If you want to dig into Hong Kong’s history, look no further than its food. A massive city that embraces antiquity and technology, Hong Kong’s culinary scene, from hole in the wall shops and eateries, tea houses, dim sum restaurants, herbal tea bars, and bakeries to skyscrapers, exceptionally fine dining, trendy chic cafes, open air markets and more, is bursting with diversity. Underpinning all of this is the adherence to truly Cantonese living, lifestyle and eating.
Lucky little me had the chance to explore and experience a magic carpet ride through various parts of the city with Johannes Pong. American and born in Minnesota, he is quintessentially Chinese having returned with his parents to Hong Kong when he was very young. A brief hiatus back to the United States for high school and college, Johannes has since staked his life back in this vibrant city where he is a food writer and culinary expert with Little Adventures in Hong Kong (LAHK), which is the brainchild of Daisann McLane, a former National Geographic writer.
To say Johannes is a spitfire is an understatement. He knows his way around the labyrinth of Hong Kong streets like the palm of his hand and sniffs out off-the-beaten track culinary delights in a skinny minute. Vivacious, bubbling and as cute as a ‘brown-speckled puppy’, it’s easy to feel like you’ve known this guy from the moment you meet.
Our adventure started in the Shaeung Wan area where we explored the explosion of dried seafood. You might wonder why dried seafood when Hong Kong is definitely a water city, but it made sense once Johannes explained how the drying technique is an essential component to Cantonese cuisine. It is the foundation for flavor that differentiates their cuisine. Few herbs and spices are used and as Johannes said, the ‘salt and pepper’ of Cantonese cooking are dried scallops and shrimp. The dried seafood adds a briny umami taste creating tastes that uniquely defines the cuisine.
For hours we walked up and down streets stopping, tasting, examining and all the while Johannes talking about the history and culture behind the food, cooking and eating. Furiously I was making notes, snapping pictures, and even taking short snappy videos trying to capture this incredible experience. From the importance of dried bird’s nests (swallows and only a specific type known to Asia) in cooking to Chinese women cooking and eating it because of its minerals and collagen for anti-aging, Johannes continued to intrigue me and make me laugh as we meandered from street to street.
Snippets of interesting information captivated me. Like dried oysters and hair moss (hair vegetable…I know it sounds crazy) or fat choy represents prosperity. These two things are the traditional meal for the new year. Dried moth catepillars or cordecyps are good for the immune system. From an early age Chinese children are taught the connection between food and medicinal properties.
There was a quick stop to try yuanyang milk tea, which is a mixture of both tea and coffee. At first, I thought, ‘whhhat? Tea and coffee together?’ But, once I tasted it, and we did an iced version, it was like, ‘Wow, this could be my next favorite drink’ Move over Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, bring on the ‘yum cha’! I had my first taste of a pineapple bun. Not one sliver of pineapple in it and like eating puffs of dougheee happiness. Reminded me of my grandmother’s fresh cinnamon rolls that stood about five inches tall. The tops of the pineapple buns were crunchy, sweet and clearly looked like the exterior of a pineapple. Children love to stop at the bakeries after school for a pineapple bun. Hey, I would, too—they are large round buns of palate pleasure.
Educating me more specifically about dim sum versus dumplings versus wontons was a mini-wontonathon or dimsumathon on the street corner. Then when I asked if he and/or his friends made their dough from scratch or bought it from the market to make any of these versions, he quipped, ‘No, we go out to restaurants and get it!’ But, what IF and only IF you did make it? Without hesitation, Johannes said he’d probably buy the dough. Yes, this is the ‘shortcut’ and the way that culinary traditions can be carried on with the GenX and Millennial mindset. Oh, man, I like Johannes’s style. Honest, humorous, down-to-earth and finding ways to infuse Cantonese cuisine with busy 21st century lives is preserving food history.
The most distinctive first for me was found in what appeared to be a hole-in-the-wall dive. Without Johannes with me, I wouldn’t have given this place a second glance. A little restaurant with older gentlemen in it. A few people sitting on stools at small wooden tables slurping soup. Yes, this place is famous for one thing and that is snake soup. And, the snakes were abundant in the stacked wooden boxes lining the one wall of the shotgun restaurant.
Johannes chatted with the owner, and in a few minutes pulled out his company’s private bottle of snake liquor. He asked if I wanted to try it. Without hesitation, I said ‘yes’. I mean I wasn’t going to come halfway around the globe and get squeamish over liquor made with snakes. Served in a small Asian soup bowl, I took the first sip. Hummm, not bad. Has an herbal taste. Medicinal. And, it had the definite taste of moonshine! In a few minutes, I had a slight buzz. Nothing painful. Just a nice mellow buzz. Made it easier to look at the contents of one of the many boxes that lined this humble eatery. The proprietor was quite proud of his place, and, for me to have expressed any disconcert would have bordered on insult and rudeness. We must remember that this is a big huge world with lots of different preferences, people, and predilections. That’s important for getting the most out of your travels. And, as you can see from the photo below, I was contained and calm enough to shoot this photo! Yayyyyyy, Ally! Move over Anthony Bourdain!
Then we ordered our bowl of snake soup. Thick, gelatanious and rich, Johannes explained that the ingredients included chicken broth and Chinese ham for flavoring, black fungus, dried tangerine peel, ginger and, of course, snake. Five different snake meats. At first glance, the soup looked like a mushroom soup in texture and color. We garnished our servings with crispy croutons and kafir lime leaves that were shredded into hairlike strips. It was delicious! I had no idea I was eating snake meat. Thank goodness I didn’t let my preconceived biases taint my adventurous palate! As we departed and paid, I thought is was intriguing to see the old school, really old school, ‘calculator’. Yes, an abacus. No need for a wi fi connection or anything. Just your hands and head.
Food exploration requires an open mind and palate. And, being with Johannes was like having one of the Jedi Knights by my side in Hong Kong. He was a magnificent teacher and warrior who imparted immense knowledge and wisdom about his beautiful Cantonese culture and cuisine. His lightsaber was his infectious smile, twinkling eyes and deep love of Cantonese food that now has become mine. It was a Gastronomic Trip of epic proportions!