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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Table for 3: Hong Kong

Hong Kong is like no place in earth. The skyscapers hit the hills and the hills hit the seas at angles that make you wonder how. 80% of Hong Kong is greenery and people ignore or forget this. It is no longer British but not quite Chinese: it is a seamless blend of old and new and it hits you all at once. At every turn a new experience, on every plate a new adventure. Schooling aside, I had a great time when I lived there and I want to share with you - in no particular order - my best experiences from the 'Fragrant Harbour'.

Pigeon Fried Rice

I met my dad for lunch on a weekday once. I didn't have school for some reason so I decided to walk down to Central and grab a bite to eat near his office. We lived very near the central business district and with Hong Kong's world class public transport, didn't need a car. Thus, my dad walked to work everyday, downhill, through Hong Kong's Botanical Gardens. I met him at the foot of his building which was called, The Centre.

He took me to a hole-in-the-wall, just under the Escalator (the remarkable public transport system set up the ease commuter traffic, which runs from the Peak right down to Central - incidentally, the world's largest outdoor escalator). Around us, thousands of other hungry office workers made their way to their favourite eateries, jostling for position under the skyscrapers, waiting to cross the roads. Giant plasma screens displayed the trailer for the new Harry Potter movie, that everyone - and I mean everyone- stopped to watch, before continuing on their way - phone in one hand, jacket in the other. It was like swimming in a giant school of fish. Who knew walking could be so much fun.

We came to a tiny, crowded place, sheltered from the mid-day sun by the Escalator itself. The single room restaurant was no bigger than the room I'm sat in right now. It could seat about six tables of 4, on worn out wooden stools. The steam from the adjacent kitchen spilled out into the dimly light dining area, filling the air around us with the most divine smells. The sounds were those of frying, steaming and boiling and they were the soundtrack to our meal. The conductor, front and centre, was an ancient Chinese lady who acted as waitress, usher and megaphone. Five minutes after every scream she threw at the kitchen, a steaming dish would come out, accompanied only by a plastic glass of water and disposable chopsticks.

I love food. I especially love trying exotic meats. Pigeon was a first for me, and so I examined the bowl flung in front for a moment. The meat itself was a grey-ish brown; not the most appetising. The rice was glistening in the oil and spices it had been cooked in. It had finely diced greens mixed in as well. Rice, greens and poultry was all this dish was in reality, and yet it was gone from my bowl before I knew what had happened. The rice was sticky enough to easily shovel into my mouth with chopsticks and the meat was tender enough to break under their pressure. My father and I didn't speak until the meal was over, until every last grain of flavourful rice was gone.

The food in Hong Kong is amongst my favourite anywhere in the world, because of how the Cantonese manage to keep it mild and yet pack each morsel with so many different subtle personalities. Unlike with Indian food, which I find too hot (I know, I know...) my taste-buds are treated to spice, not tortured by it. Those 10 minutes captured the essence of lunch-hour in Central Hong Kong: the steam, the smells, the crowds and the frenetic pace of the it all. It's a game of musical chairs - I don't know who moved faster, the people in the kitchen or the people outside.

Lamma Island

This is simply a 'must do', for all those who go to Hong Kong. Rent a Junk boat and go to Lamma Island. I have been there on a few separate occasions and each time was as good as the last. A trip to this beautiful hilly island is as much about the journey as the destination.

The Junk Boats that you can rent these days are a tourist inspired spin-off of the classical Chinese vessels of old. They are perfect for short day trips to the hundreds of surrounding islands or for simply enjoying a day out on the sea with a group of friends. I remember going with a large group of my parent's friends. There were about 6 others kids my age and we kept getting disapproving adults to relay us cold cans of soft drinks from the fridge below. The walk from the top deck was too much effort - and why waste even a second when you're relaxing on this:

The boat seemed to stroll across the water. It ambled over the mid-morning swells, amidst the chatter and laughter our group enjoyed. Once we left Victoria Harbour behind, the sea breeze was pleasant and moist and the waters were not as choppy as near the ferry terminal. We cruised for about an hour, as the kids run around on the main deck and the adults relaxed upstairs. There were short eats and cold drinks aplenty and the junk's manager was very friendly.

It took us about an hour to get to Lama Island. I recommend you do what we did: get off on the less touristy side of the island and work up an apetite by embarking on a little trek through the island's lush interiors. I remember walking for 40 minutes and not being bored by the nature - think back to how big an achievement that was when you were a kid. By the time we got to the pier on the other side of the island, we were glad we'd spent the better part of an hour clearing room in our bellies because what followed what a gastronomic extravaganza I will never forget. You can take your pick from any of the seafood places that line the coast of Lama but I urge you to go to Rainbow if ever you have the chance.

You can pick out your fish from the tanks that form the wall of the restaurant. Not one for the faint-hearted I suppose but then I don't know what the Cantonese phrase for 'man-up' is. Our large group sat down and were served the biggest bowl of prawns I have ever seen. There must have been 200 king prawns on that platter, each one fried in garlic and spring-onions and to a brown-red crisp on its outside. Prawn is very much a luxury food for me; whenever it is made at home we each get 10 pieces and savour each one but here I gorged on them. I swam in them. Other dishes included the ubiquitous fried rice and beef and broccolli served in oyster sauce. The one that really stood out for me were the giant scallops pan-seard and served back in-shell, topped with garlic vermicelli noodles. Scallops are such a tender, sweet meat and their juiciness was retained and then some. Simple, subtle, delicious. The Chinese are masters.

We snoozed on the junk-ride back to Hong Kong island, prawn-drunk.

Glass Trolleys: The Dim Sum Experience

Like a kid in a candy store, I gazed in awe at the trolley coming towards me. We were at Maxim's Palace in City Hall, right on Victoria Harbour to sample the real Hong Kong Dim Sum experience. If you manage to get a table there at lunch-time, you are in for a treat. It is where Hong Kong comes to salivate. It is one of these iconic places in a city that will cleave opinion among locals but I love it. The seating area looks rather like a Soviet ball-room and is slightly characterless in that sense but the views from the windows of the bustling harbour are great. In any case, you aren't there for the decor. You are there for those bamboo boxes of joy.

You can order a-la-carte but that is like going to Carnegie's in Manhattan and ordering a cheeseburger. What you should do is camp yourself strategically so that you are in the catchment area of as many waiters as possible. As they pass each table, you can stop them, peer through the glass into their heated trolleys and pick out whatever catches your fancy. I recall vividly choosing the deep-fried octopus tentacles while my mum choose some famous Shanghainese 'soup' dumplings which were filled with hot broth that explode out of the soft white dough as you bit down.

I pick this one because other than the food being excellent, it is somewhere where you can go to see people be happy. I don't think there are enough places like that in the world. People eat, laugh and be happy and I wish every city had a spot like that. There is a buzz in the air, the conversations are loud and the waiters are constantly weaving and winding through the tables like winds that bring good tidings. Stack your empty boxes as high as you can and see which of the skyscrapers outside you can build!

I hope that this has made you as hungry as it has made me.


Vijay Bhat said...

Nice, nice, yum, yum! Dad

Vijay Bhat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vijay said...

Loved the 'wind'ing waitresses who bring bring good tidings.

Super super, all three.



Alka said...

i really enjoy the way you write shravan.

and even though this sounds like the pot calling the kettle black, why don't we read you more more often?