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Rude Food | Hong Kong Diary

There’s much more to Hong Kong than the shopping. It is a cross between Bangkok and Singapore. It has Singapore’s westernisation and Bangkok’s vibrancy, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2009 22:35 IST
Rude Food | Vir Sanghvi

I haven’t been to Hong Kong for a decade or more. So, I am glad that Discovery Travel and Living has decided to shoot in the former Crown colony.

The trouble with visiting cities as part of shooting schedules is that we start work relatively early in the morning and I’m always knackered by the evening. But even so, I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy Hong Kong.

I fly in from Bangkok on Cathay, where the service is excellent and I am greeted at the gate by a very nice girl from The Peninsula. My first thought is that the immigration hall looks like a bus station; there are just so many people. But Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that admits Indians without visas and the immigration officers work swiftly so I am out of the airport and ushered into one of The Peninsula’s signature Rolls Royces much sooner than I had expected.

The Peninsula is to Hong Kong what the Taj Mahal Hotel is to Bombay. It is the city’s grandest hotel with a colonial past that still manages to be the centre of Hong Kong’s social life. At Bangkok hotels, you bump into a lot of tourists and business travellers. At The Peninsula, like the Taj, most of the guests in the restaurants seem to be locals.

My suite, overlooking the harbour, is magnificent. It is designed to not look like a hotel suite so you have a distinct sense of living in residential accommodation. Service (excluding the room valet) is efficient and graceful. My first impression is that this may turn out to be a better hotel than even Bangkok’s Oriental.

We start shooting the next morning in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant where Chef Paul makes the restaurant’s signature dish, lobster in XO sauce. There are two interesting things about the dish. The first is that XO sauce has nothing to do with XO cognac. The restaurant makes its own from shrimp roe, dried scallops, dried shrimp, pork belly, garlic, shallots and chillies.

The second is that the lobster that will be used for the dish is still alive. I wonder how Paul is going to cook it but he is not fazed. Just before he lights the flame, he picks up the shellfish, twists its neck and strangles it with his bare hands. Members of my Hindu, God-fearing, largely Brahminical and Bania crew look as though they are going to faint or throw up on the spot. Only my producer, Robin Roy, a man who enjoys eating the eyes of raw fish, looks rather pleased by the on-camera assassination.

The dish, when it is cooked, is excellent, but the crew continues to look at Paul as though he is a sadistic murderer.
We are shooting The Peninsula as part of our Great Hotels of Asia episode, so most of the day goes in pieces to camera and various interior shots. I should go out for dinner but as predicted, I am completely wiped out, eat a room service hot dog and fall asleep in front of the TV screen.

We begin even earlier the next morning, to shoot at the helipad on top of The Peninsula. This is supposed to be my exit shot but of course, everyone cheats on TV so we are shooting it early. I have acute claustrophobia but no fear of flying.
This means that though I need to be tranquillised before I step into a small plane, turbulence does not worry me at all. But because the helicopter’s cabin has glass doors, I feel no claustrophobia at all.

And the pilot spends half an hour swooping over Hong Kong landmarks, pointing out anything of interest including Jackie Chan’s house which seems to be Hong Kong’s answer to Mannat. Lunch is at Gaddi’s, the most famous French restaurant in the Far East. The food is great but when I look at the wine list I feel dizzy.

These prices would be considered high in London or New York. In the evening, our guide from Hong Kong tourism takes us to a small, hole-in-the-wall dim sum place in Mongkok. It’s only been open for six weeks, she says, but there are always queues outside and she’s heard that the charsiu buns are excellent.

She is right. The restaurant is what we would call a dhaba but it has some of the best dim sum I have ever eaten. It has the typically Chinese name of Tim Ho Wan Dim Sum Expert and a restricted menu but the food is brilliant. The two best things are the charsiu buns (crisp and melt-in-your-mouth, not spongy and bread like) and the cheong fang, a thin pancake made of rice starch with a variety of fillings.

Naturally, the crew asks for permission to shoot and we are surprised when it is readily granted. Because we are so India-focused we tend to forget that A Matter of Taste, my first Discovery Travel and Living series was shown in Hong Kong (a repeat is telecast on the day of the shoot coincidentally) and appears to have done well. So, the restaurant is happy to be featured and I end up posing for many pictures with the chef and the waiting staff.

The Four Seasons is about as far removed from Tim Ho Wan as you can expect. But it boasts what is perhaps the finest Chinese restaurant in the world. When the first Michelin Guide to Hong Kong came out last year, this was the only Chinese restaurant to get three stars. I speak to the chef, a self-effacing man with a limited grasp of English, and am intrigued to find that in addition to the classic Cantonese dishes that he does so well, he also invents his own. I guess this is what got him his three stars. Like most French guides, Michelin looks for innovation not just craftsmanship.

The restaurant is everything that its reputation has suggested it will be. And, of course, because the hotel is a Four Seasons it is sleek, plush, and smoothly managed. Afterwards, the restaurant lays on a private room and a lunch banquet for the entire crew, probably the first time most of us have eaten in a Michelin three-star restaurant.

The sommelier, Bobby, is a Hong Kong institution, one of the first people to take wine seriously in the city. But his specialty does not consist of matching Chablis with charsiu. Instead, he serves Chinese wines with each dish. I try a 20-year-old rice wine. It’s like sherry or port with flavours of ginger, cinnamon and God alone knows what else.

Hong Kong is probably the gastronomic capital of Asia. Only Bangkok comes close. But it has lost out to Singapore, mainly because of the excellent promotions organised by the Singapore Tourism Board.

Everyone in Hong Kong feels that this is unjust. After all, they say, the food in Hong Kong is much better than the food in
Singapore.

I think they are right and so I agree to be the chief guest at a function to mark the launch of Hong Kong Food and Wine Year. (It’s my Matter of Taste notoriety that gets me invited.) Part of the function is an onstage interview where a well-known TV anchor asks me questions about Chinese food and wine.

What wines do I think go best with Chinese food? I say that there are no simple answers. If the food is deep-fried, I’ll drink beer. But otherwise, the choices are limitless. Often, wine pairing can be complicated. For instance, I eat my Peking duck without the pancakes and the crunchy vegetables. Purists will tell you that a Pinot Noir is the correct accompaniment.

But I find that a white Burgundy goes better with the crisp skin. Others will tell you that sweet wines (Riesling, etc.,)
go best with Chinese food but I find that anything with shitake mushrooms pairs perfectly with aged Mersault.

The audience seems pleased. If Hong Kong does take its role as a gourmet destination seriously, then it could easily eclipse every other city in Asia.

The following day, we take the ferry to a fishing island which is a popular weekend destination with locals. We are shooting an episode on rice and Robin wants to find a chef who will cook us fried rice with fresh seafood.

We find a suitable restaurant and a chef and as the cameras roll, fried rice is cooked in a steaming wok with fish, mussels, scallops, prawns, etc. A small smelly fish is deep fried separately and added as a garnish after the rice is ready.

We are intrigued to discover that the chef uses no condiments. He doesn’t even put soya sauce into the wok. Except for a little salt, he allows the taste of the fish to flavour the rice with no distractions.
Everyone loves it except for me.

Frankly, I think it’s a waste of mussels to put them in fried rice and I loathe the smelly fish that is used as a garnish. I have enormous respect for Chinese cuisine which surely is up there with Indian food as one of the world’s great cuisines but the Chinese don’t know how to make fried rice. Only the Thais can do that perfectly. Eat fried rice at a street stall in Bangkok and it will be better than the fried rice made by a great Chinese chef. Part of the problem is that the Chinese don’t understand herbs and seasoning as well as the Thais do.

On my last day in Hong Kong I wander around the streets of Kowloon, taking in the crowds, the neon lights and the rows of electronic shops. Many people come to Hong Kong for the shopping (though I have to say that the designer shops did not strike me as being significantly cheaper than their Indian counterparts). And I can understand that urge even though I’m not much of a shopper myself.

But there’s much more to Hong Kong than the shopping. In many ways, it is a cross between Bangkok and Singapore. It has Singapore’s affluence and Westernisation but none of its antiseptic theme-park qualities. It has Bangkok’s vibrancy, its sense of fun, and above all, it has a soul, something I’ve rarely found in Singapore.

In recent years, there’s been much talk of Hong Kong being eclipsed by the emergence of Shanghai. Perhaps that will happen one day. But as of now, Hong Kong is still the best bet for Indians. Fares are cheap, most people speak English and best of all, we don’t need visas.

My view is that there’s less and less reason to go abroad for shopping because everything is now available in India. So if you go to Hong Kong, go for the food.

That’s one promise I can make to you: you’ll certainly eat very well.