HONG KONG — "Hong Kong is the finest place to dine in the world," said Peter Gautschi, the now-retired head of the Peninsula Group, as we sat at tea in the lobby of Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel.
"I can order any ingredient from anywhere," he continued. "Fresh chickens from France, fish from England, anything, and it will be on the next plane--there are no duty or agricultural restrictions here. Plus, the Chinese have the freshest ingredients on earth."
To the Chinese, fresh means live. An early morning visit to the Central Market in the heart of Hong Kong shows a world far from the antiseptic environment of Western supermarkets.
Live ducks, geese and chickens cackle noisily from hundreds of bamboo cages. Frogs, fish and turtles are kept in large tanks of water, and vegetables glisten with morning dew.
The freshness and availability of ingredients, perhaps more than anything, make eating in Hong Kong different from dining in any other city.
Chefs Flee Mainland
"During China's Cultural Revolution, many of the country's greatest chefs fled the mainland for the security of the Crown colony," Gautschi told us as we sipped tea and nibbled on freshly baked scones with Devonshire clotted cream--flown in from England.
Later, at Sun Tung Lok Seafood restaurant in Kowloon's Harbor City we met Willie Mark, food critic and international expert on Chinese cuisine, who ordered a series of courses that proved the point.
"We Chinese eat with chopsticks so we can get things out of a boiling pot," he joked, as our waitress deftly served the first course of "dancing shrimp." That's live shrimp that are doused with Chinese rice wine, then cooked for only two or three minutes in flaming brandy.
Next came individual dumplings that, when broken open, had shark's fin soup inside. "Shark's fin is a great delicacy here; a single dish can cost $150 (U.S.)," Mark explained. "Many Chinese dishes are appreciated for their texture as well as their taste, and shark's fin is eaten for its soft, smooth texture."
Other dishes in the banquet included a steamed Hong Kong sole, abalone with prawns and crab roe, cold slices of chicken, ham, frog and pork marinated in aromatic spices, mixed vegetables with bean curd, noodles with deep-fried bean sprouts. For dessert it was wheat flour cakes, cookies and lotus seeds.
Diversity of Dishes
"The refinement of the foods in China is a result of the fact that food was always scarce," Mark said when we asked about the diversity of dishes. "The Chinese people found a way to use almost every part of the plant or animal they cook, and found a way to make it taste delicious."
Although the majority of restaurants in Hong Kong are Cantonese, restaurants also feature Szechuan, Peking, Fujian, Shanghai, Hunan and other regional dishes.
In Kowloon a popular Peking-style restaurant is Spring Deer, but the nearby North China restaurant is just as good, cheaper and less crowded.
We began with smoked duck, fragrant with tea leaves, and went on to delicate mixed vegetables, whole fried prawns, deep-fried crab cakes that were light on the inside and crispy on the outside, and hot, spicy beef with green peppers. The flavors were clean and precise, a mark of good cooking.
On Hong Kong Island the Cleveland Szechuan restaurant is one block away from Food Street, so named for its assortment of Chinese, Japanese and Western-style restaurants.
At the Cleveland the hot, spicy, slightly oily food of Szechuan is served in an upstairs dining room. Waiters carry sizzling platters of beef and shrimp, a sort of Chinese fajitas , a specialty of the restaurant.
Seats More Than a Thousand
A special treat when in Hong Kong is to breakfast on dim sum, little pastries and meats served from passing carts in large restaurants. Congee, a rice porridge usually garnished with chicken, pork or fish is also offered.
One of the most popular dim sum restaurants is Maxim's Palace Chinese restaurant adjoining the Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay. Also recommended is the United. Both are huge, seating more than a thousand, and very busy at lunchtime.
The small Luk Yu Teahouse is good for dim sum served in an old Hong Kong atmosphere of polished wooden booths and beveled mirrors.
Some of the best dining here is found in small restaurants out in the New Territories. Some serve only one specialty. Worth a trip if you are adventurous is the Yee Kee restaurant in Sham Tseng. It has a menu, but everyone orders the duck. Seating is at folding tables--on busy days they spill onto the parking lot. It is informal, and the Peking duck is famous. They serve upward of 600 ducks a day.
Another adventure is to take a ferry ride from Aberdeen Harbor to Lamma Island and eat at the Lamma Hilton. No relation to the hotel chain, it is the best seafood restaurant in Sok Kwu Wan, the small settlement at the ferry landing.