HONG KONG — Food is everywhere in Hong Kong: street stalls, restaurants and markets. It's hard to walk a block without thinking about it.
"Hong Kong has some of the finest Chinese cuisine in the world," said Yat Wei, restaurant critic for the Chinese weekly newspaper Ming Pao. "And you can sample several of China's great regional cuisines without ever leaving the city."
Guangdong, or Canton, is the Chinese province bordering Hong Kong. For centuries, the Cantonese have been known as China's premier chefs.
"An old proverb states that the Chinese idea of heaven is to eat Cantonese food forever, and although there are many great cuisines in China, I always return to Cantonese for the freshness of the flavors and the simplicity of preparation," Wei said.
So we began our search for great Chinese food with two of the best Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong.
Sauteed scallops with ham and vegetables is almost a staple on Cantonese menus, but at Lai Ching Heen in Kowloon--a short walk from the Star Ferry terminal--what arrived at the table was no ordinary dish. Each scallop had been carefully pierced and into the center a small piece of Chinese broccoli and a thin slice of ham had been inserted. It is the best version of scallops we've ever had.
Dining in this elegant restaurant on the lower level of the Regent Hotel looking out over the harbor is imperative for anyone interested in the newest trend in Cantonese cooking: lighter sauces, ingredients fried in oil rather than lard and the appearance of Western ingredients such as asparagus and mayonnaise.
After the scallops came crispy strips of twice-cooked beef served in a light, almost sweet sauce. On the side were fried walnuts and fresh asparagus stir-fried until tender-crisp. Fresh mustard greens cooked with bits of garlic finished the meal. Our lunch came to about $61 for three people. While it was not inexpensive, it was memorable.
Hong Kong's other great Cantonese dining room is the Man Wah in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Hong Kong Island. More traditional than Lai Ching Heen, it is just as formal. The best way to experience what the chefs can do is to plan a banquet for several people. Yet even a dinner for two can be a wonderful experience.
We began with a rich broth filled with chicken, mushrooms and sliced fresh yams. Birch tree seeds (something like a fat pinenut) added an interesting crunch ($12). Minced pigeon sauteed and served in lettuce cups ($20) reached perfection at Man Wa. For it, the pigeon was minced and then combined with wine, soy sauce and vegetables. The lettuce cups offered a cool counterpoint to the hot meat filling.
We were happy with steamed fillet of sole with chopped Chinese broccoli in a salty black bean sauce ($33).
"Cantonese is, of course, the greatest of the classic Chinese cuisines," Wei said. "But there are many more, such as Shanghai, Sichuan and Peking. Less well known are such cuisines as Hunan, Chiu Chow, Hakka and Fujian. Here in Hong Kong, you can eat the best. Of them all, I think only Sichuan is disappointing here. Chiu Chow is really a distinct cuisine, although it originated in Swatow, in Guangdong. Be prepared, it'll surprise you."
And so we found ourselves at Chiu Chau Restaurant. One of the newer Chinese restaurants in Kowloon, Chiu Chau is decorated with mirrored walls and crystal light fixtures, although patrons arrive in shirt sleeves. In the back, a glass-walled kitchen revealed a cook preparing roast duck, goose and mountains of fresh crab.
As soon as we were seated, an intensely strong but not bitter brew called Kung Fu tea was served.
We began with boiled and chilled cold crab, which we dipped into a vinegar and soy sauce.
Fried pomfret, a small white fish with a somewhat salty flavor, was served with a slightly sweetened mayonnaise and crisp-fried seaweed. Deep-fried pork ribs were served in a sweet-and-sour sauce that was clear and light and spiked with chiles. Scrambled eggs with pressed and dried turnips and oysters tasted like a classy version of Hangtown Fry.
The finale was a Chiu Chow classic: thick, soft-fried noodles dusted with sugar served as dessert. It was an unexpected flavor combination. Our dinner cost about $30 per person, but a simpler meal could be had for under $20 per person.
To try Shanghai cuisine, we traveled by subway to eastern Hong Kong Island (about a 10-minute ride from the central district) and walked a couple of blocks to Snow Garden, a modern restaurant in a high-rise complex.
"Many people fled Shanghai in 1949 and settled in Hong Kong," explained Wei as we sat down. "There are many good Shanghai-style restaurants in the city, but I think this is the best."
The first dish was mock goose, made from layers of bean curd pressed and fried to resemble sliced goose.