Hong Kong: dim sum, dancing water, daring heights and other delights

I know I haven’t been around for a while – sorry. You must have missed me terribly. I’ve been busy working on my book, but I’ve also been on holiday to Hong Kong with Omar (who is no longer the Ruffian, which felt too silly – therefore his identity is revealed) and a couple of other friends. Let me tell you all about it!

When we arrived in Hong Kong, we hadn’t had any sleep on the 12 hour flight and had no idea what time of day it was – but knew we were hungry. Our hotel was in Mong Kok, the hectic centre of Kowloon crowded with market stalls and street food, so that’s where we ventured out in search of dinner. I was slightly delirious and overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of Mong Kok: muggy heat, raw fish, flashing shop signs, roaring traffic, the chatter of Cantonese. We stumbled into a restaurant we’d found recommended online, which specialised in Hakka cuisine, and were reassured to see we were the only tourists there. Eating like locals, we thought – but our smugness disappeared when we attempted to navigate the menu. Going by the prices, we ordered what we thought a reasonable meal in London would cost. Mistake. An embarrassingly huge banquet was laid out in front of us: a mountain of salt-baked chicken, a cauldron of rice with chicken and prawns, a vat of bean curd, vegetables drowning in a lake of sauce… though we barely made a dent in it, it was all delicious. We’d learnt our first lesson about Hong Kong: food is both cheap and good, an impossibility in London.

The next day, still jet-lagged, we eased ourself into sightseeing by wandering around the city, soaking in the atmosphere. We began with brunch at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wunton Shop, a very different brunch to the avocado-and-egg affairs we’re used to in London. Congee is a kind of rice porridge or gruel which sounds disgusting, but is actually delicious. Accompanied by noodles and wantons in broth, it fuelled us for a day of exploration. We took the Mid-Levels Escalator – a bit like a normal escalator, but half a mile more fun – up to the Mid-Levels, which I can only describe as Hong Kong’s Soho, a trendy area full of international cuisine and hip coffee shops. Here we stumbled upon the Man Mo temple, the oldest in Hong Kong, built in 1848 to honour the god of War and the god of Literature (so of course I had to step inside). Dark and smoky, with giant incense coils burning slowly overhead, it was a peaceful oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. Afterwards, we walked around Victoria Park and the surrounding shopping malls, where I was introduced to Gudetama, an inexplicable children’s character whose tortured expression seems to represent a prolonged cry of existential angst and suffering.

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‘Please, someone have mercy…’

To cheer ourselves up we had a drink on a rooftop bar (there are many in Hong Kong) and Japanese pork cutlets. We scrubbed up in our hotel before hitting the tallest bar in the world: Ozone, on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the International Commerce centre. This building makes the Shard look diminutive, although it’s only about tenth in the ranking. The bar is so high that the view wasn’t that good, since we were literally in the middle of a cloud, but if you go on a clear night the views will be spectacular. Cocktails are about £18 each, which is similar to any London bar with an inferior view, and they’re good – the kind that don’t give you a headache the next morning.

Having grown accustomed to the life of luxury, we kicked off our next day with lunch in a Michelin star restaurant: Tim Ho Wan, which is sadly no longer the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, having been beaten by some place in Singapore. My friend’s Cantonese parents ordered for us, meaning we could sit back and be presented with an array of wonderful dim sum. The steamed and baked pork buns were a highlight, and we also tried some more unusual dishes like water chestnut jelly and a sweet steamed egg cake. After this we hiked the Dragon’s Back trail, a coastal walk across the bumpy hilltops (hence a dragon’s back), which wouldn’t have been so strenuous had it not been for the 28 degree heat. Although drenched in sweat, we savoured the beautiful stretches of deep blue island-studded sea and cloudless sky, and especially the occasional ruffle of sea breeze. You can end the hike at Big Wave Bay and take a dip in the sea, but we got the bus back into town and opted for food instead: milk tea and thick slices of toast slathered in peanut butter and condensed milk, which I felt was well-deserved.

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The view from the Dragon’s Back hike

This was a busy day: next we headed up to the Peak to take in the view of Hong Kong’s skyline whilst the sun set and the skyscrapers lit up. It was heaving on the viewing platform, and we had to do some aggressive elbow-jostling to get a good spot, but it was worth it; the views of the glittering bay really are spectacular. Finally, we saw the skyline from a different angle by sitting on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and watching the laser light show, A Symphony of Lights, which takes place at 8pm every day. I’ll admit we found this a bit of an anticlimax, but still worth seeing if you’re in the area. To finish off the day, we went to the Garden of Stars (usually the Avenue of Stars, but it’s being refurbished) to visit the Bruce Lee statue and join the queue to do bad imitations of his pose, like the typical unimaginative tourists that we were.

The next day Omar forced me to eat a McDonald’s breakfast, which is apparently much better than McDonald’s in the UK (I will not admit to secretly enjoying the trashiness). We then took the cable cars at Tung Chung to see the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery in the hills. The cable car is expensive but necessary unless you walk, which you don’t want to do if you value your legs. (Interesting side note: we were in the cable car with a horrified Japanese businessman watching his stocks plummet as Trump’s victory was revealed.) The monastery isn’t as peaceful as it should be due to all the tourists, but the enormous bronze Buddha statue, although built in 1993, has a quality of age-old wisdom and stillness that is awe-inspiring. We also had vegetarian meal in the monastery, which since I’m normally pescatarian I really valued, since it’s hard to come by a good vegetarian meal in Hong Kong. From there, we were going to get a bus to Tai O village – a glimpse of a more traditional world of stilt houses and fishermen – but sadly ran out of time.

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The mesmerising view of Hong Kong’s skyline from the Peak

Instead of a proper dinner, we decided to hit the street food stalls of Mong Kok and eat on our feet as we browsed the stalls of the Ladies’ Market, where you can buy a variety of knock-off designer goods and souvenirs. I also enjoyed walking down the streets selling pets (I had to be dragged away from the kittens in the shop windows) and the Goldfish Market where the shops have bags of live fish hanging outside. This area felt very different to the polished and more Westernised world of the malls full of designer brands and expensive restaurants, and I preferred it for that.

The next day, armed with our passports, we took the ferry to Macau. Like Hong Kong, it’s part of China but an autonomous territory, but it feels very different to Hong Kong; it was a Portuguese colony for many years, creating a unique fusion of Portuguese and Chinese culture. It’s also known for being the ‘Vegas of China’ and contains several massive super casinos. While it was an interesting experience, Macau wasn’t for us. We enjoyed strolling around the old town, looking at the crumbling Portuguese buildings and sampling the local specialities (including the custard tart), but casinos were pandemonium and we found their grandiosity and extravagance rather evil. The highlights were our Portuguese dinner – the African chicken is a must-try dish – and the House of Dancing Water show, a water-based circus show featuring divers, gymnasts and (bizarrely) motorbikes. If you’re going to Macau, you should book a show or a nice dinner, otherwise you might not feel it’s worth the journey.

Our last full day began with a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which covers prehistory through Hong Hong’s time as British colony, the Opium Wars and Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, up to the present. The lesson I took away is that Hong Kong has been through some bad times, but the residents always seem to just get on with things. We then had another Michelin star dim sum experience at Din Tau Lung, a Taiwanese restaurant in a shopping mall (the food in Hong Kong malls is very different to the sorry fast food offerings we get in the UK). This was followed by my favourite activity of the week: cycling in the New Territories, Hong Kong’s suburbia. We wanted a more local experience, so hired bikes and cycled the paths that run for miles alongside the waterfront, until the skyscrapers became hills and smaller blocks of residential flats. After about three hours, by which point we were ravenous, we ended up at a local barbecue restaurant. You pay for a table outside with your own barbecue, then choose from unlimited skewers of meat and stuff yourself with as much meat (and garlic bread, vegetables, barbecued bananas and pineapple) as you possibly can. We talked, laughed and drank beer, and it felt like a chilled evening in the summertime; a fitting grand finale to our week of extravagant  and unashamed consumption.

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A traditional Cantonese barbecue – all the meat you can eat!

The next day we just about had time to zoom around the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian garden. It’s a traditional Buddhist temple surrounded by a peaceful garden containing lily ponds and an elaborate red-and-gold pagoda, which felt more like the temples I remember seeing in mainland China or in Japan. The contrast of the elegant wooden architecture of the temple with the skyscrapers rising in the background summed up Hong Kong for me. I wished we’d had more time to relax in the gardens, but since we had a flight to catch we had to do power laps; I’d allow yourself a couple of hours to stroll around the complex instead of the 45 minutes we gave ourselves.

One more allegedly superior McDonald’s chicken burger in the airport and we were heading home. 12 hours is a long flight to endure for a week-long holiday (particularly when you’re sandwiched between two grumpy strangers) but I think Hong Kong is worth it. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves food, which I hope is everyone, or for anyone making a first trip to Asia, since it’s fairly small, easy to navigate and has some home comforts, but you can also have a very local experience if you want to – and there’s plenty to do, as the length of this post would suggest!

My favourite foodie moments in fiction

I’m writing an article for the Society of Young Publishers magazine about food in fiction. Every time I write an article I get very excited, and end up digging up far more information than I can possibly fit in the word limit – but I got even more excited than usual for this article, because I love food and I love fiction. They are probably my two favourite things. I ended up trawling through my book collection looking for my favourite descriptions of food, then proceeding to salivate (though not so much in the case of Bridget Jones’ s Diary). Since I wasted about two hours doing this, I thought you would share some of the foodie moments I found with you.

1: The picnic from Possession. it sounds so fresh, simple and colourful, and it represents Maud and Roland being liberated from their stuffy lives as academics. Their relationship wouldn’t have worked if they had gone to the Harvester or ordered a Dominos…

Something new, they had said. They had a perfect day for it. A day with the blue and gold good weather of anyone’s primitive childhood expectations, when the new, brief memory tells itself that this is what it is, and therefore was, and therefore will be. A good day to see a new place.

They took a simple picnic. Fresh brown bread, white Wensleydale cheese, crimson radishes, yellow butter, scarlet tomatoes, round bright green Granny Smiths and a bottle of mineral water. They took no books.

2: Bridget’s disastrous dinner party from Bridget Jones’s Diary. As I say, it doesn’t make me salivate so much as giggle, but I am tempted to try to make a blue soup that actually tastes good…

 8:35 p.m.: Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue. 9 p.m. Love the lovely friends. Were more than sporting about the blue soup, Mark Darcy and Tom even making lengthy argument for less colour prejudice in the world of food. Why, after all, as Mark said – just because one cannot readily think of a blue vegetable – should one object to blue soup?

[…]

9.15 p.m. Oh dear. Think there must have been something in the blender, e.g. Fairy Liquid, as cherry tomato purée seems to be foaming and three times original volume. Also fondant potatoes were meant to be ready ten minutes ago and are hard as rock. Maybe should put in microwave. Aargh aargh. Just looked in fridge and tuna is not there. What has become of tuna? What? What?

3. Marian eating a cake version of herself in The Edible Woman. I read this book when I was a lot younger and somehow didn’t notice the in-your-face feminism in it. I just thought it was about a lady who didn’t love her fiancé and went off all her food, but then met someone else and made a lovely cake and it was all better. Cake does make everything better, but I don’t think that was Atwood’s point.

Her creation gazed up at her, its face doll-like and vacant except for the small silver glitter of intelligence in each green eye. While making it she had been almost gleeful, but now, contemplating it, she was pensive. All the work had gone into the lady and now what would happen to her?

[…]

She went into the kitchen and returned, bearing the platter in front of her, carefully and with reverence, as though she was carrying something sacred in a procession, an icon or the crown on a cushion in a play. She knelt, setting the platter on the coffee-table in front of Peter.

‘You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you,’ she said. ‘You’ve been trying to assimilate me. But I’ve made you a substitute, something you’ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isn’t it? I’ll get you a fork,’ she added somewhat prosaically.

Peter stared from the cake to her face and back again. She wasn’t smiling.

His eyes widened in alarm. Apparently he didn’t find her silly.

4. The opening of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where Toru is interrupted from his spaghetti-making by a bizarre phone call. It’s not a very tantalising description, but I love that he cooks while listening to loud classical music, and I love his single-minded concentration on the serious business of eating.

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been someone with news of a job. I turned down the gas, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.

‘Ten minutes, please,’ said the woman on the other end.

I’m good at recognising people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.

‘Excuse me? To whom do you wish to speak?’

‘To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That’s all we need to understand each other.’ Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.

‘Understand each other?’

‘Each other’s feelings.’

I leaned over and peaked through the kitchen door. The spaghetti pot was steaming nicely, and Claudio Abbado was still conducting The Thieving Magpie.

‘Sorry, but you caught me in the middle of cooking spaghetti. Could you call back later?’

‘Spaghetti? What are you doing cooking spaghetti at 10.30 in the morning?’

I would also really like to know the answer to that last question, but Murakami never provides the answer. I have sleepless nights.

5. Skylark is an obscure Hungarian novel I read whilst at university. The novel is written simply and directly, and is full of mouth-watering descriptions of food; the aim is to make reading it almost a physical sensation, because isn’t physical pleasure just as meaningful as intellectual satisfaction? I’d definitely rather read this description of bread and pastries in a restaurant one hundred times over than anything by James Joyce (sorry).

In the middle of the impeccably laundered tablecloth stood a bunch of flowers. Beside it were two small silver dishes freshly heaped with salt and paprika, a pepper pot and jars of mustard, vinegar and oil. To one side, on a splendid glass platter with a silver rim, lay apples, peaches and, in little wicker baskets, fresh and crusty rolls, salted croissants and small white loaves sprinkled with poppy seeds. Just then two pastry boys came through the door in bright white caps, carrying a long wooden board packed with a battalion of vanilla slices, whose rich egg fillings shone a gorgeous gold beneath their crumbling red-brown pastry crusts, sprinkled thick with icing sugar. The old man stole a fleeting glance at these delights with a certain vague contempt. He picked up the menu, then handed it to his wife.

‘You order. I can’t even bring myself to look.’

Feeling hungry?

Foodie adventures in London, episode one

I think I mentioned earlier in this blog my desire to work my way through as many of the independent restaurants and cafés in London as I can and to post my findings here. Well, yesterday I made a start. Julie (fellow foodie, hello) and I enrolled for our MA course and got shiny new student cards, which we found disproportionately exciting (we get discount now! We can almost afford to buy a single sock in Topshop!). So we decided to celebrate by going to Maison Bertaux, which is apparently ‘London’s best patisserie’, on Greek Street in Soho.

The window display is certainly tempting, with all the cakes, tarts and pastries piled with whipped cream and swirls of icing and glacé cherries and fruit. You can’t walk past without being almost knocked over by the overwhelming smell of sugar. Everything is baked daily in the store. We stood dithering about what to have for a long time – it was all so pretty. I wanted something savoury as it was lunchtime, but selection was pretty rubbish, just a few ham and cheese croissants and a bit of quiche. This is the kind of place that definitely justifies cake for lunch, though, so I went for apricot and almond tart and Julie got an epically proportioned slice of strawberry cheesecake – and a pot of tea for two, of course.

It was a lovely day, so they’d opened the front shutters and all the rickety chairs were facing out onto the road as if we really were on a lovely continental holiday. Except that instead of looking out onto a cobbled parisian square, we were watching another customer having a screaming match with a man who was parking too close to his own car. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE? SELFISH, THAT’S WHAT! SELLLFFFIISSSHHHH! The wonderfully posh lady running the shop was more fascinated by this than anyone, and stopped serving us to exclaim, ‘Oooooh, an argument, wonderful!’ It was pretty entertaining.

The cakes were incredibly yummy, and the flow of tea was almost endless, so although it was expensive (about £7 each) I’d say we got our money’s worth. I’d go back, but as the cakes are very indulgent, probably only if I wanted to treat myself. Then again, I can find endless excuses to treat myself. Well done, Emma, you didn’t buy that single sock you really wanted in Topshop. Have 30,000 calories heaped on top of some shortcrust pastry. Go on.