tastes like communism

While the Hong Kong History Museum provides a fascinating and in-depth look into the city’s place within the context of two great empires, I must at all costs advise against a sidetrip to the cafeteria. Less a culinary adventure than an unappealing survival course, it is the first disgusting meal of the trip. Honestly, I can’t even remember what it is I had ordered at this point. What arrived was a study in browns: brown beans in brown sauce accompanying brown meat; a brown vegetable chunk in a bath of brown broth. Had there been a brown-shirted staff in Mao jackets I wouldn’t have flinched. The rice, however, was white.

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hairy crab, with style

Hairy crab turns out to be a delicacy best enjoyed in the sleeves-up style of a Maryland crab boil: bibs, mallets, and lots of messy picking, poking, and shell sucking. Following my visit to the wet market, however, a newspaper-covered communal table strewn with hairy crabs was not exactly the meal I had envisaged. Luckily the concierge at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental had a few alternate suggestions – including Island Tang just around the corner from the hotel. This latest venture from Sir David Tang, the entrepreneur behind Shanghai Tang and a host of Chinese-themed luxe dining clubs, oozes nostalgia for 1940’s Hong Kong with antique chandeliers and ceiling fans spinning lazily above an airy dining room of yellow silk banquettes. Tucked into the second floor corner of a shopping mall, the unassuming façade is an easy blink-and-miss and perhaps that’s the point: something tells me Sir David wouldn’t be keen on just anyone stumbling in and spoiling the chummy atmosphere. Dinner started with a bamboo steamer of the fluffiest, juiciest pork buns I’ve ever tasted. In fact, from this point forward all pork buns shall be held up to Island Tang’s imposingly ethereal angel pillows of porky goodness. Braised egg noodles were bound to be a disappointment after the revelation of the bun – even enlivened with tender slices of brisket. Alas, I also forgot that I had signed up for the subtlety of Cantonese cuisine and not the fiery noodles of my neighborhood Sichuan Kitchen. More important, however, was the arrival of evening’s star attraction: hairy crab with fried tofu. Sweet crabmeat, tender as butter, melted into the creamy tofu to create some kind of crazy Chinese version of risotto. It’s the kind of dish that makes you thankful for chopsticks because with a spoon you’d just shovel it in. The rare and elusive hairy crab turned out to be a bit of a misnomer.  Butter crab, anyone? Get the bib – I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

 

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dim sum, interrupted

On the advice of a friend, I hunted down the family-owned Hang Ah Tea Room on Hang Ah Street in the heart of Chinatown.  (Actually, I don’t know if it’s technically in the heart, but venturing down a blind alleyway and past rooms full of people playing Mahjong before descending a flight of stairs certainly lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.)  Luckily I was told to not be put off by the surroundings in advance or I’d have never made it past the front door.  Fluorescent lighting, mismatched plates and cutlery, linoleum floor – but listen, if the food is good none of that really matters and I had it on good authority that the food at Hang Ah was first-rate.  I ordered a feast of dim sum:  steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings in bean curd skin, beef balls, and a sampler plate of egg roll, shu mai, and pot stickers as well.  Unfortunately, I can’t really attest to the yumminess quotient at Hang Ah.   As I was diving into a fluffy pork bun my dining partner suddenly revealed not only his disgust at the establishment’s lack of hygiene but also his fears about the provenance of the meat.  And with that everything suddenly seemed suspect, greasy, and dubiously prepared.  I allowed my appetite and sense of adventure to be unceremoniously squashed.

Though I have to say, looking at the photos below is making me hungry all over again.

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