Why doesn’t food-obsessed Hong Kong have its own signature dish?
Peter Kammerer says it’s odd that a locale like Hong Kong, with around 15,000 restaurants and a tourism campaign that highlights food, doesn’t single out one dish to promote as a ‘must-eat’ while in the city. Here are a few that could make the cut
Food is an obsession in Hong Kong; the estimated 15,000 or so restaurants say as much. Yet, it has always baffled me why a city with the next meal on its mind doesn’t have a signature dish to tell the world about.
There’s without doubt a drink, milk tea, and the obvious savoury and sweet snacks – fishballs, egg waffles and that oddity of condensed milk and peanut butter on toast – but nothing stands out for a meal.
Isn’t it time we chose from the seemingly limitless list of what’s on offer to better promote our exceptional local cuisine?
That thought comes to mind each time I travel beyond Hong Kong. Every mainland city I have visited has a must-try speciality promoted above all others – in Foshan, there was blind man cake and wonton soup; in Xiamen, oyster omelette and shacha noodles; in Tsingtao, pork and cabbage buns and chilli sautéed clams.
Each of Asia’s countries would seem to have a national dish, or at least one that is closely identified with it.
Among them, Singapore has laksa and black pepper crab, Thailand tom yum soup and curries in a variety of colours and spiciness, South Korea has kimchi pancake and bulgogi, and Japan, sushi and sashimi.
For some travellers, these foods are more associated with the place than a flag, costume, flower or other symbol that has been chosen to push culture and identity, and draw tourists.
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Ask visitors what they like about Hong Kong and the food invariably gets a mention. Surprisingly, it’s often the top attraction for Asians, being named ahead of sightseeing or shopping. The Hong Kong Tourism Board had its priorities somewhat in order when putting together its Discover Hong Kong website, nestling “dine and drink” in between “things to do” and “shop” on the index.
I’m not so certain it’s highlighting the right treats, though; under “must eat”, it has the headings “Chinese barbecue”, “dim sum”, “Hong Kong-style milk tea”, “local snacks”, “noodles and congee” and “sweets”.
Delve deeper, and the picture gets blurred, with a vast array of items, not all of them synonymous with Hong Kong. There’s barbecued and roast pork, and barbecued goose, steamed and deep-fried shrimp dumplings, siu mai, barbecued pork buns and pastries, cheung fan – also known as rice rolls – and spring rolls.
Under the noodles and congee category are Cantonese and Chiu-Chow-style congee, fish ball rice noodles, wonton noodles, stir-fried beef noodles and – most authentically Hong Kong of all – cart noodles, a cheap street-side snack sold from wooden carts in the 1950s that has survived under the hole-in-the-wall restaurant business model.
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Local snacks of note are pineapple buns, egg tarts, faux shark’s fin soup, wife cake, mini egg puffs, sticky rice pudding, white sugar cake, fishballs, stinky tofu, beef offal and the delightfully named three stuffed treasures, usually minced fish stuffed into eggplant, green pepper, tofu puffs, smoked red sausage or mushrooms and then grilled. Among the sweets are red bean soup, tofu pudding and sweet rice dumpling.
Many of the items are staples of dim sum, the Hong Kong institution that families, old friends and office workers noisily interact over, most usually for brunch or lunch.
The casual meal that comprises a sampling of any of hundreds of dumplings, buns, rolls and balls washed down with cups of tea, is by far our city’s biggest export, taken by Hong Kong migrants to every part of the world.
But as synonymous as it may be, it is also typical of Cantonese cuisine and culture, and found in neighbouring Guangdong province.
Among the offerings are classics that could easily be in the running for the signature dish of Hong Kong, the top contenders being steamed shrimp dumplings and barbecue pork buns.
By adding the restaurant offerings of roast goose, shrimp wonton noodles and cart noodles, you have my shortlist of what Hong Kong should be promoting to tourists as a “must-eat”, alongside dim sum.
Now, the challenge is, which is the most representative of Hong Kong? My vote goes to shrimp wonton noodles.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer for the Post