The former British colony is considered a dream destination for foodies, but that doesn’t explain the omnipresence of food here. Our reporter feasted his way to an answer
This is not a kitchen, it’s a steam bath! Seven shadows flit through the tiny room, juggling baskets and pastry parcels that look like ping-pong balls. The air is filled with the smell of broth, meat and seafood – mingling with the scent of my sweat, growing stronger by the minute. This place is unbearably hot.
I am in Hong Kong, in the district of Kowloon, at the Tim Ho Wan, reputedly the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. The house specialty are dim sum, which translates roughly into “heartwarming tidbits.” These Chinese heart warmers usually come as a parcel of thin rice pastry, often filled with prawn, pork and bamboo sprouts. Sounds prosaic? Perhaps. But ask a Western master chef about this traditional dish and you are
likely to garner a respectful sigh.
Crisp meets soft. Sweet meets spicy. History meets progress
People waiting for a place inside press their noses up against the window, clutching pieces of paper – not reservations, the Tim Ho Wan takes none, but the numbers they pulled before getting into line to wait. And it’s a long wait, especially in the morning, as dim sum are a typical Cantonese breakfast.
I sit down with the master chef himself. “Brother Pui,” as his staff call him, (real name, Mak Kwai Pui) is hailed as a legend.
He began his career at his uncle’s restaurant at age 13. Some 30 years later, he was at the top of his game, a head cook at the Lung King Heen. In 2009, the gourmet temple at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel became the first Chinese restaurant in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars. But that same year, Brother Pui chucked in his wooden spoon. “I was fed up with cooking only for the rich,” he says today, “so I opened my own place in the working-class district of Mong Kok.” It may only have 20 seats, plastic tables, green tea instead of full-bodied red wine, and a check-box menu, but the dim sum are out of this world. “Oddly enough, the Michelin testers followed me,” says Brother Pui. In 2010, his snack bar was awarded its first star. Because guests can eat their fill here for 15 euros, he has been called the “Mr. Cheap of star cuisine” ever since. He opened more outlets and they, too, have won awards. Today, he runs five restaurants in Hong Kong as well as branches in Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Brother Pui’s dim sum are a real export hit.
Three little baskets stand before me. Brother Pui lifts the lids, and steam rises like a salute to his forefathers: The very first dim sum are said to have been served in tea houses along the Silk Road 2000 years ago. “These are three of my classics,” says Pui, with not a little pride. Shao mai, pork and shrimp wrapped in yellow pastry, ha jiao, prawn with bamboo sprouts in a mantle of rice pastry, and cha siu bao, fluffy bread rolls filled with shoulder of pork in barbecue sauce. This is more than a meal with individual courses – it’s a poem in three verses. What’s his secret, I ask between greedy mouthfuls. “It’s all a question of balance. Crisp meets soft. Sweet meets spicy. And history meets progress.”
Soon after, I am standing on Jordan Road in the seething metropolis of seven million; taxis honk their horns and gaudy restaurant neon signs shout for custom. There are said to be 12 000 places to eat in Hong Kong, 61 of which have Michelin stars. The people of Hong Kong have a reputation for eating anything with four legs – except tables. No wonder there’s an eatery for every genre of international cuisine here.
I meet Koko, 52, a foodie from Sham Shui Po, one of the most densely populated urban neighborhoods on earth. Koko has a broad smile and a belly that suggests he knows a thing or two about food. “Hong Kong has nearly as many inhabitants as Switzerland, but Switzerland is 40 times bigger,” he says. “People have small apartments, so they go to restaurants to eat big!” Koko dives with me into the maze of streets around Temple Street Market, where stalls sell flashing electric junk and shirts with fake polo ponies, soothsayers want to read my palm, and karaoke singers blithely fail to hold a tune.
This area is a paradise for fresh fish and seafood fans. Tanks of sea bass and mullet stand outside street restaurants. Squilla mantis shrimp, oysters and scallops rest on ice; mangrove crabs, their pincers tied up with bamboo string, fix me with their gaze. “I want that one,” I tell Koko. These primeval creatures are served fried in a mix of oil, chili, garlic and scallions, and eaten with your fingers – the only tableware provided being a nutcracker to crack the hard outer shell protecting the tender flesh inside.
In Sham Shui Po, the Hong Kong of old cookshops, rolling woks, called “dai pai dongs,” is alive and well. The grassroots tradition Brother Pui told me about is here, with classic cookshop fare. Cheung fun, for instance: thick rice noodles served with sesame seeds and peanut sauce; gai daan tsai, the egg-shaped waffles you find on every street corner, and of course, the snake soup that Chau Ka Ling, 50, (nickname: the snake queen) serves in her restaurant Shia Wong Hip. “Only fat vipers from Chinese farms are used, cobras, for example, because they are particularly juicy,” she tells me, letting me in on the family recipe.
I say goodbye to Koko and to Kowloon and take the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong Island to learn more about the culinary future of the metropolis beneath the Peak, the highest point in the Chinese Administrative Region. That future has a very pretty face: Celia Hu, 32, is the It girl of the foodie scene. She is a TV star (“Food Challenge”), publishes Foodie Magazine and writes a blog, Girl Meets Cooking. Sheltering from a thunderous downpour beneath the roof of the concept mall PMQ, she flashes me a friendly smile from beneath her designer hat.
“People here are experts on good food,” she tells me, “Hong Kong has always been a major port and trading center. Fresh ingredients from all over the world are always available, and that inspires the cooks’ creativity!” Trends are always quick to change, and “in” restaurants that attract lines of hipsters willing to wait for hours today can be deserted just weeks later.
“Young gourmets have only a very short attention span, and Twitter, Instagram and Facebook now speed up the eternal round of in and out.” Hu’s eyes are also glued to her display while we talk, but that’s not discourteous, she’s just doing her job. Pop-up restaurants are all the rage in Hong Kong, Hu says. They appear out of nowhere in converted warehouses – in the Aberdeen industrial district, for example. “Word about the exact location is spread via hashtags and geodata. Get there fast and you’re cool and
can post images of your visit.” Arrive late or take a wrong turning and you end up in an old factory with a rumbling stomach.
“Food hunter” Hu has another tip for me – try a private kitchen. “The phenomenon isn’t new to Hong Kong, but it has endured. Top chefs cook exclusively for you.” There’s no set menu, and the locations are not in tourist areas – it can even be their own apartment. Former advertising hotshot Margaret Xu is an icon of this movement. To get to her Yin Yang Coastal, I ride out to the New Territories, the city’s green belt. My destination is the fishing village of Ting Kau, where the South China Sea ripples and the city is far away. Beside the beach stands a raised white house with a candlelit terrace. Xu is busy at her brushed steel stove, her features stern beneath a baseball cap, her eyes fixed on one of my starters: “Sea urchin ice cream with truffles and tofu,” she murmurs. I all but sink to my knees. Xu used to be a creative director. She was very successful, but there was something missing. “It was the alienation from the product that got me down. Other people always got to carry my ideas through, so I was often discontented.” Now, as a cook, I finally have complete control – from sourcing the produce to the look of the food on the plate. Her private kitchen caused a sensation: It was an oasis of pleasure in noisy Wan Chai, near Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s cheap and noisy resort. Then seven years later, she moved out of the city to the idyllic seaside, and further radicalized her menu. “Every ingredient I use must be regional, seasonal and organic,” she states. While I wolf down roast golden chicken straight from the terracotta oven, Xu talks a lot about identity. “I want to combine old traditions with the freshest ingredients. That’s why I call my private kitchen ‘yin and yang.’”
The eight-course menu is a firework display of flavors and textures, colors and shapes. Then all that remains is a sense of stillness inside. I gaze across the bay to the skyline. For a fleeting moment, I can read Hong Kong like a book. Basically, it’s all a question of balance, like any good recipe.
Malte Jäger is a Berlin, Germany based professional photographer. In his work, he is mainly searching for human nature. What drives people to live their life the way they do? That’s what he tries to find out, understand and share with others. He started taking photos neither for technical reasons, nor because photography was his hobby ever since: He’s been using the medium photography to get the chance to look behind curtains which wouldn’t be opened for him if he wasn’t using his camera. And of course, he loves to meet and learn to know people. Since human behavior is what he is interested in, you will certainly find faces in almost all of his images.