"YOU'RE WASTING YOUR time," the barber in Mirador Mansions says, shaking his head, as I ask for help. "You'll never get into those places. You're not African."
That was the rumour going around about Kowloon's little-known African restaurants, and perhaps scenarios like this were the reason they have been under wraps for so long. For while Hong Kong is welcoming Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ugandans and Kenyans in droves, the recipes that crossed continents with them remain off the menu for most Hongkongers.
The 2011 census made it tricky to pinpoint the exact number of Africans in Hong Kong - they fell into the "other" category. But Professor Adams Bodomo, formerly associate professor of African Studies at the University of Hong Kong, estimates the city's African population to be about 30,000.
And they must be eating somewhere.
So one rainy Tuesday evening I enter the infamous hotbed of hostels and jungle of jalfrezis that is Chungking Mansions, on Nathan Road, where the African population lives cheek by jowl with their Indian neighbours.
On the first floor next to Gujrat Int'l Hair Cuts, I hit the jackpot with a humble West African restaurant called Kwality. While its flashing sign reads South Indian Food, unmistakable is the big group of Africans chowing down outside.
At Kwality, there is no menu. To order we holler "ma brother" to the server who gives a rundown of the day's dishes. With no questions asked, the Togan chef serves up an egusi soup - a protein-rich, couscous-like melon seed with spinach, spicy tomato chicken and beef stews, and fried plantain with waakye, a Ghanaian special made with rice and kidney beans. It's all soaked up with a thick, white fufu - a starchy filler from West Africa, made by boiling cassava and pounding it into a dough-like consistency.
We drink Guinness, which Nigeria now drinks more of than Ireland, and VitaMalt, the sweet, non-alcoholic yet nutrient-rich beer that was a favourite of Bob Marley.
"In West Africa, we fry our breads, fill up on fufu and try to maximise the energy of each dish," says Sunny, a Nigerian businessman at the next table.
The place is informal like a dai pai dong; the tables are tightly packed together and many diners are eating with their hands and cleaning them in a bowl of water.
From Sunny we learn of another African restaurant on the fourth floor of Block C. He reckons we'll get in. This place is called Zanziba. Google it, but you won't find a write-up. Like Kwality, Zanziba isn't on Open Rice or Trip Advisor - yet. It was founded three months ago by a Nigerian named John Donald Chukwuzitere, a former professional soccer player who moved to Hong Kong in 1993 and played for Hong Kong Rangers and Sai Kung Friends.
Chukwuzitere has big ideas for authentic African cuisine. Zanziba, he says, is a smart restaurant with white tablecloths, glittery disco balls and faux champagne on ice. We're welcomed into the VIP lounge. Donald is the owner, host and cook. "Finding an African chef in Hong Kong is tough, and at the moment I don't see a better hand," he says.
We are served three courses of upmarket Nigerian cuisine. First, there is a pepper soup with goat's meat, a fufu (slightly finer than at Kwality) with a dried fish with beef intestine curry, then a fiery-orange jollof rice with a perfect roast chicken and juicy plantain. These courses are rounded off with a salad called abacha, popular on the eastern side of Nigeria and made with dried shredded cassava, ugba, palm oil, egg and stockfish. As we leave, Donald hands us each a yellow VIP card and advises with a wink that we come back on Friday night - "we dance until five in the morning", he says with a grin.
What about those closed-door rumours? "Everyone is welcome," he says firmly. "I want all of Hong Kong to enjoy my food."
A week later, Sunny texts me. He's found another one. This time it's Ugandan and on a top floor where the rent is cheaper. I'd heard of an Ivorian private kitchen called Sibi Malamin, and a bistro named Marena in this spot, which have since disappeared.
We exit the lift but there is no sign of a restaurant, just a strong, aromatic smell which we follow to an unmarked door. We knock, and are greeted by a chef in front of 20 pairs of eyeballs, crowded into a living room, eating around a widescreen television.
We explain our mission to try African food, and are tentatively ushered inside.
It's a little uncomfortable. Old Christmas tree decorations linger on the walls and these African diners don't speak English. The Ugandan chef whips up three dishes of cow's liver, ugali (a maize flour dish in a meat loaf shape, popular around the African Great Lakes) with rice, and a beef stew. It's tasty enough, but we leave swiftly. The chef here definitely doesn't want publicity.
For those seeking African cuisine outside the cavernous Kowloon labyrinth, there is another option. Seema Bhatia is a Nairobi-born cook who runs an African private kitchen, taking in the spices of coastal Mombasa and Zanzibar and her parents' homeland of India, from Bombay to Kerala.
Bhatia's kitchen normally comes to you, but on this occasion we go to her flat in Mid-Levels (she charges HK$500 a head, and caters for dinners of six to eight people, only using your kitchen if it's large enough).
Today her mind is very much in Africa. It's the day after the Nairobi mall siege and she has lost a family friend. "Growing up in Kenya, we would go on holiday to Mombasa and Zanzibar trying everything from the street food to five-star hotels," remembers Bhatia, who is fluent in Swahili.
Her dishes tell the history of East Africa: Arabic spices, Portuguese marinades, Indian curries, and African slow-cooking. "African food is going to be the next big thing," she says. "It just needs awareness."
Bhatia is upholding the colonial cocktail hour and we begin with a taramind drink, spiked strongly with vodka. For a starter she serves a Mozambique peri peri shrimp with pineapple and orange, Mishkaki lamb skewers (Zanzibar street food). The next course is a baked sole wrapped in banana leaves, an African salad of onion, chilli, tomato and pineapples, and a Goan lamb cafreal.
She misses foods such as sukuma wiki (as it's called in Swahili) - a kale called "push the week" in Kenya for its high nutritional value - and says she would return to the continent in a flash, if it were safer.
But to crown Bhatia Hong Kong's queen of African cooking would be unjust. That's because, in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong, Amina Lamarre Delafouchouse has been bringing the continent's fare to Asia for the past eight years. Delafouchouse comes from a powerful political family in Cameroon, West Africa, and has lived all over the continent from Cote d'Ivoire to Reunion Island, before leaving for Hong Kong in 1994.
Delafouchouse originally opened Makumba - the one African restaurant you might have heard of in Hong Kong - in SoHo in 2005. Last December, she moved to D'Aguilar Street, where she hopes her African beats will tempt people away from jello shots and Calvin Harris.
"People talk about globalisation, but they forget Africa," says Delafouchouse. "When I got here there was no African music. So we started booking African bands, then the food followed.
"People told me I would have to cook fusion, but I refused. Fusion to me doesn't mean anything. Globalisation isn't necessarily a good thing because it's the differences we bring that make us interesting."
From the Ndole beef stew from Cameroon to the attieke side dish from the Cote d'Ivoire, this menu isn't apologising to the LKF crowd.
We choose the okra sauce and poulet DG, described as a typical Cameroon fricassee served with fried plantain chips. She is worried we won't like the okra - "some expats find it too slimy, although the Japanese love it" - but we're impressed.
From Kwality to Makumba, it seems African food in Hong Kong is flourishing, and Delafouchouse's presence in Central invites Hongkongers to join the culinary safari.
"In SoHo, we were in the basement, now we're on the second floor. We're going up in the world," says Delafouchouse. "In Hong Kong, if things look average people don't take them seriously. I want people queuing up outside this place for hours to taste real African food. They won't regret it."
Step right up
4/F Block C, Chungking Mansions, Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 9156 8794. About HK$90/person
1/F Chungking Mansions, Nathan Road, no phone, no reservations. About HK$75/person
2/F Ho Lee Commercial Building, 38-44 D'Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, tel: 2810 5300. About HK$220/person
Seema Bhatia's African Kitchen catered at your home, tel: 9548 5280. HK$500/person