advertisement

Chinese cooking has evolved over the course of several thousand years, dictated often by a population too numerous to feed. The prospect of famine meant that nothing should be wasted, and the scarcity of fuel meant that food should be cooked as economically as possible; thus, it was chopped into small pieces and quickly stir-fried. Food needed to be as fresh as possible to avoid spoiling. Among the many regional Chinese cuisines, the most common ones found in Hong Kong are from Canton, Beijing (or Peking), Shanghai, Sichuan, and Chiu Chow (Swatow).

Of course, many other dishes and styles of cuisine besides those outlined below are found throughout China and in Hong Kong. It's said that the Chinese will eat anything that swims, flies, or crawls; although that may not be entirely true, if you're adventurous enough, you may want to try such delicacies as snake soup, pig's brain, chicken feet (served as dim sum or in soups), bird's-nest soup (derived from the saliva of swallows), Shanghai freshwater hairy crabs (available only in autumn), tiny rice birds that are roasted and eaten whole, and eel heads simmered with Chinese herbs. One of the more common -- albeit strange -- items found on most Chinese menus is beche-de-mer, which translates as sea cucumber but which is actually nothing more than a sea slug, prized as a low-cholesterol food.

Dim sum and congee, a thick rice porridge, are the preferred Chinese breakfast (which is why some Cantonese restaurants open as early as 6 or 7am), but Western choices like scrambled eggs and bacon are also readily available in hotel restaurants and buffets.

Words of warning: According to government authorities, you're safe eating anywhere in the SAR, except when it comes to hawkers (food carts), which have pretty much disappeared from the Hong Kong scene anyway and were largely unlicensed. In addition, don't eat local oysters -- there have been too many instances of oyster poisoning. Eat oysters only if they're imported from, say, Australia. The good restaurants will clearly stipulate on the menu that their oysters are imported. Some expats, warning of cholera, also steer clear of local shellfish and fish caught from local waters. Nowadays, restaurants catering largely to tourists offer fresh seafood caught outside Hong Kong's waters.

Hong Kong was also ravaged by several outbreaks of avian flu beginning in 1997 (6 out of 18 people infected in 1997 died), resulting in mass poultry cullings. Vigilance by local authorities has prevented any recent outbreaks in the SAR, and importation from mainland China ceases during outbreaks there. I still eat chicken in Hong Kong, but whether you choose to is up to you.

Watch your reaction to monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is used to enhance the flavor in Chinese cooking. Some people react strongly to this salt, reporting bouts of nausea, headaches, and a bloated feeling. Fortunately, an awareness of the detrimental side effects of MSG has long prompted most Chinese upper- and medium-range restaurants, especially those in hotels, to stop using it altogether. However, Chinese fast food is likely to be full of MSG, as are dishes prepared using products imported from China, where MSG is used as a matter of course.

Spice It Up -- XO sauce, first introduced in Hong Kong by the Peninsula hotel, is a spicy condiment made from a secret recipe incorporating, among other things, Hunan ham, scallops, and Chinese spices. It's so good, you may want to bring a bottle home with you; check hotel gift stores or the food emporiums city'super or Three Sixty.

Cantonese Food

The majority of Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong are Cantonese; this is not surprising since most Hong Kong Chinese are originally from Canton Province (now called Guangdong). It's also the most common style of Chinese cooking around the world and probably the one with which you're most familiar. Among Chinese, Cantonese cuisine is considered the finest, and many Chinese emperors employed Cantonese chefs in their kitchens.

Cantonese food, which is noted for fast cooking at high temperatures (usually either steamed or stir-fried), is known for its fresh, delicate flavors. Little oil and few spices are used so that the natural flavors of the various ingredients prevail, and the Cantonese are sticklers for freshness (traditionalists may shop twice a day at the market). If you're concerned about cholesterol, Cantonese food is preferable. On the other hand, those with active taste buds may find it rather bland.

Because the Cantonese eat so much seafood, the obvious choice in a Cantonese restaurant is fish. Cantonese restaurants specializing in seafood always have tanks with live fish, with the price determined by the current market price for a tael (a tael is a Chinese unit of measurement approximately equal to 1.2 oz.). I love steamed whole fish prepared with fresh ginger and spring onions, but equally good are slices of garoupa (a reef fish popular in Southeast Asia), pomfret, red mullet, sole, and bream. It's considered bad luck to turn a fish over on your plate (it represents a boat capsizing), so the proper thing to do is to eat the top part of the fish, lift the spine in the air and then extract the bottom layer of meat with your chopsticks. Other popular seafood choices include shrimp and prawns, abalone, squid, scallops, crab, and sea cucumber. Shark's-fin soup is an expensive delicacy, but many consider it a culinary no-no due to the culling of sharks expressly for their fins.

Other Cantonese specialties include roast goose (delicious when dipped in plum sauce), duck, and pigeon; pan-fried lemon chicken; stir-fried minced quail and bamboo shoots rolled in lettuce and eaten with the fingers; congee (thick rice porridge); crab meat; sweet corn soup; and sweet-and-sour pork.

A popular Cantonese dish is dim sum, which means "light snack" but whose Chinese characters literally translate as "to touch the heart." Dating back to the 10th century, dim sum is eaten for breakfast and lunch and with afternoon tea; in Hong Kong it is especially popular for Sunday family outings. It consists primarily of finely chopped meat, seafood, and vegetables wrapped in thin dough and then steamed, fried, boiled, or braised. Dim sum can range from steamed dumplings to meatballs, fried spring rolls, and spareribs.

Many Cantonese restaurants offer dim sum from about 7:30am until 4pm, traditionally served from trolleys wheeled between the tables but nowadays more likely to be offered from a written menu. There are nearly 100 different kinds of dim sum, but some of my favorites are shiu mai (steamed minced pork dumplings), har gau (steamed shrimp dumplings), cha siu bau (barbecued pork buns), au yuk (steamed minced beef balls), fun gwor (steamed rice-flour dumplings filled with pork, shrimp, and bamboo shoots), and tsuen guen (deep-fried spring rolls filled with shredded pork, chicken, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and bean sprouts). A serving of dim sum usually consists of two to four pieces on a plate and averages about HK$20 to HK$40 per plate, though at fine restaurants, particularly in hotels, the prices can be much higher. Your bill is calculated at the end of the meal by the number of plates on your table or, more common nowadays, by a card marked each time you order a dish.

Because I can usually manage only three dishes, dim sum is one of the cheapest meals in Hong Kong and is also the best when dining alone. I often have dim sum for breakfast with lots of tea (the actual term is yum cha, traditionally meant as an early breakfast of dim sum and Chinese tea). But it's more than just the price that draws me to traditional dim sum restaurants -- they are noisy, chaotic, and the perfect place to soak in the local atmosphere, read a newspaper, or gossip. No one should go to Hong Kong without visiting a dim sum restaurant at least once.

For a light snack or late-night meal, try congee, which is a rice porridge popular for breakfast and usually topped with a meat, fish, or vegetable. Many of Hong Kong's countless, cheapest restaurants specialize in congee, as well as noodles in soup, the most famous of which is probably wun tun meen, noodle soup with shrimp dumplings.

Pekingese Food

Many Pekingese dishes originated in the imperial courts of the emperors and empresses and were served at elaborate banquets. This theatrical flamboyance is still evident today in the theatrical pulling of Pekingese noodles and the smashing of the clay around "beggar's chicken." Because of its northern source, the food of Peking (or Beijing) tends to be rather substantial (to keep the body warm), and it is richer than Cantonese food. Liberal amounts of peppers, garlic, ginger, leeks, and coriander are used. Noodles and dumplings are more common than rice, and roasting is the preferred method of cooking.

Most famous among Peking-style dishes is Peking duck (or Beijing duck), but unfortunately, a minimum of six people is usually required for this elaborate dish. The most prized part is the crisp skin, which comes from air-drying the bird and then coating it with a mixture of syrup and soy sauce before roasting. It's served by wrapping the crisp skin and meat in thin pancakes together with spring onion, radish, and sweet plum sauce.

Another popular dish prepared with fanfare is beggar's chicken: A whole chicken is stuffed with mushrooms, pickled Chinese cabbage, herbs, and onions, wrapped in lotus leaves, sealed in clay, and then baked all day. The guest of honor usually breaks open the hard clay with a mallet, revealing a tender feast more fit for a king than a beggar.

For do-it-yourself dining, try the Mongolian hot pot, where diners gather around a common pot in a scene reminiscent of campfires on the Mongolian steppes. One version calls for wafer-thin slices of meat, usually mutton, to be dipped in a clear stock and then eaten with a spicy sauce. Another variety calls for a sizzling griddle, over which thin-sliced meat, cabbage, bean sprouts, onions, and other vegetables are barbecued in a matter of seconds.

Shanghainese Food

A big, bustling city, Shanghai incorporates the food of several surrounding regions and cities, making it the most diverse cuisine in China. Because of the cold winters in Shanghai, its food is heavier, richer, sweeter, and oilier than Cantonese or Pekingese food, seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine. In addition, because of hot summers, which can spoil food quickly, specialties include pickled or preserved vegetables, fish, shrimp, and mushrooms. Some dishes are rather heavy on the garlic, and portions tend to be enormous. The dishes are often stewed, braised, or fried.

The most popular Shanghainese delicacy in Hong Kong is freshwater hairy crab (a crab with long, hairy-looking legs), flown in from Shanghai in autumn, steamed, and eaten with the hands. Other Shanghainese dishes include "yellow fish" (usually marinated in wine lees), braised eel with huge chunks of garlic, "drunken chicken" (chicken marinated in Chinese wine), sauteed shrimp in spicy tomato sauce over crispy rice, and sauteed shredded beef and green pepper. As for the famous 100-year-old egg (also called 1,000-year-old egg), it's actually only several months old, with a limey, pickled-ginger taste. Breads, noodles, and dumplings are favored over rice in this region's cuisine.

Sichuan Food

This is my favorite Chinese cuisine, because it's the spiciest, hottest, and most fiery style of cooking. The fact that its spiciness recalls Thailand, India, and Malaysia is no coincidence, since this huge province shares a border with Burma and Tibet.

The culprit is the Sichuan chili, fried to release its explosiveness. Seasoning also includes chili-bean paste, peppercorns, garlic, ginger, coriander, fennel, star anise, and other spices. Foods are simmered and smoked rather than stir-fried. The most famous Sichuan (also called Szechuan) dish is smoked duck, which is seasoned with peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, orange peel, and coriander; marinated in rice wine; then steamed; and then smoked over a charcoal fire of camphor wood and tea leaves.

Other specialties include pan-fried prawns in spicy sauce, sour-and-peppery soup, sauteed diced chicken in chili-bean sauce, and dry-fried spicy string beans. Most Sichuan menus indicate which dishes are spicy.

Chiu Chow Food

Chiu Chow refers to the people, dialect, and food of the Swatow area of eastern Guangdong province. Chiu Chow chefs pride themselves on their talents for vegetable carvings -- those incredible birds, flowers, and other adornments that are a part of every Chiu Chow banquet.

Influenced by Cantonese cooking, Chiu Chow food is rich in protein, light, and tasty. Seafood, ducks, and geese are favorites, while sauces, often sweet and using tangerine or sweet beans for flavor, are liberally applied. A meal begins with a cup of tiet kwun yum tea, popularly called Iron Buddha and probably the world's strongest and most bitter tea. It's supposed to cleanse the system and stimulate the taste buds. Drink some of this stuff and you'll be humming for hours.

Two very expensive Chiu Chow delicacies are shark's fin and bird's nests. Other common menu items include steamed lobster, deep-fried shrimp balls, sauteed slices of whelk, fried goose blood, goose doused in soy sauce, stuffed eel wrapped in pickled cabbage, and crispy fried chuenjew leaves, which literally melt in the mouth. While not greasy, the food does favor strong, earthy tastes.

Drinks

Tea is often provided regardless of whether you ask for it, usually at a charge of around HK$10 to HK$20. Grown in China for more than 2,000 years, tea is believed to help clear the palate and aid digestion. There are three main types: green or unfermented tea; black bo lay fermented tea (the most popular in Hong Kong); and oolong, or semifermented tea. These three teas can be further subdivided into a wide variety of specific types, with taste varying according to the region, climate, and soil. If you want free refills, simply cock the lid of the teapot half open and someone will come around to refill it. Afterward, tap three fingers on the table twice as a sign of thanks.

If you want something a bit stronger than tea, choose a Chinese wine. Although some Chinese red and white wines are made from grapes, most Chinese wines aren't really wines in the Western sense of the word. Rather, they are spirits distilled from rice, millet, and other grains, as well as from herbs and flowers. Popular Chinese wines include siu hing, a mild rice wine that resembles a medium-dry sherry, which goes well with all kinds of Chinese food and is best served warm; go leung and mao toi, fiery drinks made from millet with a 70% alcohol content; and ng ka pay, a sweet herbal wine favored for its medicinal properties, especially against rheumatism. These wines can be cheap or expensive, depending on what you order.

As for beer, there's Tsingtao from mainland China, first brewed years ago by Germans and made from sparkling mineral water. San Miguel is also very popular. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that excess drinking is frowned upon by the Chinese, especially the older generation, who often don't drink anything stronger than tea in restaurants. In fact, one waiter told me that Westerners spend much more in restaurants than Chinese simply because Westerners drink alcoholic beverages. Hong Kong's young, affluent generation, however, has developed a growing appreciation for imported wine, though it's rare to find a good international wine list at Chinese restaurants outside of hotels and the trendiest of restaurants.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.