Okay, time to get serious. We wake up at an ungodly hour to inspect the venerable markets in Kowloon’s Mong Kok neighborhood with Tsui Kit Po, the affable executive sous-chef at the InterContinental hotel. “The ginger man has been here sixty years,” Po tells us, as the shop owners happily banter with him and show off their exciting star fruit. The mood is hectic. Sun-peeled subtropical buildings surround us, along with new towers of pure glass and steel. A covered market was built here by the government, but Po says it remains mostly empty. “People go to the market to get fresh air,” he tells us. Older people still in their silky morning dress elbow us into various encounters with medicinal deer antlers, homemade noodle shops, sea horses in a bin that glow like a bushel of toddler’s toys, air-dried scallops smelling of salt and sea (little ones for the congee, bigger ones for vegetable dishes), mushrooms the size of my head, tiny dried shrimp in sunset colors, chili-marinated root vegetables, crabs tied up with heavy string, tiny green Shanghai bok choy, and the bodies of fresh fish doing somersaults, their disembodied heads still gasping for air. Freshness is everything here. Of the fish, Po says: “First hour high price, second hour another price.”
After the market, he takes us to the InterContinental’s Yan Toh Heen restaurant, overlooking the harbor, to show us how crystal flour used in the casing of dim sum dumplings makes them translucent, while spinach or carrot juice provides color. The basic sui mai shrimp-and-pork dumpling is used to judge the “class of the restaurant,” according to Po. Following one tasty specimen, we gorge on sweet barbecued pork buns, steamed rice-flour cannelloni with diced scallop and crabmeat, and crispy spring rolls with shredded chicken and the glorious zing of pickles. “Quality of meat, quality of the finger,” Po says as his dexterous chefs wrap their tiny gifts for us. “The shrimp dumpling has nothing to hide.”
The owners of one of the busier stands at Mong Kok market are Chiu Chow people from nearby Guangdong province. I am intrigued by the aniseed-flavored soy sauce that colors their geese and pigs a mournful gray hue. The need to explore this Cantonese splinter cuisine is strong. Our next lunch stop is the Sheung Hing Chiu Chow Restaurant, on Queen’s Road. In an airtight, windowless room, we listen to a British gweilo brought in by his Chinese coworkers as he tries to cover the bill. “You shouldn’t have to pay!” the Chinese are shouting. “This was too adventurous for you!” The adventure lies in squeezing through this tight, packed, hygienically challenged joint, but the food is as comforting as any. There’s a duck leg in lemon soup that flakes right off the bone; there’s the fried baby oyster omelette which actually melts before reaching your mouth; and I cannot forget the shrimp sauce suffusing a dish of spinach—rich, salty, and strong. And then of course there’s that Chiu Chow classic, goose meat with soy sauce. It’s a spectacularly moist goose breast, squatting over a bed of tofu and ready to be dipped in a garlicky vinegar sauce. You can’t ignore the cupboard of ingredients that fuel the taste of this animal—ginger, lemon, soy, anise, and so many other supporting players in what amounts to a one-dish feast.
After we wake up from a four-hour goose coma, it’s time to tackle Hong Kong’s controversial foray into molecular cuisine, Bo Innovation. Bo originated as one of Hong Kong’s storied private kitchens and then morphed into what it is today: a space-age terraced room looking out on the back of an unspectacular building.
Bo was not my favorite Hong Kong meal, but neither did I stab the owner with my red pen on the way out. A little dish of ebi in red truffle sauce supplied deep and briny flavors, its fibrous texture turned rich and creamy. Pan-fried scallops in Sichuan “jolo” sauce had a kind of cool laboratory feel—as if microscopic, counterintuitive tastes were doing battle over your senses—but nothing could detract from the dry, unremarkable scallop at the center of the experiment, and this in a city where scallops thrive. “The menu changes every week,” the manager says, hovering over my friend Janice Lee’s half-finished plate. A sour kumquat ice cream in a nutty cone finally leaves us marginally happy, but all I can think about is that Chiu Chow goose breast speaking to me from within.