3 articles Articles posted in hong kong

Australia Dairy Company (澳洲牛奶公司), Hong Kong, and a Lesson in Journalism

I will always remember how 2013 started — with one of the best breakfasts ever at the famous Australia Dairy Company, thanks to the recommendation of a foodie friend. As forewarned, the line was crazy, but was it ever worth it.

This place is a classic Hong Kong cha chaan teng — literally, “teahouse,” but its cultural equivalent is closer to an American diner. Like diners, these places have quick service, are open long hours (sometimes 24-hours), serve comfort foods, and just have that homey, down-to-earth atmosphere about them. They usually serve a mix of classic Cantonese foods as well as a lot of Hong Kong-style Western dishes.

Thanks to the aforementioned foodie friend, we knew just what to order here.

Macaroni soup with ham (fo tuy tong fun 火腿通粉): My dad used to make various versions of macaroni soup, so it’s something I grew up with, but I can see how it can be strange if you’ve never had macaroni this way. Think of it as Hong Kong’s version of chicken noodle soup, especially the Campbell’s kind with the strips of ham, which I think this closely resembles. (And, actually, it’s only now looking at the photos that I notice the cans of Campbell’s soup in the kitchen.) It is classic Hong Kong diner food, but I think it is skippable if you are not particularly hungry, because some of the other stuff is just not to be missed.

Scrambled eggs (chow dan 炒蛋): This may be more familiar territory, but you’d be hard-pressed to find scrambled eggs as fluffy and perfectly cooked as these anywhere else. You can get them on toast or as a sandwich. I think the open-faced version highlights the perfect eggs more.

Steamed milk (dun lai): Whatever you do, make sure steamed milk is in your order. (Steamed egg is also available, but we didn’t try it because we were more excited about the milk.) The name can be deceiving, because this is not a drink. It is more like a soft, warm yogurt or custard. The taste resembles fresh ricotta if you’ve ever made it at home — clean, fresh, subtle, with a bit of added sweetness. In Cantonese, it’s called dun lai, “steamed milk,” but in Beijing it is called nai lao or “cheese.”

Just as important as the food at the Australia Dairy Company is the atmosphere. After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, we were pointed toward a tiny table that we shared with another couple. The waiter scribbled down our order in a rush, and then, realizing we were getting everything, asked us why we didn’t just order the breakfast set. (Because we can’t read the Chinese menu… but there was no time to even be embarrassed.) When our food arrived shortly after, there was the awkward shuffle to fit everything onto our half of the tiny table, all the while trying not to knock over hot liquids or wake up our napping baby. We ate while waiters paced back and forth with orders. And when we were done, we were pointed toward the front desk to pay, and our spot was immediately cleaned. By the time we were out the door, another couple had taken our seats. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.

On our way out the door, I lingered a couple extra seconds to snap a few quick photos, panicking the whole time that someone would yell at me to get out of the way. When I stepped out the door, my husband asked me if I got some good shots, and I said, “No, I just took some quick ones ’cause I didn’t want them to yell at me.” He said, “What? You don’t have to leave until someone kicks you out! You should go back.” This coming from someone who snuck into the Hay Adams Hotel for “brunch” when Obama first arrived in DC for the inauguration in 2009. (He did get kicked out… but not before he’d done a few interviews.) I was still reluctant, but at his encouragement, I mustered up some pluck and marched back in there to document a bit of the action…

It was, in many ways, a fitting start to a new year.

Australia Dairy Company 澳洲牛奶公司 [map]
G/F, 47-49 Parkes Street, Jordan
Phone: 2730-1356
Metro: Jordan
There’s a breakfast set available from 7:30 a.m. to noon for 26HKD. It includes buttered toast, 2 eggs cooked to order, macaroni soup with ham, and coffee or tea. Cold drinks are an additional 2HKD.

Graham Street Wet Market and Dai Pai Dong in Central, Hong Kong

Once such an integral part of Hong Kong life, both wet markets and dai pai dong (street food stalls) are now becoming cultural relics and tourist attractions. Fortunately, we were able to make a quick stop to see samples of both during our trip last month.

Traditionally, wet markets are so called because they are hosed down every day, washing out all the dirt, scraps, blood, and guts from each day’s transactions. They’re often open-air, but some also have a covered section, and others are entirely housed inside a building. Although they’re not as common as they used to be, thankfully, Hong Kong still has a number of wet markets in various neighborhoods, and when my parents lived there briefly a couple of years ago, they still preferred getting groceries there.

One of the oldest wet markets in Hong Kong is in Central, on Graham Street between Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road. My husband’s grandma has actually been frequenting this market for decades! He still has memories of trudging uphill with her and complaining about the heavy bags he had to carry while she was holding both groceries and his small cousins and not even breaking a sweat. To this day, she still buys her groceries here.

We caught the market in the evening, just as many of the stalls were starting to close up, so we just walked through quickly. This market seems to consist more of permanent shops whose wares spill out onto streetside tables and crates during the day. Here, you can find fresh produce, seafood, meat, dried goods, flowers, and more. Look out for the signature red lamps (see photo above) that have become an icon of Hong Kong wet markets. These lamps are said to make the fish look fresher.

I know wet markets can make people uneasy, and I confess that I’ve been to a few that I was surprised to find myself quite uncomfortable at (most notably, the Bac Ha market in Sapa, Vietnam), but for the most part, I love wet markets. They are full of color and life, and there’s no better way to experience local culture than to head to a market in the morning. If you live in a place that has a nearby wet market, just think how convenient — and how much more fun and personal — it would be to walk down the block and get fresh groceries every day from individuals you’ve gotten to know and trust.

We were really passing by the Graham Street Wet Market that night on our way to the dai pai dong in Central. When I was growing up in Toronto, dai pai dong to me meant that food court in the basement of the Dragon City complex in Chinatown where we ordered up stir-fried dishes like fried radish cake and then congregated at a table to scarf it down with some soybean juice. It’s actually quite like the hawker centers in Singapore, where the street-food culture has been sanitized and homogenized.

Originally, dai pai dongs referred specifically to open-air food stalls in Hong Kong with registered licenses prominently displayed, hence dai pai, which means “big sign” (dong means “stall”). There are really only 28 of these left in Hong Kong, and since these licenses are no longer issued, naturally dai pai dong are a dying phenomenon. If you see a stall painted green with a sign prominently displayed, you’ll know that it’s an original. Otherwise, the term dai pai dong has come to refer to any sort of open-air food court, with street stalls and street-side seating.

When I was in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, most of my meals came from street stalls because they’re everywhere there. But despite being to Hong Kong many times, I actually still had not been to a dai pai dong there. So I was eager to finally experience one this past trip. This turned out to be more difficult than I expected, because they’ve become so rare and are not as popular anymore. One of my husband’s local relatives even asked us why wanted to go to one because they are so dirty! But we were not to be deterred. After stumbling around in Central for a little bit, we were directed to an alley where a couple of food carts were set up. In the left photo above, you can see the famous Soho escalators in the background. I don’t know if this was an official licensed dai pai dong, but it certainly had many of the characteristics of one.

Hong Kong cuisine owes a lot of its characteristics to dai pai dong culture. Many Cantonese dishes are cooked in a wok, which is the main cooking vessel in a dai pai dong. The Cantonese often speak of a dish having wok hei, or the “breath of a wok” — that ever-elusive quality to a dish cooked at high heat in a wok over an open flame. The “breath” is the same word as qi in Mandarin — energy, life force. And indeed, imparting wok hei into a dish requires the skill, deftness, and expertise of a master. A dish with wok hei has a slightly charred taste but is never burnt. The high heat immediately vaporizes moisture, so the food has just the barest crisp edge to it. And it’s not supposed to be greasy. I imagine a dish with wok hei tastes like it’s been cooked by a dragon. The quality is that mythical.

At the dai pai dong in Central, my husband, his brother, and I ordered beef chow fun and salt-and-pepper wings. We were actually on our way to meet up with someone for dinner elsewhere, so this was really just a starter.

The beef chow fun was the best I’d had in a long time. This is the dish that Hong Kong chefs are tested on, as it is very difficult to stir-fry the rice noodles so that they remain intact, soft but not mushy, all the while imparting that seared wok hei flavor to the dish. And this one was expertly rendered. Note in the photo that even the ends of the bean sprouts have been picked off — a real attention to detail! 

The salt-and-pepper wings were deliciously crisp and salty-smoky as well. But the beef chow fun was the real star of our meal.

While this dai pai dong in Central is quite small (it takes up maybe half an alley) and uses an obviously touristy bilingual menu with very non-street-food prices, it certainly did not disappoint. The menu offers a lot of variety, including many of the most famous Cantonese dishes, like Singaporean rice noodles, salt and pepper pork ribs, fried squab, and sweet and sour pork.

If you ever find yourself strolling through the streets of Central (which I also recommend), make sure to pass through the Graham Street Wet Market. You might also order up some beef chow fun at the dai pai dong nearby and experience some local culture that may not be around for much longer.

Graham Street Wet Market
Graham Street, between Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road [map]
Central district, Hong Kong

Central Dai Pai Dong
There may be several in Central district, but the one we went to was in an alley off the Graham Street Wet Market. I don’t have the exact location, but I’ve included an approximate location marker on this map. You can also try asking around at the market. Many people in Hong Kong speak English.

The New Year in Hong Kong

We started off 2013 in Hong Kong, where we attended a cousin’s wedding and hung out with lots of family. My husband’s parents are both from Hong Kong, and many of his relatives still live there, including both his grandmas. It’s a very nostalgic place for him and his brother, because although they were both born in the US, they lived there as small children for a little while. And since they continued to return frequently throughout their lives, they’ve accumulated a lot of memories there over time.

After we were married, I was lucky to get to join in these family reunions. We try to go back every couple of years, but when my husband’s generation was younger, they would actually have family reunions there every year!

For me, Hong Kong is both foreign and familiar because, while I am Cantonese, neither I nor my parents had ever been to Hong Kong (or China) until we were adults.

On the one hand, if you’ve been to Hong Kong, you know it is very culturally distinct. It’s an incredibly fast-paced, efficient, pressure-filled life. If you don’t have the right change getting onto the bus, you may very well be publicly reprimanded by the bus driver and shunned by the rest of the people behind you in line. People are always keeping up with the latest fashion, technology, even slang terms. I think I’m more of the French-influenced, people-watching, coffee-sipping, Vietnamese type who spend their idle hours contemplating life… or the next meal.

At the same time, although my family is from Vietnam, we’ve retained a lot of our Cantonese heritage. (I speak Cantonese at home, but my Vietnamese is pretty non-existent beyond pho, banh mi, and other necessities.) So to be in Hong Kong and understand everyone around me is quite a novelty. I do have some family ties there as well – my great-grandfather moved there late in life, and my father lived there part-time for a decade when he was studying for his doctorate. I also spent about a month in Hong Kong with my dad when I was a grad student and pretty much did every touristy thing there is to do in the city.

The place has really grown on me over time. One of the things that I find endearing about Hong Kong is the almost cartoon-like feel of the city. Amidst the hulking mountains, forest of concrete highrises, and people scrambling in their 2-hour-long commutes to work, you can actually find really cute, sometimes even comical things. Like the little red taxi cabs (Hong Kongers love bright colors) and green and yellow minibuses weaving through the narrow, hilly streets as if people were driving off to summer camp. And the double-decker buses that seem like they should be filled with tourists but are actually filled with commuters — some of whom may be eating gai dan zai (waffle-like egg balls that’s common street food there). I also love the enormous banyan trees that line the streets, their aerial roots like an old Hong Kong grandfather’s whiskers draping over people as they pass. It’s the perfect image of the city to me.

Above all, if anything makes me feel at home in Hong Kong, it’s definitely the food. I think Cantonese food is just as much a part of my childhood as Vietnamese. Until I visited Hong Kong, I didn’t realize that some of the dishes I grew up eating were in fact eaten somewhere other than our home. And as my visits to Hong Kong increased after getting married, my husband and I have developed a list of personal must-eats each time we go. Some of these are very particular to us. For example, we’re not huge dim sum people, so unless we’re going out with others, we don’t really have a hankering for dim sum (it’s something much better experienced in large groups anyhow). But anyone going to Hong Kong for the first time should definitely have dim sum.

Here are some of the things we do make sure to get when we’re in Hong Kong…

Custard tarts. Preferably of the flaky crust kind, which seemed to be less common this trip. Someone told me it’s because the shortbread crust is easier and less time-consuming to make. My husband and I unabashedly consume on average one per day in Hong Kong. For us, it’s like making sure to eat gelato every day in Italy. Little E had his first custard tart this trip and, much to our shock, did not like them. We tried over and over, even giving him just the custard part, but he would just spit it out. I’m not sure whose genes he got there!

Coconut bun. A visit to a Hong Kong bakery is a must, and my other favorite thing to get there (besides custard tart) is the coconut bun or gai mei bao (this literally translates to “chicken butt bun,” and is also known alternatively in English as a “cocktail bun”), which is a long sweet, sesame-flecked bun filled with shredded coconut.

Toast with condensed milk. We’ve extolled the virtues of this delicacy here before, but let me just say this must be experienced in Hong Kong, where they serve it on extra thick pillowy bread. It’s usually available at a cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style teahouse), as well as at the ubiquitous chain Cafe de Coral, which incidentally serves a decent version of most of the things on this list.

Wonton noodle soup. Good wontons, with properly cooked noodles, are tougher to find than you may think. I’ve been spoiled with my dad’s wonton noodle soup, and I’m sad to say that I’ve had many an inferior one, especially around Tsim Sha Tsui! More on Hong Kong wonton noodle soup in a separate post.

Fish ball noodle soup, with fish skin chips. There used to be a place on Cheung Chau island where my dad and I were regulars, and the lady knew our order as soon as we stepped foot in the door. But alas, they changed ownership, and it’s no longer what it used to be. But this dish is still commonly found around the city, and whenever I get it I make sure to also order some crispy fish skin chips. Some people like to dunk it into the soup, but I like it just as is.

Beef chow fun. These are wide rice noodles stir-fried with beef in a dark soy sauce. The good kind will have a nice charred taste from being stir-fried in a hot wok. We had a great one this trip that I’ll share more about later.

Singaporean rice noodles. No Singaporean friend of mine will claim this dish, and true enough, it didn’t show up on a single menu when I visited Singapore. This is a purely Cantonese, Hong Kong thing. The dish is made of stir-fried vermicelli noodles with curry powder and soy sauce. For me, stir-fried rice noodle dishes are comfort food because my dad often made them at home, and this is one of my default meals in Hong Kong.

Salt-and-pepper-fried anything. Oftentimes it’s salt and pepper prawns, squid, or crab. It’s so simple, but I just love the smoky flavor created by stir-frying basic salt and pepper. And then all the crispy garlic, onion, and leftover fried up bits that you can mix into your rice… that’s the best part.

Roast and cured meats. Roast meats, collectively known as siu mei, are what you commonly find hanging in the windows of Chinatowns around the world. The crispy roast pork is my favorite, but roast duck, goose, or barbecued cha siu pork are the other typical offerings. Yung Kee is particularly famous for its roast goose. But what I love even more than roast meat is cured meats, collectively known as lap mei. There’s the popular lap cheung (Chinese sausage), yeun cheung (duck liver sausage), and my favorite of all, lap ngap (cured duck). Usually these are sold dry at markets for preparation at home, but sometimes you can order them as a dish at a restaurant. You can also find cured meats in claypot rice…

Claypot rice. Also known as bo jai fan, this is rice slowly cooked in a clay pot over fire, so that the bottom becomes charred. My favorite topping to get is lap mei, which comes with Chinese sausages. The best part is the crispy layer of rice on the bottom. Some people like to add water to soften it up a bit, but I like it crunchy.

White-cut chicken. Although grouped in with other siu mei, or roasted meats, both white-cut chicken (which is poached) and soy-sauce chicken (boiled in a marinade) are the only meats not roasted. I do love my poached chicken, and my very favorite place to eat it is Hong Kong. When my dad lived in Hong Kong, he would come home raving about the chicken there and how it had so much more chicken taste! Indeed, I think a lot of chicken you get in Hong Kong seems to be more of the jow dei kind — that is, free-range, but it’s really more out of preference for their taste than ethical practices. The birds are scrawnier, with denser meat and, yes, have more chicken taste. During the month I spent in Hong Kong with my dad, sometimes we would just have white-cut chicken for days in a row. I am also a sucker for the ginger scallion dipping sauce and will also eat it mixed into my rice.

Mango desserts and drinks. There’s a specific place to get this, and that’s Hui Lau Shan, which has locations all over. I like to get the mango and coconut drink.

Food on a stick. This is especially popular around the Ladies’ Market in Mong Kok. I’m a fan of intestines, so that’s always my go-to. But you can also get less adventurous things, like fish balls.

Congee. Especially with pork offal! If that’s not your thing, pork and preserved egg is a classic. But if that’s not your thing either, there’s usually something more tame, like beef. And don’t forget the fried Chinese crullers to dunk into the congee.

Seafood. Whether it’s just simple clams in black bean sauce, salt and pepper stir-fried shrimp, or an elaborate seafood feast in Sai Kung (which I’ve never been to, but which my sister tells me is quite an experience), you’ll find a huge variety of super fresh seafood in Hong Kong. In Asia, fresh seafood means live seafood. At places like Sai Kung, you can pick your seafood from the local fishermen and then bring it to a restaurant to have them cook it up. There are also typhoon shelters that famously serve up crab, including this one where you can eat on the boat. That’s something we hope to try some day, but on this trip, it was a mini seafood fest on Cheung Chau island that I’ll share more about later.

Hong Kong “Western” food. After all those years of colonial rule, a certain type of “Western” food has developed in Hong Kong. Things like macaroni soup with ham, egg sandwiches with the crusts cut off, baked pork chop over rice covered in tomato sauce and cheese. Go to any cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style teahouse) and you’ll see a huge variety of both Cantonese and Hong Kong-style Western food.

Milk tea. By which I do not mean the stuff with tapioca balls you drink with a straw. This is black tea with either condensed milk or evaporated milk, and it is known for being very smooth due to the traditional use of sackcloth bags to filter the tea leaves. You can also get it yeen yeung (“yin yang”), which is a combination of coffee and milk tea.

Wedding banquet food. A Hong Kong friend once told me that I should try to get invited to a Hong Kong wedding banquet because it is a cultural experience in itself. Well, that is just what happened on this trip. (My husband and I actually held a small wedding banquet here for family and friends shortly after we were married, but in typical wedding fashion, I barely remember any of it.) (Also, keep in mind, depending on how you feel about the ethical practices in procuring some of these ingredients, the Hong Kong wedding banquet experience may or may not sound that appealing to you.) There are a couple standard wedding courses, including the opening cold appetizer of roasted suckling pig. In the past, it was served with other cold meats, including strips of chewy jelly fish tossed in sesame oil and sesame seeds (this entire cold-cut platter might just be my favorite dish of the whole banquet). But apparently these days it’s popular to do just a simple roasted suckling pig for each table — and the servers all come marching in to music with a platter in hand. I’m told that sometimes the pigs even have flashing eyes! Just another comical Hong Kong moment. Other common wedding courses include crab claws and shark’s fin soup. This time, we also had swallows’ nest over vegetables.

I always forget how much I miss Cantonese food until I go to Hong Kong. You would think that living in Beijing now I would have much more access to these dishes, or that I’d be tired of Chinese food in general… But I very early on realized how drastically different northern Chinese food is from southern Chinese food. And I think when it comes to food you grew up with, it just never gets old.

Much more from our recent travels to come.