Amazing graze: in praise of the city’s cooked food centres
Cooked food centres offer some of the city’s most exciting – and underrated – fare, write Vanessa Yung, Bernice Chan and Charley Lanyon
PERCHED ABOVE MOST government-run Municipal Services wet markets is the wonderful world of the cooked food centre. Brave the bustle of trolleys and splash of fish stalls, and you’ll be rewarded. While some of the shops have found fame – think Tung Po in North Point and ABC Kitchen in Sheung Wan – others remains an aromatic mystery. These hidden gems showcase the diversity of the Hong Kong food scene, and they won’t hurt your wallet, either.
Tou Yuen Delicacies
Tou Yuen Delicacies is more than just a restaurant: it’s an experience. With its scorching hot Sichuan fare, quirky decor – Taoist poems on the handwritten menus cover every surface – and eccentric proprietor, Tou Yuen is a treat.
Most importantly, the food is excellent. The chef and owner Lam Kwok-hing claims his cooking mixes traditional Cantonese with Sichuan cooking, but our experience was less fusion and more spice. Nearly every dish comes floating in red chilli oil or buried under heaped mounds of dried chillies.
Despite the hot supply of spice, Lam is Hong Kong born and – except for a 20-day food tour to Chongqing – entirely self-taught. As other Sichuan eateries cut out the oil and dial down the heat, Lam remains unbowed.
“Hongkongers may complain about Sichuan food being too oily,” says Lam.
“But the truth is, excessive oil is needed for dishes like fish in spicy soup because it forms a layer of spiciness on the surface, and when people pick up the pieces of fish from the bottom, having to pass through the layer enriches the flavour and makes it more delicious.”
Lam says the secret to his food’s explosive flavour is in the ingredients, sourced in Shenzhen from trusted Sichuan food suppliers.
But he is not immune to culinary trends. Recently, as a craze for so-called Chongqing chicken pot swept Hong Kong, Lam added his version to the menu. It was a hit.
What to order? Tou Yuen started life as a straightforward Cantonese restaurant and the menu still boasts Hong Kong wet market favourites, such as golden shrimps and ribs in mayonnaise, but we recommend sticking to the spicy stuff: fried chicken in peppers, whole fish cooked in chilli oil, pork belly in garlic and the Chongqing chicken pot. CL
Tou Yuen Delicacies, Shop CF13-14 Shek Tong Tsui Municipal Services Building, 470 Queen’s Road West, Shek Tong Tsui, tel: 2540 0398
Nha Trang Tanh
Quan Cuong can do it all. The Vietnamese immigrant has worked in dim sum kitchens and cha chaan teng; he knows what Hongkongers like to eat and how to cook it.
But when he returned to Hong Kong more than three years ago from a stint living in Canada, he wanted to try something different – something literally “closer to home”. And so he opened Nha Trang Tanh in the Pei Ho Street Municipal Services Building in Sham Shui Po and started serving Vietnamese recipes tailored to local tastes.
Cuong learned Vietnamese cooking from his family. This shows in the dishes he serves at Nha Trang Tanh. The beef pho uses a secret stock recipe that he starts simmering at 10am every morning. It gently cooks paper-thin slices of raw beef, onion and thick rice noodles. In a nod to Cantonese tastes, he prepares the soup with star anise and other flavours commonly used in Hong Kong for braising beef brisket. The result is a delicious bowl, with origins that are difficult to place.
Similarly, a soup of minced shrimp and vermicelli in tomato broth is of two worlds: reminiscent of seafood soups found on the coast of Vietnam, but since Cuong has swapped the potent Vietnamese shrimp paste for an easier-to-find tomato paste, the soup also brings to mind the dai pai dong staple of tomato soup and macaroni.
Cuong makes all of his shrimp cakes by hand – a step even many high-end Vietnamese restaurants forgo – and the results are plump, firm and bouncy.
His menu is full of surprises, including a curry that has no obvious antecedents. It uses more than 20 ingredients, almost all of which are secret, and includes influences from Southeast Asia, such as lemongrass, and spices common to Hong Kong curries.
The Pei Ho Street Market is one of the largest on our list with many restaurants to choose from, but make a beeline for unremarkable stall number 10 and you’ll be glad you did.
What to order? An appetiser sampler, a bowl of noodles, and a Vietnamese drip coffee are more than enough to understand what makes this place so special. CL
Nha Trang Tanh, Shop 10, 2/F Cooked Food Centre, Pei Ho Street Municipal Services Building, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2725 2338
Wai Kee Cantonese Halal Food
This is one of the most interesting cooked food centre offerings. And one of the best.
Wai Kee is an example of what happens when cooks dedicate themselves to doing only a few things but doing them very well.
In the case of Wai Kee, those things are curry and roast duck. The curry beef, mutton (the best choice) and chicken are done in a fairly straightforward Indian style and, judging by the many South Asians queuing up every lunch hour, it’s the real thing. The curry is milder than those you might find in India, toned down to suit local tastes, but it is rich and moreish, with a slow-cooked quality.
But the duck is the star of the show: roasted to crisp-skinned perfection, with ribbons of custard-soft fat and salty flesh.
Wai Kee is only open from 10am to 6pm and still sells between 30 and 40 ducks a day.
The current owner, Osman Wong, is the third generation to run the stall, which was started as a pushcart by his grandfather 30 years ago, in the same area where they are today, to cater for the Muslims who would come to the area to worship.
“We are very near to the mosque in Happy Valley,” says Wong, “and he wanted to serve the Muslim community nearby.”
His mother’s family are Muslim Chinese, originally from Northern China. Their fortuitous mix of Cantonese cooking prowess and a fondness for subcontinental flavours have ensured Wai Kee is a hit with the neighborhood’s diverse population, and their dedication to serving only halal food has made them beloved by the area’s Muslim population. Wong credits their adherence to halal for their success. “The reason people like our food is the quality. We’re Muslim so we have to be strict and very selective with our food,” he says. “Everything has to be fresh and high quality. The duck we have delivered daily from China to Hong Kong.”
Wai Kee is a historically significant restaurant for cooked food centre aficionados; it was the first of its kind.
“About 30 years ago, the government wanted all the hawkers on the street to move up into market centres like this,” says Wong. “We were the first one, kind of an experiment, then they copied that in other districts around Hong Kong.”
What to order: Go for the roast duck over rice. Before she closes the box, ask the woman behind the counter to spoon some curry sauce over the top. You won’t find anything else like it in the city. CL
Wai Kee Cantonese Halal Food, Shop 5, Cooked Food Centre, 1/F Bowrington Road Market, Wan Chai
Chan Choi Kee
Arguably the best known eatery in the Queen Street Cooked Food Market in Sheung Wan is ABC Kitchen, with its succulent roast suckling pig, paella and pavlova, prepared and served by exemployees of the now-closed M at the Fringe. But right across is Chan Choi Kee, which has been in this spot for 10 years.
The no-frills restaurant is open all day, serving breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. It is particularly bustling in the evenings. The menu is as flexible as the hours, offering everything from toasted egg sandwiches to lamb stews.
When diners sit down, they are invited to sterilise their cups, bowls, plates and chopsticks with hot tea. Once that’s done, order a beer or two, like Erdinger or Tsing Tao. Although the restaurant has English menus, not everything is translated.
One of the signature dishes is the crisp golden fried squid with spicy salt and chilli that arrives in a basket decorated with a doily. The squid is cooked perfectly and the oil must be changed frequently, as you can tell from the light golden colour and fresh taste. Another seafood favourite is the stirfried clams with black bean sauce, the plump clams soaking up the delicious sauce that’s flavoured with chopped green peppers. If razor clams are available, try them.
What to order: Chan Choi Kee does steamed scallops in the shell well. The large scallops are covered in vermicelli and topped with heaps of minced garlic and finished with spring onions.
For poultry, a solid dish is the roasted chicken with fermented bean curd, which has tender, flavourful meat and crisp skin. BC
Chan Choi Kee, Shop CF1-3, 1/F Queen Street Cooked Food Market, 38 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan, tel: 2548 0407, chanchoikee.com (in Chinese)
Tung Kee Shanghainese Noodles
Thanks to former chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, who featured its homemade bamboo pole-kneaded noodles in his No Reservations programme, Ping Kee is probably the most sought-after stall among the 40 choices available at the Tai Po Hui Cooked Food Centre.
But if their bouncy ha ji mien (dry duck egg noodles with shrimp roe and lard) and wontons, can’t quite satisfy your cravings for meat, the deep-fried goodies at Tung Kee Shanghainese Noodles, just around the corner, are what you should go for.
The whole over-sized pork chop craze was started by a dai pai dong operated by the Chan family near the old Tai Po Market.
But the two brothers ran into a disagreement and opened their own stalls, Sai Kee and Tung Kee, opposite each other in the Tai Po Hui Cooked Food Centre.
While they each have their own followers, Tung Kee’s formula seems to have attracted more buzz – at least on the internet – over the years.
The large, bone-in pork chop, cut into bite-sized pieces after being deep-fried, has the right thickness and texture, thanks to the massage and pounding it receives, rather than the baking soda treatment used elsewhere to (over-) tenderise their meat with less time and effort. The thinly battered pork chop we sampled is flavourful although a bit soggy. However, the slightly scorched chicken wings with crispy skin made our day.
Some points to note while eating here: they serve salted bamboo shoot as one of the condiments to go with the noodles.
The smell, for those who don’t like it, can be overwhelming. And although they don’t sell beverages, it’s easy to get some from the many stalls nearby which also frequently send their staff roaming around the cooked food centre taking orders.
What to order: Pair the pork chop or chicken wings with their signature zhajiang (minced pork in fermented soy bean paste) over thick, white Shanghainese noodles. VY
Tung Kee Shanghainese Noodles, Shop CFS27, 2/F Tai Po Market Complex, Heung Sze Wui Street, Tai Po