Destination: Sham Shui Po
The name Sham Shui Po usually evokes cheap electronics. But the abundance of street hawkers and old, peeling low-rises suggest that its history goes a little further back than mobile phone parts. The area has been an industrial, commercial, and residential hub since the 1950s, and several food businesses from that era remain today.
Lau Sum Kee is one of them. "My grandfather started the business [in Guangdong] in the 1940s," says Lau Fat-cheong, the owner. There are now branches at 48 Kweilin Street (tel: 2386 3533) and 80 Fuk Wing Street (tel: 2386 3583).
Selling wonton noodles as a street vendor in Guangdong, his grandfather carried his wares "in two buckets balanced on a pole on his shoulder", says Lau. He brought his business with him when he came to Hong Kong in 1954, and set up a noodle cart in Sham Shui Po. Lau's father later took over the business, opening a dai pai dong. The first, smaller, shop on Kweilin Street opened in 1993. The second followed in 2007.
The noodles are still made by traditional method where the dough is kneaded with a bamboo pole, which the noodle-maker sits on. Tender, but not lacking bite, the noodles are made daily in a workshop, just a few streets away.
One of the best methods for making shiny noodles is to toss them with shrimp roe. The noodles are served with soup on the side, and sprinkled with a generous helping of dried shrimp roe, providing a burst of umami in each mouthful. Another favourite is wonton noodles. Every morning, staff sit around the shop filling these dumplings with a mixture of lean and fatty pork and shrimp.
In the '60s and '70s, Hong Kong people discovered a taste for Western foods, such as steak. As with most foreign cuisines, they began adapting it to their tastes.
Steakhouses such as the Flying Eagle (256 Lai Chi Kok Road, tel: 2395 2576) are popular. There, the meat is pan-fried and served on a hot plate. For a touch of drama, when the steak arrives at the table, sauce is poured over the top to make the whole dish sizzle. For a special night out, people would have a full set meal, and their steak would be served with either crinkle-cut fries and vegetables or rice.
That would be preceded by a first course of "red" borscht or "white" cream soup, accompanied by a soft, sweet dinner roll.
Kitsch is one way to describe Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong (118 Pei Ho Street, tel: 2386 6871), which looks almost exactly as it did when it opened in 1958.
The walls are lined with green and white mosaics, there are rusty stools, and the shop's name is written large in red. This little tofu factory and restaurant is heaving with those after a soya bean fix.
Soya beans are everywhere in Chinese cuisine - from soy sauce to tofu pudding, no meal seems complete without some form of soya product. Tofu pudding, or tofu fa, is one of Kung Wo's specialities. This extremely soft tofu is ladled into a bowl and eaten with syrup or brown sugar.
These glossy, wobbly orbs are silky smooth. On an average weekday the outlet sells about 800 bowls, says owner So Sung-lin, and on weekends the number almost doubles. At the front, you'll see savoury snacks being pan-fried - tofu puffs (deep-fried tofu) stuffed with fish paste or the fibrous, crushed soya left over from pressing soya milk.
Only one beverage is served here and it isn't hard to guess it's soya milk, served warm or cold. Home cooks can buy Kung Wo's subtly fragrant blocks of tofu to go.
Soya lovers can also head to Shu Kee (236 Yu Chau Street, tel: 2386 7776) and join the queue for fu juk, the skin that forms when soya milk boils.
As an after-school treat, schoolchildren used to flock to Hung Fat (251 Ki Lung Street, tel: 2386 1034) for boot jai go. These are bouncy rice flour cakes sweetened with brown or white sugar, and sprinkled with red beans.
"Nowadays, it's mostly old folks like me," says the shop's founder, Wong Hei-cheong. The 91-year-old from Taishan opened the shop more than 60 years ago.
"When I started, I also sold siu mei [barbecued meats]," Wong says. After a few years, however, he realised that his sweets were much more popular.
Along with boot jai go, he sells all manner of cakes, from black sesame and red bean to savoury ones such as radish. But the scene-stealer, sitting at the front of the store, is a large, round steamed brown sugar cake. Cut with a cleaver, each spongy, caramel-hued cube goes for just HK$2.
The flavours are simple yet comforting, perhaps like life was back in those earlier times.