ivan’s shop.
Seeing as it had been a good 40 minutes since we last ate (!) our next stop was once again a foodie destination: Dim Sum Square on Jervois Street. As with all the other restaurants on the tour, it looked like nothing much from the outside and once inside, things were very basic with menus under clear plastic on the tables and little plastic stools to sit on. But we were here for the dim sum, not the ambience! We tried a selection of popular dim sum including Har Gao (shrimp dumplings), Siu Mai (pork dumplings), Jaa Chun Guen (spring rolls) and Char Siu Bao (crispy BBQ pork buns). My favourites were definitely the purse-shaped Siu Mai, packed with flavourful, fatty minced pork; and the Char Siu Bao – a sweet bun with a hidden centre of pork slow-cooked in char siu sauce – the ultimate dim sum treat for fans of a sweet/salty combo like me!
Our final stop of the day was the Hei Lee Cake Shop, a small Chinese pastry shop well known for its innovative take on local pastries such as pineapple buns with barbecued pork fillings and fluffy pizza breads with cheese and ham toppings – but we were there for the Daan Taat (egg tart). These are basically custard tarts and were introduced into Hong Kong in the 1940s. They are thought to have been derived from the very similar Portuguese custard tart pastries, known as pastel de nata, and may have made their way to Hong Kong via the Portuguese colony of Macau. We enjoyed ours warm and fresh from the oven – all buttery flaky pastry and warm, wobbly custard filling – a delicious end to the tour.
I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. It is a wonderful way to explore an unfamiliar city’s culture and history through its food and drink – and even if you are not a dedicated foodie, Silvana provided plenty of historical and cultural information along the way, giving you a real sense of the city and its people.
The Central & Sheung Wan Hong Kong Foodie Tour departs at 14h15 every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and lasts 3.5 hours. All tastings are included and groups are limited to 12 people. The tour costs HK$690 (£53) for adults; HK$490 (£38) for children aged 5-14; and free for under-fives who do not require separate tastings.
We flew to Hong Kong very comfortably on Cathay Pacific which flies five times daily to Hong Kong from London Heathrow – prices to fly to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific start at £589. To book your flights, visit www.cathaypacific.co.uk.
I stayed in a Club 36 at the Hotel Icon – you can read my comprehensive review here. Rooms like the one I stayed in start at a £183 per night, or £170 for an Icon room that does not include all the facilities that I enjoyed. For more information and booking, visit www.hotel-icon.com.
17 Science Museum Road
Tsim Sha Tsui East
GOOD TO KNOW
For more information on visiting Hong Kong and things to do in Hong Kong, visit the Hong Kong Tourist Board website.
DISCLOSURE: I travelled to Hong Kong and enjoyed this foodie tour as a guest of the Hong Kong Tourist board but received no further remuneration to write this post. I retained full editorial control and all opinions are my own.